The luxury yachts moored at Monaco’s Port Hercule intimidate as much as they impress -- their polished gleam reflecting the tiny principality’s long-standing image as an exclusive home to millionaires and a playground for high rollers. But even with the rampant glamour and luxury, it is possible to afford a visit without winning big at the Casino de Monte Carlo.
It helps that many of Monaco’s major attractions do not cost a cent. The shingly beaches at Larvotto are free for all, as are most of the principality’s lavish public spaces.
The Japanese Garden along the waterfront and the Rose Garden, which is dedicated to Princess Grace – formerly Hollywood idol Grace Kelly – are particularly beautiful. Of course, the voyeuristic options of ogling the yachts at Port Hercule or the Ferraris parked outside the casino do not cost anything either.
When you have to pay to play, Monaco is surprisingly reasonable. Adult entry to the Musée Oceanographique – which acts as exhibition space, museum of ocean exploration and world-class aquarium – costs around 14 euro.
Meanwhile, a self-guided tour around the predictably impressive State Rooms at the Prince’s Palace costs an entirely reasonable eight euro.
Taxis, which are on the expensive side, are largely unnecessary – it only takes 45 minutes to walk across the whole of Monaco, and a day pass for the five bus routes that cover the principality costs a mere five euro. Single fares cost two euro.
The real bargains, however, are to be found at Monaco’s cultural institutions, thanks to reigning monarch Prince Albert’s desire to prevent culture from being elitist. Tickets for home turf performances by the Ballets de Monte Carlo, which take place throughout the year, are kept deliberately low at 33 euro. Meanwhile tickets for touring performances by the same company overseas can often cost five or six times that amount.
Performances for the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra can also be seen throughout the year, starting at 19 euro.
Unfortunately, accommodation is the real wallet-buster in Monaco -- budget hotels are non-existent. The Hotel de France is a reasonable if uninspiring option, with doubles costing from 105 euro a night. Rooms are poky but well maintained and it is a five minute walk to Port Hercule, one of Monaco’s main drags.
Prices are much lower, however, in the neighboring towns of Beausoleil and Cap d’Ail, both a five minute drive or 15 to 30 minute walk from the center of Monaco. Both are over the French border, but effectively act as contiguous suburbs of the principality. For those on an ultra-tight budget, Cap d’Ail has a youth hostel inside Villa Thalassa, where fairly spartan dorm beds with breakfast cost 18.50 euro.
Perhaps the most sensible option, however, is to do what many people who work in Monaco do – commute in from the French city of Nice. The train journey takes just 20 minutes, with return tickets costing 7.20 euro, and there is a glut of affordable accommodation here.
It is also worth bearing in mind that Monaco’s hotel room prices are greatly affected by seasonality. The 602-room, resort-style Fairmont hotel sees the biggest fluctuations due to its size. A room that costs 375 euro in August can drop to 225 euro in November. November is generally the quietest month in Monaco due to the weather; although March and October tend to be the best months for a weather/cost compromise.
Dining in Monaco is surprisingly inexpensive too – as long as you step back a few streets from the tourist-ridden Port Hercule and Casino Square. In a sea of affordable pizzerias – there to serve the many Italian tourists that visit Monaco -- the best find is the cosy and personable Pizzeria Monegasque ( 4 Rue Terrazzani; 377-9330-1638), where full-sized, wood-fired pizzas cost 12 euro or less.
Nearby, the classy bakery L’Epi d’Or (6 Rue Grimaldi; 377-9330-2345) has excellent 4.50 euro baguette sandwiches and offers a diet-busting array of cakes and tarts starting at 3.50 euro.
Set menus can also be a bargain, particularly in the old town where they are often available in the evening as well as lunchtime.
The Restaurant St Nicholas, with its endearing small terrace that faces the St Nicholas cathedral, offers two course meals – with mains including fresh salmon in tarragon cream – for just 15 euro.
The homely U Cavagnetu (14 rue Comte Félix Gastaldi; 377-9798-2040) is a firm local favorite, and its three course menu of Monegasque cuisine costs 25.50 euro. Hearty dishes include roast leg of lamb with olives and stuffed roast veal.
Otherwise, sandwiches and salads are available from the supermarkets – there is a Carrefour in the Fontvieille Shopping Centre and a Spar hidden under the luxury stores in the Metropole Shopping Centre. A trip to the supermarket will also show just how outrageous the mark-ups on glasses of wine are in Monaco’s bars. Decent bottles from Spar cost as little as three euro – small glasses in bars are rarely available for under six.
It pays, therefore, to scout out when the happy hours are. At the perennially popular Stars ‘N’ Bars, cocktails drop from 10.50 euro to 5.30 euro between 5 pm and 7:30 pm, while happy hour at La Brasserie de Monaco runs from 5 pm to 8 pm. During this period, the micro-brewed beers produced on the premises, such as the slightly spicy organic wheat beer, cost 3.50 euro rather than seven euro. After all, Monaco has to cater to those who work on the yachts as well as those who own them.