Fascinating Facts about Monaco

View of all of Monaco from the hills aboveFor such a tiny country, Monaco is absolutely brimming over with shocking statistics, scandalous stories, harrowing history, and a lifestyle that is completely over the top.

World Records

  • Monaco is the world’s second smallest country (after the Vatican), and with a total area of just 3/4 of a square mile (2km), the entire country is roughly half the size of New York’s Central Park, or just slightly bigger than London’s Hyde Park.
  • Monaco has the most expensive real estate prices in the world… around $5k/sq. foot, or 52k€/sq. meter, even higher than Hong Kong.
  • Despite its sky-high cost of living, Monaco is still the most densely populated country in the world with a population around 40,000 people, so works out to 50,000 people/per square mile.

Magic passport: Why would so many people want to live in an insanely expensive postage-stamp-sized country?  Because if you hold a coveted Monaco passport, you pay zero income tax.  To apply to become a citizen, one has to live in Monaco for 10 continuous years as an adult, be independently wealthy (with a large Monaco bank account), have an unblemished personal record, and renounce any other citizenship.  And even then, applicants need to be deemed personally worthy by Prince Albert himself, an honor that is not easily obtained.  In 2022 only 52 applications were approved.

Fanned out 100 euro billsWannabees: Of its nearly 40,000 residents, less than 10,000 are actual Monegasque citizens, meaning the other 30k are rich people biding their time and paying their dues until they too can finally apply for that precious passport!

The One Downside to a Monaco Passport: From the beginning, Monaco residents have never been allowed in the Casino; you have to show a passport to get in and Monegasque passports will not fly.  The palace knew the casino would be a cash-cow, but wanted to make sure it wasn’t their citizens that got milked!

Daily Life in Monaco

Working life:  Of the people living in Monaco, only about 10,000 actually work jobs there, all the rest of the workers (50,000 of them!) live in France or Italy and commute, making daily rush hour traffic in and out of the postage-stamp sized country totally insane.

Driving in Monaco: because everything is built on top of each other, a lot of the thoroughfares are winding underground tunnels with (badly signed) roundabouts. If you miss your exit out of a tunnel roundabout, you could be in for a Kafkaesque 12k/7mile detour.  And since Monaco is home to some of the most expensive cars in the world, the tiniest fender bender could cost you a mint!

Million dollar fender bender in front of Monaco CasinoMillion Dollar Fender Bender: In fact, in 2011 the driver of a Bentley Azure T accidently bumped a Ferrari F430 in front of the Casino, pushing it into an Aston Martin Rapide, which slid into a Porsche 911 Carrera S and a Mercedes S-Class.   It was a million dollar fender bender… oops, guess she shouldn’t have been texting…!

Another One Rides the Bus:  Since driving in the principality can be such a headache, and everything is so hilly, most people just take the local bus.  Ironic to see the richest of the rich riding the bus, but there you are.  For large trade conventions in Monaco, everyone gets a free bus pass, so delegates that are all glammed up for their big trip to Monaco end up spending more time riding a public bus then ever before in their entire lives, lol.

“Going up”: Because Monaco is so hilly, it is full of public elevators and escalators, that are not exactly hidden, but not advertised either, often accessed by discrete marble-lined  tunnels or inside buildings, so you sort of have to be “in the know.”

Home Sweet Home: Apartments in those Monaco skyscrapers are much smaller than you would imagine, due to their exorbitant cost, high demand and limited supply.  CNN reported that a small apartment in Monaco costs the same as a Beverly Hills mansion!

Oh the Irony:  So is Monaco a place where rich people voluntarily pay a fortune to live in small cramped apartments, in a crowded city, and ride the local bus, all in the hope of maybe one day paying no taxes, so they can be even richer?  That’s pretty funny!

So Polite! Visitors to Monaco are always so impressed at how courteous Monaco drivers are, always graciously stopping (unlike in France!) to let pedestrians cross.  Want to know why? Because the fine for not stopping for a pedestrian is 150€ and if you don’t pay up in 5 days, it goes to 300€!  And even if nobody saw you, the principality is literally covered with 1000 cctv cameras, so believe me, you’ve been seen… and the ticket is already in the mail.

Big Brother:  To protect all that wealth, Monaco has a disproportionate number of police (1 for every 100 residents) and is filled with surveillance cameras: 1000 watching eyes for a country that covers just over 2 square kilometers.  The surveillance is super high-tech, too, with the CCTV cameras capable of zooming in on a phone to read a text message.  The result is that Monaco is one of the safest places in the world: almost no petty crime, no pickpockets… so go ahead and wear that Rolex!

Mind your Ps & Qs: The rules in Monaco are enforced with vigor, so unlike in France, you will never see anyone leave dog poop on the street.  No littering, no waking barefoot or shirtless in town, and it is even against the law to verbally insult the ruling family.

Not Exactly Crime-Free However: Crime in Monaco tends to run more “white collar” with money laundering, art heists, and extortion, not to mention elaborate plots to “speed up” inheritances… check out this article on Monaco’s Dark Side by the Hollywood Reporter, or this one from The European.

Prison Blues: And then there is the occasional “Ocean’s 11” type daytime precision jewelry store heists by the famed Pink Panther gang, one of which is sitting right now in a cell in the Monaco prison (which is located just below the Oceanographic Museum, built into the cliff face and jutting out over the sea… you can see it from the rooftop terrace).

Some History

Monaco coat of armsFamily Feud: In medieval times, this strategic territory was constantly being fought over between Genoa and the House of Grimaldi (who was also from Genoa, so it was kind of like a family feud but with Game of Thrones proportions).

Murderous Monks: In 1297 Monaco was the northernmost tip of Genoa, but the Grimaldis planned a sneak attack.  Disguised as monks, in the middle of the night they knocked at that impressive door that you see on the way up, supposedly asking for a night’s shelter.  When the unsuspecting guards let them in, the ‘monks’ whipped out their hidden swords, killed the guards, and let in their awaiting soldiers, who then stormed the palace.

Size Matters: Monaco wasn’t always this tiny; it used to be an agriculture-based economy with much more land that extended 10 miles up the coast to where Italy is now, and much farther inland, and was filled with lemon and olive groves.

Lemon Revolt:  In the mid-1800’s, after 500 years of financing their opulent palace life on the backs of the highly-taxed lemon-growers, the towns from Roquebrune to Menton revolted and declared independence, breaking away from Monaco, reducing its land by 95%.

Old b&w photo of Monacoville

“The Rock” in 1890

Brainstorm: The Principality suddenly found itself with very little land and virtually no income.  As Prince Charles III and his mother Princess Caroline were no strangers to cavorting around the European capitals with their aristocratic peers, she was the one to hatch the audacious plan to pivot from lowly farmers to high-end tourism.  In short order they found investors and purpose-built the casino, spa, hotel and restaurant, everything you see around Casino Square.

Branding: Oh, and they renamed the area from the Spelugues (the caves) to the more sophisticated sounding Monte Carlo (‘Mount Charles’, after the young prince.)

Road work: Problem was, at the time you could only get to Monaco by boat or a narrow, windy cliff-side dirt road, so after building those luxury venues, when France was not really interested in providing the requested infrastructure, Monaco then had to cough up another fortune to subsidize blasting out all those tunnels in the craggy cliffs, then laying the French train tracks, and paving the roads to be able to get to Monaco from Nice.

Turning Point: With locals not allowed to set foot in the Casino, and no tourists to this remote outpost, they got off to a very rocky start: only 3 customers the first year!  With the new roads and some promotion, the casino finally started attracting its target aristocrats, the Opera House was added, and by 1869 the whole enterprise was raking it in so much dough that income tax was abolished in Monaco.

Close Call: 20 years on in 1889, Prince Charles died and his son Albert I took the throne.  Like many sons, Albert was the polar opposite of his father: he despised the casino, its tainted money and distasteful clientele.  When he married a fabulously wealthy American widow, Alice Heine, it freed the Palace from its dependence on gaming revenue, and in 1991 the decision was announced to close the Casino and turn it into a free hospital!

Break the Bank: But fate intervened, and at that same moment an unassuming Englishman showed up and in the span of a week won so much at roulette (4 mill in today’s money) that it inspired a song, “The Man That Broke The Bank in Monte Carlo.”  Instead of hastening its demise, the casino-killing pay-out ended up having the opposite effect: Word of the outsized winnings quickly traveled far and wide and in short order the Casino was bursting at the seams with customers trying to replicate that winning streak (which of course they didn’t), and the Casino had become too big to fail.

Princess Grace

Movie poster for To Catch a ThiefMeet-cute:  Already a multiple Academy Award winning movie star, Grace Kelly was at the Cannes Film Festival to promote To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant.  Paris Match Magazine meddled in a little matchmaking when they arranged a photo shoot at the Monaco palace with the idea to introduce the 26-year-old movie star to the dashing 32-year-old bachelor Prince, and see if there would be any sparks… and why yes, there were!

Tragic Foreshadowing: To Catch a Thief was set mostly at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, but the movie also featured a driving scene with Grace Kelly at the wheel of a vintage convertible with Cary Grant, filmed on the winding hills above Monaco; ironically the same road that would take her life 26 years later 1982.

Wedding of the Century: A year after that first meeting, Grace made the 8-day voyage from America to Monaco by cruise ship, with her family, bridesmaids and other friends, 66 in all.  When the ship docked in Monaco Harbor the entire population came down the port to welcome their future princess, and there was a week’s worth of pre-wedding festivities. The two married in an elaborate and star-studded wedding in the Cathedral, which was one of the first events to be televised around the world.

Pre-nup?  Interestingly, Grace and her family were required to come up with a $2-million dowry ($20 million in today’s money) in order for the wedding to go forward; half wiped out her career earnings, and half reluctantly came from her family, to be deducted from her inheritance.  As Grace Kelly was a successful movie star in her own right and was used to calling her own shots, this dowry requirement not only depleted her coffers but also would have clipped her wings, essentially having the effect of a modern-day pre-nup.  When you know the Grimaldi family shenanigans in the generations leading up to Prince Rainier, you understand that the dowry requirement was to insure a dignified and scandal-free marriage.

The classic Hermes ‘Kelly Bag’

Fashion Icon: Once married, Grace plunged into palace and family life, learning to speak fluent French, and having two children in rapid succession: Carolyn in 1957 and the requisite son, Albert, in 1958.  All eyes were on the movie star turned princess, to the point that just  trying to hide early signs of pregnancy by holding a Hermes purse over her stomach was enough to rocket the fashion accessory to international fame, causing Hermes to quickly rename the bag ‘The Kelly‘, and it remains a fashion classic.

Gilded Cage: Princess Grace brought a lot of glamour to the Principality via her visiting Hollywood friends, and it was always understood that she would eventually return to the screen.  In 1962 Alfred Hitchcock offered her the staring role Marnie, but the news provoked such a public outcry in Monaco that Prince Rainier put the kibosh on it.  Her illustrious career unexpectedly derailed and finding herself locked in the gilded cage, she fought off a period of depression, but ultimately channeled her creativity into things like poetry readings, arts and crafts with flower petals, charity work, and then Stephanie was born in 1965.

Back to Business: In the late 70’s, when the children were mostly grown, she started dipping her toe back into the movie business by narrating a few small films and became one of the first female board members of 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation.

Tragic Accident: Her untimely death at 56 was the result of a car accident on that same road where she was filmed driving in To Catch a Thief.

Royal Resting Place: Since Princess Grace was a commoner that just married into the Grimaldi line, she actually didn’t have the right to be buried in the Cathedral with the other monarchs.  Prince Rainier was so distraught that he insisted that if she couldn’t buried there, he wouldn’t either, so in haste the Monaco constitution was amended, allowing their tombs to be side-by-side.  The Cathedral is open to visits, and it is very moving to walk to the front to see her final resting place, in the same church where she was married and became a Princess.

The Next Generation

The Pendulum Swings: Whereas Princess Grace did in fact preside over one of the few a scandal-free periods in Monaco’s history, her children rose to the challenge, and in the ’80’s and 90’s they were all major tabloid fodder; Macleans Magazine once wrote that Monaco held the world record for most royal scandals per square kilometer.

Don’t Mess With Caroline: Princess Caroline, the oldest of the three children, had a few high-profile but ill-fated marriages; she fought back against the non-stop tabloid intrusion into her personal life by suing the publications with abandon, and largely thanks to her, privacy and liable laws in Europe are far stricter than in America.

Album cover for Stephanie of Monaco's Live Your Live Wild Child: Princess Stephanie, the youngest, was just 16 when her mother died.  Nicknamed “the wild child” from an early age, Stephanie unabashedly rebelled against all expectations being imposed on her, doing what she wanted, marrying (and not marrying) whomever she wished, and living life 100% on her own terms, which included a rock and roll career and running away with the circus.  She is very active in AIDS charity work.

Princely Complications: Prince Albert, the middle child and heir-apparent (who actually needed to be married and produce a male heir to continue the throne) was a globe-trotting playboy with no sign of settling down, so much so that in 2002 when he was 44 years old, the Monaco constitution was changed to allow succession to pass along female lines to avoid being ceded to France if Albert never married and never had a son, as seemed likely at the time.

Surprise! Little did they know he was hiding the paternity of two children that he didn’t acknowledge until right after the death of his Father, Prince Rainier, in 2005, when Albert assumed the throne.

Official stamp for the royal marriage

Monaco Wedding Official Stamp

Wedding Bells: Shortly thereafter Albert seemed to settle down with South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock.  They married in 2011 and three years later gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl, but even so it has not been smooth sailing for Princess Charlene.

Gone Green: Prince Albert is one of the top-10 richest royals in the world.  He is also a major philanthropist with a foundation dedicated to environmental protection, and promoting sustainable global development by funding hundreds of innovative initiatives across the planet.

Current Kerfuffle: Apparently, the longtime palace CFO may have been involved in some shady stuff, and when he was unceremoniously fired… he decided to spill the tea.   Underhanded deals, secret French bank accounts, leaked documents, payoffs galore, spectacular spending sprees …but yet exploiting underpaid and undocumented palace household help… the list goes on, as does the litigation in every direction since everything is officially denied.

Billionaire’s Playground

The movie poster for Golden EyeShaken not Stirred: Famous films set in the Monaco Casino include James Bond movies Never Say Never Again  with Sean Connery in 1983 and Golden Eye in 1995 with Pierce Brosnan as 007.  Ocean’s Twelve was shot in the Casino in 2004.

Here’s a list of hundreds of other movies shot in Monaco.

Jackpot!  The largest  slot machine jackpot  in  Monaco was in the Café de Paris casino on May 7, 2018 for 958,950€, but more recently, February 2024… and again in the Café de Paris casino… a lucky client set off the bells when he hit a jackpot of 650,279€.

Monaco Grand Prix Formula 1 poster for 2024Rolling Thunder: The Monaco Grand Prix dates to 1929, and the race circuit is only 2-miles/3.3k long and easily walkable if you would like to do an unique powerwalk.  Each lap around the circuit  takes less than 2 minutes in a Formula 1, and the fastest recorded time was 1’10 by Lewis Hamilton in 2019.  Almost half of the Formula 1 drivers actually live in Monaco, so you could conceivably cross one of the drivers while walking the race course; here’s the 2023 list.

Monaco Grand Prix on the Cheap:  It’s kind of an open secret that on Thursday before the big race, all the seats for the trials are just 30€, so come try out the best spots and watch the cars whiz by for the qualifying races!

Worst Seats: On the actual Grand Prix day, Sunday, the cheap standing section is the steep slope coming down from the palace called The Rocher (Rock), where spectators sit on the hard sloping ground and straddle a clump of shrubbery to keep from sliding down the hill!  Fun comradery and excellent birds-eye views inside the pits for those 10-second tire changes though.  On finals day, even these general admission seats sitting in the dirt are 120€…Here is a good site for tickets.

Automobilia: If you’re not here during the Monaco Grand Prix, get a little taste of it in the Monaco Classic Car Museum.  Prince Rainier was a total car fanatic, and these 100+ cars are just a tiny portion of his vast collection back in the day. It’s only 10€ and well worth it to see the famous race cars up close and personal, not to mention the rare antique automobiles.

Floating Fortunes: The Monaco Port is appropriately named Port Hercules, as it holds far more than its share (25%) of the worlds largest yachts.  Some have helicopters on top, some have Ferraris inside… just google the names to find out the owner, size and cost, history, and most outrageous accoutrements.  For a quick overview, check out this article on the Monaco yacht show.

Crepes Suzette:  The Café de Paris (next to the Casino) is where Crepes Suzette was accidently invented in 1896 when a dessert crepe prepared tableside accidently caught fire in front of the Prince of Wales.  Enchanted by the spectacle of the flaming crepe, he asked for the recipe.  The chef admitted it was an accident, but suggested ‘Princely Crepes’, but the prince gallantly suggested instead naming it after his lovely dining companion of the evening, Suzette.

World’s Largest Wine Cellar:  Underneath the Hotel de Paris, accessed through a series of tunnels and gates, is the largest hotel wine cellar in the world, with over 350,000 bottles in 16,000 square feet (1500 m2).  During WWII, fake walls were built to hide the best wines from the occupying Nazis.  Hotel guests can pay (a lot) to get a coveted cellar tour, and there is even a special room with a dining table that was used for private Grimaldi family dinners.

Sledding for Gold:  Did you know that Monaco has an Olympic Bobsleigh Team?  They train in the French Alps, and Prince Albert himself was part of the 2-man and 4-man bobsleigh teams for 5 winter Olympics when he was in his thirties, his last being Salt Lake City in 2002. Prince Albert married an Olympian, South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock, and is a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee.

Angelic Intervention: The tiny chapel where Albert and Charlene were married has its own sordid story: In 283AD in Corsica, there was a very devote young Christian that refused to renounce her faith and bend the knee to the Imperial Roman cult, and thus was tortured and killed. Her body was sent off to sea on a raft to deny her a Christian burial and to be picked apart by sea birds, but the angels kept the birds away and guided the raft with her pristine body to the beach in Monaco.  She became a saint and they built the chapel on the spot where she was found.

Jacques Cousteau Museum:  The illustrious marine explorer Jacques Cousteau was the Director of the Monaco Oceanographic Museum for nearly 30 years, from 1958-1988.

Making More Monaco: Monaco is in such high demand, that in the 1970’s Prince Rainier built a whole new wing, as it were, on the backside of the Palace promontory, now called Fontvieille.  So when you look off the other side of the Palace, all that you see (the second port, lots of apartment buildings, hotels, heliport, major shopping center, 2 stadiums, and circus grounds) is entirely built on land reclaimed from the sea, which also increased Monaco’s meager square footage by 20%.

Now Prince Albert is at it again, adding another 3% with a giant new condo development being built out entirely on giant concrete blocks anchored and stacked on the sea floor.  Fittingly named Mareterra (Sea-land), it’s coming to life in front of the Grimaldi Forum, and should be finished in 2025.

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Photo credits: Monaco Overview and Cash by Best of Nice, movie posters for To Catch a Thief and Golden Eye available on Amazon.

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