Monaco on a budget? I know, those two words seem a bit contradictory, don’t they? After all, Monaco is the home of Princess Grace Kelly, the Monaco Grand Prix, and many James Bond adventures. It’s a place that almost seems too good to be true, especially too good to be done on a budget. But in true Marisa fashion, I was able to go to Monaco and live a lifestyle of the not-so-rich-or-famous.
WHERE TO STAY FOR CHEAP IN MONACO
This one is easy – DON’T! Unless you’ve got moneyyyyyy, Monaco is not a thrifty place. I was unable to find any hostels in the country and the hotels were not cheap either. Airbnb was ridiculous and unless you own a yacht and can sleep on it, staying in Monaco isn’t worth it. If you have a successful career (or are at least not a college student) then Monaco isn’t THAT expensive. It’s just not budget friendly.
My best advice is to just stay across the border somewhere in France, like Nice. I stayed in Nice and it was just a 21-minute train ride to Monaco’s train station. A one-way ticket is only €4.10 and since no one cared about my ticket on the way there, I used the same one on the way back.
When you stay in Nice (or elsewhere) you can find hostels or even cheaper Airbnbs. Use my code for a discount off your first Airbnb [https://www.airbnb.com/c/marisam5061?currency=USD]. When I went, my main goal was to go to Monaco even though my flights were out of Nice so I booked a hostel right across the street from the train station. It was called Hotel Antares and only cost €28 a night for a 4 people dorm. The best part – it had AC so even though temperatures were in the 90s I was able to cool down at night. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the AC was one of the highlights of my entire trip…
Nice is very nice and it’s a good home base for your trip to Monaco. From there, there are several towns within daytrip distance and plus, who wouldn’t want to enjoy life on the French Riviera some more?
HOW TO GET AROUND MONACO FOR CHEAP
You probably won’t like the answer to this one, but my best advice is to just walk. However, this is best accomplished if you’re in good shape because Monaco is very mountainous. I don’t think there’s a single flat street in the entire country. However, since Monaco is the second smallest country in the world it’s entirely walkable. I almost accidentally walked into France several times, that’s how small it is.
I saved money by just walking and not taking a taxi or bus or uber. There is a bus pass that you can purchase for around €10 (or so ive been told because I couldn’t find it anywhere). This pass will let you take a nice little water taxi across the harbor. If you don’t purchase the pass it costs just €2 per direction to get across the water. It’s only about a 5-minute ride but at least you can say that you rode on a boat in Monaco! Plus, there are great views of the city that can’t be accomplished from anywhere else except for the water.
WHAT TO DO IN MONACO ON A BUDGET
Monte Carlo Casino
The Monte Carlo Casino is one of the most iconic casinos in the world. And for good reason. Both the inside and outside is breathtaking and one of the highlights of visiting the country. Plus Pierce Brosnan lived it up as James Bond here, and that alone is enough reason to visit.
Make sure you have your passport with you. Monaco citizens are not allowed to enter this casino so they have to verify that you are a foreigner. Which seems slightly counterintuitive considering you gotta have money to live in Monaco, but whatever, I’m clearly not a princess in charge of the country.
Nearly everything that I read in preparation for my visit was wrong, so I’m going to give you the most updated information that I have. I was TOLD that it cost €12 to enter. That’s not the case. You can get into the foyer for free and they even have life-sized roulette that’s perfect for a photo opp. However, if you want to get inside the casino and play table games and gamble, that will set you back a cool €17.
YIKES! But there’s a little-known secret that I only knew about due to me being rather perceptive. The casino has a sign that says ‘free entrance to slots for 18+ and free entrance to table games for MyMonteCarlo subscribers’. So since the casino has free Wi-Fi, I decided to look in and see what exactly ‘MyMonteCarlo’ could get me. As it turns out, it’s completely free to sign up for the card. So yes, you sign up for FREE and then get entrance into the casino for FREE instead of paying SEVENTEEN EUROS.
Where’s the catch?
Turns out there really isn’t a catch, except that the person at the ticket desk probably won’t know that you can register online. In my case, I was shuffled from manager to manager who argued that I still had to pay the €17 because in order to PRINT the card I had to pay to go inside. It was very confusing and they were all confused. A perk of the confusion is that they were EXTREMELY apologetic for the hassle it caused me. I didn’t care; I had nothing better to do and was just trying to get in for free. But it did feel realllyyyy nice getting a personal escort around the casino. Call me Martin. Marisa Martin.
My favorite part is that I got a super-cool membership card that has my name on it and looks very official. So since I saved €17, I decided to buy a *cough* €17 drink so that I could look cool while avoiding gambling. While inside, I learned that THAT’S where you can’t take pictures. Which I guess makes sense because the royal family probably doesn’t want pictures taken of how Monaco gets their money. But I snuck a few and let me tell you, going in is WORTH IT, even if you don’t have to pay the €17.
As a forewarning, the casino has a strict dress code. They want to ensure that tacky beach bums on holiday don’t wander into the casino and cheapen the feel. Which I can understand. But they let my sweaty, probably smelly self into the casino so they can’t be THAT picky. As a general rule, no flip-flops, shorts, swimsuits, or caps.
The Monaco Grand Prix is another one of the country’s most famous attractions. It’s held every year at the end of May and is an international success. People go there to be seen, or whatever it’s called when you’re rich and have nothing better to do with your life.
Regardless of your affinity for cars, the Fairmont Hairpin Turn is the most famous part of the entire Grand Prix. And from the picture below, it’s easy to see why. The drivers hit high speeds while attempting to turn around this tiny curve. It’s the most dangerous part of the race but also the most entertaining to watch. I accidentally found it when I was navigating one of the many staircases and was like OH there it is! The earlier you go in the morning, the more likely that there won’t be as much traffic and you can get a picture without the traffic. If you’re feeling especially daring you can probably run across the road to get your picture in the turn, but I legally can’t endorse this.
Fairmont Hairpin Turn
This famous hairpin turn gets its name for being directly in front of the Fairmont Hotel. It was inaugurated by Princess Grace Kelly and since then has remained an iconic part of the city. There is a Nobu inside of the restaurant and even though I was tempted to go get a drink there to meet some rich people (and get AC), I elected to be frugal and stick to my home Nobu in Malibu.
Staying at the Fairmont will set you back a LOT of money but the views will be incredible. If you want a cheaper idea of what staying there will be like, go to the left of the hotel where there is a Starbucks on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. The Starbucks itself is fairly expensive, but it’s a lot cheaper than a night at the hotel or a drink at Nobu.
There are also lots of luxury cars parked in front of the Fairmont. The hotel really caters to the people who are fans of luxury cars and the Grand Prix. If you want to see the cars and take pictures without people, GO EARLY! I had the Lambos and Bentleys all to myself in the morning and when I walked by later in the day, the tourists had descended upon them.
Pro Tip: If you want a birds-eye view of this hairpin turn, walk over to the Horizon restaurant/bar/gym that’s between the Monte Carlo and the Fairmont. There’s a gate next to the gym that prevents you from going very far, but even just walking up to the gate and taking a picture will get you a better view than you can get from the street.
I was torn with whether or not I wanted to go the Prince’s Palace. I had heard that it was underwhelming but had a beautiful garden and cost €8. So I ultimately decided to not go inside because I’ve seen plenty of palaces and didn’t want to spend an unnecessary €8. Personally I think I made the wise choice.
However, you should still at least go to the top of the hill to SEE the palace. It’s pretty enough on the outside, but the views of the surrounding cities and mountains and harbors are unbelievable. You almost have to pinch yourself to see if it’s real. The real jewel of that hill is the surrounding old town around the palace. It reminded me so much of the winding streets of Barcelona and the colors are shockingly vibrant. The downside of this quaint area is that it caters to tourists. Despite having several official government buildings nearby, the winding streets are packed with tacky souvenir stores and overpriced mediocre restaurants.
The restaurants try to entice you by being ‘quaint’ but they have no view over the surrounding area, which to me doesn’t justify the €15 entrees. Therefore, I picked up a Coke and a slice of pizza and sat on a bench and watched the harbor below for only €7. Not only will you have a better view BUT ALSO it will be much easier on your bank account so that you can still keep doing Monaco on a budget.
Monaco’s harbors are some of the most expensive in the world. Nothing makes you feel poor quite like seeing dozens of yachts that are worth more than your house… each. The main one is Port Hercule, which is right in front of the train station. So when you exit the train station, follow the signs to the harbor so you don’t accidentally up further away from the city. It has been there since medieval times and is the only deep water harbor in the country. As a result, the biggest and fanciest yachts dock here.
Another one of Monaco’s harbors is Fontvielle, on the other side of the Prince’s Palace from Port Hercule. I never made it down into the city to see Fontvielle Harbor close and personal but I got to see it from up above at the Prince’s Palace. Fontvielle is a newer part of Monaco and screams “new money” whereas Monte Carlo screams “old money” and I just scream “I need money”.
These two harbors are best viewed from above in my opinion and prove the quintessential Monaco picture. But sitting anywhere along the docks is a great place to sit and unwind and imagine being rich one day…
Exotic Gardens of Monaco
I accidentally stumbled upon these gardens. When I was on the other side of Port Hercule, I had seen this outpost that looks like the ones in Puerto Rico and Cuba so I wanted to try and hike to it since it didn’t look far up the hill and seemed manageable. It turns out that the little outpost was closed but there were so many steps and paths leading around it that I thought I’d see where they took me since other people were climbing them.
I ended up hiking all the way up to one of the highest points in Monaco as a result in 90° weather without water. Finally, when I got to the top, I realized that there was a bus that could’ve taken me there. Granted I did it for free but the entire time I was afraid I was about to end up on Naked and Afraid.
Once I got to the top I was better able to explore the gardens. Prince Albert I had commissioned the gardens to be able to preserve natural flora and fauna for people to enjoy. Exotic plants, such as succulents from Mexico are scattered throughout the land. I hadn’t thought about cacti being exotic, but it does make sense that the Mediterranean isn’t used to succulents. The garden itself has spectacular vistas over the ocean and harbor and if the weather was 20° cooler it would’ve been the perfect place. If you do go, I recommend bussing to the top and walking DOWN through the gardens in order to save your sanity.
I’m pretty sure one of Mia Thermopolis’s names in The Princess Diaries was based off of the real-life Grimaldis so naturally I had to check this out. Because the city was so small, I just walked down the country from the casino to see it. There was some sort of Salvador Dali exhibition there; so many people were trying to get into the museum to see Dali’s work. I didn’t want to pay money so I just sang Kanye West’s Mercy with the line, “now the whole party is melting like Dali” and called that my Dali fix for the day.
My favorite part of the Grimaldi Forum was the adjacent Japanese Garden. I hadn’t read anything about it and was pleasantly surprised to find a little oasis within the metropolitan city. Part of it was under construction but a decent chunk of it was still open to the public. It has a Koi pond, pagodas, and lots of relaxing places to escape the blistering heat.
Get a Passport Stamp
If for any reason you think you should not bring your passport with you when you go to Monaco – DON’T LISTEN! I almost made the mistake of leaving in Nice because I had minimal space in my bag for the day. Thankfully I brought it, which was good because I had remembered reading about a place to get it stamped.
There is a Tourist Information around a block north of the Monte Carlo Casino that offers free tourist stamps. They don’t really advertise it so you’ll have to go in and ask. But once you ask, they’re extremely friendly and will give you the most precise passport stamp that you have ever received, which will make your passport gleam. It is probably one of the prettiest stamps that I have.
HOW TO EAT IN MONACO ON A BUDGET
My resounding answer for traveling on a budget is to not eat at restaurants. Not every restaurant is bad, but in places like Monaco, they cater to the tourists. And by cater, I mean that they inflate their prices to over €15 for a simple salad that isn’t even that good. Talk about charging for the view!
If you can, try to get a hotel wherever you stay that has breakfast included. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my hostel had free breakfast every morning from 8-10. The problem is that I was already IN Monaco by that time so it didn’t do me much good. But if I had gotten a later start I would’ve taken advantage of that free meal and probably packed a lunch to go.
Since I didn’t have that opportunity, I was starving by lunchtime. Except for me, lunchtime was 2 in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten all day and was almost about to die in the 93° weather while climbing uphill. I didn’t want to eat at the numerous touristy restaurants that lined the walls overlooking Monaco. I knew the view would be great but I knew the food would probably be subpar and expensive. So I found a very authentic-looking street food place that sold deep-dish pizzas and spent €6 on pizza and a drink. Then, I took my food to an overlook where I could still have a multi-million dollar view at the price of only a few euros.
I had no desire to sell a kidney in order to get a good meal so I found a supermarket for dinner. The only one I could find is called Casino and is located right at the harbor. I bought some ham, pasta salad, and wine, all of which came out to only €7.50. I took it out to the harbor, where I found a bench and proceeded to eat my dinner. There was a touristy restaurant a mere 50 yards away and I can guarantee you that I paid much less for my dinner, which was probably better, and had the same view.
My advice for eating isn’t meant to completely dissuade you from eating at restaurants. However, I noticed that most of the restaurants in Monaco were highly touristy and unreasonably expensive. Much more expensive than those meals would’ve been elsewhere. Normally I recommend to ‘escape the tourist crowds’ but since Monaco is about 0.2 square miles, EVERYWHERE is a tourist area.
Ultimately, Monaco CAN be done on a budget. Obviously splurging when in Monaco means that you will have a much more comfortable experience. But I think I spent less than €50 for the entire day and despite almost passing out from heatstroke, I had an incredible time.