If I had a euro for every time someone asked me ‘Is Monaco cheap to visit?’ I’d probably be able to buy a penthouse apartment there myself.
There’s no doubt about it that Monaco is a destination of legend – luxury everything from hotels to superyachts to fast cars is normal there.
Monaco is a place you’re more likely to see Prada than Primark, Mercedes than Mazdas and Moët & Chandon rather than Murphys Irish Stout (Not to say that you won’t find people clothed in Primark or drinking Murphy’s there, you’ll just find it not so prominent).
Monaco is definitely a destination where you can spend a lot of money in a short time – lunch at somewhere fancy, a flutter at the Casino de Monte-Carlo, a swish suite at a luxury hotel won’t get you much change back from €1000, if any at all.
But, it’s also a destination that can be visited on a low or limited budget. Yes it’s possible – Monaco on a budget.
This post is for anyone who has asked me THAT question – backpackers, families on a budget, green yachties, intrepid travellers hoping to find out how to make their sightseeing money go further (you know the type – they weigh up the cost of a night out over buying food the next day and have stories of going on a bender then eating pot noodles for a week).
The first thing to mention for first-time visitors to Monaco is the topography. Monaco/Monte Carlo is spread across a lot of hills, so if you’re not expecting that, are unfit or have restricted mobility you should be aware of that.
Luckily, the Principality has a network of public lifts and walkways (78 lifts, 35 escalators and 8 travelators) so you can get around without a great deal of effort, in less than an hour. For a free map of where all the lifts and travelators are you can download it here: MonacoPublicLifts
Changing of the Guards
One of the most popular free things to do in Monaco is to watch the Changing of the Guards ceremony which takes place in the square in front of the Palais Princier at 11.55am daily. The ceremony has not changed in more than a century; the guards wear white uniforms in summer and black in winter.
The Guards are not just military men, their roles include providing escorts for religious, civil and ceremonial processions, ensuring security for sports and other public events in the Principality, providing assistance to the Monaco Red Cross, assisting transportation of the disabled, helping children from the Saint Devote daycare center, and helping with relief and evacuation plans during any national emergency. Among the Guards are trained scuba divers that are charged with underwater security, monitoring water pollution levels and overseeing nautical events held in Monaco waters.
The Palais itself is the official residence of the ruling Prince of Monaco and has a vast history. The Grimaldis, an aristocratic family from Genoa have fought to keep the Palais (and their independence) over centuries, waging wars with Italy, France, Spain, Germany, England and the Earls of Provence in order to do so.
The French Revolution significantly impacted the Palace and the Grimaldi reign when the National Convention ordered all occupied lands, including the Principality, be governed by independent administrations based on those of France.
The Palace was occupied and looted by the citizens of Monaco, Roquebrune and Menton and Monaco’s name changed to Fort d’Hercule. The Grimaldi possessions were sold at auction, the State Apartments were turned into a military hospital for the Italian army, the throne room was used as a kitchen and the rest of the Palace designated a Poorhouse.
Prince Rainier III is credited with restoring the Palais to its current state, and tourists can visit the State Apartments from March to October. Entry is €8 adults / €4 kids (8-14 years), or buy a combined ticket for the State Apartments and the Private Collection of Antique Cars for €11,50 adults / €5 kids. Note: The Apartments are not wheelchair accessible as there are stairs.
Saint Martin Gardens (Jardins Saint Martin)
Adjacent to the Monaco Oceanarium and with incredible views overlooking Port Fontvieille, these well-maintained public gardens are a pleasant place to wander with wide pathways, shaded benches under pines and olive trees and numerous sculptures including a bronze of Prince Albert I.
Japanese Garden (Jardin Japonais)
Created in 1994, the Japanese Garden is a municipal garden located on avenue Princesse Grace beside the Grimaldi Forum.
An unexpected surprise in an area of high-rise buildings, it’s a lovely place to visit and take a break among the maples, pines and shrubs. True to Japanese garden aesthetics and symbolism, you can roam the pathways past lakes with koi, cascades and Zen gardens.
Stone Fountain’s (Fusen-Ishi) symbolize longevity to the Principality, arched bridges denote happiness and the path (Roji) to the Tea House leads to 5 water stones (Tsukubai) that invite visitors to purify and cleanse their mind and body with a ladle of water, a necessary preparation before entering the ornamental Tea House.
I recommend a visit to this garden when you go to Monaco, it is free to visit and open 9am until sunset.
The Champions Promenade
Free seafront pathway on the Promenade du Larvotto near the Japanese Garden and Grimaldi Forum with footprints of some top footballers including Pele, Diego Maradona, Ryan Giggs and more.
Princess Grace’s Legacy
Monaco Cathedral, is located in Monaco-Ville (Old Town) and known for the Bréa altarpiece, as well as the tombs of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. You can visit for free from 8.30am-7pm (6pm in winter) except during mass.
The Princess Grace Rose Gardens on avenue del Guelfes at Fontvieille were created in 1984 as a memorial garden to Princess Grace. The gardens are free entry and have thousands of rose bushes with 300 varieties.
Afterwards, head to the Columbus Hotel adjacent to the Rose Gardens and try their ‘Grace cocktail’ that was inspired by the Princess’ fondness of the flower and whipped up from rose petals, rose liquor and Champagne. Even better, go back at Happy Hour when drinks are 50% off.
The ‘Parcours du Princesse Grace’ is a free pedestrian trail through the Principality covering 5.5 kilometres that features 25 points of interest significant to the Princess. Each stop has a plaque with photograph and comments, there are some touching photos and interesting historical information. Pick up a free map from the Tourist Office at 2a boulevard des Moulins, 98000 Monaco.
Plage Larvotto is the main beach in Monaco and while it’s designated as public, there are also sections to hire beach chairs/loungers.
Go early on hot days as it gets busy! Families will find a kids playground and there are kiosks for ice creams, drinks etc.
Monaco has many diverse museums covering exhibits from maritime history to vintage toys to manuscripts from Napoléon.
The most visited museum is the Musée Oceanographic (Monaco Oceanarium) and I agree that it is a great place to take kids, but it always gets mentioned in travel posts about Monaco.
Some of Monaco’s lesser known museums offer cheaper sightseeing though they are somewhat special interest, so take your pick and visit a few if you are on a low budget:
- Musée Naval (Esplanade Rainier II, Terrasses de Fontvieille) is an impressive collection of 250 model ships including the US battleship Missouri, the Titanic, submarines, and Viking ships. Open every day except Christmas Day and New Years Day, entrance is €4 for adults and €2,50 for kids 8-14 years.
- Musée de la Chapelle de la Visitation has masterpieces by Rubens, Ribera and other Italian baroque masters. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am-6pm. Adults €3 / Students €1,50 / Kids under 12 years are free
- Musée Collection of Voitures Anciennes is the private collection of over 100 vintage cars of Prince Rainier III. Open 7 days, 10am-6pm. Adults Adults €6,50 / Students & Kids 8-14 years €3. Wheelchair-accessible.
Free Sculpture Trail (Chemin des Sculptures)
Monaco is dotted with over 100 works from artists including Marseillais artist César, Colombian painter/sculptor Fernando Botero, Emma Sigaldi, and Lalanne. A free sculpture path is in the Fontvieille district to allow visitors to discover some of the sculptures.
Monaco Open-Air Cinema
One of the best open-air cinemas I’ve seen, it’s the most expensive activity I’ve included in this blog article however the superb location on the Rock overlooking the sea can’t be beaten.
Open from June to September, films are screened in English (version originale) with French subtitles and to be honest once you sit on the padded chairs with a drink in hand as the sun sets over the sea you’ll agree that the €12 ticket price (€9 for students with I.D) is worth it.
Reservations aren’t possible so plan to arrive well in advance to ensure you get a seat.
Monaco / Monte Carlo hosts free music and concerts throughout summertime – in 2015, Robbie Williams played for free for Monagasque residents and place du Casino featured free concerts from Murray Head, the stars from the Commitments and Mika.
On 21 June each year, Fête de la Musique is a public event celebrated in both France and Monaco with free music performances from amateur and professional musicians – in Monaco, head to the main port where a stage is set up.
Free summer fireworks displays
Every year, the French Riviera is alive with regular free fireworks displays that form international competitions.
Cannes, Juan les Pins, Monaco all host displays in July and August – click on the hyperlink for dates in 2016 for Monaco fireworks.
Casino Square (place du Casino)
The iconic Casino Square is a great people watching area though the immediate cafeterias and restaurants are not for the budget traveller; regardless most people put a visit to Café de Paris and/or Casino de Monte-Carlo on their ‘must do’ list. Sit in the gardens opposite the main Casino de Monte-Carlo and watch the supercars cruise past.
National Day of Monaco
As you walk around Monaco you’ll see many businesses with portraits of the Prince and Monagasque flags. For a small Principality, it is quite patriotic.
Every year on 19 November, the Sovereign Prince’s Day, also known as Fête Nationale or the National Day of Monaco is observed – if you’re in Monaco around this time, there is a free public fireworks display the evening before over Port Hercule.
The actual day involves a mass for royalty, dignatories and the Knights of Malta at the Monaco Cathedral followed by brass bands in the Palais Square and the royal family waving from the Palais.
Stade Louis II
Home to Monaco’s football team, AS Monaco, they host Ligue 1 French matches, and the occasional Europa or Champions League games e.g. against Tottenham Hotspurs last year.
Match tickets are a fraction of what you’d pay in the UK and if you buy in advance online via the AS Monaco website you get a 10% discount (you must take photo I.D when you present your ticket at the stadium).
Ticket discounts also apply if you want to go to a game with a group of 10 or more people. The stadium rarely fills up, so you can usually grab a ticket at the gate too.
Pre-match, head to Monte Carlo Bar (1 avenue Prince Pierre) on the intersection near Place d’Armes which is a meeting spot for football fans, it’s open late and good for a beer and snack during Grand Prix too.