Travel Guide to the French Riviera

By Briana Seftel


When you think of the French Riviera, two words come to mind: glitz and glamour. Sure, the southeastern coast of France has a reputation for being a celebrity destination filled with yachts and designer shops, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a Clooney to go there. With quaint fishing villages and miles of stunning coastline, the French Riviera is a destination anyone can enjoy.


What to Know

Also known as the Cote d’Azur, the French Riviera stretches from Cassis on the west to Monaco in the east. A health retreat in the 18th century, the Riviera was transformed into a playground for aristocrats in the 19th century and a summer playground for the rich and famous in the 1920s. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudolph Valentino, Gertrude Stein all frequented the sun-dappled region and added to its glossy reputation.

Major cities like Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo, charming medieval towns, sleepy fishing villages and miles of coastline make the French Riviera one of the most popular destinations in Europe. Did we mention it gets 300 days of sunshine per year?


When to Go

Like Provence, the French Riviera has a mild Mediterranean climate year round. Peak months are July and August, and while the weather is at its warmest, the beaches are often packed and room rates are higher. Summer is also an especially busy time to visit because of the Cannes International Film Festival in May and Nice Jazz Festival in July. However, due to a temperate climate, it’s possible to visit the Riviera on the off season and even during the winter.


How to Get Around

While renting a car provides you with the freedom and opportunity for plenty of scenic photo ops, driving the winding roads and finding parking can make having a car less than glamorous. In fact, traveling by train is faster, safer and less expensive then by car. Train travel between cities is quick and efficient, and getting to one point to another takes no more than one hour. If you plan on basing yourself in one city, walking is the best way to get around.


What to Eat

With its proximity to the Mediterranean sea, it’s no surprise that the food you’ll find on the Riviera is very seafood focused. Don’t miss specialty dishes like bouillabaisse, a hearty fish stew, and salade nicoise, a salad of tomatoes, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, olives and anchovies. Soak up the tasty juices leftover from your meal with fougasse, a flatbread flavored with olives and cheese. Top it all off with a glass of chilled rose and voila, you have the perfect Riviera meal. Below are just a few of our favorite places to eat and drink in the region.

Must-See Cities


Nice

The regional capital of the French Riviera, Nice is the perfect blend of rustic charm and dazzling opulence. The city’s strong Italian influence is most evident in Vieux Nice, the old part of town that’s characterized by tiny cobbled lanes, colorful houses and gelaterias. Everyday, Vieux Nice comes to life with the Cours Saleya, and outdoor market famous for its beautiful array of flowers. For a taste of Nice’s Belle Epoque era, head to the Promenade des Anglais punctuated with opulent 19th century hotels.

Travel tip: Head just a few minutes outside of Nice to the fishing village of Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Cannes

Famous for the annual Cannes Film Festival in May, the city of Cannes has a reputation for being a star-studded destination catering to the wealthy. However, 11 months out of the year Cannes is totally accessible. Stroll down the ritzy Boulevard de la Croisette and stop at Chemin des étoiles, the Cannes equivalent of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unlike other cities on the Riviera, Cannes has white sandy beaches so grab a towel and head for the water. Wandering through the old town of Le Suquet and seeing the fresh fish on display at Marché Forville will take you back in time before Cannes became internationally known.

Menton

Known as the "Pearl of France,” the town of Menton is the last stop on the French Riviera before the Italian border. Nestled between mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, Menton provides a slower pace compared to bigger cities like Cannes and Nice. Its old town, marked by golden and pink-hued houses, was founded by pirates! Every February, the town hosts the three-week La Fête du Citron, or Lemon Festival, a vibrant celebration of Menton’s prized citrus.


Monaco

With barely one square mile of territory, Monaco is one the smallest countries in the world (Vatican City holds the honor). A visit here - if just for a day - is a Riviera must. Famous for its casinos and Grand Prix, the principality of Monaco wows visitors with its luxurious lifestyle. While you may not be able to rub shoulders with the Grimaldi family, you can visit the medieval castle and witness the daily changing of the guard at noon. For spectacular views over the harbor, head to the Jardin Exotique de Monaco filled with exotic desert plants.

Antibes

Nestled between Nice and Cannes, Antibes has a laid back atmosphere and a fascinating history. Its old town is surrounded by 16th century ramparts and overlooked by twin medieval towers. For a dose of art, head to the Picasso Museum inside the former Château Grimaldi. Picasso spent a year living in Antibes after WWII, and his joie de vivre is reflected in the small collection of paintings and sculptures on display.

Top Attractions


Eze

The medieval hilltop village of Eze is like something out of a fairytale. Cross the formidable town gate built to keep pirates out and wander through the maze of tiny lanes. Find a restaurant to savor a meal and enjoy views of the sparkling Mediterranean sea, or climb to the top to the ruins of the Eze Chateau. Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to walk!

Matisse Museum, Nice

Situated on the hill of Cimiez in Nice, Musee Matisse has welcomed visitors to its collection of works left by the artist to Nice, where he lived from 1918 until 1954. Housed in a beautiful 17th-century Genoese villa, the museum hosts an extensive collection of works including the artist's famous paper cut-outs.

Oceanographic Museum of Monaco

Opened in 1910 by Prince Albert I, this “Temple of the Sea” is one of the world’s best aquariums with a prime cliffside location overlooking the sea. From 1957 to 1988, famed explorer Jacques Cousteau was the curator for the museum. Spend a couple hours exploring the museum and aquarium that's home around 6,000 species of sea creatures.

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild

Set amid the lush vegetation of the St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat peninsula, the rose-colored Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was built in 1912 for Baroness Béatrice, an eccentric member of the Rothschild banking family. A Versailles of the South, the villa is stunning both inside and out with gilded Belle Époque interiors and nine gardens, each with a different theme.


Travel Tips

  • If you plan on visiting during the off season, keep in mind most private beaches close from October to March.

  • The Regional Express Train, or TER, connects major Riviera cities and runs about every 30 minutes.

  • Consider purchasing a Côte d’Azur Card, which grants you free entry to 180 attractions in 60 towns and villages.

  • Most of the beaches along the Riviera are gravel or pebble beaches.

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