Monaco is synonym with extravagance, wealth and opulence. Tourism is mostly oriented towards a rich clientèle that the city pampers with its luxury hotels. Without forgetting its other attractions: a particularly mild climate and a princely family quite often in the public eye.
That dynasty, the Grimaldis, celebrated its 700th anniversary in 1997 and the family's history is closely linked to that of Monaco.
The history of the principality begins with the construction of a fortress on the Rock of Monaco in 1215.
In 1297, disguised as a monk (by coincidence, Monaco means monk in Italian), the Genoese leader Francesco Grimaldi, nicknamed Il Malizia (the “cunning” or “malicious one”), took control of the rock and founded the Grimaldi dynasty. The Grimaldis acquired Menton in 1346 and Roquebrune in 1355 and henceforth held a territory that stretched all the way to the Italian border.
A lot has changed since the Middle Ages. In 1847, Menton and Roquebrune declared their independence and Monaco was reduced to a small principality occupying 197 hectares, the smallest independent state in the world after the Vatican. Thanks to landfill, Monaco has encroached on the sea and now occupies 202 hectares. It stretches over 4.1 km along the coast with a width ranging from 350 m to 1 km. With a population of 36,950 in 2012 or 18,000 inhabitants per square kilometre, it is the most densely populated country in the world.
So, Monaco lives vertically. Entirely urbanized, most of its buildings, or rather high-rises, are residential and the price of real estate is the most expensive in the world ofter London (got to make those tax evaders pay!).
The principality of Monaco is divided into several neighbourhoods. The “capital” is the Rock where the prince's palace, the old town, the oceanography museum and some administrative buildings are located.
Monte-Carlo, often confused with Monaco itself, is on the hill overlooking the port and has the casino, the Hotel de Paris, the Café de Paris and the Salle Garnier which houses the Opera of Monte-Carlo. The east side of the quarter includes the only public beach in Monaco and the Grimaldi Forum convention centre.
Fontvieille in the western part of the principality is the more popular quarter; it comprises office buildings and apartments with less prohibitive rent. The Espace Fontvieille, comprising a 2000m² marquee and a 2000m² esplanade, hosts since 1986 the International Circus Festival of Monte-Carlo, a worldwide institution for the circus performing arts. Taken back from the sea, its land also houses the new marina, the heliport of Monaco and the new Louis II stadium, home to the AS Monaco soccer team with, in addition, a swimming pool and a diving pool.
On the Rock, in the heart of the principality on the very site of the fortress built in 1215, stands the Prince's Palace. It houses splendours that illustrate the seven hundred years of uninterrupted reign by the Grimaldi family. A tour of the palace is a journey in time, from the Renaissance to the Napoleonic era. From the palace's courtyard, a double stairway leads to the Grand Apartments where sumptuous furnishings and frescoes adorn the Mazarin Salon, the York Room, the imposing Throne Room... Everyday at 11:55am on the square in front of the Palace, the changing of the guards, the Compagnie des Carabiniers du Prince, attracts thousands of spectators.
The Heritage Days in October constitute an occasion to discover the main sights in Monaco, such as the prince's palace. The Oceanographic Museum offers half-price admission.
Fans of the Formula 1 can go around the race circuit of the Monaco Grand Prix. Laid out in the streets of Monte Carlo and the La Condamine neighbourhood around the port, the circuit is used during only one weekend a year in the month of May.