How to Have the Perfect Monte Carlo Vacation
The French Riviera has no shortage of beautiful, sun-kissed coastal towns: Villefranche-sur-Mer, Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, Antibes, Eze... But one of its most famous stops, Monte-Carlo, has a way of sparking wanderlust in even the most jaded traveler. The district, located inside the minuscule country of Monaco, is synonymous with high living: 30 percent of residents are millionaires, hence the Porsches, Bentleys and Rolls-Royces parked on every block. Its casino has been featured in not one but two James Bond films (1983's Never Say Never Again and 1995's GoldenEye). And if that's not enough charm for you: it's still ruled by the same royal family who took over in the year 1297.
Its enduring appeal among travelers stems from how accessible it is. Nice Côte d'Azur International Airport, south France's main transit hub, is a quick 7-minute helicopter ride away (for a less dramatic entrance into the city, there's also an express bus). And if you're in the midst of a continental jaunt, there are easy trains from Paris (from 28 euros; takes roughly 6 ½ hours) and Milan (from 36 euros, 5 ½ hours).
Once you're in Monte-Carlo, bus is the best way to get around—in fact, the entire French Riviera, from Cannes all the way to Menton, is well served by public transportation. There's also a province-wide network of electric bikes, too, for beach-hopping along Monte-Carlo's scenic coastal roads.
But how else should you spend your time during a mid-winter escape? Here, a quick primer for easy living in Monte-Carlo.
Why Go in the Off-season?
It rarely gets cold in Monaco (temps hover around the 60s and 70s in January), and it's almost always sunny. Room rates come down, too, making winter a more affordable time to visit. The Metropole Monte-Carlo, for example, has a current offer from 360 EUR (including breakfast and tea for two) per night—35% less than what the same room would cost you in June.
Each January, the Monte-Carlo International Circus Festival draws together top jugglers, acrobatic troupes, trapeze artists and clowns from around the world (this year marks the 40th anniversary, so expect an even bigger bang than usual). And in March, the Rose Ball, a charity event started by Princess Grace in 1954, is your chance to rub shoulders with (literal) royalty in the fabled Salle des Etoiles concert hall.
What's there to do during the day?
Why not start out by driving a convertible, a la Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, along the Grand Corniche? Platinium Rent, a luxury car rental service, boasts a fleet of 48 cars—from Lamborghinis to Aston Martins—to borrow for your day of coastal cruising.
Meanwhile, at the Oceanographic Museum, built on a sheer rock face and nicknamed the "Temple of the Sea," there's a shark lagoon, whale skeletons, and an aquarium with four thousand species of fish.
For an experience that's quintessentially Monaco, go see the changing of the guards at the impressive Prince's Palace, and then go inside to admire its chapels, white stone towers and 15th-century frescoes (there's also a private collection of 100 antique cars, obviously). Go shopping at the Pavilions Monte-Carlo, a row of five giant white pods built to house luxury brands, like Alexander McQueen and Saint Laurent, until the restoration of Place du Casino is completed.
For car lovers: the city's world-renowned Grand Prix takes place May 26-29, and tickets (starting at 60 euros) can be purchased here.
Where should I stay?
Monte-Carlo is home to several high-end hotels, but the only one you need to know about is Hotel Hermitage. The gleaming white Belle Epoque facade sums up the essence of Monte-Carlo ritz and glitz: inside, it boasts one of the most famous lobbies in Europe, with a glass domed cupola designed by Gustave Eiffel (as in, the tower). The pampering continues downstairs, at Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo spa, where you can sign up for cryotherapy—the treatment involves spending two minutes in a cold chamber set to -110º C, and is used to relieve stress, jetlag and muscle diseases.
Can I go to the beach?
In winter, most of the private beaches are closed, though you can still stroll along famous Larvotto Beach. For a small daytrip, locals fondly refer to Cap d'Ail La Mala as one of the most beautiful beaches on the whole Riviera.
Where's the best view?
You can practically Instagram with your eyes closed in this plush coastal town, and every picture will come out great. But one of the most spectacular views is the one from the deck at Villa La Vigie, a prestigious 1902 villa overlooking Roquebrune Cap Martin Bay. Its 2,550 sq ft terrace attracts seriously high-end renters, like Karl Lagerfeld, who lived here for a decade in the 90s.
Do I have to go to the casino?
Yes. Even non-gamblers will get something out of seeing the 1863-built Casino de Monte-Carlo , which itself marked the birth of modern-day Monte-Carlo (Charles III, Prince of Monaco, founded it as a tourist attraction to generate extra income for the province). Keep in mind there's a dress code (no shorts and flip flops, jacket required after 8pm)—then again, for a place that's counted everyone from Napoleon Bonaparte to Winston Churchill as patrons, what else would you expect?