The upcoming Monaco Grand Prix weekend is one of the most fascinating events of the year.
The Principality of Monaco is one that conjures up a larger-than-life image — F1 drivers, supermodels, billionaire entrepreneurs, celebrities, gold-diggers, high-rolling gamblers rubbing shoulders in super-yachts, star-studded nightclubs and casinos.
This is, after all, the country with the highest concentration of Ferraris in the world. It’s not uncommon to see a Lamborghini parked behind a Bentley behind an Aston Martin behind a Rolls Royce.
This small but significant Principality nestled in a nook overlooking the Mediterranean, at the south of France and near Italy, is the world’s second smallest country after the Vatican and has been run by the Grimaldi family since 1297.
Since the first casino was built here in 1863, and with the subsequent abolition of tax, it has become both playground and residence for the international jet set.
HSH Prince Rainier III reigned with flair until his death in 2005, marrying iconic American actress Grace Kelly and putting Monte Carlo on the map. Now it’s his ecologically-minded son Albert II who runs this immaculate sovereign state: Dynamically and impeccably well-run, the streets are clean and crime-free, the gardens bountiful and lush, and its green credentials pioneering.
If you’re intimidated by the glamour and glitz, you might be surprised to find that a weekend in Monaco is very affordable. In fact, many of the great things about Monaco are free: The 300 days of sunshine a year, the beaches and the sea, a stroll along the beach, and the fireworks displays in the harbour every 10 days or so for most of the year.
Its compact size makes it the perfect destination for a leisurely weekend away as you can explore the whole country by foot. There are 73 outdoor public lifts, escalators and travelators to glide you up and down the steep hills, between the high-rise apartment blocks and the pretty pink villas.
There’s tons to do here without stripping your bank account. Take a trip up to the “Rock” to see the changing of the Royal Guard at the Palace at 11.55 a.m. and take in the views toward France and Italy. Tour the state apartments while you’re up there, then stroll to the Princess Grace Rose Garden and enjoy the scent of more than 4,000 roses, before you check out the outstanding Oceanographic Museum.
You also don’t have to spend a fortune if you want to go out here; there are plenty of regular bars, but make sure you experience the spots that are uniquely Monaco.
HSH Prince Albert recently opened an intimate concept bar under the iconic Café de Paris — Moods offers live music and DJs playing jazz, blues, soul, electronic, acoustic, salsa, reggae and classical. It’s designed as a chilled out pre-club for the legendary Jimmy’z, Monaco’s celebrity-filled nightclub.
The hotels have some of the best bars, including the Columbus, owned by F1 driver David Coulthard, which serves the Princess Grace cocktail, with champagne and rose syrup, and has a relaxed atmosphere.
For a different kind of view, fork out for a drink on the terrace of the Cafe de Paris, where you can spend the evening admiring the people — and their cars — arriving at the casino.
This city has its share of upmarket restaurants, but it’s also possible to have a delicious dinner for around $20 on the seafront. For tasty and innovative fish and seafood dishes and a relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere, treat yourself to dinner at Le Cosmopolitan (7 rue du Portier) — be sure to try the tasty octopus and artichoke salad and the juicy scallops.
The palatial Hotel de Paris with its enormous chandeliers and majestic floral displays and the dainty but magnificent Belle Epoque Hermitage are the classic places to stay in Monaco.
But if your credit card won’t stretch to their room rates, then there are other hotels where you can enjoy a slice of modern Monaco glamour.
The glorious Fairmont is all about the views. This striking 619-room hotel inaugurated by Prince Rainer and Princess Grace in 1975 was built on pillars over the Mediterranean, and in one of their marine-themed seaside rooms, you’ll feel like you’re aboard a deluxe cruise liner with an infinite view onto a glittering blue horizon. The hotel also boasts exceptional views over the Loews corner, the tightest, trickiest hairpin bend of the Grand Prix.
For more distant views of the harbour, but cheaper rooms, try the new Novotel Monte Carlo. A shiny new hotel, with a heated outdoor pool and bar full of Philippe Starck furniture, the Novotel has amazing views and prices that are very affordable if you book far enough ahead.