Of all the tiny European mini-states, Monaco is nearly the tiniest (only Vatican City is smaller), arguably the most legendary and certainly the most fabulous.
With less than a square mile wedged into the French Riviera and one of the most lopsided wealth-to-size ratios anywhere, Monaco feels like Palm Beach on the Mediterranean. But as mirage-like as it may seem, Monaco is in fact a real place, a glitzy, manicured pastel paradise with a complex history and a compelling cultural mélange.
By day, as you stroll amid throngs of tourists up steep palace walls and peer into haute couture shops, it can feel like a theme park of affluence and luxury. By night, in the soft glow of the hotel gardens, lights twinkling along the yacht-filled harbor, Monaco feels like a glamorous movie.
It can be hard to distinguish between tourists and locals: everybody in Monaco, it seems, is from somewhere else. The Grimaldi monarchy has ruled since 1297, but most of the other people you find wandering around Monte Carlo and the rocky cliff-top quartier of Monaco-Ville claim roots in France, Italy, Britain, Germany, North Africa or Switzerland.
Many of the newer families are Jewish. Like the city-state itself, the Monaco Jewish community is a modern, cosmopolitan hybrid; current estimates put the population at about 1,000, though since almost everyone is from somewhere else and a good percentage are peripatetic retirees, an accurate figure is hard to pin down.
British pensioners, North African Sephardim and French Ashkenazim are all well represented in the Association Culturelle Israelite de Monaco, a synagogue housed in a pink downtown villa, as well as the nearby Jewish Cultural Center. The community coalesced in the postwar years and sustains an active schedule of worship, classes, children’s education and social events. Kosher meats and baked goods are also available in the principality, with the synagogue a good resource.
Like everybody else, Jewish Monegasques (yes, that’s what Monaco residents are called) are drawn by Monaco’s siren charms: gorgeous weather, stunning Mediterranean scenery, no individual income tax, and plenty of banks, not necessarily in that order. Monaco may be small, but its high-rise pink cityscape is densely populated with the 1 percent and all they might ever need to feel at home.
You’ll find the palace that housed Prince Grace and her scandal-prone royal brood; the iconic Monte Carlo Casino and Opera House, right out of a James Bond fantasy; a very lovely aquarium — complete with shark tank — inside the Oceanographic Museum, worth the trip for its castle-on-a-cliff location; and multiple Michelin-starred restaurants that feature the best of French and Italian cuisine, all in a pine-scented Mediterranean setting.
In the country with the world’s highest per capita income, it comes as no surprise that Monaco isn’t cheap for visitors. The hotels themselves are practically attractions in and of themselves; each one seems to outdo the next with lavish fountains, swimming pool “collections” and royal-palace-style architecture.
But beyond the high-priced façade, Monaco can be a surprisingly affordable place. Staggering sums of money change hands at the fabled Monte Carlo Casino, but the stunning harbor panoramas from its landscaped gardens are free.
Down the cliff, but still in Monte Carlo, the chic beachside neighborhood of Larvotto has plenty of modestly priced pizzerias; Italian pasta joints of varying quality are sprinkled throughout the city, and charge about what you’d expect in any European city. Entrance fees for the top sights are also reasonable, so many make Monaco a day trip from Nice, Cannes or the Italian Riviera — all of which feel decidedly middle class after 12 hours amid the Monegasques.
Many are drawn here by the romantic story of Grace Kelly, the American movie star who married a Grimaldi prince (and whose children’s marital, and extramarital, antics kept a generation of paparazzi in business). I was fascinated to learn that the quintessentially WASPy Princess Grace will have half-Jewish progeny: her granddaughter, the stunning Charlotte Casiraghi, is expecting with her fiancé, Moroccan-Jewish actor Gad Elmaleh.
Today, visitors can tour the royal palace where Grace once reigned, now the domain of her son, Prince Albert II. From the 13th-century fortress wall to the Brueghel paintings, Renaissance frescoes and Versailles-style hall of mirrors, this is one impressive dwelling. Many of the period rooms date from the 18th century, which means they boast the ornate baroque furnishings and gilded ceilings we’ve come to associate — probably because of Versailles — with royal abodes.
For such a tiny place, Monaco has a lot of distinct neighborhoods. In a day’s worth of hiking up and down the hilly streets, you can take in the dressy bustle of Monte Carlo, the curving beach promenade at Larvotto, several high-rise residential zones and Monaco-Ville, where the palm-shaded villas sit atop a rocky promontory with sweeping sea views from every angle.
It’s a fascinating microcosm, but what it certainly isn’t is a relaxing Mediterranean hideaway; compared to its laid-back Riviera neighbors, trafficky, built-up Monaco can feel like Manhattan. If it’s a quiet seaside village you’re looking for, stick to Portofino.
But if you’re curious to see how many yachts, Ferraris, variants on the English and French languages, banks, cupolas and turrets a country can pack into 482 acres, then no other destination will do but Monaco.