Stretching from Menton through to Cassis, the French Riviera – or Côte d’Azur – is an area of Southern France, known for its palm-lined beach resorts, scorching climate and mountain-peaked backdrop. Its glamorous aspersions are well-known, from the glittering Cannes Film Festival to the multi-million-pound yachts which line the harbours. It’s easy to see why celebrities are drawn to the area. Rest assured though, this is not just an area for the rich and famous!
It’s an area I’ve visited several times with family over the years. In 2019 I visited again, this time with the added benefit of a hire car. Although most towns on the Rivieria can be easily reached by public transport, I was glad we had our own vehicle. It allowed us to zip about at our own pace. It also gave us freedom to explore places which might otherwise have fallen off the radar.
I’m now more convinced than ever that everyone should experience this beautiful part of the world at least once in their life. Y’know what? It doesn’t have to break the bank either.
Here’s a few suggestions for things you won’t want to miss when exploring the French Riviera:
Breathing in the fresh mountain air of Gourdon
An absolute must on the French Rivieria is the hilltop village of Gourdon.
This Medieval charmer is well worth the steep, winding drive up into the mountains. With its half-timbered houses, fortified gate and twisting maze of cobbled lanes, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you’d fallen back a century or five.
Offering stunning views down towards the coast and villages below, Gourdon is sprinkled with wonderful independent boutiques. You’ll find all manner of locally crafted goods, from jewellery and perfume to hand-carved soap.
It’s a beautiful place to stop for lunch or an espresso in the sun.
Visiting Picasso’s Studio and Museum in Antibes
Did you know that Picasso spent a portion of his career in Antibes? Neither did I! We discovered this little fact while looking at things to do before heading to the town.
The Musee Picasso is housed in the former Château Grimaldi. It’s built upon the foundations of the ancient Greek town of Antipolis. Picasso rented a studio here, and later went on to donate several of his works when the building went on to become a public museum. Today, it holds over 300 of his pieces. These range from large-scale paintings to sketchings and painted pottery. It’s a beautiful museum and the perfect place to cool off for an hour or two before delving back into the sun.
Exploring the cobbled backstreets of Nice’s Old Town
For many people, Nice will be the start and end point for their time on the French Riviera. Home to the second busiest airport in France, the city sees some serious traffic through its runways!
This big, bold beach resort has been popular with sun worshippers since the 17th Century. Then, holiday makers would have clip-clopped down the Promenade des Anglais by horse-drawn carriage. Today, it’s a lively town with a seemingly-never-ending beach, string of luxury hotels and arts festivals peppered throughout the year.
I was really glad we took the time to head off the main esplanade and into the back streets beyond. Nice Old Town feels a million miles away, with its narrow cobbled streets, historic squares and church bells tolling gently in the background. It’s a stunning place to explore. If you find yourself overheating in the afternoon sun, you can even unleash your inner child by running through the famous fountains!
Dining out in Valbonne
This pretty village sits a cool 20 minute drive from Nice and is the perfect place for a spot of al fresco dining. The town is built around a bustling main square somewhat reminiscent of an Italian piazza. Pastel-toned townhouses look down on the hubbub below and narrow closes play home to secret cafés and petite shops.
Valbonne is great to visit any time of day, but really comes to life at night when the restaurants spill out onto the street and conversation fills the air. Absolutely my kind of place.
Topping up the tan levels
A trip to the French Riviera wouldn’t be complete without a day at the beach! Thankfully, there are countless stretches of sand to choose from.
Head to Nice if you fancy splashing out on a luxury sun lounger with added bonuses of table service and watersports nearby. Cannes is equally glamorous. The beaches of Antibes, Menton and Cassis are perhaps a little more chilled and ideal for a quiet afternoon of sunbathing with your own picnic in tow. Whichever beach you choose, you will be guaranteed warm, azure waters and stunning mountain views.
Exploring the spooky Grotte de Saint Cezaire
If you fancy something a little more adventurous, try heading to the eerie but fascinating caves at of Saint Cezaire. Reaching a depth of 40 metres below ground, this winding labyrinth takes a good hour to explore. It’s home to some seriously impressive underground riches – from towering stalactites to starry concretions. It’s a beautiful place, but does involve negotiation through some narrow natural tunnels. I wouldn’t recommended if you’re not a fan of tight spaces…or bats…
Walking in the footsteps of the rich and famous in Cannes
A world-famous film festival. A yacht-lined harbour. Pristine boulevards of designer stores… It’s no wonder that the name Cannes continues to draw aspersions to the rich and famous! The glitzy resort town is definitely a popular stomping ground for A Listers looking to top up on their vitamin D. However, that’s not to say us mere mortals are unwelcome too!
Cannes is a super-fun place to be on a sunny day, with a gorgeous sandy beach, hazy mountain views and a marina which’ll leave you with some serious boat envy.
Have a dip in the sea. Cool down with an ice cream on the promenade. Visit the Palais des Festivals and watch out for well-known names along the walk of fame. After all, it’s fun to see how the other half live, even if just for a day!
Kayaking down the Gorge du Verdon
A winding drive into heart of the lower alps will take you to the gorgeous village of Castalene and the nearby Gorge du Verdon – one of Europe’s most staggering river canyons. The natural beauty around here is unrivalled, with lush, sprawling forests, naturally perfumed air and glacial-blue waters just calling out for adventures! Head to the northern tip of Lac de Ste-Croix. You’ll find a few companies which offer kayak hire. Trust me, there’s no better way to explore this area than from the calming aqua river itself.
Exploring the galleries of Saint-Paul-de-Vence
It’s easy to see why artistic personalities like James Baldwin and Henri Matisse have long been drawn to Saint Paul de Vence.
This hilltop commune dates back to the 15th Century. The historic belltower and fortress walls stand powerful to this day. The village is an absolute labyrinth of French creativity, with cafés, galleries and craft stories built into every feasible nook and cranny.
It’s an absolute dream to explore, and you could easily lose a whole day drifting dreamily through the cobbled Old Town.
We were lucky enough to bag a table at the stunning La Sierra restaurant. It was well worth the extra stroll to find a haven away from the crowds with unbeatable views out over the French Riviera below.
Visiting the home of perfume
With lavender fields and wildflower stretching as far as the eye can see, it’s no wonder that Grasse has become famed for its perfume production. In fact, many consider the city itself as the home of perfume! Grasse itself is a colourful town and well worth a visit. Make sure to stop by the famous Parfumerie Fragonard where you can learn about the history of perfume. You can even dabble in making your own scent!
Have you been to the French Riviera before? What would be your top tips?