10 Top Things to Do on the French Riviera

Antibes, Côte d'Azur, French Riviera

Jawad Qasrawi / Moment Open / Getty Images

The French Riviera, known locally as the Côte d'Azur, has always attracted its fair share of visitors, whether they were the artists and writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries; the gamblers, high-rollers, and glitterati; or just travelers after a vacation in one of the most beautiful parts of France. It's no wonder that this stretch of Mediterranean coast—with its turquoise waters, limestone cliffs, and perpetual sunshine—draws travelers from around France and the world to bask in its natural beauty and rich culture.

Whether you prefer the ritzy villas of Saint-Tropez or something more easygoing like Antibes, there's something for everyone on the French Riviera.

01 of 10

Contrast Old and New at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin

Looking over rooftops of Roquebrune's old town from Chateau de Roquebrune.

Glenn Van Der Knijff / Getty Images

06190 Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France

Roquebrune-Cap-Martin has two faces: old Roquebrune is a pretty medieval hilltop village while Cap Martin is one of the most stylish resorts on the Mediterranean.

The narrow winding alleys and cobbled streets of old Roquebrune cluster around the tower of the former 10th-century castle, the oldest feudal castle in France. Built as a defense ​against the Saracens, it was remodeled in the 15th century by the Grimaldis of Monaco (who are still the ruling family in Monaco). The Englishman Sir William Ingram bought it in 1911 and added a mock English tower then gave it to the town in 1921.

Chic Cap Martin was the favorite watering hole of the rich, the creative, and the aristocratic from Queen Victoria to Coco Chanel, from the designer Eileen Gray (whose villa you can now visit if booked privately in advance) to the architect Le Corbusier who is buried in Roquebrune cemetery. There’s a lovely walk named after Corbusier that takes you around the Cap and gives great views.

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02 of 10

Gamble at the Monte Carlo Casino

Casino at night, Monaco, Europe

Laura Grier / Getty Images

Pl. du Casino, 98000 Monaco
Phone +377 98 06 20 00

The city of Monte Carlo is practically synonymous with luxury, partly because of its reputation as a tax haven for the uber-rich but mostly because of the lavish Monte Carlo Casino. It's located in the tiny country of Monaco on the French Riviera, which may be small but it packs in a lot of glamour. The Casino itself is magnificent, a true reflection of luxury and good living. The belle époque building—built in 1863 by Paris opera house architect Charles Garnier—stands high up looking out over Monaco and the sea.

The huge entrance hall's Ionic columns give you an idea of what is to come. The Salle Garnier main hall is all red and gold, decorated with frescoes. This was the setting for the famous Ballets Russes, founded in 1909 in St. Petersburg and installed here in Monte Carlo after 1917, led by Nijinski. Other magnificent rooms lead off the main hall, tempting places to gamble your life away or make your fortune in timeless games like roulette and blackjack or on modern Vegas-style slot machines. The high rollers battle it out privately in the Salles Privées.

Don’t miss the flower gardens with their lawns and small ponds leading up to Monaco’s exclusive shopping area. The Café de Paris entertained the likes of King Edward VII and Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia.

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03 of 10

Visit the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in St Jean Cap Ferrat

The Gardens and Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France
Fotosearch / Getty Images
1 Av. Ephrussi de Rothschild, 06230 Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, France
Phone +33 4 93 01 33 09

Of all the spectacular villas on the French Riviera, this is one of the most palatial. It was built in 1905 for Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, who came from the famous and rich banking family, and its purpose was mainly to house her growing art collection. This was a place for music, conversation, literary gatherings, and art collectors, far removed from the racier delights of the French Riviera and places like the Casino at Monte Carlo and Saint-Tropez.

Perched on the hills above St Jean Cap Ferrat, the pink-washed, neo-classical façade is famous for its gardens. You can wander through formal sections planted with fragrant roses and other flowers, past cascading fountains and into French, Japanese, and tropical gardens, all with panoramic views over the Mediterranean and rocky hillsides. Don't miss the rose and plant festival on the first weekend in May when the garden is in the climax of spring.

Inside the villa, rooms run off the main covered courtyard, all decorated with antiques, furniture, and art. Highlights include the unrivaled collection of drawings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the private apartments of the cultured original owner, and a superb collection of precious porcelain and china from the likes of Sèvres. Despite the grandeur, the villa has a delightful feeling of being a real home.

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04 of 10

Take in the Flavors of the Cours Saleya Market in Nice

A Dusk View of the Cours Saleya Where Tourists Are Dining

Eric Nathan / Loop Images / Getty Images

Cr Saleya, 06300 Nice, France

At the heart of the French Riviera, Nice is an ancient city with bustling life. The Côte d'Azur capital is large and lively, but it's the old town that attracts both locals and visitors. Old Nice clusters around the famous Cours Saleya, where a market from Tuesdays to Saturdays fills the main square with the vivid colors and seductive scents of the fruit, vegetables, and flowers sold from stalls with bright awnings.

Nice is a foodie town, so consider a cooking lesson at Les Petites Farcis with Canadian chef Rosa Jackson. The expert will take you around the market in the morning, trying and buying different ingredients, then teach you how to prepare them. It's followed by a convivial lunch in her 400-year-old apartment (with a very modern kitchen) where you can test the results of your labors.

If you're there just for the market, try the olive oils and marvel at the fresh in-season produce. Make sure to try some socca, a local specialty that's a pancake made of chickpeas and fried in olive oil on a griddle.

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05 of 10

Stroll Through the Old Town and Port of Antibes

Harbor in Antibes
Roland Gerth / Getty Images
Antibes, France

While many coastal cities on the French Riviera shut down in the off-season, Antibes is a real working port city and not just a resort town, so it’s a great place to visit at any time of the year.

The imposing Fort Carré, which dates back to the 16th century, overlooks the city and Port Vauban. The port is home to some of the biggest megayachts in the world, so take a stroll while fantasizing about owning one yourself. In the Old Town, you'll find the daily fruit and vegetable market along with little streets full of tempting shops. The delightful Musée Picasso, which has a very good collection of his art and his famous ceramics (produced in nearby Vallauris), is housed in the Château Grimaldi that looks out over the Mediterranean.

Walk along the ramparts for a view of the sea that crashes against the rocks below or sit on the sandy beaches and soak up the sun. Antibes may be at the heart of the French Riviera, but it's friendlier and more low-key than its neighbors.

There are other interesting museums in Antibes, as well as a selection of excellent fun restaurants and bars near the port. Just along the coast, the killer whales, sharks, and dolphins at Marineland will keep children amused for hours. If you plan to use Antibes as a base, it's very near attractive little hilltop villages like Biot.

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06 of 10

Marvel at the Art in the Fondation Maeght in St-Paul-de-Vence

Gallery in Fondation Maeght

Gail Mooney / Corbis / VCG / Getty Images

Fondation Maeght, 623 Chem. des Gardettes, 06570 Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France
Phone +33 4 93 32 81 63

The Fondation Maeght is a must-see for visitors to the Côte d’Azur. This modern art gallery is housed in an equally impressive building set among pine-filled gardens in the hills just a few minutes' walk from the picturesque hilltop village of St-Paul-de-Vence. The light and airy building was designed by Spanish architect Josep Lluís Sert, who worked with Le Corbusier.

The museum was started by two Cannes-based art dealers, Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, who personally knew most of the artists whose work fills the rooms and gardens of their namesake foundation. It's a magnificent collection of the works of Chagall, Braque, Miro, Matisse, Alexander Calder, Giacometti, Raoul Ubac, and other masters of the 20th century. The Fondation Maeght also puts on changing temporary exhibitions of important contemporary artists.

When you’re done at the museum, make the short walk or drive to the chic village of St-Paul-de-Vence where you'll find the very famous restaurant Auberge de la Colombe d’Or. There’s more artwork on the walls here from some of the artists you'll have seen at the Fondation, and there's nothing like eating lobster under the odd Matisse or Picasso. It has a regular clientele of famous people, so you may rub shoulders with some vacationing celebrities.

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07 of 10

Go Back to Nature on the Iles d'Hyères

France, Var, Ile de Porquerolles, Plage Notre Dame

Bertrand Gardel / hemis.fr / Getty Images

Îles d'Hyères, Hyères, France

Three gorgeous islands make up the Iles d’Hyères which lie just off the coast between St Tropez and Toulon. The largest is Porquerolles, which is blessedly car-free for visitors. The island is just 5 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, so this is the place to hire a bike or just walk around it. The north part has sandy beaches backed by pine trees while the south coast is more rugged. In between, there are vineyards and pine forests. Porquerolles is also the easiest to reach with direct ferry service from Toulon.

The entire island of Port-Cros is a national park, so there are strict rules about how many visitors are allowed and what you're allowed to do. It's beautiful for hiking and there are several trails through the interior of the island, but the coast is mostly cliffs so there are few beaches.

The Ile de Levant is used by the French Navy but this island—once the home of Cistercian monks—still has plenty of beaches to the west. It’s mainly known for the nudist colony in the village of Heliopolis, which was one of the first nudist sites and was established in the 1930s.

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08 of 10

Drive Along the Corniche de l'Esterel

France, Var, Corniche de l'Esterel, Saint Raphael, tortuous pine tree of the Cap du Dramont in front of the Ile d'Or

Franck Chaput / Hemis.fr / Getty Images

19-5, D6098, 06590 Théoule-sur-Mer, France

The Corniche de l'Esterel, also known as the Corniche d'Or, is a spectacularly scenic highway running from St-Raphael to Cannes. On one side you see the great rocks of the Esterel rising up high on the hillside; on the other, the Mediterranean sea sparkles in the sun, the coastline punctuated with tiny rocky inlets and the blue sea broken up by the white sails of yachts.

The route is only 25 miles but the winding roads take at least an hour to drive, not including time to pull over and gawk at the views. Highlights include the observation point in the town of Le Dramont, where you have a beautiful view of the red rocks and can see the Pointe du Cap-Roux jutting out into the water and the Gulf of La Napoule. There’s an even better view as you drive on at Pointe de l’Esquillon. If you don't have a car, the train from St-Rafael to Cannes travels the same scenic route.

If you want to drive further, follow the coast road east from la Napoule through Cannes and around the Cap d’Antibes to Antibes. The drive from Antibes to Nice runs along the water but it’s not as pretty or peaceful as the Corniche de l'Esterel, particularly during rush hour.

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09 of 10

Be a Star in Saint-Tropez

Fishing boats

dhmig photography / Getty Images

83990 Saint-Tropez, France

Saint-Tropez is a place that travelers either love or hate. Its glitziness can be pretentious or endlessly exciting according to your attitude and, possibly, on your wallet. It was made famous by Brigitte Bardot and her husband Roger Vadim and still sees countless celebrities arriving to stay at one of the fabulous hotels or on one of the multi-million dollar yachts that fill the deep waters of the harbor. But you don't need a superstar budget to enjoy this historic fishing village.

The former fishing port has preserved its old quarter, though now the fishing boats have given away to yachts. Villas surround the town and fill up during the summer season with stars, the rich, and their guests. But there’s plenty for art lovers, as well, from the Musée de l’Annonciade with its impressive collection of late 19th and early 20th-century Impressionist paintings to the Citadelle that dominates the town.

Shopping is mostly high-end, but there's also plenty of local Provençal wares in the open-air market for those shopping for local olive oils, colorful cloth, and artisan soaps. The restaurants fill up in the evenings and the bars keep going into the early hours. And as for hotels, staying in Saint-Tropez can be pricey, especially during the summer. Look at surrounding towns like Cannes or during the off-season for deals.

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10 of 10

See the Chapelle St-Pierre in Villefranche-sur-Mer

Villefranche sur Mer, Alpes Maritimes, France
Ivan / Getty Images
4 Quai de l'Amiral Courbet, 06230 Villefranche-sur-Mer, France
Phone +33 4 93 76 90 70

It's hard to believe that a town as charming and low-key as Villefranche-sur-Mer is located just outside of a bustling city like Nice, but the brightly colored houses and delightful shops of this seaside village make it an enduring favorite of the French Riviera. The pretty harbor, the small roads, and the alleys of the Old Town that climb up the hillside give it the feeling of a bygone time, like stepping into a French village of yesteryear.

Make sure you see the Chapelle St-Pierre down on the seafront. Jean Cocteau, the French novelist, poet, designer, playwright, artist, and filmmaker, helped put the little town on the map after first visiting in 1924. In 1957, with the agreement of the town fishermen, he decorated the local chapel with great swirling powerful scenes of the life of St. Peter (the patron saint of fishermen) as well as designing the stained glass windows showing scenes of the Apocalypse. It's a stunning scene to encounter inside such a small and unassuming chapel.

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Top 10 Things to Do in the French Riviera