The Jardin Exotique (Exotic Garden) of Monaco is one of these places which is stunningly beautiful but is generally neglected by most visitors to the Principality, simply because it is so far out of the way. Located on a rocky promontory at the north-western entrance of Monaco, jutting out over the Old Town and the Fontvieille area, most people just admire it from a distance whilst visiting the Palace Square without travelling up there, which is a bit of a shame. At the same time, the isolated location is part of its charm, affording stunning views over the whole of Monaco.
If you only have a few hours or a day in Monaco, I will be the first to tell you to stick to the main attractions, like the Old Town, the main port and Monte-Carlo, where the world-famous Casino is located. But if you are here for a bit longer or on a repeat visit and have a couple of hours to spare, I would definitely recommend a trip up the hill for a visit of the Exotic Garden and the newly-opened New National Museum of Monaco next door at the Villa Paloma.
The Exotic Garden
Built in the early 20th century under the reign of Prince Albert I, what makes this garden so exotic is the abundance of cacti and other succulent (and spiky) plants that you wouldn’t want to get in close physical contact with. The garden isn’t very big, but since it is built almost vertically on the hill, you can just spend a while getting lost in the beautiful walkways admiring both the landscaping of the garden itself, with cactus plants growing out of the cracks in the giant rocks, and the stunning views over the Italian Riviera, the main harbour of Monaco, the Old Town and the neighbourhood of Fontvieille. Just bear in mind that the whole garden is built on a slope, which means that there are plenty of steps and bridges, so I definitely would not recommend this visit to anybody with limited mobility.
Near the bottom of the garden, there is the access gate to the extraordinary Observatory Grotto (included in the 7 € entrance fee), which is well worth the visit if you can brave the 600 steps (300 down then 300 to get back up) which bring you down almost to sea level. This large natural limestone cavity, located inside the promontory (known locally as a baussu), was discovered in the 1940s and opened to the public in 1950 after plenty of work to make it accessible with lighting, walkways etc. There are regular guided tours which take you into the heart of this weird and wonderful place, which is full of strange geological formations like stalactites and stalagmites and which stays warm all year round, at a constant temperature of around 18 degrees. Obviously, this visit definitely isn’t recommended for people who cannot walk properly, given the amount of steps: also, make sure you have comfortable shoes and the ground tends to be quite slippery due to the humidity inside the cavity. Needless to say, don’t go down there either if you are claustrophobic, as you probably wouldn’t enjoy it much…
Finally, also included in the ticket, is a visit to the Prehistoric Anthropology museum, located a bit higher up in the complex, in a rather nondescript concrete block inspired by the kind of architecture which was trendy in Moscow in the 1950s. Valiant efforts have been made to modernize the exhibition area which mainly contains a collection of various ancient animal skeletons (including a rather cool cave bear), but unless you have a particular interest in prehistoric anthropology, a long visit is not essential.
The New National Museum of Monaco at Villa Paloma
This is located in the Villa Paloma, located next door to the exotic garden: visitors with a combined garden and museum ticket (10 €) can just follow a passageway through the side of the anthropological museum into the National Museum and there is an immediate change of atmosphere.
The museum was opened in 2010 after extensive renovation work on a residential villa and is therefore extremely plush, modern and original. There are currently no permanent exhibits there so it all depends if you are interested in what is going on during your visit. The choices made are pretty eclectic: for example when I visited last week, they had just launched a 3 in 1 exhibition including a fascinating collection of photos of Monaco taken between 1860 and 1880 (so rather different from what it looks like today), an artistic film which I didn’t have the time to see and an exhibition of artistic photos of Princess Caroline of Hanover taken between the 1970s and today by artists like Andy Warhol and Karl Lagerfeld. The presentation is resolutely modern and rather appealing, with plenty of iPads available to get additional information on the exhibits. And there is a very nice panorama from the museum gardens, where the local schools have planted a vegetable patch (I did mention that the museum was quite original).
So if you are already in the area and have the whole morning or afternoon, it is probably worth getting the combined ticket and having a look around after visiting the Exotic Garden.
Finally, since I’m already covering this topic, I’ll also mention that the Villa Paloma has a sister museum, also part of the “New National Museum of Monaco”, called Villa Sauber. This beautiful building is located on the opposite side of town in Monte-Carlo, close to Larvotto beach and directly opposite the Grimaldi Forum conference centre. This mainly contains a vintage doll collection, some of which are automated, as well as some temporary exhibitions, which share the same intelligent and original presentation as in Villa Paloma, so the Villa Sauber is probably worth visiting if you are interested in that kind of thing (unfortunately I’m not that into vintage dolls).
By bus: the Jardin Exotique is located at the end of the very convenient number 2 bus line which crosses most of the major tourist attractions of Monaco and is therefore directly accessible from the Old Town, the port of Monaco, from the Casino (tourist office) and from the upper exit of the railway station. All buses in Monaco cost 1 € per journey (you can also get a one-day pass for 3 €) and buses on the number 2 line run about every 10 minutes on weekdays. However they are much less frequent on weekends (every 15 minutes on Saturdays and every 20 minutes on Sundays). Here are some full timetable details. I would recommend this mode of transport if you don’t have a car as the walk up is pretty uphill and boring, crossing a rather bland residential neighbourhood.
By car: you can park your car at the Jardin exotique public car park, located about 5 minutes away. Here is some information about the prices and how to get there: careful, the first hour is free but it gets expensive if you stay longer.
Jardin Exotique de Monaco: more information about the Exotic Garden, Observatory Grotto and the Anthropological Museum, as well as the latest prices and opening times. The current entrance price is 7 €, giving you access to the three above-mentioned sites.
Villa Paloma and Villa Sauber: same information for the two components of the New National Museum of Monaco. At the moment, the entrance fee for each one is 6 € but there are various combines ticket options if you want to see both.
I would definitely recommend the 10 € combined ticket for both the Exotic Garden and the Villa Paloma if you have time to see both.