The French Riviera is famous for its glamorous beaches, well-heeled resorts and yacht clubs, film festivals brimming with stars posing on red carpets, and grand casinos. Yet the stretch of coastline in the south of France—called "La Côte d'Azur" in French (Azure Coast)—offers much more than the stereotypes suggest. From stunning national parks to romantic, centuries-old cities, architectural treasures, modern art museums, and villages perched high in the hills, these are 15 of the top destinations in the French Riviera.
Nice: A Mediterranean Gem with Italian Influence
Nice, the Franco-Italian city situated on the far-eastern side of the French Riviera, nevertheless lies at its heart. With a history stretching back to ancient Greece, the city has alternately belonged to Italy, France, and Savoy's dominion; it was only in 1860 that France reclaimed it as its own from the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia (now part of unified Italy). Those diverse influences are evident in the old city's Italian-style architecture, red-ochre facades, cuisine, and traditional gardens.
Many travelers rightly choose Nice as a hub for exploring the Riviera since it's in close reach of numerous beautiful and interesting spots (see more on those below). But the city itself merits at least two or three days of exploration. Take a long morning or sunset stroll along the city's iconic Promenade des Anglais, with its waterfront views, numerous restaurants, elegant 18th-century buildings, and iconic Hotel Negresco. Explore the old city (Vieux Nice) and meander through its bustling streets and quiet passageways. Browse lively market stalls at the Cours Saleya and procure some typical Provencal treats. Sun, swim, and people-watch on Nice's many beaches (at the Baie des Anges), and enjoy a sunset cocktail overlooking the ancient city and waters beyond.
Cannes: For Classic Riviera Glamour
For many, the word Cannes is synonymous with Riviera glamour and exclusivity, thanks in large part to the annual film festival of the same name that sees movie stars take to the red carpets every summer. Since the Festival launched in the late 1930s, it helped turned the formerly sleepy fishing port and quiet resort town into a destination prized by the wealthy and famous.
But Cannes is much more than its iconic festival. Its long, winding boardwalk and beachfront, La Croisette, is one of the Riviera's most popular places to stroll, jog, enjoy a sunset cocktail, or leisurely seafood lunch, not to mention see and be seen. Its numerous sandy beaches are some of the best in the region, boasting calm waters and plenty of space for sports, lounging, and family activities. The town itself is coveted for its boutiques, restaurants, and hotels, and the Old Port area offers picturesque perspectives and plenty of photo opportunities.
Menton: A Pretty Gem Near Monaco
Menton doesn't get fussed about as much as Nice or St-Tropez do, but it merits more attention. Situated on the Mediterranean coast between Monaco and the Italian border, Menton melds the glamour of French cultural influences with the warmth of Italian ones. Prized for its breathtaking gardens, well-preserved old town center dating to the 13th century, and stunning waterfront, it's simply one of the most picturesque spots on the French Riviera.
Highlights to focus on during a trip include La Citronneraie, a lemon grove where you'll encounter some 80 species of lemon trees, a walk through the old town center and its warmly colored facades, which lead to the seafront and port area; and a visit to the Palais Carnolès, formerly the summer residence of Monaco's princes. Today, the palace houses Menton's city art museum.
St-Tropez: A Beachgoer's Dream
There's a reason why a popular sunscreen brand markets under the name St-Tropez: it's a French Riviera town, and port whose large beaches and year-round sun make it a favorite destination for sunbathers, swimmers, and style-conscious snowbirds.
Like Cannes, St-Tropez has long been associated with glamorous parties on yachts, nightclubs, and lavish hotels, and its nightlife scene remains one of the liveliest in the region. Spend a day or two exploring its iconic beaches on Pampelonne Bay, a picturesque stretch of coastline with wide, sandy stretches and waters ideal for swimming, before wandering through the old port and admiring its statuesque boats and yachts. The Citadel, dating to the 17th century, is a reminder that St-Tropez has a rich history. It now hosts an interesting maritime museum.
Once a tranquil fishing village, Saint-Jean-Cap Ferrat has become one of the Riviera's most coveted spots for vacationers and locals seeking a bit of old-fashioned chic. Built on a protected cape near Nice whose waters are unusually calm, the town features five public beaches dotted around the peninsula.
In particular, Paloma Beach is beloved and noteworthy, thanks to its popularity among famous figures such as Henri Matisse, Sean Connery, and Elton John. The five-mile coastal footpath offers stunning panoramic views along the way. In town, explore the old Port and 11th-century Saint-Hospice Chapel. Also, consider taking a drive to admire some of the area's legendary, lavish villas, including the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild.
Monte Carlo: Monaco's Iconic Port
If you associate Monte Carlo with James Bond movies, you wouldn't be wrong. The iconic port city in the principality of Monaco was the setting for several films in the franchise over the decades, with its famed casino and waterfront a major part of the action. An international symbol of wealth and luxury, Monte Carlo continues to attract cruises, yachting enthusiasts, and celebrities with its Hercules Port, prestigious hotels, and other amenities.
For those of us who happen to be yacht-less, a visit to Monte Carlo offers gorgeous beaches, waterside paths with dramatic views over the water and rugged mountainous surrounds, and vibrant nightlife. Check out famous sights such as the Hotel de Paris- Monte Carlo, whose Bar Americain is the stuff of legends. The port also makes an ideal first stop during a wider exploration of Monaco, the independent principality that packs plenty to see and do-- despite only occupying a single square mile.
Antibes: Architecture, Art, & History
For those interested in art, architecture, and art history, this ancient walled city overlooking the sea is an essential stop on any French Riviera itinerary. Famous for being the one-time home of Pablo Picasso—who was often inspired by its rugged landscapes and had a studio nearby—Antibes lies between Nice and Cannes. It's built on the site of what was originally a Greek and Phoenician colony, Antipolis.
While most of its fortifications have since been destroyed to make more room for opulent houses and villas, you can still see its traces around the perimeters of the old city. Wander through its charming, cobbled streets and catch jaw-dropping perspectives over the sea below from various vantage points. Visit the Picasso Museum, one of the world's most impressive collections dedicated to the Cubist master, and housed in the formidable Grimaldi Castle. The museum also includes a significant collection of modern and contemporary art. Meanwhile, Port Vauban is the Riviera's largest marina, and an ideal place to spot superyachts and cruise ships.
Nestled in close reach of Monaco and the Italian border to the east, Villefranche-sur-Mer boasts one of the region's prettiest waterfronts. Its naturally deep harbor is dotted with picturesque sailboats and yachts, and its warm Italian-style facades loom invitingly just beyond, framed by green hills.
Like Nice and much of the Riviera, Villefranche has been used since Greek and Roman times as a harbor and trading port, and its historical riches shine alongside its natural ones. Spend a day here wandering the quaint Darse harbor and waterfront before exploring the old town and perhaps taking advantage of the opportunities for water sports, sailing, or deep-sea diving in the clear nearby waters.
Porquerolles Island and National Park
Just a 10-minute boat ride off the coast from the Riviera town of Hyères, Porquerolles Island is a little-populated oasis boasting pristine sandy beaches and turquoise waters, varied hiking trails, dramatic cliffside, and meandering maritime creeks. One of three "Golden Isles" near Hyères, it gets more than 300 days of sun a year and has a microclimate so warm that some describe it as tropical.
Formerly a privately owned island, Porquerolles was only made public in the 1970s. It was turned into a national park in recent years, with its unique Mediterranean plant and animal life protected from excess development. Explore its picturesque beaches and coves and spend an afternoon hiking its trails—from gentle to challenging.
St-Paul-de Vence: An Artistic & Historic Powerhouse
One of the oldest medieval towns in the region, the walled town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, looms high on a rocky spur on the Riviera's Eastern edge. While it has a history stretching back at least a millennium, it's primarily noted for its strong ties to modern and contemporary artists.
The Franco-Russian painter Marc Chagall lived in St-Paul and is buried in the cemetery here. Pablo Picasso, Jean Miró, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir were among the artists and intellectuals to frequent the village, its restaurants and bars during the 20th century. Spend some time wandering through its narrow, cobbled medieval streets and taking in panoramic views over the hillsides before exploring the town's numerous modern art galleries. The Fondation Maeght features collections boasting over 13,000 modern and contemporary artworks, with masterpieces from Chagall, Miró, Calder, and many others.
Situated west of Antibes, this classic Riviera seaside resort town boasts several long, sandy beaches ideal for swimming, sunbathing, and sports. Juan-Les Pins is also famous for its surrounding pine forests (as its name suggests), hotels, spas, and lively town center.
Come to sun and swim at one or more of its beaches, wander narrow little streets, browse its many boutiques, and perhaps book a table for a relaxed dinner at a waterside seafood bistro. In July, the town comes to vibrant life thanks to the annual jazz festival, which attracts international talent.
Èze: Seaside Medieval Splendors
This impossibly picturesque medieval village is perched high atop a rocky bluff just eight miles from Nice. Inhabited for thousands of years, Èze is beloved by travelers and photographers for its steep, winding lanes lined with boutiques and restaurants, green hillsides and lunch botanic gardens, and eagle-eye panoramic views over the Mediterranean Sea.
After taking a stroll around the village, stop to admire sights such as the 14th-century Chapelle de la Sainte-Croix, once used as a meeting place for those who came to the aid of plague victims in the Middle Ages.
Cassis: A Gem Near Marseille
Located at the far western edge of the Riviera and in close reach of the bustling port city of Marseille, Cassis is a postcard-perfect village that's prized for its postcard-worthy marina filled with boats, striking blue waters with gentle tides, intimate beaches.
Go for a stroll on the port, admire the boats, and then settle in for lunch overlooking the water. Spend some time enjoying local beaches, and explore the breathtaking "sea creeks" and coves of the nearby Calanques National Park.
Peillon: A Romantic Perched Village
Another of the Riviera's romantic "perched" villages, Peillon is located just miles inland from Nice, in the rocky foothills east of the Alps. Populated by just a few thousand people, the medieval village is so precipitously perched on the mountain that its streets are mostly made up of steep, winding stairways. In a word, this is a town that's not built for cars—and the resulting quiet is remarkable.
Wander through the old town's quiet, narrow lanes, arched passageways, and inner courtyards. Visit the 18th-century church (built on the site of the old fortifications) with its 12th-century chapel still intact. Admire the many stone houses that appear built into the rocky landscape, many adorned with tumbling flowers.
Grasse: The Riviera's Fragrant Hub
Nestled in the foothills north of Nice, Grasse is a pretty inland village that's especially well known for its fragrant past and present—literally speaking. One of France's historical centers for perfume-making, it's the headquarters of companies such as Fragonard and Gallimard and home to popular attractions such as the Fragonard Museum and the International Perfume Museum.
In the springtime, you can see fragrant jasmine and fields of roses blooming around Grasse, two key ingredients in scent-making. Meanwhile, in May, the annual Grasse Rose Festival is an inspiring way to experience one of the town's fragrant products.