Things to do in Monaco: Experiencing art and culture in Europe's city for the rich and famous

Head to Monaco, and your tick-the-box itinerary will read something like this: drop by the casino, head up to the Rock to see the palace and swing by the harbour for the super-yachts. But I wanted to see more, the in-between places – the cultural, the creative and the quirky. The challenge, in one long day, is to see if I can uncover a more relaxed (and affordable) underbelly to a place known mainly for its movie-star looks. But unlike James Bond or Grace Kelly I'll be travelling by foot and bus.

MORNING – ART AND CULTURE

The first hint of the principality's unconventional side appears at the Nouveau Musee National de Monaco (New National Museum of Monaco) where I discover the museum's split personality, with Villa Paloma perched high on a hill, while its twin, Villa Sauber, relaxes down by the seaside.

Built in the early 1900s, the villas are among the most beautiful in Monaco, with Villa Sauber's collection based on "Art and Performance" and Villa Paloma's on "Art and Territory". With the principality dedicating a whopping 5 per cent of its budget to the arts, the ever-changing exhibits are world class, displaying both famous and emerging artists.

Villa Sauber is the more contemporary gallery, displaying everything from Lazy Susans casting moving shadows of everyday objects onto walls to plastic dolls cut into pieces. "We invest in artists who are less known but big on surprises," says communications manager Elodie Biancheri.

A steep bus ride away Villa Paloma is showing the work of late American sculptor Duane Hanson (1925-1996), his work reminiscent of the pop art movement of the time. Last summer the villa featured the work of Fausto Melotti (1901-1986) an Italian painter and sculptor famous for iron, brass and gold sculptures. "Outside might be all bling-bling," says Biancheri. "But inside is like the home of an artist."

Bus €2, entry to NMNM (Villa Sauber + Villa Paloma) €6; see www.nmnm.mc.

NOON – SEA AND SCIENCE

Another bus brings me hurtling down the hill to the front entrance of the Oceanographic Museum, a temple to science, adventure and eccentricity. Built in 1910 into the side of the mythical Rock of Monaco, the palace-like museum was created by Prince Albert I (1848-1922) in order to study the collections he brought back from his scientific expeditions. This visionary prince, navigator and forerunner in the field of oceanography sailed the Mediterranean, the Azores, and Spitsbergen in the Arctic, collecting samples, mapping currents and recording observations.

While the colourful aquariums are fun (and educational) the Oceanomania room is where the oddball stuff is kept. Here, amid the world's biggest collection of marine paraphernalia I wander through a warehouse-sized cabinet of curiosities, finding copper balls used to discover ocean currents, the ship laboratory where the lab-rat prince conducted his experiments, a wooden gizmo that became the first submarine, even Davy Jones' Locker, an art installation by Mark Dion. It's like diving into Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea.

Bus €2, entry to Oceanographic Museum €14; see www.oceano.mc.

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NIGHT – PORTRAITS AND PLAYS

From the rear of the oceanographic museum I follow a little-known path around Pointe de la Poudrière, detouring down a set of steps for a quick dip in the ocean (tip: when in Monaco, always wear your swimmers under your sun dress) before catching the Bateau Bus across Port Hercules. Don't let the name fool you; the bus is a boat, a little electric one, which offers a sneaky shortcut back to the casino side. From here it's a 30-minute walk to the Grimaldi Forum, Monaco's premier space for exhibitions and live performances.

As part of the principality's "Russia Year", the exhibition From Chagall to Malevich: The revolution of the Avant-Garde is on display, while the upcoming summer season (July 2 to September 4) will feature 60 works by artist Francis Bacon.

The works by the Russian artists are full of chaotic energy, featuring Russia's avant-garde art scene from 1905 to 1930, a style that shook up centuries of convention. Today, this little speck of bling on the Mediterranean is getting a creative shake-up of its own.

Bateau Bus €2, entry to Grimaldi Forum €10; see www.grimaldiforum.com.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.visitmonaco.com

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific operates several flights daily from Sydney and Melbourne, via Hong Kong, to key European gateways including London, with connections to Nice. Monaco is 30 minutes by car or a little less by train. See www.cathaypacific.com.au

STAYING THERE

Le Meridien Beach Plaza has classic rooms from €184 a night. Situated on the beach, it is within walking distance of most attractions. See www.lemeridienmontecarlo.com.

Kerry van der Jagt travelled with the assistance of Visit Monaco and Avalon Waterways.

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