The Alpes-Maritimes department stretches from the French Riviera beaches to the southern Alps ski resorts to the Italian border. Surrounded by the Var and the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the Alpes-Maritimes includes densely populated urban areas and famous Côte d’Azur cities. However, from vineyards to hiking trails, plenty of untouched wilderness is waiting for exploration.
Since 1860, Côte d’Azur is the coastline running from Cassis (although some suggest Toulon) to the Italian border. This famous coast passes through famous cities such as Saint Tropez, Cannes, Nice, Monaco and finally, Menton. The Côte d’Azur has long held the imagination of travellers wishing to escape the year’s cold months. La Belle Èpoque (1871-1914) on the French Riviera generated the impression of a whimsical golden era brimming with pleasurable pursuits and indulgences. The following guide is a collection of highlights for visiting the Alpes-Maritimes.
French Riviera Cities
If time permits, visit as many cities along the Mediterranean as possible. Each one offers a unique slice of history and contemporary lifestyle. Below are a selection of these seaside urban centres and the highlights we recommend.
Antibes old town is pedestrian-friendly, with tempting boutiques and plazas filled with restaurant tables shaded by oversized umbrellas. There are winding alleyways with azaleas displaying their bright flowers against stone walls. Antibes is full of surprises, including a hidden chapel, a coffee roastery (local’s favourite), and stunning sea views. The old town is surrounded on two sides by restored rampart walls, and the combination of new and old makes this destination a must-see.
Cannes is familiar with its annual film festival and the seafront Promenade de la Croisette crowds. However, there is more to discover around Cannes outside of the Festival du Cannes. First, shop for regional produce at the covered Marché Forville (closed on Mondays). Then, stroll through Cannes’ Old Town – Le Suquet and walk-up rue Saint-Antoine for panoramic views of the Lérins Islands and the Esterels.
Just 15 minutes by ferry from Cannes are the two Lérins islands, Saint Honorat and Saint-Marguerite, which are popular destinations for day trips. Now, the Cannes Underwater Museum with sculptures by Jason deCaires Taylor is another reason to visit. Cannes invited DeCaires Taylor to develop the Écomusée sous-marin de Cannes, a one-of-a-kind project in France.
Menton is the last French city on the Côte d’Azur. On the French-Italian border, it’s a place where you can tickle the turquoise sea or enjoy the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Whether you call it the Côte d’Azur or the French Riviera, this is undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful and sophisticated regions. Some call this place “the Pearl of France.” Menton is a storybook setting, a hidden seaside treasure that is just far enough away from the rich and famous playground.
Nice is a fascinating city on the beautiful French Riviera. Annexed to France from Italy in 1860, you can feel both French and Italian cultures, creating a unique local lifestyle. There are many reasons we love Nice, and here are our top ten.
Arriving in Vence from the Mediterranean coast is an easy drive. The town is about a 40-minute drive from Nice. Medieval ramparts still encircled Vence’s old village, with a few preserved gateways leading to or from the newer sections of town. Inside the ancient stone walls (intra-muros) is like opening a treasure chest. Vence’s old streets are pedestrian-friendly and narrow enough to make you wonder how trucks could make deliveries to the restaurants, cafés and food purveyors.
Eze, the village in the sky, is a hilltop village that is not confused with its sister town Èze-sur-Mer (sometimes called Èze bord-de-Mer), located on the water. This tiny perched village sits atop a hill roughly 430 metres above the Mediterranean coastline. Situated between Nice and Monaco, the view from the townsite is among one of the most stunning along the Côte d’Azur.
Sainte-Agnès is a perched medieval village, 10 kilometres inland from Menton, in the southeastern corner of the Cote d’Azur. This rocky outcrop gracefully dangles at 800 meters above the sea. Since 1997, this medieval village has been classified as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Also, this quaint village boasts the title of “highest coastal village in Europe.”
Saint Paul de Vence is a beautiful medieval town in the South of France, close to Nice. It has nice narrow streets, terraces, restaurants and breathtaking views of the surrounding area. We loved walking around in this picturesque place! While you are in Saint Paul make sure to visit 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 – painting, sculpture and graphic design.
La Vallée des Merveilles (Valley of Wonders) lies deep within the Mercantour. It is a prehistoric marvel with thousands of Bronze Age rock carvings. Bronze Age artists carved approximately 40,000 etchings on the coloured rocks. Visit the Merveilles with a guide for insight into human life in that era as depicted by the images. Read more about this magical place here.
The Mercantour Park is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, only about an hour from the French Riviera. Straddling the Italian border Parco Alpi Maritimi and protected by the French State, the Mercantour has many hiking trails. The longest trail is the 220-kilometre Grande Traversée du Mercantour. Quite an undertaking, this point-to-point hike takes approximately two (2) weeks and includes more than 12,000 metres of descent, finishing in Menton.
Col de la Bonette is considered the highest road in Europe. Enlarged in 1832, the route was proclaimed an Imperial Road by Emperor Napoleon III in 1860. The trail was originally a mule driver’s mountain path. Passing next to a high peak called Col de la Bonette (2,715 meters), the road is popular with cyclists who like a challenge.
More Alpes-Maritimes Highlights
Architecture: Architects such as Barry Dierks, Le Corbusier, José Luis Sert, Eileen Gray and many others left their mark on the French Riviera with enduring creative architecture. Here are 10 magnificent examples.
Art: For art lovers, Antibes is the place to trace the footsteps of Pablo Picasso and his flamboyant lifestyle along the French Riviera. The Musée Picasso, France’s first museum dedicated to the artist, stands tall inside the 16th-century ramparts of the restored Château Grimaldi, which once belonged to the powerful Grimaldi family of Monaco.
Citrus: Cultivated since the 15th-century production of the Citron de Menton reached its peak in the 18th century with millions of lemons shipping to the United States and Russia. Read more about visiting Menton for lemons on the French Riviera.
Food: The first Guide Michelin appeared in 1900 when bicycles greatly outnumbered cars on the French roads. It was a brilliant marketing plan by André and Édouard Michelin, brothers and owners of the tire manufacturing company. Their idea was to increase demand for cars, specifically tires, by encouraging French drivers to get out on the road. At first, the guidebook was free, and it included helpful tips for car travel, including mechanics, gas stations and maps. These are top restaurants on or near the French Riviera that are all exceptional. Book a table!
Gardens: If you need another reason to head to the Mediterranean coast, there are 14 gardens registered as Jardins remarquable (Remarkable Gardens) near the Côte d’Azur. Visit any of these verdant paradises created by gardening enthusiasts and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Spread along the coastline from Antibes to Menton and into the hills, these Jardins Remarquables feature seaside and mountain views.
Parks: When the beaches of the Côte d’Azur are teaming, escape the crowds with a nature break. The fact that the countryside is easy to access is one of many appeals of the French Riviera. From the Mediterranean coast to the Alps, there are 19 Departmental Natural Parks within the region. With the preservation of flora and fauna in mind, these green spaces are the perfect diversion. Here are five (5) parks to visit near the French Riviera.
Silence: The Côte d’Azur is well-known as a place of glamour and beauty. Few people know that the region is also home to some of France’s most majestic spiritual buildings. Places where a busy career-driven professional or an overworked caretaker can spend a couple of quiet sightseeing days. Keep reading to discover some of these quiet refuges in the Alpes Maritimes.
Wine: The vineyards of Bellet are actually within the urban city limits of Nice, France. It is the only AOP in France where that is the case. There are two indigenous grape varieties, which are found in the rosé and red wines. The Braquet varietal is the main ingredient in a Bellet (AOP) Rosé and is often the only variety used. The other indigenous variety, Folle Noir is used in red wine blends along with Braquet.