French Riviera is one of the ultimate seaside playgrounds, replete with interesting destinations.
This article covers Nice, Monaco, and a number of other points of interest in Côte d’Azur.
Nice ♥♥ offers many visually pleasing perspectives and reasonably impressive sights, without looking exceptional on balance. Despite its size and wealth of points of interest, it somewhat surprisingly features on most itineraries only as an intraday stop or a base from which to explore the coast without spending too much time in the city center. After a couple of visits that remained within those parameters, I am starting to think that it was misguided.
The reasonably compact Old Town ♥ is quite Mediterranean in look and feel, and definitely worth exploring. Here you can find a number of impressively ornamented churches, most notably, Église de l’Annonciation ♥♥ (aka “Sainte-Rita”) and Église Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur ♥♥ (aka “Church of Jesus”). Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate and Chapelle de la Miséricorde offer other interesting stops when accessible. Palais Lascaris ♥ combines fine Baroque features with a fun collection of vintage musical instruments (and a few smaller collections).
The market in Cours Saleya ♥♥, marking the southern boundary of the Old Town, is a daily delight of flowers, vegetables, local products, etc. To the east, the Old Town abuts Château Hill ♥, an elevated park with unrivaled views over the city and an artificial waterfall. There are other green spaces around the Old Town, such as Jardin Albert 1er and the newish Promenade du Paillon.
Promenade des Anglais ♥ is a prime people-watching gallery. On a pleasant day, commandeering a couple of chairs by the guardrail and spending some time idly looking out on the beach and to the sea is a very nice pursuit. And, of course, the city beaches are all here.
Musée de la Villa Masséna ♥ sits right on the promenade (next to the famed Hotel Negresco which you apparently cannot just visit without staying there). The villa is one floor of palatial rooms and two floors of history of Nice looked at from different angles, very well presented and quite interesting. There is a 5-minute movie looping in the ground floor’s Grand Hall alternatively in French and English, but aside from that most of the information is in French only.
There are nearly a dozen other potentially worthy museums in Nice. Most of them can be accessed on a single and fairly affordable combination ticket. Many of them are located slightly further away from the aforementioned key areas of the promenade and the Old Town. Among them: Musée Matisse; Musée Chagall; Musée des Beaux Arts; Museum of Modern and Contemporary Arts (MAMAC).
One architectural attraction that people may specifically target is Cathédrale Orthodoxe Russe St-Nicolas, the largest Russian Orthodox church outside of Russia. As luck would have it, we arrived during a ceremony, and therefore barely caught a glimpse of the interior.
Whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Nice. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
One recommendation in the latter category is Le Romarin (in the nook of Place Rosetti next to the cathedral walls), with an excellent menu, nice service, and great choices all around; not bad for avid people-watchers too.
Although Monaco ♥♥♥ is usually an intraday destination, it can easily sustain a couple of days of exploration, despite its well-known minuscule dimensions. The tiny country is busy around the year, very clean, and very visually interesting.
Somewhat surprisingly, there are many small green oases and quite a few pedestrian enclaves in town. Both walking and driving can be very confusing, so a good map at hand is essential.
Old Monaco ♥ is a little jumble of narrow streets and the only part of the country where architecture is predominantly more than a few decades old. The Palais du Prince is not as imposing on the outside as many other rulers’ palaces and is open to visitors only for a few summer months when the prince is not in town. The daily changing of the guard ceremony ♥ is curious and slightly comical-looking.
The cathedral ♥ has a number of uncommon design features and feels like a museum with many signposted descriptions of its artifacts. Chapelle de la Miséricorde ♥ is a smaller striking religious place.
Musée Océanographique ♥♥♥ is quite possibly the best marine life museum in the world. It can easily sustain half a day of exploring for those so inclined; the Polar Mission section is a delightful immersion for kids (in 2022).
By the marina halfway between the old town and Monte-Carlo, the Prince’s Car Collection ♥♥ – colloquially known as simply “La Collection” – is quite impressive and very well executed.
It should be noted that both of the aforementioned museums have a lot of interactive information implements, from which I infer that other museums would offer a similar experience. There is a handful of other museums in town that may be worth visiting, including a Naval Museum, a Stamps and Coins collection, and a new-ish Museum of Modern Art.
Grand Casino ♥ in Monte-Carlo is usually a prime attraction; if you are not a gambler, you will likely still want to find yourself in front of it, if only for an Instagrammable shot. If you want to go inside and try your luck a bit, please remember to have your passport with you (required for entrance), dress up nicely (at least “business casual” – jackets for men), be ready to pay an entrance fee, and don’t expect a large variety of low-stakes games. The casino interior, in Belle Epoque style, may be worth the entry fee by itself for some.
The area around the casino is home to some of the most opulent hotels on the Riviera. They look the part, too.
Jardin Exotique ♥ sits on the mountain slopes and provides great views of the entire little country in addition to a great collection of different species of cacti and other tropical and subtropical plants. There is also a small museum of anthropology in the gardens and an underground grotto with regular guided tours (in 2002 offered only in French).
Elsewhere on the Riviera
Easily our favorite place on the coast, Villefranche-sur-Mer ♥♥♥ is colorful, picturesque, not over-commercialized, and offers magnificent views from many vantage points. Its Old Town is compact and pleasant, supplemented by the amiable waterfront. Église Saint-Michel ♥ is worth a look as any main town church would, with several interesting features. Rue Obscure, a long covered passage, is not so much interesting as fairly unusual in these environs. St-Pierre Chapel ♥ on the waterfront is another point of interest, decorated by Jean Cocteau in his fairly unique painting style. Citadelle St-Elme is an art museum with several exhibitions. There is a market on Saturdays at Jardin Francois Binon.
Unlike the neighboring Villefranche, Beaulieu-sur-Mer ♥ has an extensive pass-through waterfront, with a lovely Église du Sacré-Coeur ♥ and a few eye-catching Art Nouveau buildings. We did not check the historic core, assuming it to be a bit flatter than that of Villefranche. The top attraction in Beaulieu is Villa Kerylos ♥♥, an early 20th-century recreation of an ancient Greek villa; interesting and at times truly impressive, especially its peristyle and the marble room.
Cap Ferrat separates Villefranche and Beaulieu bays. At one of its highest points, there stands Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild ♥♥♥, a gorgeous grand mansion full of impressive furniture, decoration, and art. The gardens are no less impressive, designed in several varieties. “Summer Nights” events are run at the villa throughout the summer season, with musical and dance performances; the start time of 8 pm, coupled with limited garden illumination, makes it challenging to fully enjoy the gardens if you only come for the evening event. Parking is extremely limited, and legal street parking is a good kilometer away – golf carts provide regular shuttle service, but you may need 20-25 extra minutes at each end of the visit (this may not be a significant problem for a regular midday visit).
If you decide to go for a boat tour experience ♥ on the Riviera (there are many options), the chances are that you will depart from the Nice port but spend most of the time around Cap Ferrat and the adjoining bays.
There are also several options for watersports, such as jet ski rentals, around the area. One company we used, Cap Ferrat Watersports is located at the edge of Beaulieu beach.
The core of the village of Èze ♥♥♥ is small and can feel quite crowded. It is very picturesque, with a number of art galleries of interest. Jardin Exotique ♥♥♥ is the killer feature, both for various species of plants and for the views from the castle ruins at the top. Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption is worth a look. Below the historic village walls, on the main thoroughfare, both Fragonard and Galimard perfume brands have small factories that offer free guided visits. We chose Fragonard ♥, where the most interesting part of the visit was an attempt to determine sources of smells of different essences.
Another perched village, St-Paul-de-Vence ♥♥♥ is simply a gorgeous medieval little town, full of art galleries. The fountains were turned off due to the officially-declared drought at the time of our visit, otherwise, the picturesque quotient may have been off the scale. Collégiale Saint Paul is worth a look, as well as the ramparts ♥. The cemetery’s headline spot is the tomb of Marc Chagall. A minor curiosity for some is the Cave of St-Paul, a wine cellar where tasting by the glass can be effected with a sort of table service in the courtyard, given time and no kids in tow.
Cagnes-sur-Mer is home to Musée Renoir ♥ which offers a good insight into the painter, his life, his work, and his family via the audio-guide tablet. The rooms are sparsely furnished and most paintings are not by Renoir himself. There are less than a dozen of his own (lesser quality) paintings, although a separate floor has a good collection of his sculptures. Serene grounds invite contemplation, with the views towards the village hilltop and another minor attraction in Château-musée Grimaldi. On balance, the place will primarily appeal to those who expressly hold Renoir in special esteem.
Menton ♥ is mini-Nice – busy, lively, not without visual highlights, short of being exceptional. The stairs St-Michel and the ensemble of two churches at the top is one such highlight (the timing worked against us for seeing the churches’ interiors). Salle des Marriages ♥, decorated by Jean Cocteau in his unique painting style, is worth a visit; the descriptive narration, in either French or English, lasts about 10 minutes, which is more than enough; you have to go into Hotel de Ville in order to be escorted to the marriage hall. Museum of Cocteau at the Bastion is primarily about his work as a film director, of interest to connoisseurs only. The covered Marché des Halles ♥ is as fun as any such establishment.
High in the mountains above Menton, Sainte-Agnès ♥♥ carries the designation of one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Like many such hamlets, it is a fairly compact cluster of houses with various picturesque corners, mountain vistas, and an intimate Église de Sainte Agnès. There are also castle ruins high up the hill and an old military fort (limited guided access).
On our one day-trip excursion to Cannes, we were rather underwhelmed. Despite the fact that our visit happened just days before the famous Film Festival, the town was largely deserted and unexciting. The glamour apparently arrives just a couple of days before the festival and leaves soon thereafter. We strolled up and down Croisette ♥, a grand waterfront boulevard that separates luxury boutiques and hotels from the beaches; looked into the rose garden at the far end of the promenade; stopped by the Palais des Festivals, where French movie stars have their names etched into the pavement akin to the front yard of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in LA; took an around-the-town excursion on a mini-train (less than ideal narration).
It occurred to us later that the Old Town is a bit farther away from the shore, and we did not see it at all. Among attractions there is Notre-Dame de l’Espérance and the Musée de la Castre. A potentially interesting excursion to Iles de Lérins can be undertaken from the Old Port. Having heard considerably more positive comments than our own impressions from our friends, we will probably try again in the future.
Grasse ♥ has been the capital of the world’s perfume industry since the 16th century, and its main attractions are all about parfumerie. The best place to learn about the craft is the Musée Internationale de la Parfumerie ♥, but visiting the Fragonard museum and factory ♥ is also quite interesting, with a great presentation on traditional ways of making perfume and an extensive “sniffing” session. You can also walk around the unspoiled pedestrian squares and arcaded streets – they are very charming. Cathédrale de Notre-Dame-du-Puy might be worth a look. Anyone interested in Fragonard the artist may want to visit his Villa-Musée.
St-Tropez Port ♥ is the prime gawking location, with sleek and luxurious yachts of all sizes. The streets of the Old Town ♥♥ are not too crowded – because most of the visitors stay glued to the marina and its assortment of lively cafés and shops – and make for a pleasant walk. There are many corners that evoke a quintessential Mediterranean feeling. There are several attractions potentially worth visiting, such as the 16th-century Citadelle, an Italian Baroque Église, a good paintings collection at L’Annonciade, and 5,000 species of butterfly at Maison des Papillons.
Note that driving into St-Tropez is not recommended unless you are staying there overnight. A boat from Ste-Maxime departs every 15 minutes or so and is a much more pleasant way to reach St-Tropez on an intraday trip. Ste-Maxime is a bustling resort town with a Nice-like main seaside artery, Promenade Simon-Lorière.
Fréjus, like all seaside resort towns, gets awfully busy with traffic during the summer months. We planned to see its Roman Amphithéâtre and its reputedly impressive Groupe Épiscopal but never managed it. A walk around town streets in conjunction with a local market led us into several pleasant corners, though. Among the leisure attractions in town is Aqualand water park. It is full of great rides, but is horribly organized (as of 2008, no lockers – you leave your belongings in a cloakroom and have to endure a line every time you need to get something, such as money for lunch, for instance) and is prone to long queues everywhere. There is also the amusement Luna Park, which only opens at 8 pm even in the peak season.
St-Raphaël is yet another busy seaside resort town, situated around a pleasant central harbor area with the usual mix of cafés and shops. There are a number of grand and exotically decorated historic villas on adjoining streets. The beach is fine and sandy, bordered by a boardwalk that ends with a small elevated park by the marina. The formidable Notre-Dame-de-la-Victoire-de-Lépante ♥ that towers over the city is more impressive on the outside than on the inside but is still worth checking out.
Roquebrune-sur-Argens is not likely to feature on your itinerary if you are a foreign tourist and only appears in this guide on the strength of having been our base for a two-week stay on Côte d’Azur. Located several miles inland, it is cheaper to stay here than closer to the coast, which brings a lot of French vacationers here, which helps to retain the atmosphere of a true southern French village. The historic pedestrianized core of the town up the hill is an agreeable quarter of narrow and winding streets, adorned by fountains, with a number of galleries, shops, and eateries. There is an interesting church, Église St-Pierre-St-Paul, and several attractive buildings. The village holds numerous markets ♥ during the summer season, not just produce, delicacies, souvenirs, and clothes, but also diverse arts and crafts. There are several wineries and cooperatives for those interested in wine tasting. You can also rent a waterbike ♥ with a slide on River Argens, which is an activity that always goes well with children.
In the “memorable stays” category, the apartment at 105 Av Leopold II (the complex is called “Le Brasilia”) (link) is modern and well-stocked, with all amenities, and the views over the bay are entirely unparalleled. A dedicated individual parking garage requires some maneuvering to get in and out but is certainly a great bonus. There is a saltwater pool on the premises. The nearest shops and eateries are 182 steps plus several ramps down in the village core, and the Nice-Monaco Corniche goes by under the windows, so in the daytime, it is reasonably noisy under the balcony (not at all at night, and you do not hear it too much with the balcony door closed), but these small drawbacks do not outweigh the awesome features. If you choose to walk to the village or the beach, it is about 10 minutes on foot; or you can reach the parking at the edge of the port in under 5 minutes by car.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal anywhere on the Riviera. Here is one definite recommendation: Les Voisins (in Beaulieu-sur-Mer next to the casino) is among the most refined yet unpretentious meals that we ever had.
Both as a dining recommendation and an experience, stop by for breakfast or lunch at Bakaro by Vini in the very center of Villefranche-sur-Mer.