Photo Courtesy of Stephen Bartels
A geological wonder where the French Alps spill into the Mediterranean Sea, the Côte d'Azur—often known in English as the French Riviera—stretches from the Italian border to urban Toulon. Beaches, quaint fishing ports, and opulent architecture line the coast. The mention anywhere in the world of Nic…e, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Saint-Tropez, Antibes, or Juan-les-Pins evokes glamour and a sense of nostalgia. Coastal towns are strung along a chain of dramatic hills, woven with vineyards and olive groves. The pristine mountains, too, are studded with villages and offer endless opportunity for adventure.
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With perfect weather in July and August, the Riviera draws a huge crowd; it is, therefore, easier to navigate in June and September. Off-season, from October to April, is a good time to visit, but some tourist spots like Saint-Tropez and Èze shut down; you'll have plenty of good options in the off-season in Cannes and Nice, however.
There is more than beach to the Riviera. Make your own fragrance at the International Perfume Museum in Grasse, or explore the art studios that dot the winding streets of medieval Saint-Paul-de-Vence, stopping at the Maeght Foundation to wonder at modern art in its element. Cycle the demanding hills, or ski the nearby mountains. Closer to the sea, hike a part of the Sentier des Douaniers trail that follows the coastline, or stroll in the footsteps of British lords and ladies on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The Monégasque are proud of their Oceanographic Museum, once run by Jacques Cousteau. On the shore, set sail on a catamaran, snorkel the “hiking” trail at Port Cros, or join the fishermen at Sanary.
Arid, sun-drenched land makes the Riviera the ideal location for growing olives, herbs, and wine-producing grapes. Add the richness of the sea and you have the delicious cuisine of southern France. Anchovies are used in pan bagnat sandwiches, pissaladière pizzas, and the salad named for the town of Nice, or are blended into a spread. Chickpea flour makes thin socca crêpes and the much thicker panisse. Brandade de Morue takes salt cod and potatoes and turns them into something special. Bouillabaisse, the iconic fish stew, does the same with the leftovers from the catch of the day. For sweets, chestnuts are candied into marrons glacés and fruits are preserved as jellies, jams, or candies.
The Riviera boasts a beach culture that emphasizes "culture," with exceptional baroque, art deco, and modern architecture, and remarkable art museums dedicated to Chagall, Matisse, Léger, Cocteau, Picasso, and Renoir, among others. Extraordinarily opulent villas have been converted into regional museums along the entire coast. Temporary exhibits are installed regularly in museums, hotels, and on the street, featuring traditional art as well as music, dance, fashion, and cinema. Multiple opera houses, orchestras, large concert halls, small clubs, and popular music festivals feature every genre of music from across the globe in every season. International fireworks festivals end the summer with an explosive, light-infused bang.
Shopping has become something of a sport on the Riviera, with international luxury stores investing in extravagant shops to tempt the rich and famous in Saint-Tropez, Cannes, and Monte Carlo. Weekly flea markets in Saint-Tropez, Nice, and Cannes draw bargain hunters from across the region, and well-stocked vintage shops thrive. Art galleries line the streets of Eze and Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Proud merchants at picturesque Provençal markets stock local kitchens with fresh products and offer an abundance of local treats that travel well: wine, honey, olive oil, jams, and candies. Local religious communities support themselves through goods like the herbal teas and hand-painted pottery available at the Monks' Building in Le Thoronet Abbey.
The official language is French, but like most tourist destinations around the world, English is often understood. The local currency is the euro. Tipping is not necessary, but it is common to round up to the nearest euro, never going beyond 5%. Many hotels offer free Wi-Fi. Electricity is 220–240 volts, so if you come from a country that uses 110 volts (like the U.S.), you'll need a converter; plugs are E and C types.
International flights land at Nice Côte d'Azur International Airport, and there is a high-speed train from Paris that runs several times a day. The region is well served by trains and bus routes, but the easiest way to explore is by car.