The road clings to the side of the hill, winding through the regular and spectacular undulations of the rugged Mediterranean coastline, our vehicle motoring through tunnels, emerging to sweeping views that stretch all the way to the sea. Somewhere, we crossed an invisible line—there must have been a sign alongside the street, but I didn’t see it. But soon, my guide is reeling off a list of celebrities, gesturing to this house and that one—nothing really visible, as the road passes to the rear of the sprawling homes facing the ocean—belonging to Bono, Elton John, Lewis Hamilton, and Beyoncé.
But my entrance to this glamorous principality, one of the wealthiest places on earth, is rather less salubrious. As the bus parked in a garage drilled deep into the territory’s imposing, namesake rock, I parted ways with my tour group, and set off in search of one of the city’s most famous buildings. Walking along the roadside, I found no available taxis, so instead, I opted for the city bus, hopping on near the harbor, and settling into a seat near the back. James Bond would never even consider such a move, but I’ve never been accused of being very suave. We lumbered up the hill, and moments later, I was at the door, ready for inspection at Monte Carlo’s casino.
There’s really, truly no other place like Monaco. Perhaps the most legendary square mile of land in the world (less than that, actually), it is certainly the richest. Almost one-third of its residents are millionaires, and real estate here is precious. A protectorate of France, this principality is nonetheless independent and remains the world’s second-smallest sovereign territory (only Vatican City is smaller). And yet, despite Monaco’s diminutive size, so much here is well-known across the globe, from a Formula One race that’s the jewel in the crown of the circuit, to a royal family that’s reigned since the 13th century. Plus, Bond’s favorite place to order a martini—shaken, not stirred.
The current head of state, Prince Albert II, is a descendant of Francesco Grimaldi, who led the group that seized the Castle of Monaco on Jan. 8, 1297. Rather than employing overwhelming force or embarking upon a lengthy military siege, Grimaldi—a Genoese known as “il Malizia,” or “the malicious”—played a rather clever trick. Aided by his cousin, Rainier I, who would become Monaco’s first sovereign, they all dressed as Franciscan friars.
Permitted entrance into the castle as monks, they took it over—and never left. The House of Grimaldi was thus established. They’ve never disavowed this somewhat less-than-honorable genesis. Rather, the official coat of arms, of both the family and principality, prominently features two friars in unmistakable brown robes, swords drawn and held aloft.
Perhaps the most famous incident in the small country’s history was, of course, a tragic one. In 1956, Grace Kelly, one of Hollywood’s most renowned actresses, married Monaco’s Prince Rainier III. Retiring from acting at the age of 26, she became Princess Grace, giving birth to Caroline, Stephanie, and Albert—the current head of state. Her life, busy with royal duties as well as extensive work with charities and arts organizations, was cut short in 1982 when her car plunged down a mountainside. Daughter Stephanie was in the car with her—she survived.
The palace remains atop the Rock of Monaco, rising more than 200 feet from the sea. (Under normal circumstances, members of the general public can tour the state apartments here.) Spread out below, the rest of the territory looks a little, well, squeezed. Home to fewer than 40,000 people, this tax haven has the highest population density in the world. Where the nearby coastlines of France and Italy are sleepy, featuring tucked-away beaches interrupted by charming villages, Monaco packs in as many luxury residences as possible. High-rise apartments climb the hillside, their occupants often paying around $5,000 per square foot for the benefits of living here.
As you might expect, everything here is very clean and rather well-organized—even the buses are scheduled to the minute, and arrive on time. Port Hercules is packed with super-yachts, the harbor taking the name from the Greek demigod who, according to legend, built the road that passed through here, from Spain to Italy. Looking out the window of the bus, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t spot Bono walking his dog, or Beyoncé sipping kombucha at a sidewalk café.
I disembarked near the top of the hill. Opened in 1865, the Grimaldis built the Casino de Monte-Carlo and the next-door Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo because they needed the money, having recently lost tax revenue from two nearby towns.
Since then, Monte Carlo has become synonymous with glamour—crews filmed two Bond films here (“GoldenEye” and “Never Say Never Again”), as well as a number of other productions (including “Ocean’s Twelve”).
You need to follow a strict set of protocols to even enter the casino. A great fan of rumpled cargo shorts and flip-flops, on this day I wore long khakis, nice shoes, and a collared shirt—determined to follow the dress code. You must also present your passport (residents of Monaco aren’t permitted entrance) and pay exactly 17 euros just to get through the door.
I passed the initial inspection by security staff, presented myself, and paid my fee to a matter-of-fact woman at a desk in the lobby, who gave me a good look up and down before dispensing the ticket. Finally, I passed through the last security check. I still felt a little underdressed, even wearing the best clothes I had packed in my suitcase. But still, I approached the bar, and read the menu. A martini, shaken, not stirred? At around 30 euros, it seems a little steep. But maybe that’s a small price to pay for just a taste of the Bond life, to fully drink in Monaco’s opulence and experience one of the ultimate indulgences in this over-the-top enclave.
If You Go
Fly: The Aeroport Nice Côte D’Azur is just west of Monaco, with direct flights arriving from Amsterdam, Istanbul, Doha, and other major cities. Delta also operates a seasonal flight, nonstop from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Getting Around: Extremely compact, Monaco is easy to explore, whether you’re on foot, in a taxi, or on a bus.
Stay: Rates at the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo can easily reach around $1,000 a night, but a stay at this icon will be a story you can tell for a long time. Rooms are comfortable, as well, with marble bathrooms and roomy private patios.
Take Note: From Monaco, you can easily travel to a number of other lovely destinations in the French Riviera, including Cannes and Nice, just a few minutes away by train—departures are frequent and inexpensive.