For over a century Monte Carlo – the most glamorous district in tiddly, glamorous Monaco – has been the ultimate seaside playground for the famous, royal and tax evading. Finding out how an impoverished, inconsequential principality talked its way to independence and international fame is a good reason to visit. Monte Carlo is also a sun-drenched, cliff-hugging petite perfection of a town. Shamelessly extravagant, it offers the chance to sample the highlife – at least for a while.
The European Room at the Casino de Monte Carlo. Photo: Monte Carlo Tourism
The 1870s Casino de Monte-Carlo (casinomontecarlo.com) kickstarted Monaco's progress to fame and considerable fortune. Head inside to ogle its explosion of gold leaf, onyx and ceiling nymphs. Guide Fatoumata Froissart Diallo (fairandfairy.com) is that rarity, a Monegasque citizen, and leads tours of the casino that bring it to life through stories of its legendary gamblers and monarch-bonking callgirls. You'll also get a peek into the high-roller rooms, where million-euro chips lie casually on the roulette table.
Salad at Vistamar Restaurant at the Hotel Hermitage Monte-Carlo. Photo: Monte Carlo Tourism
Chic Le Vistamar (montecarlosbm.com) is a Michelin-star experience without fuss, with simply prepared, quality Mediterranean seafood such as a hearty bouillabaisse or John Dory with ratatouille, plus a glamorous harbour-gazing terrace. Its two-course business lunch with a glass of wine at €59 ($88) is an affordable indulgence. For the ultimate splurge, Restaurant Joel Robochon (metropole.com) provides a Mediterranean, fine-dining meander through multiple courses from one of France's most famous chefs.
The casino's panoramic terraces have terrific views over the Mediterranean, where you might spy an approaching billionaire's mega-yacht. Place du Casino has a superb ensemble of Belle Epoque architecture that includes the Cafe de Paris (montecarlosbm.com), perfect spot for champagne and stickybeaking at poseurs emerging from their scarlet supercars. Further back, designer-label boutiques sit in giant white pods. The Jardins de la Petite Afrique are immaculate and lovely, if pocket-sized, with shady tropical fig trees.
If you can, time your visit to coincide with one of Monte Carlo's many festivals. Among them are the glamorous Monaco Yacht Show (monacoyachtshow.com), men's top-seed tennis competition the Monte Carlo Masters (montecarlotennismasters.com) and the Monte Carlo Sporting Summer Festival (montecarlolive.com), which features international music acts. The May Monaco Grand Prix (monaco-grand-prix.com) is one of the world's most prestigious motor races; the demanding course sees cars hurtle through the streets of the city.
Hirondelle restaurant at the Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo. Photo: Monte Carlo Tourism
From its crystal chandeliers, pink marble columns and mosaic-patterned corridors to its extravagant Belle Epoque ceiling frescoes and glass-domed Winter Garden, the Hotel Hermitage (hotelhermitagemontecarlo.com) is one of Europe's great heritage hotels. Public areas are opulent, guestrooms more toned down, with quiet luxury and (depending on category) extravagant harbour views. Guests have use of the adjacent Thermes Marins wellness centre (thermesmarinsmontecarlo.com) and are well-positioned to stroll to Monte Carlo's sea-gazing promenades, chic shopping and pint-sized public gardens.
Monte Carlo is tiny, but use public buses (cam.mc) to circumnavigate Monaco's other sights. You can buy single or one-day tickets from the driver. Monaco's cavernous underground train station provides frequent, easy access to French Riviera towns.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Visit Monaco and Silversea Cruises.
See also: 20 reasons to visit Monaco