The 80-mile sweep of land known as the Côte d'Azur is a necklace of towns strung along a rocky coast. Sun-worn locals sip pastis while rubbing elbows with international boldfaced names; yachts share the docks with broken-down fishing boats; Rolls-Royces and Bentleys are considered "city cars"; and well-heeled ladies pedal rusty bicycles to market. The French Riviera means the casinos and cafés of Monte Carlo, Nice, and St.-Tropez, to be sure, but it also includes dozens of slow-paced villages wedged tightly between mountains and sea.
Traffic comes to a near standstill in the high season, July through August; however, it's possible even then to find a reasonably priced room with at least a few frills—a powdery beach, candles at turndown, a memorable meal. As temperatures drop at summer's end, so do the rates, but until they do, here's the best of the coast for less.
A playground for European nobility and the super-rich, Monte Carlo means the Grimaldis, the casino, the Monaco Grand Prix (June 1), and limitless luxury. Grab a seat at the Café de Paris, order some Veuve, and enjoy the show: couples in black tie strolling, coiffed blondes trolling, uniformed chauffeurs in dark cars idling—and T-shirt-clad tourists loving the spectacle of it all.
HOTELS Monaco's Fontvieille neighborhood may be the town's business hub, but its Columbus hotel (23 Ave. des Papalins; 377/92-05-90-00; www.columbushotels.com; doubles from $250) takes leisure seriously. Beige linen couches and lacquered wenge wood invite guests to linger in the lobby; earth tones, leather couches, and Frette linens in the suites contribute to the understated grace. Laze under an umbrella by the pool, or hop on a water taxi to a secluded nearby beach.
RESTAURANTS Alain Ducasse vowed he'd earn three Michelin stars in just three years at his restaurant Le Louis XV (Hôtel de Paris, Place du Casino; 377/92-16-29-76; www.alain-ducasse.com; prix fixe lunch for two $198). He did, becoming at 33 the youngest chef to earn haute cuisine's highest honor. Here, in a Versailles-style dining room, women's handbags rest on upholstered stools, vermeil Christofle silver pings softly against Limoges, and two people can easily spend $500 on dinner. So, come for lunch instead. The three-course prix fixe menu, with a starter (stuffed sardines or asparagus risotto), an entrée (peppered sea bass with Swiss chard), and a dessert runs $99 a person. • Around the corner from the Columbus, Stefano Frittella has been interpreting Italian classics for 15 years at La Salière (14 Quai Jean-Charles-Rey; 377/92-05-25-82; dinner for two $88). Antipasti are served tapas-style (crisp pizzas, eggplant parmigiana, lightly fried mozzarella), while main courses, such as veal Milanese or pappardelle with fresh tomato sauce, stick to the basics. • In La Turbie, a few miles above Monte Carlo, chef-owner Bruno Cirino runs Michelin-starred Hostellerie Jérôme (20 Rue Comte de Cessole; 33-4/92-41-51-51; prix fixe dinner for two $110). With a $35 prix fixe lunch on weekdays and a three-course $55 menu nightly, a meal in this vaulted 13th-century room is the best deal around. Order truffled risotto with lobster and cèpes, roasted cuttlefish with cannellini beans, and a country peach tart.
SHOPPING This season's pieces from top designers—Escada, Pucci, Prada—are slashed to Loehmann's prices at Stock Griffe (5Bis, Ave. St.-Michel; 377/93-50-86-06). The store is tiny (and so are the sizes), but the discounts can be huge, as much as 90 percent. Stop in often to peruse the older marked-down merchandise, or snap up the newest garments.
With its Italian flavor, the cobblestoned streets of the 17th-century Old Town, and palm-lined Promenade des Anglais, Nice is an ideal base for exploring all of the Riviera. France's fifth-largest city has world-class museums, a symphony and opera, high-end shopping, access to wide beaches, and a battalion of gardeners who keep the greenery lush. Cars mire in traffic in summer, so ditch your rental and get around town on foot, or by cab or bus.
HOTELS A few blocks from the beach and the chic boutiques of Rue Paradis, Hôtel le Grimaldi (15 Rue Grimaldi; 33-4/93-16-00-24; www.le-grimaldi.com; doubles from $104) melds style (Provençal checks and Riviera stripes) with service and location. Request a view of the gabled Church of the Holy Spirit, which is lit dramatically at night.
RESTAURANTS L'Âne Rouge (7 Quai des Deux-Emmanuel; 33-4/93-89-49-63; www.anerougenice.com; prix fixe lunch for two $57), overlooking the Old Port, earned its first Michelin star last year. Chef Michel Devillers buys directly from local fishermen and can turn a simple langoustine into a lobster risotto with truffles. • At tiny, timbered L'Escalinada (22 Rue Pairolière; 33-4/93-62-11-71; dinner for two $44), owner Henri Cagnoli seems to know every one of his customers by name. They keep coming back for his eggplant and sardine beignets, Swiss chard-filled gnocchi, and pine-nut tourte de blette swimming in rum—not to mention Henri's convivial company. • Nadim Bérouti gave up a career in finance to pursue his passion for olive oil at Oliviera (8Bis Rue du Collet; 33-4/93-13-06-45; www.oliviera.com; dinner for two $55), where you can sample and buy 26 varieties of it. You can also choose among casual Mediterranean menu options, such as steak tartare with rich, garlicky potatoes. • At Fenocchio (2 Place Rossetti; 33-4/93-80-72-52), ice cream and sorbet come in unusual flavors: violet, lavender, ginger, olive, tomato-basil, fig, rose, and beer.
SHOPPING Not an inch of space is wasted at Nirvana (10 Rue du Collet; 33-4/93-62-65-88), a jewel box filled floor to ceiling with treasures from India and Asia. Wicker baskets sit by the entrance, ready to be loaded up with intricately beaded bracelets, necklaces, and jewel-toned cotton scarves and sarongs (most for less than $20).
MARKETPLACES Peruse the stalls and pack a picnic at the daily fruit, vegetable, and flower market on the Cours Saleya (6 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday). It's the easiest place to sample three traditional niçoise specialties: pissaladière (onion tart with olives), zucchini-blossom fritters, and the famous chickpea pancakes called socca (about $2 each). Once the sun sets, the booths are taken over by vendors peddling jewelry, artwork, and clothing while musicians and painters put on an open-air show. On Mondays, the Cours Saleya morphs into one of the best antiques markets in the south of France, with an endless array of period furniture, vintage jewelry, and collectible porcelain.
No European resort has gone through more popularity shifts than seductive St.-Tropez. It's sizzling right now, so if you're looking for serenity, go somewhere else: streets and beaches are crowded, and the port is cluttered with yachts. But while this former fishing village attracts a serious jet-set crowd, there's a relaxed "anything goes" attitude to which visitors quickly succumb.
HOTELS The busy cafés and throngs of tourists roaming the port can make the Old Town overwhelming. A few blocks from all that—but worlds away, psychically—stands the Hôtel de la Ponche (3 Rue des Remparts; 33-4/94-97-02-53, www.laponche.com; doubles from $165), occupying a group of cottages in the fishing neighborhood of La Ponche. The rooms have a restrained elegance, with hand-painted furniture, pristine matelassé bedcovers, and marble baths; some have views over the rooftops. • South Pacific meets the south of France at the Hôtel Tahiti Beach (Quartier du Pinet, Ramatuelle; 33-4/94-97-18-02; www.tahiti-beach.com; doubles from $138), where Polynesian statues stand guard at the entrance and a wilderness of orange-and-white-striped chaise longues populate the beach. Slip off your chair and up to the bar, sandy feet and all; then treat yourself to an alfresco pedicure at the hotel spa. • If you prefer the action of the port, stay at the 28-room Hôtel Sube (Quai Suffren, 33-4/94-97-30-04; doubles from $99). Besides its seaside location, the Sube has an artistic pedigree: Raoul Dufy was a regular for more than 30 years.
RESTAURANTS At the dining room of the restaurant at Hôtel de la Ponche (33-4/94-97-02-53; dinner for two $55), the aroma of shallots caramelizing, mushrooms sautéeing, and butter melting wafts through the air. Chef Christian Geay prepares Provençal dishes, such as roast pork with rosemary, rabbit with mustard sauce, and duck breast with figs, while customers gaze out to sea. • Fresh fish is wheeled up from the port and grilled with simplicity at Le Girelier (Quai Jean-Jaurès; 33-4/94-97-03-87; dinner for two $88). Regulars order the poutargue de cabillaud, or cod roe, followed by the morning's catch. • Late in the afternoon, slide into one of the scarlet chairs at Le Sénéquier (Quai Jean-Jaurès; 33-4/94-97-00-90), the town's most revered pâtisserie, for coffee and a creamy tarte Tropézienne. • After sunset, join the evening revelers in line at the Crêperie Grand Marnier (10 Rue des Remparts; 33-4/94-97-07-29; crêpes about $3 each). White-toqued chefs wrap orange-flavored pancakes around chocolate or cherries; it stays open until 2 a.m.
SHOPPING Clemenceau Street is lined with one-of-a-kind boutiques chockablock with clothes, jewelry, linens, and tableware, and everything's priced to sell. A must-stop shop: Au Ribier (36 Rue Clemenceau; 33-4/94-97-10-88), for red-lacquered serving pieces crafted from compressed bamboo (from $20). • A few streets over from Clemenceau, Le Dépôt (5 Rue Quaranta; 33-4/94-97-80-10) sells secondhand designer clothes and handbags from Chanel, Hermès, Gaultier, and Moschino. Some items still have their original tags, and prices are so low, shoppers often suffer from sticker shock—in the best way.
This month, hordes of Hollywood types descend upon Cannes to attend its annual film festival. But there's action here year-round, on and off the Croisette. To avoid it, stay at the 24-room Villa de l'Olivier (5 Rue des Tambourinaires; 33-4/93-39-53-28; www.hotelolivier.com; doubles from $135). Built 118 years ago as a private residence, it sits on a quiet street. Then make the pilgrimage to Roger Vergé's Le Moulin de Mougins (Ave. Notre Dame de Vie, Mougins; 33-4/93-75-78-24; www.moulin-mougins.com; prix fixe lunch for two $96; doubles from $154). This 16th-century olive mill has a shop, a world-famous cooking school, and a small inn, but it's the restaurant—serving tuna carpaccio with eggplant caviar, lamb chops with olive polenta, fig-and-raspberry shortcake—that draws food lovers from around the world.
The French Riviera Museum Pass (33-4/97-03-82-20; www.cmca.net; $11-30) grants entry to as many as 65 museums, including the Matisse and the Chagall in Nice, and the Picasso in Antibes. The Nice Museum Pass (sold at museums; $6) gives unlimited seven-day access to the town's galleries; they're free, however, on the first and third Sundays of every month.
For a group or family—or a stay longer than a few days—a villa rental can be the best bargain. New York Habitat VLF (212/255-8018; www.nyhabitat.com) lists around 300 Riviera dwellings, from small studios to rambling villas. Weekly rentals in high season range from $440 for a studio on the Old Harbor in Nice to $4,753 for a four-bedroom, three-bathroom Antibes villa. For good value, reserve Habitat's three-bedroom, two-bath villa (with a pool) near Mougins for $2,743. Wimco (800/932-3222; www.wimco.com), another Riviera specialist, has 100 villas, all between St.-Tropez and Èze. A five-bedroom, five-bath villa overlooking Cannes goes for $5,750 per week in July and August. Chefs, car rentals, massage, yoga instruction, and nannies can also be arranged by Wimco.