Monaco is as much an idea as a country. This tiny spit of land on the Mediterranean coast is somewhere everyone thinks they know, even without visiting. It’s impassive and glamorous, Princess Grace as a place. Walk around it today, and many clichés hold true: red Porsches in rows in parking lots, turning garages into supercar showrooms. When a local bus trundles past, the advert on its rear is for LunaJets, a private jet charter. Luxury brands jostle for space—and spend—in gleaming boutiques, with the line outside Goyard stretching down the block, even in sweltering heat. (Coastal Monaco is humid in the summer.) Diamonds and decadence prevail, with residents free from the shackles of income tax since the 1860s.
Yet, squint slightly, scratch the surface, and there’s more to Monaco than its modern-day reputation: It’s messier and more interesting than that, somewhere to linger rather than simply stop by. It’s not quite French, not quite Italian, and it often gets bypassed on the way to the casino.
One thing Monaco has always been: a haven. In the 1700s, this rocky outcrop of land owned for centuries by Italy’s Grimaldi family became a key victualing point in the Mediterranean, mostly thanks to Port Hercule at its heart. It’s one of the best natural harbors along the southern coast of France—the namesake hero dug it out by hand, so the legend goes, to offer a safe hideaway for his fleet. Now, of course, those sheltering here are looking more to protect their billions than their boats.
Nothing embodies Monaco’s identity more succinctly than its language. Call it Múnegu, as the signs at its borders do. Múnegu is taught in schools, and you can hear it in football terrace chants (Cantero per te, cantero per te, cantero per te, Múnegu allez!). Monaco-Matin, the local paper, publishes a short newsy column every month in it as well. Its origins, like those of the Grimaldi family, are in Italy’s Liguria region, but the language has morphed into a Mediterranean mishmash, incorporating French, Provençal, Spanish, and other influences.
Though it’s cherished now, a distinct part of the local identity, it wasn’t always so, per Claude Passet, secretary general of the Académie des Langues Dialectales. “I was born in 1946, and at school then it was forbidden to speak it—Monégasque was considered a popular language, a patois,” he says, noting that mostly the elderly use it as a lingua franca. “In everyday life, some Monégasque words appear in French speech, but these are not the most ‘polite’ words.”
Locals may not greet visitors in Monégasque—or swear at them, either—but they’ll slide between French and Italian, and English, too, even in one conversation. It has a slightly unnerving effect, as if the place itself is ping-ponging between its neighbors, though it’s a deliberate choice, at least according to Mark Braude, Stanford lecturer and author of Making Monte Carlo, which chronicles its emergence as a playground for the rich in the late 19th century. “You’re in a dreamland in Monaco. You’re certainly not encouraged to think you’re a few miles from France,” he says, pointing to the heady mix of architectural styles of its famous Casino de Monte-Carlo, a Vegas-like fusion of Moorish and Belle Epoque.
“The palm trees you see everywhere aren’t natural to the area but imported. It creates an Edenic environment,” says Braude. “They have always self-consciously shaped the built environment here to look as much like a fantasyland as they could.” There’s a whiff of Hollywood as well: the Monte Carlo Beach hotel, with its striped awnings and whitewashed facade, could be a glamorous perch from the Gable & Lombard era of Los Angeles, transported wholesale to the pebbly beach.
Among the 40,000 people who officially called Monaco home in 2021, there were 139 different nationalities. Once they’ve proven they have €500,000 in a Monaco bank account per person, they can rent an apartment in one of the high rises that stud the country; more are underway, the hum and hammer of construction a constant part of the soundscape. Within that clutch of people, there’s an even more rarefied group, defined not by wealth as much as by heritage; just over 9,000 people are native Monégasque and hold a passport from the principality.
Many of them are now trying to showcase Monaco’s identity beyond big yachts and fast cars. They’re producing products that are proudly Monégasque, alternatives to the buy-them-anywhere luxury brands that have long been Monaco’s staple. The past five years have seen a spate of such startups. Maison Noir, for example, was founded in 2017 by Monégasque Yannick Barrale, standing out with all-black athleisure and accessories. Monoikos 1297 was started earlier this year by two local founders, its name a nod to the year the principality came into being. It sells luxury scarves, candles, and beach towels—the ultimate Monégasque assortment—from brick-and-mortar popups and its website (check the latter for dates for the former).
Then there’s Alter, a four-year-old unisex fashion line from Pauline Ducruet, the older daughter of Princess Stephanie of Monaco and a member of the Grimaldi dynasty. She produces one collection per year, focusing on small runs and sustainable fabrics, from her current base in Paris, but says she hopes to open the first boutique for the brand next year—where else, but back home in Monaco?
“The moment where I realized how influenced I was by Monaco in my work, in my creativity, was when I left. There’s nothing like this place anywhere in the world, and I’d love to have my factory and workshop here,” she tells AFAR. “People tend to forget there are actual people from Monaco, not just rich people from all over the world.”
Look at the old city, she says, the highest point of the principality now, just overlooking Port Hercule from the west. It resembles many hilltop villages across the south of France, narrow passageways and cobbled streets; the palace sits at its heart, on the peak. Monégasque way of life, though, has a jolt of Italian dolce vita. “The way we live, enjoying the little things of life, that’s much closer to our Italian side.”
Distiller Philippe Culazzo is a Monaco resident with an Italian history through his father, a diplomat, who brought Culazzo here from childhood. “We spent all of our summers here, and it was always like a second home to me,” he says. “Monaco does have the glitz and glam in summertime, but when you start to live here, you realize it has a hidden side.”
People tend to forget there are actual people from Monaco, not just rich people from all over the world.
One such aspect, Culazzo says, is the agricultural history here: Until the Grimaldi family sold much of the principality’s land to France in the 1860s amid political unrest, it had been a mostly agricultural economy, driven hugely by its superb citrus trees—those 18th-century sailors were drawn here, in part, by the need to load up on scurvy-preventing lemons, oranges, and the like from Monaco’s farms.
Today, though the vast groves are no longer in Monaco’s possession, a few trees remain: Walk down the Boulevard de Belgique, or de Grande Bretagne, he says, two of the main arteries through the country, and they’re lined by an urban grove of bitter oranges. Culazzo knew these from his childhood, but his interest was piqued when he read that the 33,000 pounds of fruit the 600 or so trees produced each year were collected by government workers and sent to be incinerated. “Monaco is quite built up, but that was something that grows inside the principality of Monaco, it comes from its terroir,” he says. “I wanted to find something to do with them.”
He’s a seafood trader by profession, so Culazzo spent weekends tinkering by trial and error with a small still he’d bought, trying to perfect a liqueur that was distinctly Monégasque. The result was the triple sec L’Orangerie, made by hand, and with a quarter of the sugar of French rivals like Cointreau; it’s more like an Italian amaro. Visitors can come for tastings at his tiny site in the hilly Condamine district. Culazzo now makes several other products: a gin and another liqueur, Carruba, which uses the fruit of the 47 carob trees that still grow here. Carob is the national tree, Culazzo says, as its fruit was pivotal to helping the population survive famine in the 19th century. He’s proud to tout that his products are thoroughly Monégasque, a nod to its history and produced inside the principality’s boundaries.
Take mesccia, a punchy mix of ouzo, vermouth, rum, orange blossom, and lemons; it was a delicious, slightly fancified riff on grog, made from a little bit of everything (the word means “mix” in the local language). That drink might be long gone from the galleys of the super-yachts that fill Port Hercule now, but it’s a metaphor for the country today. “I’d describe Monaco just like that,” says Culazzo. “It’s very much a mix, a melting pot, with so many people coming from all over the world, and it turns into something special like this.”
Monaco has a heliport but no airport—the closest hub is Nice, France, which is connected by rail, bus, and taxi (about 45 minutes) to the principality. It’s an appealing hub now for Americans as United has begun operating a seasonal nonstop here from Newark–EWR.
Where to stay
Book Now: Monte Carlo Beach
SBM, or Société des Bains de Mer, is the principality’s own hotel company, set up in 1863 when the country first started focusing on tourism. It operates most of the hotels here. The pick of them is undoubtedly the strangely named Monte Carlo Beach (rooms from €657). It’s neither in the neighborhood of Monte Carlo, nor Monaco proper, but just outside its eastern reaches in France. Still, it’s a lovely perch, right on the edge of the Med: Breakfast on the terrace looking back over the principality is a chance to picture yourself hobnobbing here with the early glitterati.