Every year, thousands of holidaymakers hear the French Riviera’s siren song and flock to the sunny shores of Antibes, Cannes, and Saint Tropez. Nice, the region’s capital, is France’s second most visited city, clocking up an incredible 4 million visitors each year (prepandemic)—shockingly high, considering residents number just over 340,000. Even the tiny principality of Monaco gets an honorable mention for the fashionable, famous Port Hercule.
But to really get to know the Riviera, you need to leave the big-name cities. Nice may be the region’s beating heart, but these chic villages are its quiet, ageless soul. Here’s where southern France really shines.
You may recognize Villefranche-sur-Mer as one of the filming locations for Emily in Paris. The fishing village is set on a hillside one bay over from Nice. Easily accessible by train, Villefranche is very much a popular destination for French residents (and plenty of European tourists), particularly when Nice’s famous promenade gets busy in the summer months. The famous cathedral, Église Saint-Michel de Villefranche-sur-Mer, dating back to 1732, is a must-see for art history aficionados: Its interiors were painted by Jean Cocteau, who spent a lot of time all over the Riviera.
Try to walk across via the main beach as the sun comes up. The rays will hit the town just so. On your way back, stop for a mimosa at one of the trendy port-side bars and restaurants—Dry Restaurant is a hip new favorite—before wandering up to the ancient Citadelle Saint-Elme—built in 1554 to repel Barbarossa, the famous pirate.
Where to stay
Book now: Welcome Hotel
Expect scenic views and a perfect location at the Welcome Hotel—it often appears in photos overlooking the city. Yes, you can expect a warm welcome as well as comfortable lodgings right in the heart of the old town.
High in the hills behind Nice, Saint-Paul-de-Vence has always attracted celebrities: Churchill once sat down to paint the fountain off the main square; Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones owns a house in the walled city; and Hitchcock finished his screenplay for To Catch a Thief here. Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, Miró—this town has seen them all come to take advantage of the famous Mediterranean light. Stop by one of the many galleries before lunch at La Colombe d’Or—the famous auberge where the rich and famous stay—then play a few rounds of pétanque (bocce ball) with the residents outside Café de la Place.
Where to stay
Book now: Le Saint Paul
The Le Saint Paul, in the center of the village, is an exercise in luxury and refinement, and its restaurant is well worth booking in advance.
Like Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Èze is another clifftop haven, filled with narrow cobbled laneways that snake from one end of town to the other. Locals often take a short but challenging hike via le chemin de Nietzsche (Nietzsche’s path), which the philosopher was rumored to walk in search of inspiration. Once you’ve reached the top, enjoy a panorama of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Èze’s sister village, Èze-sur-Mer (where Bono bought and renovated a home in the 1990s). It’s here that you start to see influences from nearby Italy; the local church Notre Dame de l’Assomption has a decidedly Latin flair, thanks to designs by Italian architect Antoine Spinelli in 1764 and its rich interiors, decorated with baroque paintings.
But don’t leave without exploring les Jardins Exotique, located right at the top of the town. Sculptures by Jean Phillipe Richard, dubbed “the ladies of Èze,” are scattered throughout the gardens, and with plenty of seating arranged throughout, you won’t find a prettier place to while away the day.
Where to stay
Book now: La Chèvre d’Or
Locals all know of the legendary La Chèvre d’Or (“the golden goat”), booking weeks in advance for a coveted seat at the luxury restaurant. It’s also a hotel with an incredible view of the Mediterranean and impeccable service.
Menton, simply put, is lovely with its pastel-colored apartments, old terra-cotta roofs, and splashes of matching turquoise-green shutters. It was once a favorite of Queen Victoria, whose visit here in 1882 put it firmly on the map for traveling Brits. Although Menton draws crowds in the late summer, the best time to visit is in spring, when it’s quiet and the lemon blossoms are beginning to bloom.
The town borders Italy (and draws its fair share of Italian tourists). Most menus feature pasta and gelato, and there’s always the scent of citrus in the air, something that Menton is famous for thanks to its perpetually sunny skies and temperate climate. Stroll around the old town to find hidden boutiques, visit the old market for fresh, hyper-local produce, and spend an afternoon on the Plage des Sablettes, where you’ll find the most spectacular view of the old town.
Where to stay
Book now: La Petite Maison
La Petite Maison, a charming chambre d’hôtes—essentially a bed-and-breakfast—is tucked away within the village. Breakfasts are served in a private garden, depending on the weather, and the hosts are warm and welcoming.
A must-visit for beauty and luxury lovers, Grasse is the world capital of perfume. In the 12th century, Grasse was a trade town well known for the production of leather. This laborious product was also a pungent one, and one tanner in particular, a man named Galimard, began to scent his products—originally a pair of gloves that he gifted to the visiting Catherine de Medici, who reportedly loved them. The perfume industry then grew in parallel with the existing leatherworkers, with some of the oldest perfume houses in Europe still sourcing their scents from the nearby flower fields; Chanel and Dior, for example, have dedicated flower farms not far away.
No visit to Grasse is complete without a tour of one of the many perfume houses—including the original Galimard, established in 1747—where many offer professional training and allow you to create your own dedicated perfume–with help from the experts.
Where to stay
Book now: La Bastide Saint-Antoine
Located just outside the city is the 17th-century La Bastide Saint-Antoine. It’s also home to Michelin-starred, celebrated chef Jacques Chibois. This is the picturesque Provençal dream you’ve been searching for.