Described as a “sunny place for shady people,” by English novelist W. Somerset Maugham, Monaco is one of the smallest and wealthiest countries in the world.
Situated close to Nice, France and a few miles from the Italian border, the principality has a population of around 38,000, and just under seven in 10 of those people are millionaires, according to a report by property consultants Knight Frank, with at least 199 holding assets of $30 million.
The number of millionaires – and billionaires – residing in Monaco is on the rise, with heiress and fashion designer Tatiana Santo Domingo, who has a net worth of around $2 billion, named as its richest resident in 2019.
The Grimaldi royal family, headed up by Prince Albert II, son of Prince Rainier and Hollywood actress Grace Kelly, are perhaps the principality’s most famous citizens, ruling over Monaco for eight centuries – Domingo is married to the reigning monarch’s nephew Andrea Casiraghi.
So what is it actually like to live in this millionaire’s playground?
Italian technopreneur Manila Di Giovanni, who has been living in the tiny country since 2018, says she had the “usual preconceptions” about Monaco when she initially came here as a student and found it hard to “find her way in.”
“It’s a more exclusive environment,” she says. “If you’re not part of it yet, it takes time to adapt within the actual society. It was very tough in my first years.”
However, Di Giovanni, founder and chief executive of virtual reality platform DWorld, says she found things easier once she left university and began building her career and feels very much at home in Monaco now.
“I think that Monaco is really a hub of opportunities,” adds Di Giovanni. “Because, despite the fact that it’s a relatively small country, every person from around the world with certain influence comes to Monaco at least once per year.
“So if you find your way in the system, you can grow quite a lot.”
Monaco resident Marcela de Kern Royer, originally from Guatemala, loves the lifestyle here, stressing that living among so many incredibly wealthy and successful people helps to keep her motivated.
However, she admits that the glamorous nature of Monaco means she doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable going out and about while dressed down.
“Sometimes you don’t want to leave the house without makeup on,” says de Kern Royer, who is the author of “The Superyacht Industry Book” and a superyacht consultant at consultancy firm Onboard Monaco.”I would feel a bit under dressed.”
Of course, having a Monaco address is decidedly costly. In a 2022 report released by global property firm Savills, average prices in the Principality topped 50,000 euros ($70,500) per square meter for the first time last year, marking a 9% increase from 2020, while rental prices had an average price of 91.08 euros per square meter per month.
“It’s been the most expensive real estate in the world for a really long time,” says Edward de Mallet Morgan, head of super prime international residential sales at Knight Frank.
“And given that with up to 2.2 square kilometers [of space], you’ve got a population of 38,000 people. It is a very densely populated and incredibly wealthy population and the real estate prices continue to go up.”
As space is pretty limited here, the homes are smaller than you’d expect.
“It’s sort of 98 to 99% apartments with a few villas, which you obviously then pay a big premium for,” adds de Mallet Morgan.
De Kern Royer, who moved to Monaco around 17 years ago, considers the size of the properties a “trade off” for living in such a unique and alluring country.
“It’s not like living in Beverly Hills where you have big mansions,” she says. “For the price of a Beverly Hills mansion here, you’ll have a small apartment. It’s expensive [to live here,] but it’s worth it for your privacy and your safety.”
Low crime rate
The issue of safety appears to be an important factor when it comes to the desirability of this tiny country, which has a very low crime rate, and a high quota of policemen to residents.
“I think Monaco is one of the few places where people feel safe,” adds de Kern Royer. “You don’t have to worry that you’re going to get mugged.
“Nowadays [in other places] it’s become so dangerous. People don’t want to wear their watches. But it’s super safe here.”
Photographer Valentina Selvaggia de Gaspari, who spent her summers in the principality during her younger years and was a resident for 14 years, says safety played a huge part in her decision to raise her two children in Monaco.
“Everybody knows Monaco through the big sports events, through the billionaires who live [there] and this huge incredible nightlife with beautiful ladies.
“I’d say that the security is one of the [most] incredible things,” she says, noting that some residents even leave their car doors unlocked.
In order to become a resident, applicants must rent or purchase a property here, and deposit and maintain at least 500,000 euros into a bank registered in Monaco.
Di Giovanni, de Kern Royer and de Gaspari have all been through the process of gaining residency, but are unlikely to ever be issued with Monegasque citizenship.
Government rules stipulate that residents can apply for citizenship after having lived in the Principality for at least a decade.
However, each application has to be approved by Prince Albert II and only a small number of people are issued with citizenship each year.
“My daughter was born here and she doesn’t have a Monegasque passport,” says de Kern Royer. “It’s almost impossible to get one. They only issue like five a year.
“So even if I was married to a Monegasque I would not be Monegasque. They keep it very protected.”
To put it into perspective, Gareth Wittstock, the brother of Princess Charlene of Monaco, who was born in Zimbabwe, was one of the few residents to be granted Monegasque citizenship in 2022.
In fact, it’s estimated that around 8,000 of the people who live in Monaco are Monegasque citizens. Those privileged few receive subsidized housing and guaranteed employment.
“Monaco is made by the Monagaseque,” says de Gaspari. “There are many advantages to being Monagaseque, which is fair because a country needs its citizens.
“If the principality didn’t help them, they wouldn’t be able to live in Monaco anymore. Most of them are not billionaires. They’re normal people. And they’re the ones who handle the country.”
De Gaspari points out that there’s a huge contrast between Monegasque citizens, and the people who move here.
Citizens pay less than a third of the market rent value, with the state paying the remainder. But it’s probably fair to assume that the average salary of a citizen who works for the government will be considerably less than that of a resident who has moved to the Principality for tax purposes, which means the increase in property prices has had a significant impact.
In recent years, Prince Albert II has been working towards increasing the provision of affordable rental properties for Monegasques, with a 15-year National Housing Plan that aims to increase the amount of state-owned flats by 43%.
“For me, housing for Monegasques is a national cause, an absolute priority,” the monarch said in an official statement. “It is something my government has been working on consistently for many years.”
While they may not be awarded the same benefits as citizens, becoming a resident here definitely has its perks thanks to Monaco’s zero income tax and wealth tax regime.
“Fundamentally, that’s why you move to Monaco. Because it’s a low tax threshold environment. It’s very pro business,” says de Mallet Morgan.
Monaco happens to be home to a number of Formula One drivers, including Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton and Charles LeClerc (who was born in the Principality,) and Lando Norris, who made it clear that he’d chosen to relocate to the destination due to the financial benefits, stating that “people do many things in life for money.”
However, while living in Monaco might make sound financial sense for those who are as wealthy as Norris, de Kern Royer points out that when you factor in the high rent and property prices, residents who don’t have millions in the bank aren’t necessarily getting a better deal.
“Only if you’re really wealthy does it make sense to live here because of taxes,” she says. “For the rest of us, it doesn’t make sense, because the rent is a lot higher.
“People think that I’m here because of taxes. But that’s not true. Monaco is a lot easier for immigration for business owners, entrepreneurs and digital nomads, than in France for example.”
De Kern Royer considers the country’s diversity, Monaco is home to at least 139 nationalities, to be among its biggest selling points, along with its sense of community.
“Even though it’s so small, it’s so dynamic and so diverse,” she says. “It’s a mixture between a big city and a small town.
“So you have all the advantages of living in a big city, but you still get the small town feeling where you know people and people know you.”
The mild climate here is also a big draw. Monaco is said to average about 300 days of sunshine a year, and has a life expectancy that ranks among the highest in the world.
“Yes, it’s fiscally attractive, but I often think that Monaco is undervalued from a lifestyle perspective,” says de Mallet Morgan. “Also, from a sort of general health and family and wellbeing perspective.”
He’s noticed an increase in families moving to Monaco, while demand for school places has risen considerably over the years.
This sense of family is hugely important to de Gaspari, who recently released a photo book, “International Mothers of Monaco,” which showcases the real life mothers of Monaco and their children, with the aim of celebrating the diversity of the families who live there.
Although she considers Monaco as “home” and has no regrets about bringing up her children here, de Gaspari admits that she sometimes wonders whether growing up in the principality can lead to a somewhat skewed view of the world.
“The world is not all wealthy like Monaco,” she notes. “At one point I got a bit scared that they [her children] would think that life is like this everywhere.”
De Gaspari, who now lives in France at the border of Monaco, says she tried to venture outside of Monaco with her family whenever possible when her kids were younger so that they would gain a better understanding of life outside this small country.
And while Di Giovanni is settled happily in Monaco now, she admits to sometimes missing the “dynamism of a big city,” and tries to spend at least a week in a different destination every three or four months.
Although she hasn’t been unable to host many of her friends from overseas at her small Monaco apartment, many have been quizzing her about life in the Principality since she moved there, and there’s one question that comes up frequently.
“They ask if it’s true that there are always Ferraris and Lamborghinis going around,” she says. “They’re very curious about this. [I tell them] ‘Yes, you always see them.’”
While it seems that there’s more than a little truth to the presumptions those looking from a distance have about life in this small European country, de Gaspari stresses that the true beauty of Monaco is the freedom and flexibility it offers those who live here.
“You can decide the type of Monaco you want to live in,” she says. “If you want to go to the most incredible galas and always be dressed up, you can do that.
“You can also live a super simple and very discreet life. You decide who to hang out with and the life you want to make. You can really adapt and make your own Monaco.”
Top image credit: Sylvain Sonnet/The Image Bank RF/Getty Images