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.