A Beginners Guide to the French Riviera

The French Riviera is one of those destinations that everyone has heard of. Visions of sitting on a terrace overlooking pristine beaches and unbelievably blue waters with a glass of champagne or rosé in hand capture the imagination. Spend your days soaking up the sun-drenched pastel-colored houses while flitting from one luxury boutique shop to the next. What’s not to love? But how do you begin to bring this vision to life?

Below you’ll find our introductory guide to the fabulous French Riviera!

a view looking down the stunning blue waters of Nice
[Photo Credit: Arno Smit via Unsplash]

What is the French Riviera?

Also known as the Cote d’Azur, the French Riviera is a strip of beautiful towns and cities along the Mediterranean coast. With warm breezes and stunning blue seas, this region has long been the playground of the rich and famous. And for good reason! 

There are three general categories of destinations that comprise this idyllic strip in southern France. Bigger cities are well-connected by train and offer a variety of beaches, museums, shopping, old towns, and new squares. These are places like Toulon, Cannes, Nice, and Monaco. 

Then there are the smaller coastal towns. These villages and towns blend secluded luxury with quaint Mediterranean culture. Places like Antibes, St. Tropez, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Menton, Cassis and Hyeres. 

Finally, there are the hilltop villages. For those who love the incredible panoramic views but don’t feel the need to actually be in the water. These medieval villages (like Eze) were built high on the hilltops overlooking the Mediterranean. They exude history with winding stone alleyways.

When to Go

aerial view of a beach with the light blue water on top and the grey pebbles covered with people on towels and pastel colored umbrellas in Page Beau Rivage inNice France

With 330 days of sunshine, there’s no bad time to visit. Spring and summer have higher crowds because they offer perfect beach weather. August sees the highest crowds but also the most concerts and luxe parties. Fall provides a good balance of fewer crowds and still lovely weather. And while winters are not for the beachgoers, they are mild and still pleasant to wander the towns with very few crowds.

[Photo Credit: Alex D Alessio via Unsplash]

Getting Around

You’ll fly into Nice or Marseille. While Marseille isn’t technically part of the Riviera, it’s a good starting point to access the western side. Both airports have easy train or bus transportation from the airport to the cities. 

Most of the major stops along the coast are well-connected by the TER ( Train Express Regional) train system. From Nice to Monaco is only a 30-minute journey. So, navigating by public transport is easy. But to cast a wider net you’ll need a vehicle — be it a rental car, guided tour, or one of the many well-connected busses. 

The Perfect Itinerary

No matter which locales you choose to visit, you’ll find Michelin-star restaurants, colorful open-air markets, shopping, incredible cuisine, and stunning views. Then the entire coast boasts idyllic beaches, and for the adventurous traveler, snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, and canyoning are available.

overlooking Cannes
[Photo Credit: Jim Thirion via Unsplash]

Our philosophy as custom travel planners is that there is no “one size fits all” itinerary. A perfect week along the French Riviera will depend wholly on who you are as a traveler. However, we often recommend structuring your trip by picking a larger city as your home base. Then make several day trips radiating out. The cities themselves have plenty to explore on their own and when you add in a few day trips to the smaller towns and villages you’ll have a perfectly luxurious week! 

Below, we’ve given a brief overview of each destination to help you determine which locale best fits your style!

Choosing a Home Base

Monaco– This small principality is known for being a playground of the rich with an almost unbelievably wealthy population. Densely packed with skyscrapers and luxury cars, Monaco is synonymous with exclusivity, luxury, and extravagance. Around every corner, you will find some of the most lavish shopping centers, sophisticated hotels, and stylish rooftop clubs.

overlooking the bay of Monaco

In addition to luxury and fancy cars, Monaco boasts incredible landscapes that can be fully appreciated from St. Nicholas Cathedral or the Exotic Garden. Walk down by the harbor to admire the mega-yachts, or lay out on the soft sandy beaches to soak up the sun. Head to the old town to visit the Prince’s Palace and tour the extravagant rooms or try your luck at one of the high-end casinos. This bustling, busy city imbues you with a sense of glamour, wealth, and vibrancy.

[Photo Credit: Julien Lanoy via Unsplash]

Cannes – Cannes is famous, of course, for the Cannes Film Festival! Each May it welcomes celebrities from all over the world for film screenings. Throughout the rest of the year, it keeps this air of glamour and luxury. With easy access to the quieter Lerins Islands and several lovely parks, you can also get a taste of nature here. But the main reason to stay in Cannes is the shopping! Cannes has several upscale brands and chains and stylish boutiques. You’ll find more luxury shops along the promenade La Croissette and additional shopping along the Rue L’Antibes. 

Nice– The second largest city on the Riviera, Nice is a popular home base. It’s an eclectic mix of a big city, on a beach, with small winding streets.

Visit Vieux Nice ( Old Town) to find those colorful houses, picturesque narrow streets, and small sunny squares. Meanwhile, New Town offers grand tree-lined avenues, and trendy shops and restaurants. Nice is a vibrant and bustling city with a more slice-of-life feel than its more glamorous neighbors.

[Photo Credit: Kayla via Shared Adventures Travel — read about her French Honeymoon here!]

Bustling and modern with a hint of the grand old charm, in this city, you can find just about anything. Enjoy the pebble beaches, and private luxury clubs on the waterfront, or museums and galleries in town. Head up to Castle Hill in the late afternoon to enjoy a stunning sunset before going to one of the trendy Michelin-star restaurants for an unforgettable dinner.

Smaller Towns – Choosing your Day Trips

After you’ve chosen your home base, it’s time to consider your day trips! You could easily spend all day in any of these towns. But if you’re looking to see as much of the Riviera as possible, you can also see enough in a half-day.

rows of white beach loungers  set against the blue sky of Saint Tropez

St. Tropez – Arguably one of the most famous destinations along the French Riviera, St. Tropez is unique because it’s not on the train line. Its exclusivity, however, offers a lot for those willing to make the trip. With famous waterfronts and wide sandy beaches, St. Tropez is always associated with sunbathing and tanning. The town is a unique combination of high-end French Riviera luxury and quaint French fishing town. When you’re not lying out on the beach you can visit the Citadel or just people-watch in the main square. Even though it’s not on the main train line, in high season St. Tropez will still be extremely full because it is a destination to “see and be seen.” 

[Photo Credit: Valentin B Kremer via Unsplash]

Villefranche-Sur-Mer Situated between Nice and Monaco this romantic and serene small town is full of vibrant colors and picture-perfect scenery. Only 15 minutes from Nice’s pebble beaches are Villefranche-Sur-Mer’s soft sandy beaches. Wander the idyllic old town with a quainter, more Italian feeling, exquisite dining, and historic sites. 

Menton– Often called the pearl of France because it’s so lovely. Menton is on the Italian border, with influences from both countries. The lemon-scented town has a soft enduring appeal and a slower pace that allows you to take a quiet moment on your whirlwind French Riviera journey. Wander through the beautiful pastel-colored village, visit the ancient forts, or enjoy some natural beauty in the botanical gardens. 

Antibes- A laid-back centuries-old town just 6 miles east of Cannes, the ancient walled city has Greek and Phoenician origins. With narrow cobblestone streets and stunning views over the water, this is the perfect place to visit traditional markets or just chill on the beach. Featuring the Picasso Museum in Grimaldi Castle, upbeat nightclubs, beaches, and casinos – Antibes is a very well-rounded little oasis. 

[Photo Credit: Reuben Mcfeeters via Unsplash]

looking down the old town french street in Antibes

Hilltop Villages – Day Trips

Medieval stone buildings in Eze French Riviera
[Photo Credit: Thomas Konings via Unsplash]

Hyeres- Often overlooked and therefore quieter, this is one of the most beautiful and varied towns. A medieval town nestled in the hills above the sea, Hyeres offers wide sandy beaches with calm waters, unspoiled natural beauty, and a Provencal influence. Just offshore, Porquerolles is one of the Golden Isles, a group of islands with beaches, trails, and underwater shipwrecks.

Eze– This is the most popular hilltop village between Monaco and Nice. Home to perfume, art, galleries, and boutique shopping, it is almost like a fairytale village come to life. Step back in time as you walk through stone tunnel walkways that open up to spectacular views of the sea below. For the most breathtaking views head to the Jardin Exotique d’Eze- a cactus garden built atop the village. 

Vence- This is another charming town high above its more popular cousin St Paul de Vence. A quintessential little French town that sees fewer tourists and offers a little oasis away from the glitz, glam, and bustle. Home to breathtaking vistas and leisurely charm that give you a chance to slow down and enjoy. 

Start Planning

Now that you have a better understanding of the different cities and villages along the luxurious French Riviera, you’re ready to dig into an itinerary that’s perfectly suited for you! Let us know if you’d like to work with us and we can help book hotels, and tours, and give recommendations on the best places to dine while you’re enjoying your French Riviera Adventure.

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