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Arriving by ship into the Monte Carlo harbor is an amazing experience. If your docking time is before dawn, you'll see the lights of the principality twinkling throughout the mountains that surround the harbor and the beautifully lit Grand Casino at center stage. If you arrive during daylight hours, you are faced with the sight of one magnificent yacht after another vying for space in the little harbor.
Monaco is a self-governed sovereign nation under the protection of France. It has been ruled by the Grimaldi family for the past 700 years (with a slight diversion during the French Revolution), and its 1918 treaty with France decreed that if the prince -- any Grimaldi prince -- failed to produce a son, the territory would be ceded back to France upon his death. This was changed in 2002. If Albert II, the current prince, fails to produce a male heir, the throne will be passed to his sister Caroline.
Monaco, which comprises a miniscule 485 acres in total, and is Europe's smallest state after the Vatican, is barely west of the Italian border and surrounded by France on all sides except for the 2.5 miles of coastline. If you are looking at Monaco from your ship in the harbor, you can't tell where the principality ends and France begins. (Hint: Somewhere around the Middle Corniche.) As tiny as it is, it contains five sectors, of which Monte Carlo is the best-known. The principality, which is home to the most millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world, has no natural resources; its national economy is based on tourism and banking.
The two go hand in hand in this idyllic slice of the Cote d'Azur. The wealthy Europeans who do their banking here expect -- no, demand -- the best, and cost be damned. This makes it harder for workaday folks to enjoy a stay (rooms go for an average of $700 a night in a nice hotel), but coming in on a cruise ship for the day gives one a sense of James Bond cool.
If you're lucky enough to be in Monaco during the third week in May, you can actually see part of the Grand Prix Formula One race from the comfort of your cruise ship. We were surprised to see that the track is actually in the middle of the city and goes under an overpass within direct view of the cruise ship dock.
However, whenever you are fortunate enough to visit Monaco and the dazzling district of Monte Carlo, you'll find plenty to do. In fact, these 485 acres offer so much, you'll need to come back to explore again.
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The official language of Monaco is French, but because of the international nature of the place, and its proximity to Italy, Italian, English and Spanish are all widely spoken and understood. There is also a Monegasque dialect, derived from Italian and spoken by around 20 percent of the population.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency in Monaco is the euro. There is a bank (and ATM) on nearly every corner. For updated currency-conversion figures, visit oanda.com or xe.com. Traveler's checks must be exchanged at banks or at one of the two bureaux de change -- Compagnie Monegasque de Change (Parking des Pecheurs, Avenue de la Quarantaine) or Monafinances (17 Avenue des Spelugues) -- because most businesses will not accept them. Banks are generally open from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., with some staying open during lunchtime. Credit Foncier de Monaco, located near the casino, is open daily -- including Sundays and holidays -- from noon to 11 p.m.
A casino chip from the Casino Monte Carlo or a coaster from the famed Cafe de Paris.
Where You're Docked
Opened in 2003, the modern cruise ship pier (Nouvelle Digue de Monaco) is located next to the yacht harbor in the Port of Monaco (Hercules Port), just east of the Palais Princier, the home of Prince Albert, and just below the sector of Monte Carlo. Although the 352 meter dock can accommodate several ships in port, there will be the odd occasion where it's booked up and tenders will need to be utilized.
There's very little at the pier itself. When you get to the gate at the end of the pier, you can walk along the seawall adjacent to the yacht harbor to get into the center of Monte Carlo (about a mile from the ship) or take an elevator and stairs (about 500 yards) to Old Town (Monaco-Ville) where you will find the Palais Princier and the Oceanographic Museum.
Taxis come to the end of the pier (just outside the gates) until approximately 6 p.m. Buses stop at 7 p.m. near the dock but run until 9 p.m. in the principality -- except on weekends when they have a less frequent schedule. The bus system is extensive, but it's quite a long walk to the bus stop from the ship docks. The Monaco bus company, CAM, operates a network of six routes that cover all the main attractions. There are 142 bus stops around the principality, so you never have to walk far to find one. The conductor onboard the bus sells tickets, but you need exact change. Fares are shown at the bus stops.
If you are staying overnight, or have plenty of time in port, the number 100 Rapide Cote D'Azur (RCA) connects Monaco with the chic French Riviera resort of Nice. The journey takes around half an hour and follows a very scenic route along the coast. Halfway between Monaco and Nice is the pretty medieval village of Eze, which can be reached on buses operated by Ligne d'Azur.
A fun way to cross the harbor is on the electric water bus, which runs between the cruise terminal and the city center, near the casino, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
If you're physically fit, you can walk around the principality, but be warned: It's steep, almost everywhere. However, the good news is that you never need worry about safety because Monaco has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
Watch Out For
Streets are steep, nearly vertical in some places. However, several elevators and "travelators" are available to help negotiate the inclines in the following areas:
Between the Place des Moulins and the beaches; between the Princess Grace Hospital Centre and the Exotic Garden; between the harbor and the Avenue de la Costa; between the Place St. Devote and the area of Moneghetti; between the terraces of the casino, the Congress Centre Auditorium and the Boulevard Louis II; between the Avenue des Citronniers and the Avenue Grande-Bretagne between the highway and the Larvotto Boulevard.
Les Grands Appartements du Palais: Visitors can go through the home of Prince Albert and check out the throne and artifacts of the principality's history. Stunning artwork by Breughel and other Old Masters hangs in these rooms, as does the state portrait of Princess Grace. If you get there in time for the changing of the guard (releve de la garde), you can enjoy the pomp and circumstance of this unique little "country." (The ceremony starts at 11:55 a.m. and takes about 10 minutes.) After the tour of the Appartements, you can visit the Musee du Palais du Prince, with more historical artifacts, mementos and documents from the era of Napoleon Bonaparte. (Place du Palais; tours March 29 to Oct. 31 daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; museum open June to September 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., October to May 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Musee de l'Oceanographie: This is basically the state aquarium with a historic maritime museum thrown in for good measure. But don't mistake "basically" for "basic," as it's anything but. This is one of the most important aquariums in Europe, with 4,000 species of fish and 200 types of invertebrates. The building, dedicated in 1910, sits below the palace; the aquarium butts into the sea and features more than 90 tanks. The highlight is the Shark Lagoon, where visitors can get a close-up view of sharks, moray eels, turtles and other marine creatures from four different angles. (Avenue Saint-Martin; open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in winter, with hours extended to 8:30 p.m. in summer)
Monaco Cathedral: Located in the old city, this is where Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly married and also where they are buried (as well as the princes of Monaco and members of the House of Grimaldi). The cathedral was built in 1875 with white sandstone brought down from the village of La Turbie. If you are visiting on a Sunday between September and June, the Children's Choir of Monaco and principals from the Cathedral Choir School sing mass at 10 a.m. (4 rue Colonel Bellando de Castro; open 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
Grand Casino: You can see the elegant building with two spired towers, which was built in 1878 by Charles Garnier (the architect of Paris' famed Opera House), from your ship. Oddly enough to most North Americans, it houses not only the gaming rooms but the Monaco Opera and Ballet as well. There is a dress code: jacket and tie required of men, resort chic for women. Don't even think of trying to get in with sneakers. (At least a tux is no longer required for entrance!) You must be at least 18 years old to enter, and your passport is required. Monagasques are not allowed to gamble in their casinos, so a passport check is requisite. Aside from that, anyone can play in the casino, but don't expect to see any high rollers; the real big spenders are hidden away in private gaming rooms. (Place du Casino; open daily from noon, slots open at 2 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
Hotel de Paris and Hermitage Hotel Lobbies: Hey, it doesn't cost a thing just to look. Hotel de Paris is a Beaux Arts gem, built in 1863. The portico is reminiscent of an elegant Parisian palace of the same era. The Hermitage, which stretches over several buildings, up and down hills, recently renovated its Beaumarchais Lobby that was originally built in 1900. Lovers of historic buildings and period architecture will really enjoy looking at these elegant respites for the rich and famous (or just the rich without the fame).
Les Thermes Marins de Monte Carlo: This is a fancy name for the four-story spa built below the Hermitage Hotel along the seawall. Here, you can enjoy a spa day and feel like Cote d'Azur royalty. A pass to the thermal suite is pricey, but massages and treatments, while a bit more than the typical Steiner-run onboard spa, are not outrageous. There are also pampering treats and massages for men. (2 Avenue de Monte-Carlo; +377-98-06-69-00)
Condamine Market and Rue Princess Caroline. This area has always been the trading place in Monaco. The thriving market, which dates to 1880, features fruit, vegetables, fish, flowers, kitchenwares, coffees, wines ... everything you'd expect in a city marketplace in Europe. Beside the market is Rue Princess Caroline, a pedestrian mall lined with shops and park benches. (Place d'Armes; market open daily 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
The Azur Express Tourist Train costs seven euros to board (four euros for children), and the full narrated loop takes only 30 minutes. But this little open-air trolley is the best deal in the entire principality. You get a full tour through the old town and Monte Carlo; it sure saves those leg muscles. (Avenue Saint-Martin at Oceanographic Museum; +377-92-05-64-38; daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March to October and 10.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. November to February)
You could find a budget restaurant in Monaco. But why? This is one of those places meant for a splurge, whether you choose the world-famous Cafe de Paris or one of the other see-and-be-seen spots in Monte Carlo. If you're on the go, you can find -- in the center of Monte Carlo and in the Old City -- vendors selling socca, which is made from chickpea flour and resembles a pancake, or bakeries selling another Monegasque specialty, fougasse, a sweet pastry with almonds and anise seed. Most of the restaurants are open for lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m.; brasseries and cafes are open from about 11 a.m. until late.
Quai des Artistes: This brasserie is one of the closest dining spots to the cruise ship dock, along the quay to the yacht harbor. It isn't as expensive as some (you can get "moules marinieres" -- mussels in wine -- for about 12 euros) but it isn't cheap, either. Its draw is that it's close to the ship, offers plenty of outdoor seating and overlooks the yachts in the harbor. (4 Quai Antoine 1er; +377-97-97-97-77)
Zebra Square: Just a few minutes south of the casinos and the center of Monte Carlo, this restaurant offers sweeping views from its dining terrace. It's a trendy bar and features elegant inside seating. Don't be surprised if you see literary and artsy notables sitting beside you and enjoying the view. It's open for lunch, tea time and supper. (10 Avenue Princesse Grace; +377-99-99-25-50)
Cafe de Paris: Undoubtedly a tourist trap, Cafe de Paris is a scene regardless. You can pop in for a beer or a cafe creme, or you can enjoy a full-blown lunch indoors or out (advance reservations highly recommended). Although a bowl of ice cream will set you back about 12 euros, it's worth paying for one of the best people-watching spots in town. The historic building incorporates the best of the old Belle Epoque style of Paris -- and also the kind of haughty, condescending service staff you've feared you'll find in France! (At the Monte Carlo Casino; +377-92-16-20-00)
Stars ‘N' Bars: Tired of that rich cruise ship cuisine? Longing for a taste of home? This Tex-Mex eatery doesn't just cater to the Yankee crowd; Monegasques, Italians and visitors from other countries love it, too, especially the line dancing and country boot-stomping music. The venue offers a playroom for kids and Monaco's main cybercafe. It's located next door to the Quai des Artistes, so you can have your chili cheeseburger and go next door for an apres-midi aperitif. (6 Quai Antoine 1er; +377 97-97-95-95)
Staying in Touch
Stars 'N' Bars offers a cybercafe with both Internet and Wi-Fi access. (6 Quai Antoine 1er, located beyond the gates of the cruise ship dock)
Best for First-Timers: "Monte Carlo Highlights" is a tour that requires a lot of walking, so you need to be reasonably fit. You'll walk past and learn about the Oceanographic Museum, the palace, the cathedral where Prince Rainier and Princess Grace were married, and stroll through the twisty streets and archways of the old city. Then, you'll take a motorcoach ride along part of the Grand Prix course in Monte Carlo and again leave the coach at the Grand Casino. You can play the slots at the adjacent Cafe de Paris, or, if you're dressed appropriately, you can go into the Grand Casino itself. (three hours)
Best for Repeat Visitors: The St. Paul de Vence and Grasse tour is a great trip for those who have visited Monaco before; it takes all day and winds through the mountainous terrain to the two French towns in Provence. Grasse is known as the "seat of the perfume industry," and indeed, you can smell the floral notes as you drive into town. Need gifts? You can purchase perfumes at great discounts after watching the process of making them, or you can gather up samples to bring back with you. In St. Paul de Vence, a medieval walled city, you can wander the narrow streets and shop to your heart's content, having lunch in a typical French bistro. (five to seven hours)
Best for Scenery: The Three Corniches motorcoach tour takes you through the Cote d'Azur on all the corniches, the roads that wind through the mountainous territory and through the cities and towns along the way. You start on the Upper Corniche heading south toward the Italian border and the town of Menton, continue on the Middle Corniche to La Turbie and Eze, and then take a driving tour of Nice. The return trip is on the Lower Corniche, one of the most picturesque (and winding) roads in the world; there will be stops along the way for photo ops and refreshments. (This tour takes 3.5 hours and is suitable for passengers in wheelchairs.)
For More Information
On the Web: Monaco Government Tourist and Convention Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: France Ports
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--by Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Jeannine Willamson, Cruise Critic contributor