Cruising from Monte Carlo? Don’t miss seeing the best sights and attractions in Monaco, Nice and Villefranche. We show you how to see it all in two days.
Few regions have as much to offer cruise passengers as Nice, Villefranche and Monaco. Ships call at all three destinations (though typically not on the same itinerary), and all are close enough to one another that they can be enjoyed in a single (but rushed) day or, better, two days before or after your cruise.
Those who are embarking or disembarking cruises will likely fly to or from Nice, fewer than 15 miles from Monaco, where many ships typically begin or end their cruises.
Some ships do embark and disembark in Nice, but those are typically the smaller, boutique vessels.
Two Perfect Days, Cote d’Azur
The following guide was designed primarily for those spending time before or after their cruises in the region, although you can use the advice to map out what to do in each destination if you’re only there for a day.
Visitors can count on the good weather with an average 300 days of sunshine and a climate blessed by refreshing Mediterranean breezes and bathed in the fragrance of bougainvillea, hibiscus and other tropical flowers.
A Day In Monaco
Part of the principality of Monaco, Monte Carlo is named for the mountain on which the town stands, where the Maritime Alps meet the Mediterranean Sea.
Monte Carlo is a small town with a permament population of 3,000 but with a global reputation for jet-setting fun. Modern glamour mingles between French medieval villages in this romantic kingdom where a prince once married a Hollywood star.
I began my sightseeing at the Jardin Exotique. The garden park is not only home to some surprisingly colorful species of cacti and agave from around the world but also perched on a cliff that offers a stunning views of Monaco. Jardin Exotique is a great place to begin a tour while getting an overview of the city below.
To get to Jardin Exotique from the city center, I hopped on bus # 2 and handed over 1 euro.
From my vantage point, I could see nearly all of Monaco, which occupies only a single square mile and is the second smallest country in the world after Vatican City. In fact, Monaco is only three times the size of The Mall in Washington, D.C. or about as large as New York’s Central Park. Yet, within Monaco’s compact boundaries is as much glamour and culture as in New York or Washington.
I spent 90 minutes admiring the views and touring Jardin Exotique, then decided to walk back to the city center. Along the way, I met an elegant man with a jacket draped over his shoulders, as if the jacket were a cape and he were royalty. For all I knew, he could have been. That’s the thing about Monaco. You never know if you’re meeting a prince or a pauper. Assume your own air of elegance and trod on.
Certainly, you can do your best James Bond at the Casino de Monte Carlo, or if you prefer more refined pursuits, consider one of the world-class performances at the grand and historic Monaco Opera, situated inside the casino. Designed in 1878 by Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opera, the casino is a must-see — even for those who do not gamble. With its rococo turrets, green copper cupolas and gold chandeliers, this elaborate structure is wonderfully nostalgic.
Outside and nearby is the Café de Paris. And though it boasts a good food and wine selection, Café de Paris is the place to sit outside and enjoy the crowd, to see and be seen.
Across the harbor and up the hill is the Rock of Monaco. It’s easy and perhaps preferable to walk as much as possible, and there are even elevators and escalators that operate daily year-round to ease access to differing elevations. Put your peds in motion and walk along the harbor and up the hill.
Once on top, watch the signs directing you to the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium, which exhibits Monaco’s rich maritime history, and its ties to the sea, as well as some of the rarest fish in the seven seas. The museum was once headed by Jacques Costeau.
Exit the museum and head through the Princess Grace Rose Garden, which boasts 4,000 rose bushes planted among the palm and olive groves.
A bit farther along is the magnificent Monaco Cathedral, the final resting place of Monaco’s beloved princess, Grace Kelly, who was killed in an auto crash in 1982 at the age of 51.
Also nearby is the Prince’s Palace, an ornate Italianate structure with a Moorish tower that is the seat of the Grimaldi princes of Monaco (their reign stretches back to 1297, the year that Francois Grimaldi disguised himself as a monk and seized the castle).
In addition to the Gallery of Mirrors is the Throne Room, where state receptions are held, and the Louis XV Salon with 18th century artifacts. In the Main Courtyard — with its horseshoe-shaped, Carrara marble staircase — 3 million stones create dazzling geometric patterns. And the Museum of Napoleonic Souvenirs in the South Wing displays a collection of First Empire memorabilia. Try to time your visit to coincide with the Changing of the Guard, daily just before noon.
A Day Strolling Nice
Nice was part of the kingdom of Savoy until 1860, when it joined France. Still, the city retains its own Nicoise dialect as well as cuisine (think Nicoise salad) and traditions.
The old town (Vieux Nice) is worthy of full day visit, although it’s also a pleasant destination for evening. When choosing hotels for a pre- or post-cruise stayover, I recommend choosing a hotel in Nice to enjoy the evening atmosphere of the Old Town.
One of the oldest human settlements in the world with archeological sites dating to the Lower Paleolithic period, Nice offers an appealing blend of the historic and modern. Originally named by the ancient Greeks after Nike, the goddess of victory, Nice has been treasured and fought over ever since. It’s easy to understand why. The climate is sublime, the views are inspiring, and the harbor provides easy access. As a result, a diverse mix of people have called Nice home over the centuries, and it seems that each group left its fingerprints on the culture and development of the city and the surrounding countryside.
For visitors, Nice is a treasure trove of activities and sites worthy of exploration and savoring. To start, take some unstructured time to wander at random through the narrow streets of the pedestrian-only Vieux Nice (Old Nice) and then stroll along the famous seaside Promenade des Anglais, perhaps the world’s best-known seafront boulevard. The “Prom” sweeps around the Bay of Angels and is flanked by beautiful belle epoque buildings, including the renowned Hotel Negresco. Take a gander inside.
While in the Old Nice, pay attention to the Baroque architecture. Built in 1885 as an imitation of the Palais Garnier in Paris, Opera de Nice is one of the most beautiful French theatres, due to its façade, its ceremonial staircase and painted ceiling.
Also, across the street, the Eglise St. François de Paule, is an 18th century church that straddles the transition between Baroque and neoclassicism with its austere façade. A delightful square and site of the daily fish and herb market, Place St. François is overlooked by an 18th-century clock tower. Also be sure to visit the world-famous flower market every morning except Monday at Cours Saleya.
From Old Nice, you will want to find your way to La Colline du Chateau, “Castle Hill.” There are various possibilities for reaching the top of the hill: by foot through the streets of the old town or by taking the lift at Place du 8 Mai 1945 at the end of Rue des Ponchettes.
The hill is covered by a shady park full of Mediterranean trees, with an ornamental waterfall, and it offers an exceptional panorama over Nice and its surroundings. Little remains of the old fortress destroyed in 1706 except the relics of the Cathédrale Santa Maria de l’Assompta.
Nice is home to dozens of a museums and galleries, more than 30 classified historical monuments and hundreds of acres of parks and gardens, woodland and green areas in addition to 150 ornamental lakes and fountains.
Since the second century AD, the light of the city has attracted many famous French painters such as Chagall, Matisse and Niki de Saint Phalle. With leading lights such as these, it’s not surprising that Nice is home to museums of all kinds. Your personal preferences should dictate which of these museums you visit, but I present four for your consideration:
- The Matisse Museum is a completely renovated 17th-century Genoan-style villa in the heart of the olive grove in the Gardens of Cimiez. The museum houses the personal collection of the great Fauvist painter who lived in Nice from 1917 until his death in 1954. On display are works from all periods of he artist’s life. 164 Avenue des Arènes de Cimiez.
- Post-impressionist Marc Chagall helped design the Museum Marc Chagall where many of his large paintings, sculptures, mosaics and stained glass windows are on display. The museum was built to house Chagall’s 17 works of the “Biblical Message.” Avenue du Dr Ménard, corner of Boulevard de Cimiez.
- In a splendid Belle Epoque setting, facing the Mediterrranean between the hotels Negresco and West End, the Villa Massena features contrasting landscapes both in intensity and character. This modern museum presents thousands of pieces in a chronological and thematic approach, covering the fertile period from Bonaparte and the Napoleonic Empire until the 1930s.
- The Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art is an appropriately modern building — four grey marble towers linked by transparent walkways — with major permanent collections tracing the history of the European and American avant-garde since the early sixties. Promenade des Arts.
The traditional cuisine of Nice, a delicate and healthy regimen, relies on the produce of the local countryside but also employs resources from more remote regions brought to town by trading ships from Northern Europe, for instance. Thus, one finds specialties such as those using stockfish made from dried haddock.
Nice is the origin of the culinary proverb that says fish are born in the sea and die in oil. Literally hundreds of restaurants, hotels and cafes offer wonderful menus, and I encourage you to discover the beauty of Nice cuisine. One of my favorites is Da Acchiardo in the old town. Come with cash. Credit cards are not accepted.
A Few Hours In Villefranche
Villefranche is a simply stunning small harbor town between Monte Carlo and Nice. It’s a pleasant destination for a bike ride or a vigorous walk among the homes of the rich and famous who have chosen to settle here.
A small town with beautiful scenery and buildings that are rich in Mediterranean colors, Villefranche is a charming place to spend a day soaking in the sights and flavors of the Côte d’Azur. Highlights include the Citadel, an exploration of the harbor and several free galleries and exhibits.
Summer or winter, Villefranche is a stunning place. Its superb harbor is known to be one of the most beautiful in the Mediterranean. Overlooking the hills and luxurious residences, Villefranche is one of the most exclusive spots on the French Riviera, dating back to 130 BC.
With its colorful fishing boats and nets, the port is both a base for fishermen and tourists, attracting numerous cruise ships in the summer. You can wander along the fishing wharves, bordered by restaurants and their terraces. If you continue until the end you will arrive at the lengthy Villefranche beach, which is pleasant from the very first days of summer.
You certainly will want to explore the Old Town, an intricate labyrinth of steep paved streets and lanes with limited automotive traffic access. The Promenade des Marinieres stretches along the waterfront lining the north side of the bay. A massive walled citadel built in 1557 lays on the water’s edge. Today, the ancient fortress houses the Town Hall, a convention center, three museums and an open air theatre.
In the heart of old town, Église Saint-Michel was built in the 1750s in the baroque Italian style, and the church houses various works of art, notably a large Saint Michael painting above the marble main altar, an 18th century life-sized Christ sculpture and a polychrome wooden statue of San Rocco. The organ built by the Grinda Brothers in 1790 is one of the oldest in the area that still works.
Still in the Old Town, stop in at Chappelle St. Pierre, the 14th century chapel decorated during a 1957 restoration by celebrated artist Jean Cocteau. The first thing to remember in the chapel is that’s not paint on the walls. It’s chalk — mysteriously well-preserved chalk frescoes. This tiny chapel was Cocteau’s heartfelt tribute to his friends in Villefranche, connecting images of Jesus to the fisherman and other villagers.
One particularly touching mural provides insights into a way of life that no longer exists, when the village’s unique dress and dialect were still intact.
Villefranche offers numerous art collections, including the Art and History museum, the Goetz-Boumeester collection with works by Picasso and Picabia, and the Fondation-Musée Volti featuring contemporary sculptures.
Numerous cafes can be found in the Old Town when you need to take a break, and the restaurants along the fishing wharves specialize in mouth-watering Mediterranean cuisine.
Excursion To Eze
By bus, taxi or train, find your way to Eze, a charming hilltop village overlooking the Cote d’Azur. The medieval village features winding cobblestone streets and an exotic garden at the top of the village offering to-die-for views of the Mediterranean.
Avid Cruiser Posts, Photographs and Videos Featuring Nice.
- The Avid Cruiser Takes On: Villefranche & Nice, Plus Eze & Saint Paul de Vence
- A New Series Of Videos Shot In Southern France
- In The South Of France, Again (Not That We’re Complaining)
- In My Viewfinder: One Week In France & A Lot More To Go
- In My Viewfinder: A Day & Evening on the Cote d’Azur
- In My Viewfinder: A Gorgeous Day In Nice & Villefranche
- Shh! Recording! Avid Cruiser’s Impressive Growth & Our First Annual iPad iBook Giveaway
- Europe’s Extreme Diversity: Cruising Canals, Rivers & Blue Water, Three Incredible Adventures
- Reader Question: Can You Recommend Shore Excursions For Our Silver Spirit Voyage From Monte Carlo?