At first glance, Monaco might not seem the kind of destination that would leap out and grab your attention as you perused a typical Mediterranean cruise itinerary. For many people the name conjures up little more than an association with its famous annual Grand Prix, but there is far more to beautiful Monaco than meets the eye.
Located on the French Riviera, and therefore a popular port of call for the likes of Royal Caribbean Cruises and other major cruise operators Monaco is actually a tiny independent principality; in fact, covering an area of just less than two square kilometres, Monaco is officially the world’s second-smallest country after the Vatican. Don’t be fooled by its diminutive size however: in terms of natural beauty, history, entertainment and beach life, Monaco punches well above its weight.
A brief history of Monaco
The coastal region of south-eastern France has been inhabited since prehistoric times, but Monaco was first settled by the ancient Greeks and subsequently the Romans. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, Monaco was abandoned between the fifth and eleventh centuries. The territory was claimed by the Grimaldis, an ancient Genoese dynasty, at the end of the thirteenth century. Briefly designated a protectorate of the Kingdom of Sardinia, and then France, Monaco’s independent sovereign status was finally confirmed by treaty in 1861.
The nineteenth century marked the emergence of Monaco as a preferential holiday resort for Europe’s affluent society and the city-state’s first casino opened in 1863, its proceeds helping to fund further development of a tourism-based infrastructure. Since then, Monaco has never looked back and today tourism is the major contributor to the bulk of the tiny principality’s economy.
The highlights of modern Monaco
Like much of the French Riviera that surrounds it, a key aspect of Monaco’s appeal is its beaches. With around three hundred days of fine weather each year it’s no wonder that Monaco’s four-kilometre beach, a mixture of sand and fine shingle lapped by warm Mediterranean waters is an irresistible spot for sun-seekers.
High-rollers, meanwhile, can attempt to break the bank at Monte Carlo – perhaps Monaco’s most famous district and the site of the city’s legendary and fabulously opulent casino. Monte Carlo’s harbour is the place to gaze at the glittering luxury yachts of the rich and famous and is a delightfully picturesque setting in which to relax with a drink or lunch at one of the harbour-side restaurants.
Monte Carlo’s beautifully-landscaped Japanese Garden is a colourful haven of tranquillity featuring immaculate plantings of Japanese trees, flowers and shrubs, an ornamental bridge and a waterfall and pond filled with Koi carp. Refreshment is offered by a Japanese tea house at the heart of the garden.
Equally unmissable is Monte Carlo’s outstanding Oceanographic Museum and aquarium. One of Monaco’s most popular attractions since it’s opening in 1910, visitors can observe more than six thousand different species of exotic marine life in tanks which recreate various underwater environments. The museum houses an extensive collection of fascinating and unusual exhibits including historic diving costumes and equipment, a vast collection of seashells from around the world and a scale model of a sperm whale.
Monaco’s oldest district – Monaco-Ville, also referred to as ‘the Rock’ – is a must to explore on foot. Dating from the medieval period, this remarkably-preserved jumble of traffic-free alleyways and passages offers countless photo opportunities and it is here that some of Monaco’s grandest buildings, including the magnificent Prince’s Palace and the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in which Princess Grace is buried, can be found.
Add to these attractions a host of fashionable and exclusive shops, countless fine cafés, bars and restaurants, a laid-back atmosphere, near-constant sunshine and the availability of spectacular and unforgettable views no matter where you happen to be in the principality, and it’s easy to see why tiny Monaco is a giant among Mediterranean destinations.
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John is a travel writer from the UK with a passion for European travel