In the country of Monaco, you’ll find the heart of a small town. Small it certainly is—with a total area of 2.1 square kilometres, Monaco is one of the smallest sovereign states in the world, second only after Vatican City. With over 36,000 inhabitants, the country also happens to be the most densely populated.
Yet, thanks to slick urban-planning and a geographical landscape that allows it to build upwards (often directly into hills and cliffs) rather than outwards, rarely when walking down the serene streets do you get the sense that Monaco is crowded. Often, you feel alone in your own world. When I arrived for my week-long stay in autumn last year, the weather was hovering around 16 degrees in the daytime. In the afternoon, it was pleasantly cool walking down the streets in a light jacket and unlined trousers, especially with the golden rays of sunshine gently warming my back.
As evening fell, the temperature would dip below six degrees. This was the time of day when the ladies of Monaco would be out in their best—Chanel tweed jackets and woollen Burberry coats were paired with smart blouses and silk skirts. On their feet, you’d see sheer stockings tucked into stylish stilettos.
No matter how well you were dressed, or how fancy your evening would shape up to be, in Monaco, taking the bus is de rigueur for anyone and everyone. The public transport system is as efficient as it is accessible (two to three months of the year, everyone rides the bus for free in a country-wide attempt to go green by reducing the number of cars on the road). There’s a bus stop on every corner and bus schedules are adhered to strictly. Crime rates are low and you’ll see many a friendly face when you’re out and about. Not once during my stay, no matter how late the hour, did I feel unsafe wandering about on my own, even though I could barely recognise my surroundings in a brand-new country.
The streets of Monaco are uniquely identifiable. The architecture—not entirely exclusive to the country in style, since it borrows elements from close neighbours France and Italy—stands out because of how pristinely buildings and landmarks have been maintained. In Monte-Carlo, Monaco’s most emblematic district, sits a number of Belle Époque buildings characterised by sweeping arches, stained glass windows and hulking domed tops.
The utterly glamorous Opéra de Monte-Carlo’s cream-coloured walls glimmer so brightly in the sun that it hurts to look at them, even as you trot down the neighbouring shopping streets in Carré d’Or, lined with luxury boutiques and whimsical souvenir shops. To call Monaco an artistic country would be a laughable understatement. This is a country with entire parks dedicated to promoting art history and the work of contemporary artists.
Fontvieille Park, which is fully accessible throughout the day, holds within it a staggering number of sculptures acquired from various masters and prominent artists throughout history. Take a leisurely stroll through any of the walkways (I recommend going in the daytime as several darker sculptures are difficult to appreciate in full detail through the dim night lights) and you’ll spot at least 10. I was lucky to have Marcos Marin—a Brazilian artist who has been living in Monaco for over a decade—as my guide. Known for his unique optical illusion art with which he creates striking portraits of famous personalities (including the late Princess Grace of Monaco), Marin is just one of the contemporary artists featured throughout Fontvieille Park.
Though many of the sculptures in the park have been on display for decades, they remain in flawless condition thanks to the care taken in maintaining the public spaces. Even in residential districts such as La Condamine, the streets are beautiful and easy to walk along. No matter where you turn, there is a sight to see and architecture to admire.
But don’t let my quaint descriptors fool you. Monaco also happens to be a bustling hub of entrepreneurship, technology and commerce. Its technological efforts are focused largely on sustainability, and the principality invests plenty of resources to that end. MonacoTech, for example, is a government-funded incubator with 20 start-ups under its wings working on innovative solutions to ecological problems facing the world. Several of these start-ups are working to develop technology that will aid with ocean conservation—the latter subject being a long-enduring interest of the ruling family in Monaco.
Presently reigning is Prince Albert II, who ascended in April 2005, but it was his great-great-grandfather who first fell in love with the mysteries of the ocean. Accordingly, Prince Albert II’s passion project lies in the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, a global non-profit organisation dedicated to environmental conservation. Each year, the foundation pays tribute to leading entrepreneurs, scientists and experts furthering the ecological cause with their work.
I had the privilege of attending the award ceremony during my visit. Held within a jaw-droppingly beautiful theatre in the Opera House, the foundation honoured three hand-picked candidates from around the world: Dr Agnès Kalibata from Rwanda, Professor Dame Jane Francis from the UK and marine construction firm ECOncrete Tech from Italy.
The next day, on a blissful solo walk around the old town on the Rock of Monaco, I bumped into Kalibata doing some shopping. We had the most rousing chat about her important work as an agricultural scientist advocating for food security in Africa, and I came away more inspired than ever.
Herein lies the magic of this petite, precious country. In the best way possible, when you’re in Monaco, it’s always a small world.
The message of environmentalism resonated with me even more keenly after my visit to the famous Oceanographic Museum, a deeply immersive aquarium-cum-museum chronicling the history and science behind ocean conversation through life-sized exhibits and impressive displays. It was at the museum gift shop that I picked up one of my favourite reads of 2022: At The Heart of The Polar Worlds by Robert Calcagno—a picturesque handbook about ocean conservation written by the chief executive of Monaco’s Oceanographic Institute.
Of course, it was only when I got to my hotel room that night that I realised I had picked up a copy written in French instead of the version translated into English. Well, no matter—all I had to do was take a free bus ride up the scenic route to the museum and make an exchange. With any luck, I’d see the adorable dachshund I had already spotted twice on my trip again. You never really know in Monaco.
Where to stay
Fairmont Monte Carlo
Flush against the famous hairpin curve of the Monaco Grand Prix, this Fairmont is located minutes away from several iconic Monaco landmarks. It also offers great service, stunning views of the Mediterranean Ocean and stellar dining options, like Nobu.
12 Av des Spélugues, 98000 Monaco
Hôtel Hermitage Monte-Carlo
The epitome of an ultra-luxury stay in Monaco is Hôtel Hermitage. This sprawling, historic hotel is straight out of a fairy tale and might take you an entire afternoon to fully discover, with distinct halls dedicated to different design styles.
Sq Beaumarchais, 98000 Monaco
Columbus Hotel Monaco
For a slightly more budget-friendly option, consider a few nights at Columbus, a small but well-appointed hotel overlooking gorgeous views of Princess Grace Rose Garden in Fontvieille Park. The hotel’s open-air Mediterranean restaurant, Tavolo, offers delicious food alongside refreshing cocktails.
23 Av des Papalins, 98000 Monaco
Where to eat
For an unparalleled fine-dining experience, step into three-Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alléno’s new restaurant in the heart of Hôtel Hermitage. Vibrant and lively, the restaurant serves exquisite food prepared with finesse but no pretension. Snag counter seats for a full view of the kitchen and it’ll be a night to remember.
La Pêcherie U Luvassu
If you’re looking to feast on the freshest seafood, pay a visit to this charming open-air restaurant along the port, minutes away from the Monaco Yacht Club. Family-run and serving fresh catches of each day, you’ll find the most delicious fish, lobster and oysters here.
Ask any native Monégasque their favourite burger joint and they’ll point you to Tip-Top, a 60-year-old institution that stays open till six in the morning. If it’s a post-bar craving you’re looking to satisfy, the gargantuan burgers served with thinly sliced frites will be sure to hit the spot.
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