I had a rare free weekend at IESE Business School and knew I had to take advantage of it. I discovered that flights to Nice, France were very cheap (around 50 Euros roundtrip). Seizing the opportunity, I bought a flight leaving Friday after work and returning that Sunday night.
While the French Riviera has many sights and famous towns, my sights were set on the independent nation of Monaco, located just 15 kilometers east of Nice. Monaco is the world’s second smallest nation. At 2 square kilometers (less than 1 square mile), it is 60% of the size of New York’s Central Park.
Monaco is known worldwide as a destination for the rich and famous. That was confirmed by a friend of a friend who works for the Monaco tourism board. She suggested I take a helicopter from the Nice airport to Monaco for just 150 Euros. The “budget” option was around 270 Euros/night. Eek!! Luckily, Nice itself has accommodations for less than 10% of that price.
A couple fun facts about Monaco: 1/3 of the residents are millionaires. 0% of the population is considered impoverished. They have 1 police officer for every 100 residents. The cheapest apartment in Monaco goes for about 1.2 million Euros.
It was clear that the Monaco lifestyle was far beyond my budget, but I was determined to make it as much as a budget destination as I could.
For this excursion, I recruited a friend: my former coworker Ryan who is now at business school in Madrid.
The flight from Barcelona took just 55 minutes. Once on the ground, I hopped on the sleek new Nice airport tram which took me to the city center for just 1.50 Euros.
October 12, 2019: Glitz and Glam
At 8:30 am, I walked over to the Nice train station to head to Monaco. A regional train leaves every 30 minutes and costs about 4 Euros. The scenic train ride stopped in several French Riviera towns before reaching the underground Monaco Ville station.
I stepped out of the train and into my 59th country!
Most of the tourist attractions opened at 10 AM except for one: the Exotic Gardens which opened at 9. So that’s where I went. On the way, I took a 5-minute detour to reach the pathetically unexciting country high-point: a sidewalk which sloped uphill into France.
The Exotic Gardens are perched high on a cliff with stunning views of the entire country. The “exotic” plants are actually commonly found in my hometown of Los Angeles including various species of cacti and yucca. While I never thought of these plants as exotic, it shows that “exotic” has very different meanings depending on your culture.
The Exotic Garden has a big surprise: a bona fide cave located at the bottom of the garden. Cave tours last about 30 minutes. After walking down 300 steps, I ended in a magnificent room full of stalagmites, stalactites and columns of limestone! Given the size and nature of the country, this was completely unexpected.
After the garden, I walked down the hill to sea level using Monaco’s unusual system of publicly accessible elevators in private apartment buildings. I then got a fresh socca (Monagasque savory chickpea bread) at the local’s market. Breakfast was a mere 3 Euros!
Just above the market sits the historic walled city of Monaco-Ville (one of Monaco’s ten wards). At the heart of the walled city is the Prince’s Palace. The Palace is open seasonally – I happened to arrive on the last weekend of the year that the palace is open. I was let in after a thorough security screening.
Since 1297, Monaco has been ruled by the Grimaldi family. The ruler of Monaco is the Prince. You may ask: why isn’t the ruler of Monaco the King? The answer is because of Monaco’s size. Had the ruler of Monaco declared himself king, the King of France would have invaded. The less-powerful title of Prince allowed Monaco to ally with its more powerful neighbors and retain sovereignty.
Monaco’s current prince is Prince Albert. His father was Prince Rainier and his mother was famed American actress Grace Kelly. She met the Prince on May 6, 1955 as a short detour from the Cannes Film Festival. The “first date” was extremely well documented and two rooms of the palace contain photos and museum exhibits dedicated to that day. Weird obsession? Absolutely.
The highlight of the palace tour was the ornate throne room. Opposite the throne, a video played of Princess Grace leading a TV audience on a tour of the room! It was cool to see that most of the pieces were the same.
After a lunch of barbagiuan: spinach pastries that happen to be Monaco’s national food, I met up with Ryan who spent the morning exploring on his own. We headed to the famed Oceanographic Museum. Part aquarium, part Princely propaganda, the museum is very informative and beautiful.
The highlight was the turtle pond with enormous turtles!!
My final stop in Monaco-Ville was the Prince’s car collection. The museum had approximately 100 mostly European cars and coaches dating back to the mid 1800’s including Bugattis, Ferarris, Rolls Royces and Formula 1 cars that raced in the famed Monaco Grand Prix. The sole American car was a 1952 Nash Healy.
It was now 5pm and time to head over to Monaco’s most famous attraction: Monte Carlo and its famous Casino. Monte Carlo was about a 20 minute walk from Monaco-Ville.
Monte Carlo is not just the Casino. It also includes a luxury shopping district, luxury hotels and numerous apartment buildings. Monte Carlo was noticeably wealthier and flashier than other parts of Monaco- at least 1/5 of the cars were luxury sports cars (e.g. Lamborghinis). My guess is that half of them were rentals but still an impressive sights.
In Monte Carlo you can get a Monaco passport stamp at the tourist office. For the vast majority of people, this is a fun addition to your passport. My old passport has a number of these tourist stamps. However, the stamp technically isn’t official and could cause issues if you are applying for a future EU/Schengen visa (such as a work visa) on that passport. Because I am on a Schengen visa, I decided not to get the stamp unfortunately.
The Monte Carlo Casino is just steps from the tourist office and occupies a prominent location over the ocean. It is surrounded by luxury cars and tourists snapping photos. The Casino makes so much money that Monaco has no income tax or capital gains tax.
Public tours of the casino for non-gamblers last from 9am-1pm. Gambling starts at 2pm and goes until late. After 8pm, the casino requires men to wear jackets. Admission is 17 Euros. However, included in that price is a 10 Euro credit that can be used for gaming or towards a drink.
The main casino rooms have minimums from 5-30 euros and a maximum bet of 2,000 euros depending on the game. In the private rooms (which require an additional admission fee), the minimums double and there is no maximum bet.
Photography is strictly prohibited, which is really a shame because the gaming rooms are absolutely beautiful. It reminded me of a palace. Seeing this casino made Las Vegas’ fancy casinos such as the Bellagio look like a cheap fraud.
With 10 euros to spend, I was limited to a single roulette table which had a 5 Euro minimum. I bet 5 euros on black for two spins, but lost on them both. Ryan was able to turn his 10 Euros into 25 but then lost it all on a single game of blackjack (25 is the minimum bet).
While we were sad to lose our entrance fee money, we witnessed some men lose thousands of Euros.
After losing my money, I walked over to the Hotel de Paris to get a drink. Unfortunately, they too had a dress code and my sneakers didn’t cut it. At that moment I knew it was time to head home.
There are certainly plenty of things to do as a tourist that can take up a full day. However to justify spending any more time there, you really need to be a high-roller. I am very glad I went and would highly recommend it, but it’s a once-and-done place for the average visitor.