The Monaco Grand Prix is probably the biggest and most prestigious regular event on the French Riviera calendar, ahead of the Cannes Film Festival and the Carnival of Nice. Each year, it brings a magical atmosphere to the Principality, really kick-starting the summer season with plenty of private parties on the yachts in the harbour, a very cosmopolitan atmosphere and huge amounts of visitors (and therefore VAT income for the Monegasque government!). Of course, the Grand Prix completely changes the face of the Principality for 3 months, as the roads are full of temporary grandstands, crash barriers, tyres and blockades which are prepared two months in advance and take a month to dismantle afterwards, so there are huge logistics behind the event, the statistics provided by the Automobile Club of Monaco are impressive (see the “presentation” tab). Since the turn of the millennium, there has also been a Historic Grand Prix, which runs every even-numbered year two weeks before the main race, rather interesting to remind spectators of the race’s heritage as the first Monaco Grand Prix was run in 1929, though the first official race in the Formula 1 calendar was in 1950.
This special atmosphere has its drawbacks: it’s very crowded on the French Riviera as the Cannes film festival also tends to take place at the same time, transport infrastructure is stretched and prices tend to be inflated, especially for accommodation in Monaco itself, so you need to plan ahead.
Therefore, if you are intending to be part of the 120.000 spectators who come to visit Monaco at the end of May this year (the 2014 Grand Prix will take place from Thursday 22 to Sunday 25 May this year), and especially if it is your first time to Monaco, follow the practical advice that I am sharing in this article gleaned from almost 3 decades of experience and especially plan everything in advance for a hassle-free visit, there’s very little room for improvisation if you want to optimise your stay.
1. Booking race tickets and optimising your schedule
There’s no way around it, the Monaco Grand Prix is a special experience and tickets are very expensive, much more so than a football match or another sporting for example (except perhaps the World Cup final)… But there are different degrees of expensive which I’ll outline.
There are two main solutions to view the race: either booking a grandstand seat (tribune) through the official ticketing agency or renting out a private balcony or boat, in this article I’ll concentrate on the first (and more accessible) option. Naturally it’s always possible to buy tickets through touts in the screen but this practice is illegal and the police keep a strict eye out for these, mainly penalising the purchaser, so I wouldn’t even think about it.
The place to buy tickets if you are abroad is via the Automobile Club of Monaco website – if you have a friend on the spot, they can also be purchased physically at their headquarters in Monaco, on Boulevard Albert 1er.
You can find a full programme for the 4 days on the official website. Bear in mind that there isn’t just Formula 1 all day, there are also plenty of other races for alternative championships of lesser interest unless you are a motorsport fan, such as GP2, the Porsche Supercup and Formula Renault.
Prices vary according to the day and what’s going on, here’s a quick overview:
- Thursday (lowest prices): the first practice session where you can see the F1 cars and stars, one session in the morning and another in the afternoon.
- Friday: nothing going on involving F1 cars and only a few minor races in the morning, so the track reopens at 2.30pm and access to all the grandstands is free.
- Saturday (medium prices): F1 practice session in the morning and final qualifying session in the afternoon to determine who gets pole position, followed by the GP2 race.
- Sunday (highest prices): F1 warm-up in the morning then the big race in the afternoon
There are also two or three day packages if you really want to experience the whole weekend, though only the three day package offers real value for money.
Ticket prices also vary according to the stand you will have chosen, depending on the location, the degree of visibility of the whole track, the cars, the pit lanes and the big screens. Full details can be found on the ACM website as usual, with prices and an interactive location map. In all cases, be aware that the temporary steel stands are made like scaffolding and aren’t covered (so plan ahead in the event of either rain or bright sunshine), there’s no food on the spot and you’ll have to walk and wait a while to use the nearest Portakabin, so don’t expect luxury facilities unless you’re invited to one of the sponsors’ boxes, in which case you won’t be reading this article anyway.
Here’s a rough overview of the most popular locations (use the interactive location map for some photos):
- Rocher: this section is located on the hillside just beneath the Old Town with great views over the whole circuit and is very popular as it is by far the cheapest (70€ on race day) with no seat allocation, simply because there are no seats, you need to find a flat piece of land and stay put. Plenty of people decide to camp there overnight to get the best spots for the next day, so if comfort and personal hygiene are your thing, give it a miss. Also bear in mind that although you get an amazing panoramic view over the whole harbour, you’ll need a good pair of binoculars to see the cars or the big screen on the opposite side of the harbour.
- Tribune P: located on the harbour (350€ on race day), on the southern side of the swimming pool facing the hillside, you can see a slow bend and that’s about it but you’re close to the departure grid and can hear all the noise.
- Tribune T: this is the newest stand (480€ on race day), built on the harbour facing the pits so you have a great view of the tyre changing/refuelling etc. The downside is that your back is facing the sea so you don’t get the overall atmosphere of the race, though there are several big screens directly facing the grandstand.
- Tribune K: this is the most popular location on the port (480€ on race day), located at the northern end, giving a whole panoramic view from the exit of the tunnel and the slow part of the course around the swimming pool, with also a good view of the biggest screen located on the avenue d’Ostende slope.
- Casino: this is the most expensive grandstand (550€ on race day), located (you guessed it) on Casino square and directly facing the emblematic building. This is obviously the classiest location with the fast curve coming out of the uphill section but the drawback is that you are cut off from the rest of the race and only see the action on the harbour on the big screen.
So take your pick!
As I mentioned, if you want to enjoy the Grand Prix in style and comfort, there are also some reliable private companies that you can easily find on the internet that offer spaces on private balconies with champagne buffets and views over the race track from around 1000€ per person on race day. Private boats are also available for similar prices depending on the service and the location.
2. Sorting out your accommodation during the Grand Prix weekend
There are several solutions for this:
- Accommodation in Monaco: obviously most convenient as you’re in heart of the action but extremely expensive for the duration of the Grand Prix, we’re talking for example around 700€ per night for a 4-night minimum stay in a 4-star hotel (that’s about double the normal rate), so unless you’re very rich or want to splash out to impress somebody special, forget about it.
- Accommodation in Beausoleil, the French town bordering Monaco, which has the advantage of having a few reasonably priced family-run hotels located within walking distance of the casino and the Monaco harbour and is therefore pretty convenient in the evening as you won’t need to commute. Prices will again be double the standard rate, but will still be a bit more reasonable than the Monaco hotels simply because the base rate is lower, budget maximum 300€ per night in a 3* hotel located 5 minutes walk from the casino. However, as the supply of rooms is quite low, these hotels tend to fill up very quickly each year, so make sure you book at least 6 months in advance.
- Accommodation in Nice and the surrounding towns: plentiful but they also tend to hike up their prices for the Grand Prix. If you are on a tighter budget, I would suggest finding a hotel in central Nice within walking distance of the train station as it’s a big city where you can also do other things and it’s close to the airport. You can still find deals in 2/3* hotels there about 2 or 3 months ahead at around 150€ per night – certainly not bargains but OK given the prices of the options at this time of year. It’s also possible to find accommodation in other towns if you don’t fancy Nice but in any case I would advise always sticking to hotels within walking distance of a railway station on the main Riviera line and wouldn’t go further afield than Nice or Ventimiglia. The downside is the commute in the morning and the evening (see the next section about getting around).
3. Getting to and from Monaco during the Grand Prix weekend
This especially applies if you have taken the third accommodation option above and decided to stay outside Monaco, for example in Nice.
To get to Monaco, there are several options:
- By car: just forget it, most roads are blocked off near the circuit and it will be very difficult and expensive to park.
- By bus (if you are staying between Nice and Menton): line 100 runs regular services every 15 minutes all day at 1.50€ for a single trip. Allow about an hour from Nice and 30 minutes from Menton. This option is pretty convenient but the buses tend to get very crowded and bear in mind that the last bus leaves from Monaco at around 8pm. You can download the latest timetables on this link.
- By train: 25 minutes direct line from Nice and Ventimiglia, reasonable prices (around 8€ return trip from Nice) and the last train leaves Monaco at around midnight so great if you want to stay around, party and enjoy the atmosphere. You can download the latest timetables on this link (select line 04) and the different grandstands are very well signposted when you arrive at Monaco-Monte Carlo train station. However, just pay attention to wildcat strikes that the French rail workers tend to organise during the Grand Prix weekend at the slightest hint of them having to work harder… In that case, it becomes a logistical pain as the last train leaves Monaco at around 8pm. If you want to get back later than that, the only option available to get home is…
- By taxi: budget around 80€ for a trip to Nice, cash only, ouch (unless you’ve just won some money at the casino of course)!
4. Eating and drinking in Monaco during the Grand Prix weekend
As you will have probably guessed, most restaurant owners in Monaco will hike their prices up during the Grand Prix weekend to milk the tourists as much as they can, here are some tips to avoid getting ripped off.
If you are on a grandstand, just grab a sandwich and a drink at one of the numerous snack bars or at the Casino supermarket on the Boulevard Albert 1er, just by the departure grid. One exception to this rule is restaurant la Provence, a pleasant family-run restaurant on rue Grimaldi that does pizza and pasta and has good reviews – it’s also a personal favourite of mine.
You can also get a more authentic snack at the Place d’Armes market (marché de la Condamine), located behind the harbour at the foot of the Old Town hill, where there are plenty of nice stalls with good quality food, such as Truffle Gourmet and Roger Socca (French speakers will enjoy his TV interview) inside the market building.
My favourite part of town to bring guests is by far Monaco-Ville (the Old Town on top of the Rocher) at dusk, especially after a busy and noisy day: nice and peaceful, not very many people and it’s always magical to walk around the floodlit monuments and medieval alleyways, don’t forget that it’s perfectly safe to walk around Monaco too (unlike in Nice and the surrounding towns where you really need to pay attention to your belongings). The two restaurants that I normally visit are U Cavagnetu and Restaurant l’Express. Neither does anything too spectacularly but they both have nice outdoor seating areas, are reasonably priced (without having to hike up their prices for the Grand Prix) and you can taste some Monegasque specialities. My personal favourite in the old town if you want a fine dining experience is the amazing La Montgolfière, which is a bit more expensive of course but does great French-Asian fusion dushes, all home-cooked to perfection. The place is tiny so advanced booking is absolutely essential.
Once you are done with dinner, I’d advise you to go to the Palace Square and enjoy the overall view of the parties taking place on the harbour below before heading down there via the steps.
The liveliest place to sample the atmosphere is on the bar street on route de la Piscine, just below Tribune T. The circuit is obviously closed during the day but reopens from around 7pm (even earlier on the Friday, at 2.30pm), which means that revellers can party on the actual circuit up until the early hours of the morning.
Obviously drinks are expensive and the atmosphere is pretty hedonistic, but it’s worth doing at least once, whilst admiring in the distance the private parties taking place on the yachts or on the Red Bull barge. The bars are, walking towards the swimming pool, la Rascasse, Before, Zest, the Black Legend, Jack’s and the Brasserie de Monaco (which has the added advantage of having home-brewed beer, unlike the others).
Naturally, some of these places also offer dinner, but unless you’re really feeling lazy, follow my advice and head up to the Old Town, let the real restaurants serve food and the real bars serve drinks to party animals!
And don’t forget to keep an eye on the clocks if you are heading back to Nice on the last train! Allow 15 minutes with the crowds to get from the bar street to the train station (in normal circumstances, 10 minutes are enough).
I think this just about covers all I can say about the Grand Prix for the moment: if you think I have forgotten anything, please send me a comment via the form below and let me know about any experiences, positive or negative, that you may have as I’ll be updating this article for the 2015 race. Have a great visit to Monaco and enjoy the magical Formula 1 experience in May!