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, or the Turquoise Coast, 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 the 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 luxurious villas of Saint-Tropez or something more easygoing like Antibes, there's something for everyone on the French Riviera.

01 of 10

See One of France's Most Beautiful Villages

Les Baux de Provence
13520 Les Baux-de-Provence, France

The French Riviera is so much more than its sea-hugging cities. In the rocky highlands, historic villages like Les Baux-de-Provence are remarkable sights worth traveling for. The charming narrow streets of Les Baux-de-Provence are rightly popular with tourists, but its clifftop location also means there are many stunning viewpoints to discover. The village is incredibly well-preserved and a delight to visit.

Built on top of a vertical cliff, the castle was historically easy to protect; however, it was eventually attacked and destroyed. Now, you can visit the labyrinthine ruins of the castle that still stand on the plateau above the village. Admission includes entrance to the museum, where you can learn more about the story of this once-powerful city.

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02 of 10

Drink from the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

France - Sourge River in Fontaine de Vaucluse
Flavio Vallenari / Getty Images
84800 Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, France

Combining natural wonder with French history, the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse is an incredible experience that you can see and taste. This natural spring emerges from a 755-foot-high cliff, making it the largest spring in France and the source of the Sorgue River.

The spring is special because it is easy to visit, but there is also a historic town built right outside of it, and the spring can be reached on foot with many shops and restaurants along the route. The best time to visit is after heavy rain, when the river is more full, adding to the charm of the scenery. The spring is a pretty greenish-blue color and has long been considered sacred among locals. Its significance dates back to the ancient era when it was used for ritual ceremonies. When you visit, be sure to ask around about the legend of the Coulobre, a mythical winged creature who lives in the spring.

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03 of 10

Gamble in Monte Carlo

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 synonymous with luxury, partly because of its reputation as a tax haven for the super-rich but primarily 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 is a belle époque building built in 1863 by Paris opera house architect Charles Garnier that looks out towards the sea.

The vast entrance hall's Ionic columns give you an idea of what is to come. The Salle Garnier main hall is red and gold, decorated with frescoes and other magnificent rooms leading off the main hall, attractive places to gamble your life away or make your fortune in timeless games like roulette and blackjack or modern slot machines. Meanwhile, the high rollers battle it out privately in the Salles Privées.

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04 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

This is one of the most palatial of all the spectacular villas on the French Riviera. It was built in 1905 for Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, who came from the famously wealthy banking family, and its primary purpose was 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 Monte Carlo and Saint-Tropez.

Perched on the hills above St Jean Cap Ferrat, the pink-washed, neoclassical 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, 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.

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05 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 the old town 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, where an expert will take you around the market in the morning, trying and buying different ingredients, then teach you how to prepare them. Don't worry; you'll get to taste everything during lunch. If you're in the market on your own, try the olive oils and marvel at the fresh in-season produce. Make sure to try some socca, a local specialty that's like a pancake made of chickpeas and fried in olive oil on a griddle.

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06 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 an actual working port city and not just a resort town, so it's a great place to visit at any time of the year. Walk along the ramparts to view the sea that crashes against the rocks below or sits 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.

The imposing Fort Carré, which dates back to the 16th century, overlooks the city and Port Vauban, home to some of the biggest mega-yachts in the world. In the Old Town, you'll find the daily fruit and vegetable market and little streets full of tempting shops. The delightful Musée Picasso, which has a perfect collection of his art and his famous ceramics (produced in nearby Vallauris), is housed in the Château Grimaldi that looks out over the Mediterranean.

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07 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 airy building was designed by Spanish architect Josep Lluís Sert, who worked with Le Corbusier.

The museum has 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 influential 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 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.

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08 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 you need to rent a bike or walk to get around. The north has sandy beaches backed by pine trees, while the southern coast is more rugged. In between, there are vineyards and pine forests. Porquerolles is also the easiest to reach with a direct ferry service from Toulon.

The island of Port-Cros is a national park, so there are strict rules about how many visitors are allowed and what you can do. It's beautiful for hiking, and there are several trails through the island's interior, but the coast is primarily 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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09 of 10

Be a Star in Saint-Tropez

Old Port of Saint Tropez

TripSavvy / Ivey Redding

83990 Saint-Tropez, France

Saint-Tropez is a place that travelers either love or hate. Its glitz can be pretentious or endlessly exciting, depending on your attitude and maybe your budget. Made famous by the actress Brigitte Bardot, it 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 been 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, from the Musée de l'Annonciade with its impressive collection of late 19th and early 20th-century Impressionist paintings to the Citadelle. This old fortress dominates the town.

Shopping is primarily high-end, but there are 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.

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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 a bustling city like Nice. Still, this seaside village's brightly colored houses and delightful shops 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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10 Top Things to Do on the French Riviera