I grew up in the Loire Valley, so my family didn't venture as far as the French Riviera for our summer beach vacation. We tended to head to the expansive sandy beaches of the Normandy coast, or to the beautiful Saint-Malo in Brittany. I was actually in my late 20s and seven months pregnant the first time I visited the Côte d'Azur. Guillaume and I had just started France Just For You and we wanted to visit the regions in France that we hadn't been to before. It was a long but scenic road trip through the winding mountain roads as we headed to the warmth of the Mediterranean.
Truth be told, my first impression of Nice, our first port of call, was a little disappointing. After all the hype, I had at least expected a sandy beach. But that night, as if to compensate for the pebbles, the silvery water beckoned, inviting me to discover its secret - that even in October, the sea is warm enough for a peaceful moonlit swim. Had I been too quick to judge?
The French Riviera stretches from the Italian border, through the microstate of Monaco to the glamorous beach resorts of Nice, Cannes and St Tropez. Historically and presently the French Riviera tends to be known as the playground of the rich and famous. Also known as the Côte d'Azur, it has been the destination of choice for royalty from Britain to Hollywood for more than 100 years. The glitz and glamor of the French Riviera had always seemed quite far removed from the reality of everyday life in France.
But the secret, which I discovered during that first trip, is to delve a little deeper into the region. For me, the most beautiful and authentically French places in the French Riviera lie beyond the big resorts. At the bottom of a mountain gorge for example, or in a centuries-old hilltop village square, surrounded by bright, sun-bleached buildings. You just have to know where to find these hidden gems. Here are some of my favorites:
With the dramatic backdrop of the Alps on one side and gorgeous panoramic views of the Mediterranean on the other, Mougins is a village for art-lovers and only half an hour by car from Cannes. It is filled with independent, upscale art galleries, including work by local artists and by the Masters (Picasso, Cézanne and Dalí among others). If you're tired of the crowded museums, these galleries offer a more intimate experience away from the tourist crowds. Keep your eyes peeled during the Cannes Film Festival, as many Hollywood stars choose Mougins as their haven when they're not needed on the red carpet. For an exquisite dining experience, order the Saint Pierre fish and some rosé wine from the Place de Mougins restaurant and get a real taste of the French Riviera.
The picturesque village of Mougins
If you're looking for a quintessentially French town, the beautiful market town of Vence is where you need to head. This old town receives fewer visitors than its famous neighbor Saint Paul de Vence, and its medieval features have been beautifully preserved. Wander the narrow, cobbled streets on foot, discover charming little squares and boutiques, and finish the day with some al fresco dining at one of the town's many fantastic restaurants.
Tourrettes-Sur-Loup is a peaceful, quaint French village where passers-by will greet you with a friendly 'bonjour' and a smile. The town is a real gem, with spectacular views of the Mediterranean in the distance, the sound of the Loup river trickling below, the smell of jasmine in the air and a splendid Michelin Star restaurant, 19 du Clovis. The local artisans are happy for visitors to come into their studios to find authentic French souvenirs. Candied fruits are a regional specialty and make great gifts. However, you might prefer to keep them for yourself, to enjoy during the rest of your trip!
The hill-top village of Tourrettes-Sur-Loup on the French Riviera
The road from Tourrettes-Sur-Loup to Gourdon has some magnificent views, so it's well worth making a few photo-stops along the way. Gourdon is a small village just above the Gorge du Loup and also has some spectacular scenery. The town is full of little boutiques, perfume shops, and floral patios to explore. The more adventurous traveler should absolutely try canyoning in the Gorge du Loup. Experiences are available for all levels of skill and confidence, so it's a fun activity for families or groups of friends.
The gorgeous village of Gourdon
The Lérins Islands
Just a 15-minute boat ride away from Cannes are the islands of Saint Marguerite and Saint Honorat. A day trip to the Lérins Islands offers a peaceful break from the tourist crowds of the Riviera. On Saint Marguerite, the larger of the two islands, the Fort of St Marguerite, now a museum, contains the cell of the 'Man in the Iron Mask'. You'll also find relics from archaeological discoveries on shipwrecks off the coast of the island. Saint Honorat perhaps has more charm than Saint Marguerite. It receives fewer tourists and a community of monks has resided there for over 1,500 years. Lérins Abbey and the 15th-century fortified monastery are open to visitors, and the gift shop sells wine and honey produced on the island. These make great gifts to bring home from the French Riviera. Both islands boast unspoiled natural settings with some lovely walking trails and secluded creeks perfect for a picnic and a swim.
From Saint Marguerite Island, you can see Cannes in the distance
Just next to the Italian border, this sleepy, picturesque town is brought alive by the vibrant colors of its buildings. Menton is also a great foodie destination proud of its French-Italian cuisine and its citrus fruits. If you can, try to go during the annual Lemon Festival at the end of February. It is more affordable than its glamorous neighbors on the Côte d'Azur, and its beautiful setting makes it just as desirable.
The vibrant pastel colors of Menton
Cavalaire is St Tropez's more laid-back neighbor with something to offer thrill-seekers and those who just want to chill. You may like to book a boat trip down at the port or try paragliding and other watersports at the beach. The bars and restaurants by the marina are perfect for relaxing with a drink and doing some people-watching. To escape the town for a bit, stroll down to the Plage de Bonporteau, a small, sandy beach nestled between two cliffs and surrounded by greenery, but bring an umbrella, as there's very little natural shade.
Cavalaire-Sur-Mer, one of the most beautiful French Riviera beaches
Paloma beach, Saint Jean Cap Ferrat
This upscale resort has a pebble beach with beautiful views of the mountains and luxury yachts in the harbor. It is also a good place for snorkeling. Paloma beach is lined with sunbeds and tables from the seafood restaurant, a convenient dinner option if you're not on a budget. In the summer, French Riviera beaches get busier as the day progresses, so try to arrive early or make a dinner reservation beforehand. Take a scenic hike along the nearby Cap Ferrat coastal path for gorgeous views across the bay towards Monaco.
The enclave of Paloma Beach on the French Riviera
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild
Just a ten-minute drive away from Paloma beach is one of the most photogenic places on the French Riviera, Villa Ephrussi. It is one of my favorite places on the French Riviera and I warmly recommend blocking out some time to visit it. Banker Maurice de Ephrussi had the villa built for his wife, Béatrice de Rothschild, in the early 20th century. She filled it with antiques, paintings, tapestries and sculptures, as well as an extensive collection of rare porcelain that she collected on her travels. There are nine gardens surrounding the villa, and each have a theme. My favorites are the French, Florentine, and Japanese gardens. Strolling from one garden to the next feels like you're stepping into another country and culture altogether. There are lovely sea views from the villa and the cool shade provided by the pine trees will provide respite from the heat of Nice during the summer months.
The Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild with the stunning backdrop of the Mediterranean
Monaco's Exotic Garden
After trying your luck in the casinos and doing a bit of celebrity-spotting (I once passed by the Prince of Monaco outside the palace!), discover another side of Monaco. Monaco's Exotic Garden is the perfect location for capturing some incredible panoramic shots of Monaco. The garden itself is colorful and - true to its name – exotic. Take the time to get lost among the cactuses before stopping for an impromptu picnic.
Panoramic views from the Exotic Garden of Monaco ©CRT Cote d'Azur
Between Provence and the French Riviera, the Verdon Gorge is a dream location for canoeing or climbing. Crystal-clear water flows through the canyon, and the aquamarine color of the water is striking even on a cloudy day. Many choose to make the 2-hour car journey from Cannes and explore the area from above by car taking route D71 or D23. If you do this, be sure to visit outside of peak season or early in the morning, as the roads can get congested with other cars and tour buses. The last thing you want is to be stuck behind a tour bus as it tries to navigate a hairpin bend. The best way to explore the gorge is from below. Take a hike along one of the hiking trails or hire a kayak or pedalo and take to the water.
Kayaks in the Verdon Gorge ©Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho, Flickr
The French Riviera's 'Little Venice' is in the bay of St. Tropez, and is a purpose-built copy of Venice, constructed in the 1960s. While it shouldn't be compared to the real Venice (it is a modern interpretation, after all) Port Grimaud is a lovely area with colorful riverside buildings lining the waterways. You could easily spend a day exploring its charming quaysides and small boutiques and cafes. A pleasant way to experience Port Grimaud is to take a boat ride through the waterways, and then catch the Petit Train from the port up to the medieval town of Grimaud.
Climb the castle tower once you're up there and enjoy the views over the town and the sea.
Are you taking one of our tours on the French Riviera? If you would like to include visits to any or all of these places, please let us know!