On one of the best stretches of the Mediterranean, this classic luxury destination is one of the most sought-after addresses in the world. With all the high-rise towers you have to look hard to find the Belle Époque grace of yesteryear. But if you head to the town's great 1864 landmark Hôtel de Paris—still a veritable crossroads of the buffed and befurred Euro-gentry—or enjoy a grand bouffe at its famous Louis XV restaurant, or attend the opera, or visit the ballrooms of the casino, you may still be able to conjure up Monaco's elegant past. Prince Albert II, a political science graduate from Amherst College, traces his ancestry to Otto Canella, who was born in 1070. The Grimaldi dynasty began with Otto's great-great-great-grandson, Francesco Grimaldi, also known as Frank the Rogue. Expelled from Genoa, Frank and his cronies disguised themselves as monks and in 1297 seized the fortified medieval town known today as Le Rocher (the Rock). Except for a short break under Napoléon, the Grimaldis have been here ever since, which makes them the oldest reigning family in Europe.
In the 1850s a Grimaldi named Charles III made a decision that turned the Rock into a giant blue chip. Needing revenue but not wanting to impose additional taxes on his subjects, he contracted with a company to open a gambling facility. The first spin of the roulette wheel was on December 14, 1856. There was no easy way to reach Monaco then—no carriage roads or railroads—so no one came. Between March 15 and March 20, 1857, one person entered the casino—and won two francs. In 1868, however, the railroad reached Monaco, and it was filled with Englishmen who came to escape the London fog. The effects were immediate. Profits were so great that Charles eventually abolished all direct taxes. Almost overnight, a threadbare principality became an elegant watering hole for European society. Dukes (and their mistresses) and duchesses (and their gigolos) danced and dined their way through a world of spinning roulette wheels and bubbling champagne—preening themselves for nights at the opera, where such artists as Vaslav Nijinsky, Sarah Bernhardt, and Enrico Caruso came to perform. Along with the tax system, its sensational position on a broad, steep peninsula that bulges into the Mediterranean—its harbor sparkling with luxury cruisers, its posh mansions angling awnings toward the nearly perpetual sun—continues to draw the rich and famous. One of the latest French celebrities to declare himself "Monégasque," thus giving up his French passport, is superchef Alain Ducasse, who said that he made the choice out of affection for Monaco rather than tax reasons.
Pleasure boats vie with luxury cruisers in their brash beauty and Titanic scale, and teams of handsome young men—themselves dyed blond and tanned to match—scour and polish every gleaming surface. As you might expect, all this glitz doesn't come cheap. Eating is expensive, and even the most modest hotels cost more here than in nearby Nice or Menton. As for taxis, they don't even have meters so you are completely at the driver's mercy (with prices skyrocketing during events such as the Grand Prix). For the frugal, Monaco is the ultimate day-trip, although parking is as coveted as a room with a view. At the very least you can afford a coffee at Starbucks. The harbor district, known as La Condamine, connects the new quarter, officially known as Monte Carlo with Monaco-Ville (or Le Rocher), a medieval town on the Rock, topped by the palace, the cathedral, and the Oceanography Museum. Have no fear that you'll need to climb countless steps to get to Monaco-Ville, as there are plenty of elevators and escalators climbing the steep cliffs. But shuttling between the lovely casino grounds of Monte Carlo and Old Monaco, separated by a vast port, is a daunting proposition for ordinary mortals without wings, so hop on the No. 1 bus from Saint Roman, or No. 2 from the Jardin Exotique - Both stop at Place du Casino and come up to Monaco Ville.
Hotel prices skyrocket during the Monaco Grand Prix, so reserve as far ahead as possible. That goes for festivals like the Printemps des Arts as well.
Le Louis XV
This extravagantly showy restaurant stuns with neo-Baroque details, yet it manages to be upstaged by its product: the superb cuisine of Alain Ducasse, one of the world's most respected chefs. He leaves the Louis XV kitchen, for the most part, in the more-than-capable hands of Chef Franck Cerutti, who draws much of his inspiration from the Cours Saleya market in Nice. Glamorous iced lobster with chestnuts and Alba white truffles slum happily with stockfish (stewed salt cod) and tripe. The decor is magnificent—a surfeit of gilt, mirrors, and chandeliers—and the waitstaff seignorial as they proffer a footstool for madame's handbag. In Ducasse fashion, the Baroque clock on the wall is stopped just before 12—Cinderella should have no fears. If your wallet is a chubby one, this is a must. The 400,000 bottles in the wine cellar should offer you enough of a choice.
Café de Paris
The landmark Belle Époque "La Brasserie 1900"—better known as Café de Paris—offers the usual classics (shellfish, steak tartare, matchstick frites, and fish boned table-side). Supercilious, super-pro waiters fawn gracefully over titled preeners, jet-setters, and tourists alike. Open daily beginning at 8 am, there's good hot food until 2 am.
Place du Casino is the center of Monte Carlo and a must-see, even if you don't like to bet. Into the gold-leaf splendor of the casino, the hopeful descend from tour buses to tempt fate beneath the gilt-edge Rococo ceiling—and some spend much more than planned here, as did the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who lost 100,000 francs. Jacket and tie are required in the back rooms, which open at 3 pm. Bring your passport (under-18s not admitted). Note that there are special admission fees to get into any of the period gaming rooms. For €10 you can also visit the casino daily in the off hours, from 9 am to 12:30 am, with access to all rooms.
Perched dramatically on a cliff, this museum is a splendid Edwardian structure, built under Prince Albert I to house specimens collected on amateur explorations. Jacques Cousteau (1910–97) led the missions from 1957 to 1988. The main floor displays skeletons and taxidermy of enormous sea creatures; early submarines and diving gear dating from the Middle Ages; and a few interactive science displays. The main draw is the famous aquarium, a vast complex of backlighted tanks containing countless species of fish, crab, and eel. Make time to visit this musée; if possible, take in one of the remarkable exhibitions, like Shark Lagoon and its 450,000 liter aquarium, running until 2015.
Jardin Exotique de Monaco
Six hundred varieties of cacti and succulents cling to a sheer rock face at Monaco's magnificent Tropical Garden, a brisk half-hour walk west from the palace. The garden traces its roots to days when Monaco's near-tropical climate nurtured unheard-of exotica, amazing visitors from the northlands as much as any zoo. The plants are of less interest today, especially to Americans familiar with southwestern flora. The views over the Rock and coastline, however, are spectacular. Also on the grounds, or actually under them, are the Grottes de l'Observatoire —spectacular grottoes and caves adrip with stalagmites and spotlit with fairy lights. The Musée d'Anthropologie showcases two rooms: Albert I covers general prehistory while Ranier III unearths regional palaeolithic discoveries.
Nouveau Musée National de Monaco
To get here take the elevator down from Place des Moulins. NMNM houses two museums, each of which hosts two exhibitions a year. One of the surviving buildings from the Belle Époque, Villa Sauber, with its rose garden, is in the Larvotto Beach complex which has been artfully created with imported sand. The Villa Paloma (next door to the Jardin Exotique) was recently restored with fabulous stained-glass windows.
The famous Rock, crowned by the palace where the royal family resides, stands west of Monte Carlo. An audio guide leading you through this sumptuous chunk of history, first built in the 13th century and expanded and enhanced over the centuries, reveals an extravagance of 16th- and 17th-century frescoes, as well as tapestries, gilt furniture, and paintings on a grand scale. Note that the Relève de la Garde (Changing of the Guard) is held outside the front entrance of the palace most days promptly at 11:55 am. Les Grands Appartements are open to the public from late March through October, and you can buy a joint ticket with the Muséé Océanographique. Across several dates over three weeks from mid-July a summer concert series can be enjoyed at 9:30 pm in the glory of the courtyard.
Follow the crowds down the last remaining streets of medieval Monaco to the 19th-century Cathédrale de l'Immaculée-Conception, which contains the tomb of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III, as well as a magnificent altarpiece, painted in 1500 by Louis Bréa. It's best to call ahead to check on opening hours; they tend to vary, although you can usually visit daily until 6 pm.
Collection des Voitures Anciennes
In this impressive assemblage of Prince Rainier's vintage cars, you'll find everything from a De Dion Bouton to a Lamborghini Countach. Also on the Terrasses de Fontvieille is the Jardin Animalier (Animal Garden), a mini-zoo housing the Grimaldi family's animal collection—an astonishing array of wild beasts that includes monkeys and exotic birds.