The Sweet Spot: Monaco

by  Lane Nieset | Sep 8, 2017
Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco
Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco / emicristea/iStock

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Mention Monaco and visions of Bentleys and James Bond-worthy casinos instantly spring to mind. Measuring roughly the size of New York City’s Central Park, this principality along the Côte d’Azur boasts the third-most expensive real estate in the world and serves as the summer playground for the jetset crowd. But despite its glitzy appearance, Monaco isn’t a destination that only caters to those arriving via mega yacht. With its Mediterranean climate, proximity to France and Italy, and multitude of restaurants varying in cuisine (and price point), Monaco makes for an easy and affordable weekend getaway (or day trip) almost any time of the year. Case in point: the principality clocks in second in terms of the most tourist arrivals per capita. The fact that it’s one of the safest countries in the world doesn’t hurt, either. Just glance at the glittering turquoise Mediterranean Sea from one of the many stylish spots around town and you’ll instantly see what all the fuss is about. Throw in a glass of Provençal rosé and you have the recipe for a perfect stay in the principality.  

The Perfect Time to Visit

May to July, September to October

The Côte d’Azur’s Mediterranean climate means mild temperatures throughout most of the year and almost 300 days of sunshine—so your chances of a rain-free holiday are pretty high. July is typically the warmest month of the year (with temperatures hitting the high 70s) while the winter months are chilly, hovering in the 40s. Snow is a rarity (and on occasion, the flurries barely hit the ground), but some of the restaurants and hotels are seasonal and close their doors in October. It doesn’t rain often, but when it does, it pours. You can expect rain typically during shoulder season months (March/April and October/November).

March and April are seen as the calm before the storm, as the annual Monaco Grand Prix in May heralds in the start of the principality’s high season, meaning sold-out hotels (at sky-high rates) and packed restaurants. From May to July, Monaco is at its liveliest, with festivals, concerts and top-notch DJs taking over hotels and clubs almost every night of the week. In September, crowds die down and temperatures dip slightly, making it one of the best months to explore Monaco’s sites and beaches.

The Cheapest Option

November to March

Here’s a little secret: Locals love being in the Côte d’Azur in off-season. Monaco particularly takes on more of a village feel, with hotels dressed up in holiday décor easily rivaling New York City department stores. Temperatures in November are still in the 60s and 70s and the principality is vibrant thanks to annual events like the Monte-Carlo Jazz Festival, which features headliners like Al Jarreau. Some hotels, such as the Monte-Carlo Beach, close at the end of October and reopen in March. The good news is that the hotels remaining open during off-season months offer plenty of great deals.

The Smart Place to Stay

Despite being the second-smallest country in the world (after Vatican City), the 1.24-square-mile principality is home to 14 hotels—and not all are of the five-star variety. Families will love the 334-room Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort, which really does live up to the resort part in its name, featuring a sand-bottom lagoon and outdoor infinity pool. The only four-star property in Monte-Carlo SBM’s portfolio (which includes the luxe Hôtel de Paris), this resort still offers up perks you’d find at its five-star sister spots. Your black “Cercle Monte-Carlo” room key acts as a golden ticket offering access to the Monte-Carlo Beach Club’s private beach (during season); the Thermes Marins Monte-Carlo spa’s facilities; and free entry to the Casino de Monte-Carlo (normally €10, or $12). You can also hop on the shuttle that circulates between the resorts and beach club. We found rates here for as low as €168 (approximately $200) in early January, compared to €459 (or $545) in mid-July.

Monaco may be surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, but it’s seriously lacking in sandy stretches you can lay out on. The 379-room Le Méridien Beach Plaza is the only hotel in the principality to feature its own private beach. In summer, the beach transforms into a cinema under the stars showing films that were shot around the Mediterranean, such as Bardot’s legendary “And God Created Woman.” The hotel also offers food, wine and cocktail “ateliers” at the sea-facing 24/7 bar, Longitude 7° 26’. Take part in everything from a wine and petit four pairing to country-specific mixology classes, which highlight trends from around the globe. Rates in mid-December are as low as €190 (approximately $226), compared to €409 (around $486) in late May. Rates jump as the hotel plays host to the Amber Lounge pop-up for three nights during the Grand Prix, which is known to draw Formula 1 drivers and celebs.

Hôtel Metropole is not budget by any means, but in Monaco, location is everything. This Belle Époque-style hotel has one of the best addresses in the principality, sitting on the corner of the Golden Square near the infamous casino. If you want to splurge, the restaurants here make for the perfect opportunity, with options including the two-starred Joël Robuchon Monte-Carlo and one-star Japanese Yoshi. This is also the perfect hotel to lounge poolside year-round at the Karl Lagerfeld-designed Odyssey. We found rates for €323 (about $384) per night mid-week in January, compared to €672 (approximately $799) in early July.

What to See and Do

People watch on the perpetually packed terrace at the Brasserie du Café de Paris, which sits next to the casino. If you’re feeling lucky, step inside and try your hand at the slots in the Casino Café de Paris, now open 24/7.

Start the evening with an apéritif at the Bar Américain, where you can sample Monaco’s national dish, barbagiuan, a Swiss chard- and ricotta-stuffed fritter, over classic cocktails. Then stroll next door to the 150-year-old Casino de Monte-Carlo, with rooms showing off some of the most stunning views over the water.

Window shop around the Golden Square at the pebble-shaped, pop-up Monte-Carlo Pavilions, home to designer boutiques like Chanel, Chopard, and Saint Laurent.

Head up to Monaco’s Old Town, the Rock, to witness the changing of the guards at 11:55 a.m. at the Place du Palais. Step inside the 18th century Prince’s Palace and admire the Versailles-inspired Mirror Gallery and frescoes lining the Throne Room.

Take a walk through the sculpture path in the newer district of Fontvieille, where you’ll come across a number of contemporary pieces by the likes of Blake, Botero, Calder, and César, as well as Monaco-based artists.

Dig in to an oyster dégustation along Fontvieille’s port at local fave Les Perles de Monte-Carlo, a modest oyster shack sitting below the Prince’s Palace.

Enjoy a glass (or bottle) of wine by the water at the Wine Palace in the Yacht Club de Monaco, whose cellar holds over 2,300 bottles of wine, Champagne, and spirits.

Swing by the Condamine market to sample local specialties (which easily make for a cheap lunch on the go) at some of Monaco’s best bakeries, such as Maison Mullot and A Roca. Don’t leave without trying pissaladière, a Provençal onion tart, and petits farcis, stuffed vegetables.

Set off on a hike right from the Palace Square. The famous Via Alpina connects Monaco with the Italian city of Trieste, linking eight countries around the Alps. Embark on a 3- to 7-day hike, or opt for something shorter, such as a light trek above Monaco to the Augustus Monument in La Turbie. While admiring sweeping views over the principality from the village, pause for lunch at the Café de la Fontaine for classic homestyle French fare.

Tips to Save More

Direct flights to the Nice Airport (the hub for the region) on Delta from JFK are seasonal (and pricey). Look into flying a low-cost carrier like Norwegian, which flies from many U.S. hubs and connects in cities like Oslo, Copenhagen, and London. If you’re coming from another city in Europe, look into budget liners like EasyJet or Ryanair.

Lunch is one of the best times to score a bargain meal at the principality’s top restaurants. Many cater to Monaco’s business set and feature a two-course lunch special (plus a glass of wine) for around $25. Keep in mind lunch typically runs between noon and 2 or 2:30 p.m.

Monaco’s open-air Condamine market sets up shop from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. with stalls selling fruits, vegetables, and flowers. What most visitors don’t realize, however, is that there’s an indoor market hall with over a dozen stalls serving fresh fare from truffle-heavy pasta plates to Michelin-starred Asian street food at RICE by Xavier Mathieu. Prices here are far lower than what you’d find at a restaurant, too.  

Taxis are limited (and typically start at a flat rate of €15, around $18) and Uber doesn’t operate in Monaco (you can take one in from France, but can’t order one while you’re here). The principality’s bus, however, is a convenient option to get up and down Monaco’s hills. Tickets are €2 (a little more than $2) or €5.50 (around $6.50) for a 24-hour pass.  

Monaco is an easy day trip from nearby towns like Nice. Hop on the Bus 100 from the Nice port (tickets are €1.50, or around $1.75) for the 35-minute trip, or take a 20-minute train ride from the Nice Ville station (with tickets starting at €2, or a little over $2, each way).

If you’re planning on doing a lot of sightseeing, consider purchasing the Côte d’Azur Card, which includes over 180 activities and sites in the region, such as the Oceanographic Museum and Exotic Gardens in Monaco. A three-day pass is €45 (about $53) for adults and €25 (about $30) for children.

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