The French Riviera, also called the Côte d’Azur, meaning the azure or blue coast because of the color of its coastal waters, inevitably calls to mind images of glamour and celebrities. Whether you care or not about glamorous personalities, visiting the Riviera will actually make you feel a bit like a star – there is something about being here that makes you feel special and privileged. The grand villas, the fashionable hotels, the great yachts, the fine restaurants, the smart shops, the colorful beaches, the exotic landscaping, and the broad esplanades – all of these are there for you to enjoy. From Hyères in the west, to Menton in the east, not to mention Monaco and Monte Carlo along the way, the French Riviera promises and delivers an unforgettable holiday experience.
Riviera actually refers to the entire strip of coast that extends from La Spezia in Italy to Hyères in France, and is a total distance of some 150 miles/240 kms – each country shares about one half of this distance; the entire length has a scenic highway that for the most part follows an ancient Roman road. The Italian Riviera – riviera is actually the Italian name for coastline – has its own attractions including Portofino, Rapallo, and San Remo, although the French Riviera does have its own distinct aura.
The French Riviera boasts 300 days of sunshine a year, and relatively mild winters. Although many hotels and restaurants actually close down between November and February, there are travelers who visit come during the winter to enjoy the ski resorts in the mountains. Visiting during spring and autumn is most pleasant and relatively crowd-free; summer is high season for tourism and has temperatures in the 80s F / high 20s C. Even though it is quite crowded at this time of year, the crowds are actually part of its appeal. Not all the coast has fine beaches, but there are more than enough to accommodate visitors. Additionally, there are many golf courses, the casino at Monte Carlo, not to mention the many bars, cafes and restaurants. Throughout the year there are a series of events ranging from automobile races to music festivals, as well as the famous Cannes Film Festival. There are many museums along the coast, and several excellent options for excursions into the numerous sites in the hill towns such as Vence and Grasse.
Even if Monaco is not the first destination that you visit on the Riviera, it is a city that you will definitely want to visit because of its world famous Casino of Monte Carlo, but also because of its history and relation to France. Although Monaco to some extent has always been dependent on France’s decisions, it had for centuries been something like an independent principality to France; it was fully recognized as a sovereign state in 1861 after it ceded half of its territory to France. Today Monaco covers only 475 acres/192 hectares, but these acres extend along approximately 3 miles/5 kms of the Mediterranean coast. Monaco-Ville is the capital town and it sits on a rocky promontory above the harbor, dominated by the 16th century Renaissance palace that is the residence of the prince. Also here is the world-famous Oceanographic Museum; Jacques Cousteau served as its director from 1957-1988 and used it as the base for his international undersea expeditions. North of the harbor is Monte Carlo, site of the all-but mythical Casino – where, by the way, citizens of Monaco are forbidden to gamble. There is also an opera house and numerous luxury hotels. Monaco is the site of several international sporting events, the best known of which are the car races: the Monte-Carlo Rally and the Grand Prix of Monaco.
Cannes is probably the best known of all the cities along the French Riviera because of the Film Festival held here every May – an event that is now known as much for celebrity-spotting as movie-viewing. Thanks to its sheltered location, it enjoys moderately hot summers and mild winters and thus has long been a favorite year-round seaside resort, with all the luxury hotels, restaurants and shops that pleasure seekers could want. In addition to the film festival, it’s also famed for its Mardi Gras carnival, its many international conferences, and its sailboat regattas. At any time of the year visitors can enjoy Cannes’ exotic vegetation, its shoreline boulevard, its many art galleries, and its nightclubs.
Some 8 miles/13 kms up the coast from Monaco, Nice is the largest of the resort towns along the Riviera. Although the steady stream of visitors is a major contributor to its economy, it is in fact a bustling commercial port, as well as the site of several light industries. Needless to say, Nice offers a wide spectrum of hotels and restaurants, as befits its longstanding reputation as a desirable place to spend a vacation in a most favorable climate. Prominent among its attractions is the broad Promenade des Anglais – the avenue that winds along the harbor – its superb botanical garden, and its 16th century Franciscan monastery. It also boasts several museums, including one devoted to the works of Matisse and another devoted to the work of Chagall. Although you will find more than enough to do in Nice itself, those especially interested in modern art will want to make the excursion to Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a town only 7 miles/11.5 kms up the mountain behind Nice. Long an attraction for artists of all types – James Baldwin actually died here in 1987; Chagall is buried here and it is now virtually a town devoted to art and tourism. Visitors are first impressed by the walls of this old fortified town, but what lies in and around it is what rewards art lovers: the modern paintings and sculpture at the museum of the Maeght Foundation and, at the nearby town of Vence, the famous Chapelle du Rosaire (Chapel of the Rosary), designed by Matisse and home to his murals which are regarded as some of the masterworks of modern art.
This now fashionable beach resort was a sleepy little fishing port until the French author Guy de Maupassant is said to have “fallen in love“ with the seaside town in the late 19th century. Other French artists such as Colette and Jean Cocteau followed Maupassant, and movie stars – most notorious of who was Brigitte Bardot, in turn followed them; thus, this simple fishing port has today developed into a famous locale full of luxurious yachts. In addition to the beach and fabulous views of the surrounding bay, visitors can also enjoy its many elegant restaurants and cafes.
Yet another of the longstanding fashionable resorts along the French Riviera, Antibes traces its origins to a Greek colony of the 4th century BC. It retains its 16th century fort and is active both as a producer of perfumes and as a commercial port, but visitors come to Antibes to enjoy the wonderful flower gardens, its beach, and the chateau with its Picassos.
Although not as well known as the other French Riviera beach resort towns, Fréjus was founded by Julius Caesar in 49 BC and is especially attractive because of some of its Roman ruins including the oldest surviving Roman arena in France. It also has a fine cathedral dedicated to Saint-Léonce with a baptistery that dates from the 5th century.
Route 1: Sampling the French Riviera
The stretch of France’s Mediterranean coast – the celebrated azure coast – extends from Menton near the Italian border to Saint Tropez in the southwest. It is only some 125 miles/200 kms long and can easily be covered in a day if you’d like to make a quick visit to all the best-known towns, beaches and locales. This itinerary is a perfect introduction to the Riviera for those with limited time; of course there is still enough time to enjoy an occasional stop for refreshments at some of the stylish locales.
Beginning at Menton, although it may not be quite as well known as some places along the Riviera, in its prime it attracted many artists like Picasso, Matisse, and Jean Cocteau. Cocteau was a French writer, actor, painter, filmmaker who has been honored with a modern museum dedicated to his, as well as his friends’ paintings. If museum going is not of interest, Menton also has a superb beach and the Promenade du Soleil – a seaside boulevard where you can actually walk all the way (about 3.5 miles/5 kms) to Monaco and the Monte Carlo Casino. Monaco and Monte Carlo hardly need introducing, but just to remind you, Monaco is its own sovereign city-state whose seven-century ruling Grimaldi family now carries the Irish-American genes of Grace Kelly. You need not be a millionaire to lose your money at the famed casino and then sit at one of the many cafes to know that you are getting a taste of the life of the rich and famous.
Driving from Monaco to Nice takes you along a series of twisting coastal roads known as “Corniche.” Sometimes high above the shore, you’ll pass by Beaulieu-sur-Mer with its Belle Époque architecture, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat with its fabulous millionaire villas, and the picturesque fishing village of Villefranche-sur-Mer with its well-preserved medieval old town – you may like to stop for a quick refreshment before continuing on to Nice. A legendary Riviera destination, just by virtue of its longstanding status as a resort for the elite and wealthy, Nice is a bit calmer than some of the other Riviera towns; it is full of many museums and is definitely a “cool” destination. From here proceed down the coast to Antibes, the port town that has long attracted celebrities, rewarding them and their yachts with impressive displays of flowers. Antibes also boasts its peninsular cape with the beach resort Juan-les-Pins; the name comes from the stone pine trees that grow here and is famed for hosting, among other celebrities, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who worked on what would become Tender Is the Night. The Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc that was clearly featured in the novel is still here and Fitzgerald himself stayed in what is now the Hotel Belles-Rives.
It’s best to keep moving before Antibes seduces you into thinking you live in another era! Moving along 6.5 miles/11 kms to Cannes, today famed for its film festival, but appreciated by the international elite since 1946 for its sandy beaches and its Promenade de la Croisette, lined with luxury hotels and shops. Continuing on, the next resort town is Saint-Raphaël. Considerably less hectic than Cannes and Nice, it has its own attractions including a beach, Art Nouveau architecture, and a casino. From here head to Saint Tropez, which until the late 1950s was a fairly sleepy fishing village; it transformed into a stylish international resort and was the setting of Brigitte Bardot’s breakthrough movie, And God Created Woman. Now a popular destination for yacht owners and nude sunbathers, we recommend relaxing at a cafe in the town square or watching the locals play a round of Pétanque, which is a game similar to lawn bowling but on a dirt court. This brings your exploration of the Riviera to an end, but you’re welcome to return to any spot along the way that was most appealing to you.
Route 2: Excursions from Cannes or Nice
Cannes and Nice are both grand resort towns that are an excellent base from which to make short trips. From Cannes, a longtime favorite excursion is about 12 miles/20 kms north to Grasse, which has essentially been the center of the France’s perfume industry since the 16th century. The perfumes themselves are not made here, but the natural essences used in perfumes are from here, many of them extracted and distilled from the flowers that grow in the fields around this town. Some of the perfumeries offer tours and there is a museum devoted to the history of perfume.
If you enjoy ceramics then you’ll want to visit Vallauris, only 5 miles/8 kms northeast of Cannes. Its modest ceramics industry was not well known until Picasso came here in 1948 to work through his own “ceramic period.” He produced some 4,000 original pieces in all manner of unusual shapes and designs, and even some issued in limited editions. While in Vallauris, Picasso also painted a stunning fresco called War and Peace; additionally he left several other works to be seen in this town. If you are interested in glass then head to Biot just 11 miles/18 kms northeast of Cannes, which is famed for its unusual bubble-flecked glassware. If you enjoy fine cuisine, then you may like to visit Mougins; 5 miles/8 kms north of Cannes, it has at least one world-class restaurant and is famed for its annual food festival that draws internationally acclaimed chefs every September.
It is important to mention that all of these towns have attracted artists for the last 150 years and thus several of them have fine collections in their small museums. Those especially interested in modern art should take the time to visit the oldest medieval town on the Riviera called Saint-Paul-de-Vence some 20 miles/32 kms north of Nice; it is well known for its modern and contemporary art museums such as Fondation Maeght. This museum has been named after the French art dealers whose personal collections formed the core of this major museum of modern art, sculpture, and painting. Having come this far, you should definitely spend some time in the village itself strolling through its medieval streets lined with centuries-old buildings and inspecting the 16th century ramparts and 12th century Église Collégiale. Saint-Paul-de-Vence became a favorite of 20th century French artists including Léger, Braque, Matisse and Picasso. Some of these artists stayed at an inn known as the Colombe d’Or, still operational today, and even left some of their original works here.
Then, practically next door is another well-preserved medieval village called Vence. It is well known because it has one of the 20th century’s masterworks: Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary. Matisse retreated to Vence during World War II and in 1947, learning that Dominican nuns were planning to build a chapel here, not only designed it but decorated it and paid for it. Both Saint-Paul-de-Vence and Vence have thus become very popular towns to visit. One other great choice for art-lovers is Cagnes-sur-Mer; only 4.5 miles/7 kms west along the coast from Nice, it offers the 14th-17th century Chateau Grimaldi and the Renoir Museum – the house where Renoir spent the last 17 years of his life. Although this concludes your short trips of this region, if you are based in Cannes or Nice, or any place along the Riviera for that matter, you will never be without things to see or do.
Although the French Riviera has signs of primitive human occupation that dates back to at least one million years ago, it was in the 7th century BC that Greek sailors began to establish trading posts here – including ones at Nice and Antibes – but it was the Romans who first established true towns, and remains of some of these structures can still be seen. The Germanic tribes began to move into the region as early as the 3rd century AD, but it was not until the 5th century that they began to replace the Romans; Saracens from North Africa and Normans from Northern Europe in turn challenged these Germanic peoples. Christianity took hold here by the 4th century and some of the oldest structures to be seen along the Riviera are Christian. In the late 13th century, after centuries of dynastic squabbles, the Grimaldi family from Genoa took control of much of the French Riviera, including Monaco. The rest of the French Riviera belonged to an independent Kingdom of Provence since the 9th century, but it became part of France in 1486. In 1388 the Italian House of Savoy took over the coast from Nice eastward, but it too was united with France in 1860. Monaco, however, remained independent and is a collateral descendant of the House of Grimaldi, whose rule continues to this day under the Prince of Monaco.
During the centuries under the French and Italians, the French Riviera remained largely unknown to foreigners – with the exception of Grasse and its flowers, used to make perfumes – until the late 18th century when the English began to appear here in search of a climate believed to help cure various ailments including tuberculosis. By the mid-19th century, there was a more or less permanent British enclave in Cannes, and by 1875 there were said to be 25,000 foreigners living in Nice alone. The construction of railways throughout Europe is said to have been partly responsible for this, but equally so was the establishment of a casino and health resort in Monaco in the 1860s. It was Prince Charles III of Monaco who named this locale and casino after himself, Monte Carlo. What then put the final stamp of approval on the Riviera was the appearance of royalty, including the Tsar Alexander, Napoléon III, King Leopold II of Belgium, and none other than Queen Victoria who beginning in 1882 would make almost annual visits to the Riviera, sometimes taking over large sections of a hotel for her entourage of up to 100.
If royalty gave the French Riviera its aura of fashionable respectability, it was the French artists who soon began to visit and settle here who gave it its reputation for fashionable glamour. Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir, and Monet were among the first wave of famous artists who came to the Riviera for extended stays and to paint. They were followed by a long series of international artists including Bonnard, Braque, Munch, Chagall, and perhaps the most celebrated of all, Pablo Picasso, who in 1946 settled permanently in the hills above the coast. In the meantime, since the late 19th century, sophisticated or at least prosperous Americans from Henry James to J.P. Morgan frequented the French Riviera, and after World War I Americans in both greater numbers and different lifestyles spent time here. Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald actually wrote major works here; Wharton wrote The Age of Innocence and Fitzgerald much of The Great Gatsby. Chanel, the fashion designer, is credited with making suntans fashionable after acquiring one on the Riviera, Isadora Duncan passed through, W. Somerset Maugham became a permanent resident in 1926, and Wallis Simpson stayed here while King Edward VIII abdicated to marry her, after which they resided temporarily near Antibes.
When France fell to the Germans in 1940 the large British community fled to Gibraltar and the UK. Left behind were many hundreds of French Jews who had long lived along the Riviera; it is estimated that some 5,000 of them lost their lives in the Holocaust. As part of Operation Dragoon on August 15, 1944, American paratroopers landed near Fréjus while 60,000 Free French and US troops came ashore along the French Riviera; the Germans quickly retreated and so most of the towns escaped war damage. Naturally it took a while for the Riviera to return to its original character, but the founding of the Cannes Film festival in 1946 began a new era for the Riviera as a place for the glamorous with their super cars and super yachts. This new world of glamour and wealth joined the old world of aristocratic tradition in April 1956 when the America screen star Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco; since then, the French Riviera has never lost its prestige.