French Riviera Must-See Destinations on the Côte d’Azur
Join us for a road trip along the French Riviera to these must-see destinations. Welcome to the French Riviera, home to glamorous stars, sparkling water, parasols and beach loungers, and fabulous yachts. Evocative images of the Côte d’Azur exist in movies and reality.
The French Riviera runs from Cassis (although some suggest Toulon) to the Italian border passing through famous cities such as Saint Tropez, Cannes, Nice, Monaco and finally Menton. Since 1860, Côte d’Azur is the French term for this stretch of the azure coastline. Road trips require planning, starting with your time constraints and the amount of time you want to drive. We cover only the highlights below, but there is more to discover in each of these cities and towns meriting a more extended stay. Or, perhaps a return trip to this sun-baked, land of turquoise waters and endless opportunities for exploration.
French Riviera from East to West
Located just east of Marseille, Cassis is famous for the towering cliffs to the east and turquoise inlets to the west. The cliffs as stunning as those found on the English Chanel in Normandy. The stunning bays – les Calanques – are accessible mostly by boat, or in some cases, by footpaths. The wine-growing area around Cassis is known for its white and rosé wines.
DON’T MISS the Routes des Crêtes drive from Cassis to its coastal neighbour to the east, La Ciotat. The D141 runs along the cliff tops joining the two towns. The driving distance is roughly 15km (about 30 minutes), with stunning views and plenty of photo opportunities.
Don’t Overlook Toulon
Many visitors arrive in the Port of Toulon after disembarking from an overnight ferry from Corsica. Tired from lack of sleep, the majority of these arrivals start their cars and head to points beyond this coastal city. That is a shame, as Toulon is a delightful mix of urban culture and a natural setting.
DON’T MISS the summit of Mont Faron at 584 metres (1,916ft), with views of the Mediterranean. At the top, there is also a small zoo and a couple of restaurants. Fort Beaumont, one of nine (9) forts on the top of Mont Faron that served to guard Toulon, is a dedicated WWII memorial – Mémorial du débarquement en Provence.
Consider this a sidebar to the road trip as you can’t drive to Porquerolles. Minutes away from the Cote d’Azur shoreline, this tiny outcropping is a world away from the glitz and glamour of Saint-Tropez. Porquerolles is one of three islands that form the Îles d’Hyères Archipelago. Only a 10-minute ferry ride from terra firma this spit of land is only 7 km (4.3 miles) long and 3 km (1.9 miles) wide, but larger than its two neighbours, Port-Cros (National Park) and île du Levant (a military installation and a nudist colony). Located between Toulon and Saint-Tropez, Porquerolles and the other two islands are known as les Îles d’Or (Golden Islands).
In 1971, the French state purchased 80% of Porquerolles to protect the island from over-development. Since 1988, the islands are safeguarded and managed as part of Port-Cros National Park. The park status limits the number of annual visitors and strictly regulates development on the island and within the protected marine boundary.
DON’T MISS the Fondation Carmignac established in 2000 as a corporate foundation. Over 300 artists’ works Édouard Carmignac’s collection, much of which is on display and open to the public daily from April through November. The Foundation also provides an annual photojournalism award, valued at 50,000 Euros, to the successful applicant. Purchase tickets in advance.
Sexy Saint Tropez
This French Riviera city has a reputation for attracting movie stars and its Vieux Port (marina) filled with impressive yachts. However, there is plenty to do in and around Saint-Tropez, even if your bank account balance does not include millions. On Tuesday and Saturday mornings, the market stalls appear in Place des Lices with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetable stalls.
In the 6th century, the Phoceans planted the first grapevines in the area. They leveraged the favourable weather and maritime trade near Saint-Tropez for the agriculture of grapes. Sun, wind and arid soil are still the critical ingredients for the fresh, crisp wine produced close to the town. These vineyards fall within the Côtes de Provence appellation and produce all three colours of wine. Drive or cycle the Saint-Tropez peninsula to discover these vineyards.
DON’T MISS out on a slice of Tarte Tropézienne created by a local pastry chef Alexandre Micka from Poland, in 1955. He combined a sweet French brioche with his grandmother’s recipe for vanilla and lemon cream. Not quite cake, the success of this dessert is linked to the filming of a movie starring Brigitte Bardot in Saint-Tropez. She loved the tarte tropézienne, and thanks to her endorsement, the rest is culinary history. Visit the original La Tarte Tropézienne bakery in Places des Lices, or make your own, here is a recipe.
A beautiful coastal town, Saint-Raphaël, lies between Cannes and Saint-Tropez. The city is popular with visitors but benefits from a slightly less glitzy reputation than its neighbours, making it more approachable. Enjoy walks along the seashore and visit the old town, including the archaeological museum and its tower with views over the city. In the city centre, discover the covered market, boutiques with typical Provencal products and a selection of restaurants and cafés. With Saint-Raphaël as your base, find three (3) family-friendly hikes along the French Riviera coastline.
DON’T MISS the short drive to Fréjus to see the Roman ruins (amphitheatre, baths, ramparts, aqueduct) and the remains of the Malpasset Dam. This river barrier, completed in 1954, was a substantial post-war infrastructure project. However, the structure failed on the night of December 2, 1959, less than five years after completion. The concrete dam fortification collapsed, releasing a wall of water (a dam break wave) the was 40 meters in height. Leaving 423 dead in its wake, it was a tragedy.
Red Carpet Cannes
Most people are familiar with Cannes, its annual film festival and the crowds on the seafront Promenade de la Croisette. However, there is more to discover around Cannes outside of the Festival du Cannes each May. Shop for regional produce at the covered Marché Forville (closed on Mondays). Discover Cannes’ Old Town – Le Suquet, and walk up rue Saint-Antoine for panoramic views of the Lérins Islands and the Esterels.
DON’T MISS the two Lérins islands, Saint Honorat and Saint-Marguerite. Just 15 minutes by ferry from Cannes, the islands are popular with folks who want to spend a day lounging on the Mediterranean. L’ile Saint Honorat is home to19th century Abbaye de Lérins has been a religious refuge for 16 centuries. Its separation from the mainland afforded the monks from the Cistercian Congregation of the Immaculate Conception a place for reflection. L’ile Saint Honorat’s enviable position near the coast with moderate breezes allows the monks to live a chaste life surviving off the kitchen garden, local seafood and eight (8) hectares of grapevines.
Jazz in Juan
Juan les Pins is a relatively small seaside town located on the coast between Golfe Juan and Antibes. It is best known for its annual Jazz à Juan Festival with international musicians performing at Pinède Gould overlooking the sea. The venue is a lovely location to watch live music. The town has all the amenities you need, including transport links, but with the benefits of a small community feel. The weather is generally excellent throughout the year, and there are plenty of local events to keep you entertained!
DON’T MISS the Cap d’Antibes coastal walk. The 5km Tour du Cap trail takes about 90+ minutes to complete depending on your walking pace. The coastal walk around Billionaire’s Bay is mostly flat. Although some rough parts of the trail are not suitable for mobility challenged individuals. The trailhead starts near the ‘Phare du Cap’ bus stop.
Antibes is a Mediterranean resort town located in the Alpes-Maritimes department of southeastern France. The city is nestled on the coastline of the Cote d’Azur, snuggled between ritzy Cannes and Nice. Easily walkable, the old part of Antibes is a treasure trove of pedestrian-friendly streets and plazas filled with restaurant tables shaded by oversized umbrellas. There are winding alleyways with Azaleas flaunting their dazzling flowers against stone walls. Down these lanes are surprises around every corner like the carved of an almost hidden chapel.
The old town is surrounded on two sides by restored rampart walls. Outside the one-time defensive walls is Port Vauban “Europe’s largest marina” this is where vessels of every size and shape moor – from superyachts to fishing boats.
DON’T MISS the Commune libre du Safranier (created in 1966) operates as an island within the larger city of Antibes. The Commune has a mayor, although with little political power. However, the commité (committee) is free to coordinate their events. The Commune also has some of the most beautiful (and Instagrammed) streets in Antibes.
Nice – Nissa la Bella
Fabulous Nice lies along the shores of Baie des Anges at the eastern end of Provence. The English aristocracy discovered its delights during the early Victorian era, but the secret eventually got out, and the Riviera soon established itself as an international playground for everyone. Divide your visit into two parts, the old town, or Vieux Nice, and the Modern Town. Vieux Nice occupies a relatively small area at the foot of Château Hill near the eastern end of the Promenade des Anglais and can be explored easily in half a day.
Nice is just a stone’s throw away from Italy. Situated along the Mediterranean, there is plenty of sunshine in Nice, and the weather is mild enough that even in mid-winter, you see swimmers doing their laps. The international airport on the edge of town makes long-distance flights easy when air travel is less than glamourous. As a food lover, Nice is an exciting mix of regional specialties, Italian influenced dishes, and plenty of international cuisines. The Liberation and Cours Saleya markets are open daily except for Mondays. Nice has a little (or a lot!) of everything: sea and beaches, hills and mountains, unique cuisine and excellent wines.
DON’T MISS the vineyards of Bellet, which are actually within the urban city limits of Nice. The only AOP in France, where that is the case. Bellet has two indigenous grape varieties found in the rosé and red wines. The Braquet varietal is the main ingredient in a Bellet (AOP) rosé and often the only type used. The other indigenous variety, Folle Noir, is used in red wines blends along with Braquet. Read more here.
Worth a side trip: Roquefort les Pins is about 12 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean coast, roughly equidistant from the three main cities of the Alpes-Maritimes: Nice, Antibes and Cannes, each about 30 minutes away and the same distance from the Southern Alps. Away from the coast, the town doesn’t suffer from the high-season crowds descending on the Côte d’Azur.
Why Not Vence?
If you are looking for a home base to explore the French Riviera but want to escape the big-city hustle and bustle of Nice, look no further than Vence. Situated a comfortable 20-minute ride north from the Nice airport, Vence is nestled in the sweet rolling hills stretching from the Mediterranean to the pre-Alps. Its beauty and slow pace of life have attracted numerous personalities, artists such as Matisse, Dufy, and Chagall having called Vence home for some time in their lives. Throughout the years, the town somehow preserved its quiet lifestyle, managing to avoid overpopulation and excessive tourism.
DON’T MISS the world-famous Chapelle du Rosaire, which Henri Matisse considered his life’s masterpiece, built between 1948-1951. The Chapelle du Rosaire has the artist’s prints all over it, from elements of exterior design to details of interior decoration. The large stained-glass windows reflect shades of blue, green, and yellow onto the white marble floors in a unique show of light and shadows.
Picture Perfect Saint Paul de Vence
Saint Paul de Vence is a medieval hilltop town in the South of France close to Nice. It has charming, narrow streets, terraces, restaurants and breathtaking views of the surrounding area. The main square of the town is just outside of the city walls, and it is the place where people play pétanque. There are terraces with a view of the pétanque court, so you could sit and watch the games.
DON’T MISS the Fondation Maeght with one of the largest collections of contemporary art in Europe. Art dealer Aimé Maeght and his wife Marguerite created the vision for this centre for the public to view modern art in many forms. The permanent collection includes paintings, sculptures and graphic design pieces by Braque, Calder, Chagall, Giacometti, Leger and Miró.
Looking Down from Eze
Eze is a beautiful village on top of a hill with possibly the best views over the French Riviera! Walk around on the narrow pedestrian streets and visit the art galleries and the beautiful botanical gardens. The small town is located between Nice and Monaco and is easily accessible from both cities by car or bus. One of 16 perched villages in the Alpes-Maritimes, Eze delivers a fabulous vertical view from the “eagle’s nest.” Today, the town has very few permanent residents, but plenty of visitors making it more of a village-musée (living museum).
DON’T MISS the botanical garden (Jardin Exotique d’Èze) should be on everyone’s list as it is considered one of the Jardins Remarquable of France. The plants include many succulents and cacti worth seeing. However, the panoramic view is by far the highlight.
Menton is the last major town before leaving the French Riviera, wedged in-between the French-Italian border. It’s a place where you can tickle the turquoise sea or enjoy the snow-capped mountains in the distance. “The Pearl of France,” is a storybook setting, a hidden seaside treasure that is a Franco-Italian Riviera destination.
Discover the renowned gardens, where the Alpes-Maritimes climate produces exotic flora, not grown in other regions of Europe. Enjoy the historic gardens, e.g. the Jardin de La Serre Madone, with plants from exotic lands, or the Jardins du Palais Carnolès, containing the most extensive citrus collection in Europe.
DON’T MISS the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel, from 1619, a minor basilica since 1999. Lying at its feet is the Grimaldi coat of arms, all inlaid with white and grey pebbles from Menton’s beaches. For a final hurrah, climb the majestic multi-level yellow stone staircase, up and past St. Michael, for a magnificent view over Menton-with storybook pastel houses, and the shimmering Mediterranean Sea.
French Riviera Visitor Resources
Nice Côte d’Azur Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau (website)
French Riviera Pass available in 24, 48- and 72-hour options (website)
Côte d’Azur France Tourism Board (website)
455 Promenade des Anglais
Bâtiment HORIZON – CS 53126