I mean, would you look at that water?! The French Riviera is basically shorthand for luxury—crisp glasses of cold rosé on private balconies, yachts floating on turquoise waters, the sunny playground of the rich and famous.
We spent 8 days in the South of France, so had some time to explore the area. In full transparency, I’m less enamored of France than other places I’ve visited. It’s just a personal preference. But there’s still so much to love here (*ahem* almond croissants), and it can make a great standalone itinerary or 3-4 days combined with Paris, Spain, Italy, Germany, or Switzerland.
How to get around the French Riviera
In my experience, road trip is the only way to really visit these smaller towns in the South of France, so I definitely recommend you rent a car. We used Sixt, who I’ve used several times internationally and have always had good experiences with them. This link provides a 25% discount in France, and this is 10% discount in Europe in general, in case it’s helpful. Do be aware that many of these highways are toll roads, so you’ll need to have plenty of coins on hand to pay the constant fees.
#1 TIP FOR DRIVING IN FRANCE: They have tons of speed cameras (and I never really saw them), so even though you’re going with the flow of traffic you could be getting speeding tickets and not know it til weeks later. I got three in a three-hour span of time…which was 45 euros apiece plus Sixt’s “processing fee” of 19 euros apiece. So learn from my mistakes and stay within 5-10 kilometers of the speed limit even though it’s kind of a dumb speed limit and everyone else is going faster 🙂
I’ve realized in conversations with others that the train and buses may still be a good option for some people, so here’s a post to get you started on figuring out if it’s right for you. For us, particularly where we were staying, a car made much more sense. But no question that tolls, parking fees, etc. are a consideration.
One other consideration is renting a scooter and driving around, which could be really fun and let you soak in the amazing scenery.
What to do on the French Riviera
Obviously, this is going to depend a little on what time of year you’re visiting. For instance, the beaches are a huge draw, but we were there mid-October so really chillin’ on the beach wasn’t really an option—we were just thankful for largely sunny weather the whole time.
This area is less about specific things to do and see, and more about how you experience it, but here are some general thoughts on how you can spend your time.
- Coastline/beaches (you’re spoiled for choice)
- Driving to different towns and just wandering around, having a pastry or glass of wine
- We spent a beautiful afternoon visiting a few wineries in Aix-en-Provence
- Visit Grasse or Eze to create your own perfume (the famous lavender fields are not far from here)
- Something I wished I’d known earlier was that the Gorge du Verdon was a short drive from where we were staying; we only found out the day before we left, or would definitely have visited!
- Get out on a boat…this is one of the yacht capitals of the world!
So below you’ll find deeper information on Roquebrune-sur-Argens, Menton, Monaco, Nice, Cannes, St. Paul-de-Vence, and St. Tropez (with bonus Sainte-Maxime). Some others that were on my list but we didn’t get to were Eze, Villefranche, Grasse, Antibes, and Mougins.
Our base: Roquebrune-sur-Argens
To be honest, Roquebrune is probably not on most people’s radar, but it’s where we based ourselves for the week due to the convention we were at. And I found it a perfect place to stay—big enough to find what we needed for a longer (8-day) stay but with a super cute old town area with delightful patisseries, chocolate shops, and more.
I’ve written more about why I loved Roquebrune-sur-Argens, but even if you’re just passing through it’s worth a stop at Patisserie Cettier for their amazing almond croissants and a chat with their sweet proprietors.
As I was doing research for our trip, I came across something saying Menton was the best-kept secret on the Riviera, and was sold. It has gorgeous beaches (300+ days of sunshine a year!), cute little shops, but tourists tend to skip it so you can have it all to yourself. We stopped here on our way to Monaco to grab lunch and a glass of wine and just look around.
We found a little cafe on the water and parked ourselves there for an hour or so, enjoying our wine, crepes, and salade Niçoise (well, I enjoyed the former two, the latter is not so much to my taste but I was hungry). Then we took a walk out on the rocks by the (unbelievably blue!) water before getting back on the road. Menton isn’t really a place you’d spend a ton of time in my opinion, but is a perfect 2-3 hour respite in a day trip.
Monte Carlo, Monaco
Monte Carlo is…something else. The amount of wealth and glitz here is kind of mind-blowing. I think for me I’m glad I can say I’ve been, but it wasn’t at the top of my list. I went because the other girls wanted to visit. If you’re planning to go I’d allocate most or all of a day—we only had 2-3 hours and it felt very rushed and hectic.
Monaco is a tiny independent city-state near the French-Italian border (but entirely surrounded by France and the Mediterranean). At 0.78 square miles (yes, you read that right, less than a square mile) and a little over 38,000 residents, it’s both the 2nd-smallest and the most densely-populated sovereign state in the world (and there’s a stupid amount of wealth here). What it lacks in horizontal space it makes up for in elevation…get your comfy (but still cute) shoes on, because the hills in Monaco are not messing around!
Public parking in Monaco is free for the first hour and then only a few euros after that. I’d say park your car as soon as you can in Monaco and then use your feet or the bus to get around, because driving in Monaco is a bit more overwhelming than any of the other places we visited.
We were only there a few hours so really had to rush around and see things. You definitely want to visit the famous Monte Carlo Casino (more on that below), and if you’re into cars you can visit Prince Ranier III’s private collection of cars. There’s also the Japanese Gardens (free!), which we didn’t have time for, but I heard were beautiful. We grabbed a bus up to the Palace of Monaco (and happened to see the prince drive by, according to the locals). The views from up here make this a must-visit, in my opinion. There’s some pretty good souvenir shopping up here too.
Ah, the famous casino. You can pretend you’re James Bond, but you’ll need to pony up some dough to actually go onto the casino floor (I think it’s like a 25 euro buy-in?). I think there’s a tour you can pay for too. We just walked into the foyer and looked around, then headed on our way. It’s not really my thing, but many people find this fascinating.
Several of the buildings around the casino had absolutely beautiful architecture and detailing. I was obsessed with this one and some of the little fanciful details.
One caution: As you’re trying to get in and out of Monaco, it’s worth looking at the actual driving directions ahead of time, because our car’s GPS kept losing signal inside the many tunnels. If we’d been using our phone GPS we might have been okay (I know Google Maps tries to keep on the same route even without signal) but we literally had no idea when our turns were coming up. Somewhat disorienting.
While Monaco isn’t part of the EU officially, they do participate in the border and customs controls, so you don’t have to worry about customs or anything like that—just drive right in.
I wish we’d been able to spend more time in Nice, because it really was quite charming. It’s a bigger city than most of the others that we’re talking about here on the French Riviera, so a full day here would be nice (ha, Nice). As it was, we only had a few hours and some of that was wasted in an H&M (don’t even get me started…) but we still tried to do justice by it.
I’ve written more about everything we saw, ate, and did…and a scandalous story I absolutely LOVE about the statue fountain below in this post about Nice. Bottom line, Nice is worth your time.
We emerged from our parking garage into vibrant Messena Square, with its checkerboard paving, modern art installations, fun colors, and the aforementioned scandalous statue fountain. We immediately headed toward the waterfront (stopping in the colorful Vieille Ville, or Old Town, for an amazing eclair and coffee on the way).
We didn’t have time to climb all the way up to the Castel, but recommend if you can do it. We did head over to that little belvedere on the far right of this pic to get a beautiful view of the town.
We totally did not do Cannes justice. We were on our way back to Roquebrune from our afternoon in Nice, and the sun was setting as we came up on Cannes. But knowing how limited our time was going to be throughout the week, we decided just to make a quick stop and look around. The waterfront area was pretty in the sunset, and we walked up a couple of the main (super hilly) streets and looked around, then grabbed dinner.
Cannes honestly wasn’t super high on my list of towns I was dying to visit but my friends really loved it and kept saying how much they wished we could have spent more time there. One thing you should consider if you’re spending time in Cannes is to also visit nearby Antibes, which I really did want to see, and would make a great pairing.
I seemed to find when doing research for our trip that people either feel like St. Paul-de-Vence is a must-visit and you’d be insane to miss it, or it’s a crowded tourist hell, the Disneyland of the French Riviera. Neither is really fair, but I was worried about the tourist crowd part and had planned on skipping the tiny hilltop town. My friends ganged up on me though, and so off we went.
And I totally loved it! I’ve written a lot more about why you’ll fall in love with St. Paul-de-Vence, if you’re thinking of visiting.
It really helped that we were there in the off-season (early/mid-October) and also later in the afternoon so some of the tour buses had already left. But St. Paul was totally gorgeous and I found myself charmed by the colors, the views, the vines and flowers climbing up buildings, the tiny winding alleyways, and overall just the VIBE.
Unless you’re in the middle of peak season and can’t be flexible on time of day, I totally recommend grabbing a couple hours in delightful St. Paul-de-Vence.
This was a total bummer, our only rainy and overcast day of our entire trip. I say it was a bummer because our whole group agreed that we would have really loved St. Tropez and nearby Sainte-Maxime on a sunny day.
Since the weather was so miserable, we made food our first priority after walking along the waterfront. We found a Breton crêpe place and settled in for some delicious snacks and coffee.
On the way back to Roquebrune, we drove through Sainte-Maxime and it looked so cute! We were short on time or would have stopped, even though the weather was gross. We did have to stop for a few minutes outside the town at this cute little lighthouse thing, though got soaked in the process!
So there are some of the beautiful towns we visited in our 8 days in the South of France. But if we’d had more time during the day we certainly would have visited a lot more! I hope this was helpful in planning your own adventure, but please hit me up with any questions in the comments!
Other charming small towns you’ll love:
- The Medieval Charms of Kilkenny, Ireland
- Exploring the Hill Towns of Northern Croatia
- Why Riomaggiore Is My Favorite Cinque Terre Town
- A Day Trip to Medieval Regensburg, Germany
- Exploring Scotland’s Glen Torridon, Bealach Na Ba, & Applecross
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