The French Riviera has always attracted its fair share of visitors -- from the artists and writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries to the gamblers and high livers of the 1920s and now to today's visitors after a vacation in one of the most beautiful parts of France that seems always bathed in glorious sunshine. Here is my list of the top 10 things to do on the Côte d'Azur.
My choices start in the east at Roquebrune-Cap-St-Martin with its old hilltop village and chic seaside resort, and travels along the coast via the impossibly elegant Casino in Monte Carlo, the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild with its magnificent gardens, the colorful, fragrant Cours Saleya market in Nice, the cobbled alleys and streets of charming Antibes, the Fondation Maeght, the Iles d'Hyeres just off the coast between Toulon and ends in glamorous St Tropez, put on the map by Brigitte Bardot.
Contrast Old and New at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin
Roquebrune-Cap-Martin has two faces. Set between Menton and Monaco, 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 powerful 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 (the oldest ruling family in the world). The Englishman Sir William Ingram bought it in 1911 and added a mock English tower then gave it to the town in 1921. Also see the 18th-century Ste-Marguerite church.
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 Le Corbusier who drowned off the coast in 1965 and is buried in Roquebrune cemetery. There’s a lovely walk named after Corbusier that takes you around the Cap and gives great views.
218 avenue Aristide Briand
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 93 35 62 87
Gamble at the Casino at Monte-Carlo
Monte Carlo is known the world over for its casino, and its tax system that attracts the very rich. It's known the world over, and not just for the song 'The Man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo' (though who exactly that was and remains a mystery).
Monaco might be small, but it’s pretty big in terms of glamor and the stars it attracts. So it’s not surprising that the Casino itself is magnificent, a true reflection of luxury and good living. Built in 1863 by Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris opera house, the belle époque building 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. Opposite, the Salle Garnier 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, equipped with roulette and blackjack, and in the Casino Café de Paris with modern machines Las Vegas style. 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.
Casino de Monte Carlo
Place du Casino
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 77 98 06 2121
Visit the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in St Jean Cap Ferrat
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 the famous and rich banking family and its purpose was mainly to house her growing art collection. This was a place for music and conversation, for literary gatherings and art collectors, far removed from the racier delights of the French Riviera and places like the Casino at Monte Carlo and St 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.
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.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 93 01 33 09
Open daily 10am-6pm; July and August 10am-7pm; November 2 to February 16 weekdays 2-6pm, weekends and holiday from 10am-6pm.
Admission adult 12.50 euros, concessions 9.50 euros.
There are also combined tickets with the nearby Greek Villa Kérylos or with the Exotic Gardens in Eze.
Take in the Flavors and Scents of the Cours Saleya market in Nice
At the heart of the French Riviera, Nice is an ancient city with a 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 bright with awnings.
Nice is a foodie town. So consider a cookery 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 cook them. It's followed by a convivial lunch in her 400-year-old apartment (with a very modern kitchen) when you can test the results of your labors.
If you're there just for the market, try the olive oils and marvel at the freshest of fruit and veg, then take the edge off your appetite at the ever popular Chez Theresa with a socca snack (a pancake made of chickpeas and fried in olive oil on a griddle).
Other sights in Nice not to be missed include the Chapelle de la Miséricorde, one of Nice’s famous Baroque churches, the Colline du Château or Castle Hill, the Cathedral Ste-Réparate and the ornate Opera, designed by Francois Aune, a pupil of Gustave Eiffel.
More to discover in Nice
Stroll through the Old Town and Port of Antibes
Antibes is my favorite town on the Côte d’Azur. It’s the largest pleasure port on the Mediterranean but also a real working town and not just a resort that closes off-season. So it’s a great place to visit at any time of the year.
Port Vauban which houses those million dollar yachts is overlooked by the imposing Fort Carré, designed and built by Vauban, Louis XIV’s military genius, as a fortress to defend the coast and the town. From here, walk through the arched gateway in the defensive walls into the old town for a stroll through the daily covered fruit and vegetable market. Little streets full of tempting shops run off to one side. 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 restaurants and bars near the port which are fun and often full of crews from the nearby yachts. Just along the coast, the killer whales, sharks, and dolphins at Marineland will keep your children amused for hours. If you plan to use Antibes as a base, it's very near attractive little hilltop villages like Biot and museums such as the world famous Fondation Maeght. It’s easy to get to by train from Nice to the east and Marseille to the west.
More on Antibes
Marvel at the Art in the Fondation Maeght in St-Paul-de-Vence
The Fondation Maeght is a must for visitors to the Côte d’Azur. It’s housed in an impressive modern 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 Jose-Luis Sert who worked with Corbusier and then spent time in the U.S.A. Both Sert and the two Cannes-based art dealers Marguerite and Aime Maeght who set up the Fondation, knew the artists whose work fills the rooms and the gardens of the Fondation Maeght. It's a magnificent collection of the works of Chagall, Braque and Miro, Matisse, Alexander Calder, Giacometti, Raoul Ubac and other masters of the 20th century. The Fondation also put on changing temporary exhibitions of important contemporary artists.
When you’re done here, make the short walk or drive to the chic village of St-Paul-de-Vence where you'll find the very famous Auberge de la Colombe d’Or (tel.: 00 33 (0)4 93 32 80 02). There’s more art work on the walls here from some of the artists you'll have seen at the Fondation. There's nothing like eating lobster under the odd Matisse or Picasso. It has a regular clientele of famous people, with little place cards at booked tables, so take a quick look at the names of your fellow diners.
623 Chemin des Gardettes
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 93 32 81 63
Open daily October-June: 10am-6pm
Admission adult 15 euros, children under 10 free
Go Back to Nature on the Iles d'Hyères
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 7 kilometers long and 2.5 km 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; the south coast is more rugged. In between, there are vineyards and pine forests.
Port Cross is a national park, where you can take the paths through the thick forests. Many people come here for the swimming along the underwater marked route. Get a plasticized aquaguide that will tell you about the sea creatures and plant life you'll spot. Eat and drink in the various cafes and restaurants in the palm-fringed harbor.
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.
Hyeres Tourist Office
2 Avenue Ambroise Thomas
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 94 01 84 50
More on Beaches in the South of France
Drive along the Corniche de l'Esterel
The Corniche de l'Esterel, running from St-Raphael to La Napoule, makes a spectacular drive. 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 bays, the blue sea broken up by the white sails of yachts.
At Dramont an inscribed pillar commemorates the disembarkation of the 36th American Division in August 1944. From the Observation Point, 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 at Pointe de l’Esquillon towards the Iles de Lérins between Cannes (a short and delightful boat ride), and Antibes. You can swim at Theoule-sur-Mer from one of the three little beaches.
If you want to drive further, follow the coast road east through Cannes and around the Cap d’Antibes to Antibes. The drive from Antibes to Nice goes beside the road but it’s not particularly pretty or peaceful, particularly in rush hour. The road gets better between Nice and Monaco; take time to stop at St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and the Villa Ephrussi, the villages of Villefrance-sur-Mer and Beaulieur-sur-Mer and divert off to the perched village of Eze with its exotic garden and fabulous Chevre d’Or Hotel. Cap d’Ail sports more fabulous villas.
Tourist Office in Theoule-sur-Mer
2 Corniche d’Or
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 93 49 28 28
Be a star in Saint-Tropez
Saint-Tropez is a place you either love or walk away from quite happily. It’s glitzy, 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 stars 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 there's no doubt that it’s a place everybody should visit at least once in their lives.
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 high end (and you really do need that latest bikini; after all the garment was made famous when it first appeared on Brigitte Bardot right here in St Tropez). But there's also plenty of local Provençal wares in the open air market for those shopping for local olive oils, colorful cloth and soaps.
There are topless beaches and beaches for those who like to swim in that new bikini; the restaurants fill up in the evenings and the bars keep going into the early hours. And as for hotels, well Saint Tropez has some of the glitziest and some of the prettiest. In fact, something for everyone.
See the Chapelle St-Pierre decorated by Jean Cocteau in Villefranche-sur-Mer
The pretty harbor, the small roads and alleys of the old town that climb up the hillside full of tall brightly colored houses, shops and restaurants and the Citadelle are reasons enough to visit the delightful, low-key village of Villefrance-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast.
But make sure you see the Chapelle St-Pierre down on the seafront. Jean Cocteau (1895-1963), the French novelist, poet, designer, playwright, artist and film maker, discovered the little town in 1924, staying mostly at the Hotel Welcome opposite. In 1957, with the agreement of the local fishermen, he decorated the chapel with great swirling powerful scenes of the life of St Peter (the patron saint of fishermen) and local scenes as well as designing the stained glass windows showing scenes of the Apocalypse. It’s pretty effective and stunning.
Then go over the road for a meal at on the terrace at La Mere Germaine (9 quai Courbvet, tel.: 00 33 (0)4 93 01 71 39; website).
Chapel open spring and summer 10am-noon & 3-7pm; autumn and winter 10am-noon & 2-6pm. Closed mid-November to mid-December and December 25.
Tourist Office Jardin Francois-Binon
Tel.:00 33 (0)4 93 01 73 68