It's possible to spend an entire day in Monaco, on the French Riviera, off the tourist trail, far from ostentatious jewelry and pampered princesses.
MONTE CARLO — Few places in the world are as marked by clichés as Monaco, with its casinos, Ferraris, gleaming "60s-era high-rises and glitzy royal family, a mainstay of the world's tabloids since American actress Grace Kelly became princess of the sovereign city-state in 1956.
At first glance, the place seems to be every bit as kitsch as the glossy magazines make it out to be. But an all-day stroll through some of its main wards (Monaco Ville, Monte Carlo, Moneghetti, La Condamine and Fontvieille) offers a more nuanced view of the microstate, revealing its timelessness and unexpectedly originality.
10 a.m.: diving into the Big Blue
Monaco"s other prince is Pierre Frolla, a world champion free diver who opened a diving school in 2002 called L'école bleue, in reference to the 1988 hit film Le Grand Bleu by French director Luc Besson.
At the school we cross paths with children from the region, along with a handful of visiting tourists and the royal family's security guards, who use the facility for training. We begin with a relaxation session and sun salutation on the beach. Afterwards a boat takes us to a free-diving site just a few minutes offshore.
More adventurous visitors can experiment with a "gueuse," a special free-diving device made famous by the film. The apparatus is fitted with a kind of balloon of compressed air and helps swimmers break out of the water.
For aquaphobes, an alternative morning activity option is a visit to the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco, an architectural masterpiece that overhangs the Mediterranean. The site has some 90 ponds containing 6,000 specimens. There are also fish-feeding activities for children. The piranhas are a particular crowd pleaser.
11 a.m.: tasting the Barbajuans
On a market day in the district of La Condamine, the parade ground is overflowing with small bars. They are selling the renowned barbajuans, an appetizer that looks like giant ravioli. It's generally stuffed with Swiss chard, cheese and meat. You can also try the socca, a traditional dish made with chickpea flatbread. Otherwise, the Oceanographic Museum's panoramic restaurant offers a stunning view, perched as it is 85 meters above the sea.
2 p.m: waking Grace Kelly's ghost
After lunch, you can discover Monaco's historic city center and reach the district of Le Rocher (The Rock). A couple of houses located on rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette date back to the 16th century. There is the Princess Grace Irish library because royalty has been at the core of Monaco life for centuries. The place was inaugurated in 1984 by Prince Rainier III in honor of his wife's Irish origins. It contains Grace Kelly's personal collection of Irish books and sheet music.
4 p.m.: seeing and being seen
It's hard to skip the Monte Carlo Casino, but it's better to stop by in the afternoon rather than at night, when it's really bustling.
That's when you can quietly visit the gaming rooms even if every private lounge area is closed. Next to it the Café de Paris remains the place to see and be seen. As such, you absolutely must choose tables located on the edge of the terrace.
6 p.m.: immersed in the cold
Head to Monaco's thermal baths opposite the brand new yacht club. Classic treatments are heavenly but very expensive. Bold adventurers can try the cryotherapy complex that treats muscular pathologies. In just three minutes, the cells are renewed and pain headache decreases. At the end of the experience, some clients swear they feel pleasantly doped.
8 p.m.: dinner under the stars
The Société des Bains de Mer, founded in 1863, is controlled by the government. It manages several casinos, more than 30 restaurants and many five-star hotels. The Monte-Carlo Beach is a particularly good location. The hotel offers a 115-euro dinner menu (excluding drinks) that can be enjoyed while your feet are in the water. Italian chef Paolo Sari has been given a star in the Michelin Guide with his 100% organic cooking.
Blue Bay chef Marcel Ravin also has a Michelin star. A Martinique native, he mixes different flavors for a unique-tasting result such as his delicious carbonara pasta with truffle cream and papaya. The kitchen can be seen from the dining room, and the service is very friendly and relaxed. Prices are reasonable given the quality of the cooking: It begins at 108 euros for a menu (excluding drinks).
Midnight: moving to Cap-D'Ail
Spending the night in Monaco will cost you more than 450 euros. If you don't want to pay that price, you'll have to go to the next seaside resort, one train station away. It's called Cap-D'ail and is situated in southeastern France.