Monaco is not so much a country as it is a family project, passed along from one generation to the next. Since 1297, the Grimaldi dynasty has shaped everything from its borders to its image, and it's hard to separate the principality from its principals: When was the last time you read an article about Monaco that didn't fill you in on the latest drama involving the royal family?

There is, of course, more to Monaco than gossip about Princess Caroline's daughter, Charlotte Casiraghi, and her romance and out-of-wedlock child with French actor Gad Elmaleh, or nostalgia for Princess Grace, but almost everything in the principality seems to have a connection to someone whose name is preceded by the letters H.S.H. (His—or Her—Serene Highness).

Visitors will find that Monaco's museums display a quirky mix of historical interpretation and family bragging, scientific exhibitions and personal collections. Several of its streets, gardens and buildings bear the names of related rulers, past and present.

It is the presence of a royal family, however, that bestows legitimacy on Monaco's reputation as a playground for the rich and famous (and it is a pricey destination, even by southern European standards). Yet what the Grimaldis and their subjects have built is not out of reach for travelers of more modest means. In many respects, it's similar to the rest of the French Riviera, offering a pleasant mix of scenic views, beaches and upscale shopping. And, like much of the Riviera, it also has areas that are overbuilt to the point of distraction that range from ugly to stylish. Take, for example, the Tour Odeon, an ultracontemporary 550-ft/170-m tower with a 300 million-euro penthouse for sale, just one of the many new high-rise additions.

Once you've learned a bit about its history, perhaps the most impressive thing about Monaco is that it exists. The Grimaldis have pulled off quite a feat: Generation after generation, spanning a period of more than 700 years, the family has positioned and repositioned its nation to find a role in an ever-evolving Europe. They have managed to maintain a degree of independence by accepting that there are, in fact, degrees of independence, and that some is better than none.

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