A mini-guide to “The Rock”, Monaco’s old town

The characterful old town of Monaco with its peach, vanilla, pink and terracotta-coloured buildings and narrow streets is known as Monaco-Ville or Le Rocher (the Rock). Monaco’s history began on this rocky promontory, which rises majestically from the azure waters of the Mediterranean Sea. 

If you are looking for property for sale in Monaco-Ville, it’s because you, like the hundreds of thousands of people who visit it every year, have fallen under the charm of this district. If you’re discovering it for the first time, this mini-guide will tell you what to look out for in the streets between the Oceanographic Museum and the Prince’s Palace, which stand on opposite sides of the Rock. Monaco’s most popular attraction, the Oceanographic Museum, can be reached on buses 1 and 2, which stop in the road parallel to it. 

The Oceanographic Museum

Prince Albert I of Monaco (1848-1922), the great-great grandfather of Prince Albert II, devoted his life to science and exploration. This pioneer of modern oceanography inaugurated the Oceanographic Museum, which is home to the Mediterranean Science Commission, in 1910. Admire the ornamented Baroque Revival facade before you visit the impressive aquariums, which house thousands of fish species, including sharks. You’ll also find seahorses, starfish and other marine invertebrates and many curiosities connected to the sea. The museum recently opened a sea turtle rescue centre, which is proving to be very popular with visitors. It  provides care and rehabilitation to these creatures, which are thought to have existed for 240 million years and are now an endangered species, mainly because of human activity.

Official buildings

Opposite the Oceanographic Museum, a flight of steps leads up back up to the Place de la Visitation where the bus stop is located. To your right, you’ll see the only modern construction on Le Rocher, Monaco’s National Council (parliament) building, with the country’s constitution inscribed on its glass facade. On the opposite side of the street stands the Ministère d’Etat, the elegant government building. If you walk to the edge of the Rock between the Ministère d’Etat and the police station, you can admire a stunning view of the harbour. This is also the best spot for enjoying fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve and during a dedicated festival in July and August.

The Chocolaterie de Monaco

As you head towards the centre of the Old Town, you’ll see the Chocolaterie de Monaco. This chocolate shop and café was the brainchild of a young engineering graduate and a chocolate-maker who met in the trenches during the First World War. It was founded in 1920 and became an official supplier to the Palace of Monaco in 1999. The theme of royalty is omnipresent, from crown-shaped chocolates to luxury selections designed to pay tribute to members of the royal family. If you just want a taster, go for one of the single chocolates, which are sold in tiny regal-themed boxes. 

Place de la Mairie

Walk down Rue Princesse Marie de Lorraine to the right of the chocolate shop. To your right, you’ll see a Catholic school which was a boarding school for girls, in the late 19th century. The street opens onto a square, Place de la Mairie, which takes its name from the town hall on the left of it. The square is also flanked by a post office and the Chapelle de la Miséricorde, whose inaugural stone was laid in 1639. On Easter Friday, this chapel is the starting point for a procession, a tradition that dates back four centuries. Look out for a wooden Christ by Monaco’s home-grown talent François Joseph Bosio, who was Emperor Napoleon 1st’s sculptor.

Monaco Cathedral

Head up the street on the left of the post office and turn left until you arrive in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate. This Roman-Byzantine-style place of worship is also known as St Nicolas Cathedral, as it was built in 1875 on the site of a 13th century church dedicated to this saint. Inside, you’ll find the tombs of generations of royals, including Prince Rainier III and Princes Grace, who also married here in 1956. 

Il Malizia

From the cathedral, make your way back into the central streets with their souvenir shops and restaurants. All the streets lead to the Place du Palais, the large square in front of the Prince’s Palace. 

To your right, in front of the steps that lead down from the Rock, Monaco’s first Grimaldi (the surname of the royal family) is depicted in the form of a sculpture. Francesco (François) Grimaldi was the Genoese leader of the Guelphs, an Italian faction supporting the Pope and in conflict with the Ghibellines, who supported the Romano-Germanic emperor. Since 1215, Monaco had been a colony of Genoa. When the Ghibellines took power, they ousted the Guelphs, including the Grimaldis. In 1297, François Grimaldi captured the fortress protecting the Rock of Monaco by disguising himself as a Franciscan monk (monacoin Italian but this is a complete coincidence as the area was already known as Monaco). François (known as Il Malizia (the Cunning One), was evicted a few years later by the Genoese forces and it was only in 1419, when the Grimaldi family bought Monaco from the French crown of Aragon, that they became the undisputed rulers. The first Grimaldi to call himself a prince was Honoré II in 1612.

The Prince’s Palace

The history of the most famous Monaco residence dates back to 1215, when the Genoese built the original fortress and ramparts. Although it is the home of the ruling Prince, the State Apartments are open to the public at certain times of the year. Over the centuries, it was transformed into a luxurious Louis XIV residence. Prince Rainier III is credited with restoring the Palace to the magnificent state it has remained in. An audio guide is included in the admission fee. 

St Martin’s Gardens

End you visit by taking a stroll through St Martin’s’ Gardens, which date back to 1816. The decision to create these gardens was taken in order to offer work to the Monegasques during a period of famine. From the palace, turn right and walk towards the edge of the Rock. Monaco’s newest district, Fontvieille, which was almost entirely built on a land extension, spreads out in front of you. A path on the left will take you along one of the Old Town’s prettiest streets and on to the gardens. As you make your way along the meandering paths clinging to the edge of the Rock, you’ll enjoy the fragrances of Mediterranean and exotic plants, as you admire numerous sculptures and the view over the glittering yacht-dotted sea. 

The garden paths will take you close to the Oceanographic Museum. You can either walk or take the bus down, but if you have time, take the escalator next to the museum, then the lift. Another escalator leads to the level of a coastal path where the sight of the Oceanographic Museum towering above the cliff face is truly impressive.

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