Why Monaco Is the Jewel of the French Riviera

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A guide for the best things to do in Monaco to ensure a perfect stay.

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Where do you go on the French Riviera if you want to eat a different type of world-class cuisine every night, have a plethora of great hotels to choose from, excellent museums, beautiful gardens, and a clean, safe, pedestrian-friendly city that’s all a half-an-hour car ride from the Nice airport?

Monaco! The two-square-kilometer principality is best known as a tax haven, home of the world’s priciest high-end real estate, and host of the Grand Prix, a legendary Formula One race. Yet it also has many accouterments for a glamorous, chic, fun, and sun-soaked visit to the Cotes d’Azur—arguably the most prestigious strip of coastline on the planet.

Oh, and did we mention excellent service? Think of Monaco as Italy and France’s love child. Good things happen when French joie de vivre, Italian ospitalità, and both nations’ cuisines converge, giving visitors access to not one but two great Riviera cultures.

While Monaco is well known for its opulence, the tiny city-state has much more to offer than the lifestyles of the rich and famous. There’s plenty of culture nestled amidst the glamour: a Dali exhibit currently graces the Grimaldi Forum. You’ll also notice that the principality has a vibrant energy to it—put simply, people come here to have a good time. And who couldn’t use a little levity in 2019?

Here’s how a guide for the best things to do in Monaco for a perfect Côte d’Azur getaway.

Where to Eat: You won’t be ordering moules frites everyday.

Le Train Bleu

The Monte Carlo Casino is legendary. Unlike Las Vegas casinos which stupefy with monstrous scale and blinding lights, Monaco’s original seduces with Old World elegance and refinement in a surprisingly small, intimate space. Even if you don’t want to gamble, it’s well worth dining at the casino to soak up the ambiance. Le Train Bleu, an intimate Italian restaurant that is modeled after an old train car, is located inside the casino. They serve an exquisite John Dory and their peach, burrata, and arugula salad gives new encouragement to eating vegetables. The dining would be the star of the show anywhere else, but don’t forget to look up because the people-watching here is unparalleled.


Courtesy Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer

Coya

Now in its second season, Coya, the modern Peruvian restaurant with stunning water views, is one of the hardest reservations to get. (They often have to turn down 200 people a night.) And you can see why: the food is extraordinary and in pure Monaco fashion, the entire restaurant turns into a club sometime around 10:30 p.m. (Incidentally, that is the most popular reservation time on the weekend.) Spring for the 95 euro per person tasting menu to have a bit of everything. Highlights include guacamole made at the table by your server, yellow tuna, and citrus salmon ceviches, Chilean sea bass, spicy beef fillet, and Peruvian potatoes.

Omer

Alain Ducasse wanted to give diners a more accessible experience to his three Michelin-star restaurant, Louis XV at the Hotel de Paris. Enter Omer, a high concept Mediterranean restaurant in a casual setting located on the far side of the hotel’s lobby. For now, Omer isn’t even applying for a Michelin star (apparently there can be too much of a good thing). The food, though, is trademark Ducasse: expertly executed with a lot of creativity. Start with mezes (the falafel, artichokes, and eggplant are good choices) then move on to manti, Turkish-style lamb dumplings, and the Chick taouk, perfectly cooked chicken with chili, paprika, and perfumed rice. Leave room for one of the most inventive desserts you’ll find anywhere—a preserved lemon from Menton, a nearby town, with lemon and basil sorbet served inside it.

Elsa

Located at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, this is the first totally organic-certified Michelin-star restaurant. And while this is a serious foodie meal, it isn’t pretentious (no mandatory tiny portions of esoteric vegetables here). The vibe out on the terrace is relaxed and the saffron soufflé might alone be worth the steep price of admission. The tagliolini with scorpionfish is one of the most memorable pasta dishes around. Save room for the peach coulis.

Things to Do: There is more to Monaco than dancing on tables and spraying champagne from gold-plated bottles.


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Jardin Exotique de Monaco

If you can manage the heat and the climb, walk up to the Exotic Gardens of Monaco. For one thing, you’ll be rewarded with a quiet stroll away from the tourist crowds and you’ll see a much more laid-back, residential part of the principality. Once you’re there, the many eye-catching succulents and other flora live up to the venue’s name, and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views over Monaco. And if you want a real counterpoint to the glitz, take the tour of the on-site caves to see a remarkable geological site and enjoy the natural air conditioning.

Take a boat ride

You don’t need to have a yacht to enjoy boating around the Riviera. Alice Boat is run by the eponymous captain, who spent many years working on yachts and runs a fun, low-key, and well-priced operation with many options and price points. A three-hour tour can start around 400 euros (a bargain for Monaco). She’ll take you past Bono’s house in the nearby town of Eze, point out the restaurant where he likes to eat, and where, rumor has it, he will take the microphone and sing. You’ll go to some of the best swimming spots and coves near Cap Ferrat-Saint-Jean that are difficult to reach by car.  The boat comes stocked with rosé, other beverages, and fruit.  And you’ll be picked up right in Monaco, at the new Norman Foster-designed yacht club (itself whimsically evocative of a cruise ship). Another Monaco perk—the marina is less than a ten-minute walk from the center of town.

Oceanographic Museum of Monaco

This is a world-class aquarium with some of the best tropical fish you’ll see anywhere. There are must-see historical exhibits highlighting the principality’s outsize role in exploring the oceans. (Remember that Jacques Cousteau was based in Monaco and three consecutive Monagasque princes have been involved with ocean preservation.) Plus, the museum is a leading example of how to engage the visitor on environmental issues—focusing on the damage plastic is doing to the oceans, climate change, and how to protect the sea.

Monaco Open Air Theatre

You may just spot Prince Albert here at Europe’s largest outdoor movie theatre—there are 500 seats—that sit perched on a promontory over the Mediterranean. Tickets for adults start at 12 euros. They offer a different film every evening that are shown in their original language with French subtitles and range from Yesterday to Spiderman. This is a real local favorite.

Where to Stay: There’s something for everyone—from historic, elegant hotels to more casual beachfront resorts.


Courtesy Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer

Monte Carlo Beach Hotel

The understated Monte Carlo Beach Hotel, a Relais & Chateaux property, feels a world away from the casino and luxury shopping at the center of Monte Carlo. Here you’ll find a deco-chic boutique hotel and a beach club that includes everything a five-star beach club should. Think: a jellyfish net for a protected swimming area, perfect wood-fired pizza and al dente spaghetti pomodoro served to you beachside, jet skiing, parachute rides, a huge pool, a dedicated area for children and brand new spa, Le Tigre Yoga Club & Spa. (No wonder this is one of the most expensive and coveted beach club memberships in Monaco.)


Courtesy Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer

Hotel de Paris

The iconic Monaco hotel, an American Express Fine Hotel & Resort property, sitting regally on the main square across from the casino just underwent a nearly $300 million euro renovation that includes a new garden, more rooms, and updated décor. Extra perks include nightly gifts of La Prairie eye cream on your pillow and use of a house car on a first-come, first-served basis. There’s a sprawling pool deck, wellness floor, and guests of Hotel de Paris have access to the facilities at the Monte Carlo Beach Hotel. And if you want a 9,000-square-foot suite duplex suite from which you can see three countries, they have that too.

Getting there…just got easier and a bit more chic.

There used to be only one non-stop flight from the New York City area to Nice. But this spring, the all-business-class boutique airline La Compagnie added a seasonal route (May to October). In addition to seats that can be a third the cost of other business class tickets, you get reclining lie-flat beds, Caudalie skincare products, and a seasonally curated menu by Michelin-starred chef Christophe Langrée. But the biggest perk, perhaps, might be the 6:15 p.m. departure time from Nice (the other non-stop leaves at 12:15 p.m.), giving you practically a whole extra day to soak it all in.