Nestled in a mountainside along the Mediterranean coast, Monaco is microstate where excess and indulgence are everyday affairs. It's the land of casinos, luxury cars, and glam beaches, and with no income tax, it's no mystery why it's the year-round playground for so many millionaires.
Its coastline spans just 2.5 miles and its land area is just .78 square miles, making Monaco walkable and perfect for a day trip. Just be sure to have plenty of water and wear proper walking shoes, as the topography can be a bit challenging.
Even with its reputation for grandeur, Monaco happens to be quite affordable, thanks to its abundance of free attractions and natural beauty. Below is our list of cheap must-do's for Monaco. Entrance fees are mentioned where they apply. Otherwise, activities and attractions can be enjoyed free of charge.
First things first – clear your mind with an early morning walk around Port Hercules, a deep water marina with a history that goes back to ancient times. The expensive yachts bobbing in the pure blue Mediterranean waters are enchanting enough, but turn around and gaze on the rest of the city rising skyward in the mountainside.
From this vantage point, you'll feel like a maestro in a 19th-century opera house, surrounded on all sides by glamour and glittering lights.
You'll be tempted to take photos, but wait until you get up to the Old Town – the views are spectacular from the "Rock," as it's sometimes called. To get there, take the steep staircase that begins at Avenue de la Quarantaine, or opt for the easier gradual incline that winds up from near Avenue du Port.
Before grabbing breakfast, stop at the top of the Rock to gaze down on Port Hercules, the Mediterranean Sea and the rest of Monaco, sprawling out both above and below you.
The Prince's Palace (closed for tours in wintertime) is worth a quick look — this fortified beauty has been the on-again, off-again home of the ruling Grimaldi family since 1297. Now, it's the official home of Prince Albert II, son of Prince Rainer III and Grace Kelly, the American film star who became Princess of Monaco in 1956.
Enter one of the narrow streets of Old Town and take your pick of breakfast cafes. You won't suffer from sticker shock here – prices are in line with most other tourist hotspots along the Mediterranean coastline.
At Snack Glacier Italien on Rue Comte Félix Gastaldi, a hot, frothy cappuccino and a Nutella crepe go for €6 (US$6.78).
Old Town comprises just a few blocks, but it's easy to get happily lost among the multicolored structures and quaint, pedestrian-friendly streets.
Don't breeze through this part of your visit to Monaco – there are surprises around every turn, such as the grandiose Cathédrale de Monaco. Enter and say a little prayer that you'll be able to stick to your budget in this town full of temptations.
Next stop is the Musée Océanographique de Monaco, but don't take Avenue Saint-Martin to get there as most other tourists will do. Instead, duck down to the Jardins de Saint-Martin, which run along the coastline and overflow with tropical plants, especially cacti. From here, you'll get sweeping views of the sea and of the relatively new Port de Fontveille, constructed on reclaimed land.
Entrance to the Musée Océanographique is €14 for adults (US$15.83), a bit of a splurge, but well worth it. The lower levels of the museum feature a number of large, impressive tanks housing a mélange of exotic marine life, including sharks, pufferfish and turtles.
The upper floors are ornate and more educational – don't miss the collection of marine world curiosities, set among dramatic, deep-blue walls and sparkling chandeliers.
Before leaving the Old Town area, grab a quick lunch of sandwiches, pizza or other pre-made goodies displayed in deli cases. Even with a beverage, it will be easy to keep lunch under €15 (US$17).
As afternoon temperatures are peaking and the sun is high, it's a great time to head to the beach. Return to Port Hercules and follow signs to Larvotto Beach. It's a bit of a hike – have some water handy. Before you reach the beach's rocky shores, pass through the perfectly manicured Japanese Gardens, a relaxing rest stop complete with plenty of greenery, a brook and a Zen garden.
As far as urban beaches go, Larvotto might be one of the prettiest, with luxury high-rises and the mountainside serving as a backdrop. It's the place to be seen for fashionably wealthy in the summer months, but in winter, regular folks stroll along the pebbly shores and enjoy a few moments of solitude. Quiet cafes advertising fairly priced sandwiches and snacks line the promenade.
Before leaving the beach, walk to the end of the concrete slab jutting out into the water and take it all in – the cityscape, the crashing waves, and the unmistakable salty smell of the sea.
Take a break from the sun at the Metropole Shopping Center, a glitzy mall adorned with chandeliers that sells every luxury item imaginable. Window shoppers will find themselves in heaven, but temptations are many.
Grab a drink or a snack (€5 or US$5.62) at Lina's Sandwiches, which overlooks the pricier, more elegant ground-floor café, where women clad in furs and diamonds sip coffee and chat.
With sunset marking the official start of the evening, now's a good time to head to the super-glam Casino Square. As you walk that way, cut through the charming Jardins de la Petite Afrique, a lush, hilly plot with striking palms and other tropical greenery rare in such a densely packed urban area.
After admiring the luxury cars and sumptuous architecture of Casino Square, enter the famous Monte Carlo Casino (€10, US$11.30), which brings to mind James Bond and other high rollers. ID is required, and be sure to be sharply dressed — they can turn you away otherwise. The gilded rooms are stunning to behold, and surprisingly serene.
If you're not a gambler, stake out a seat at the bar, where the cheapest glass of wine is only €7 (US$8).
Dining options are plenty in Monte Carlo, but to help you save a little money, we'll let you in on a dinner hack. Head to the palatial Hotel de Paris, which quickly became the area's grandest and most popular hotel when it opened in 1864, even hosting luminaries such as former U.S. President General Grant, composer Giuseppe Verdi and writer Alexandre Dumas. The hotel's bar, Le Bar Americain, features live jazz every evening starting at 7 p.m. — and it's good jazz, too.
Drink prices are astronomical, with beers starting at €15 (US$17) and cocktails at €26 ($US29), the price of an entrée in most other places. But along with the drinks comes a generous helping of salty potato chips, roasted almonds and the irrestible Monegasque appetizer known as barbajuan — fried pockets of spinach, Swiss chard and ricotta. With so many snacks on hand, your stomach won't be grumbling for an evening meal.
The musicians take a break at 9 p.m., the point at which you will have enjoyed 12 hours of fun and fascination in Monaco, a tiny country with a ton to offer, and for not too much money.