Built on just 200ha (494 acres) between the French Riviera and Italian Med, Monaco is the world’s second-smallest independent state. A notorious tax haven, it oozes wealth and glamour. However, it’s not only the rich who can enjoy the city-state’s spoils – its pretty churches, heavenly gardens and historic landmarks are all free to see.
The most lavish example of Belle Époque architecture in Europe, Monte Carlo Casino has become the stuff of legends – thanks, in part, to its appearance in popular films like James Bond and Oceans Twelve. You don’t need to be a big-roller to enjoy it – the building opens to tourists every morning, so you can walk around some of its opulent rooms. Although if you’re feeling lucky, stick around until after 2pm, when the gambling begins.
Tracing the coastline on paths built into the Rock of Monaco, Saint-Martin Gardens provide a splendid view of the sea – and if you’re visiting in summer, the breeze is a welcome treat. The intriguing flora is a mix of Mediterranean and exotic plants, including yellow agaves, giant cacti and Aleppo pine trees. The 1.1ha (2.7 acre) garden is one of the best spots for picnicking, too, as there are plenty of benches and shade.
Make your way up the Old Town’s steep streets and at the top of the headland, you’ll come to the square of Place du Palais. The view is a microcosm of Monaco’s wealth, both old and new, with the 13th-century fortress behind you – now the private residence of the Grimaldi family – and luxury yachts in the harbours below. Every day at 11.55am, crowds gather in front of the palace to watch the traditional ritual of the Changing of the Guard.
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Monaco Cathedral is the resting place of numerous members of the Grimaldi family – Monaco’s royals – including the film-star Grace Kelly and her husband Prince Rainier. The cathedral was built in gorgeous light limestone from nearby La Turbie in France, and its interior displays an impressive Carrara marble altar. Still a central point in the Monaco community, there’s the chance to join a mass, sung by the Monaco Boys Choir and the Choir of Monaco Cathedral, on Sundays at 10am between September to June.
Almost 100 sculptures are scattered across the city-state – make it your mission to see the best of them, such as “The Fist” giant bronze hand by César Baldaccini, and the 12ft (3.7m) bulbous couple “Adam & Eve” by Fernando Botero, in the gardens of Monte Carlo Casino. In addition to popping up in parks and gardens, many sculptures are located in the Fontvieille quarter, where they have been placed along a pedestrian walk.
Monaco’s man-made beach, Larvotto, consists of a private zone and a free public area – although the only real difference between the two is that the private area allows you to hire loungers and parasols from the beach club. The sand is imported fine gravel, making the whole stretch feel tidy and polished like the city itself. Like the rest of the beaches on the French Riviera, everyone is people watching rather than cooling off in the clear Mediterranean.
“Monaco” and “Zen” may not be natural bedfellows, but you instantly feel the calming effects of this Japanese garden, which was designed to strict Zen principles. Walk through the 7,000sqm (75,347sqft) garden among bamboo hedges, stone lanterns, waterfalls and lily ponds. The wood used for the teahouses was imported from Japan, while the Mediterranean trees were pruned for three years to give them a Japanese appearance.
Walk among 8,000 roses in in a 10-acre garden, dreamt up in the 1980s by Prince Rainier III, in memory of his late wife Princess Grace. May is the best time to see the blooms – but August is the only month when there are almost none. The 300 varieties include a 12m-tall English white rambling rose, on the wall of the northern gate. Find out more via the QR codes – or simply switch off, relax on a bench and smell the roses.
The neo-Greek cream exterior and domed bell tower of the Sainte-Dévote Chapel make it look as dainty as a dolls house. A chapel was first recorded here as early as 1070, but what you see now spans the 16th to 19th centuries – although, as the stained-glass windows were blown out during World War II, they were redesigned in Nice in 1948. The chapel’s name is used to identify the first corner of the track at the Monaco Grand Prix.
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