Monaco on a shoestring
Bling on a budget
Is it possible to enjoy Europe's most decadent destination on a budget? Absolutely, says Thomas Breathnach.
You could call it early morning circuit training.
From the gilded elegance of Grand Casino Square, I kiss the curbs of Mirabeau corner and weave through the bend at Fairmont hairpin before plunging into darkness in Monte Carlo's iconic tunnel.
I'm not manoeuvring my way along the world's plushest principality in a Ferrari V12, however. I'm a pillion passenger aboard Monaco's public autobus, which is whisking lycée students and YSL-suited commuters from one end of this micro-state to the other. In one of Europe's most decadent destinations, I'm trading five-star fancies for good ol' fashioned thrift.
I arrive in Monaco in the build-up to F1 season. The city is already echoing with the clang and clatter of early grandstand constructions. Around me, big boulevards bask in the perfect Cote d'Azur top notes of jasmine and joie de vivre. I've been in the country a few days now, yet even from my humble bus seat everyone still seems to evoke a sense of wonder.
Outside, there's a perfectly coiffed lady touting a bichon frise. She could be a doppelgänger for Sophia Loren. Next to her, a group of botoxed delegates are off to a cosmetics summit, while the gent cruising beside us in his Maserati could be anybody from an FC Monaco striker to fifth in line to the principality's throne.
It's not all high-end, however. And given Monaco's Scalextric-like geography, it doesn't take long before I'm au-fait with the country's local hotspots: from the cheapest pizza deals in town (Giudi's; Ave. Albert 25) to the best spot for picnic essentials (Carrefour; Ave. Albert 2).
Back streets in Monaco...
As for my lodgings, I'm staying in Hotel Columbus in the Fontvielle district: one of just three Monaco hotels which stand outside the five-star bracket. Originally the brainchild of 'Flying Scot', David Coulthard, the hotel was designed as a chilled-out alternative to the principality's more regal Belle Époque offerings. It works, too. My room is a cool, contemporary affair, overlooking postcard rose gardens to the ever-revered Grace Kelly. Très belle all round.
Beyond the hotel doorstep, there's an eclectic range of low-cost attractions in Monaco to keep tourists occupied - ranging from Prince Rainier III's impressive automobile museum on Terrasses de Fontvieille (visitmonaco.com; €6.50) to the rather obscure Animal Jardin zoo just next door (€5). But curiosities aside, the best way to travel here is simply to get into the local frame of mind and experience the true Monegasque mode de vie.
One fun Monte Carlo shortcut, for example, is the state-run bateau bus that ferries pedestrians across Port Hercule, offering a taste of the Monaco yacht scene for all of €2 each way. Bargain!
Not long into my own stay, I've already mastered a daily routine worthy of a Tamara Ecclestone Instagram feed. Come morning, I begin by sauntering up to Place d'Armes, a charming market square where locals gather to clink glasses of rosé while snacking on local barbajuan pastries. It's a surprisingly authentic Mediterranean haunt, and a world apart from the Hermès boutiques and roulette tables lying at the other end of the harbour.
Columbus Hotel, Monaco
After grabbing a few bargain savouries for lunch, I continue up to Monaco Ville; the medieval old town which dramatically buttresses the Grimaldi rock. The Prince's palace may be thronged with tourists, but the surrounding passageways and cobbled lanes make for an idyllic wander. Fiat Bambinos peep out of one alleyway; classic Citroën beauties from another. Given the principality's Ligurian roots, there's a magical vintage air here. For me, it sits somewhere between la dolce vita and les années folles.
Meanwhile, peering down to the shimmering Port Hercules, I see the next generation of Monacan school kids forming a flotilla of laser dinghies for their mid-morning sailing lesson. It's a compulsory part of the curriculum here. This is pretty much living paradise, alright.
All this day-dreaming gives me sea legs, so after checking out from the Colombus, I move on to my next base - my very own vessel booked through Airbnb. After meeting its German owner at high noon, I find 'Lea', a 1970s sailing boat, moored on the pretty Cap d'Ail harbour just alongside the French frontier. She's not likely to be chartered for a Rihanna video anytime soon, but she is charming. Tucked into the compact hull cabin, I sleep soundly too; bobbing off alongside a marina of towering super-yachts. I guess few places can match Monaco when it comes to the relativity of bling.
By Friday, my seafront accommodation has me suitably reposed for a final night farewell. On local advice, I head to Brasserie de Monaco (Route de la Piscine 36; brasseriedemonaco.com), Monaco's mash-up of craft brewery and sports bar. A few demi measures later and with those Daft Punk beats kicking in, I'm starting to find myself quite at home in the principality's jet-set summer. My Mastercard has stayed on an even keel, too.
Next stop? Jimmy Z's nightclub.
It's free entry tonight, and Monaco is one of the few places in the world I'm likely to be under the same glitter ball as Caroline Wozniaki.
Casino Monte Carlo, Monaco
What to pack
Formal wear! Even if you are here on a budget, Monaco is one of those rare nations whose tourist board suggests a dress code. Make sure to pack dinner jackets and/or cocktail dresses to broaden your social options. And don't even try lugging that backpack onto a fancy yacht.
Thomas travelled to Monaco by flying from Dublin to Nice with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com). It offers return fares from €95. From Nice Airport, the best transfer bet to Monaco is the scenic, 40-minute bus ride with niceairporttranser.com (€30 return). For more, see visitmonaco.com.
Where to stay
AirBnb (airbnb.ie) has yacht stays in Monaco from €50pps per night. Thomas also stayed at the Columbus Hotel (above, columbushotels.com; from €70pps). The Hotel Hermitage (hotelhermitagemontecarlo.com) is beyond most budgets, but a cup of tea (€7) will buy you a peek (and some people-watching) inside.
Book the best value city breaks with Independent Travel here!