How to Travel to the French Riviera
The French Riviera, also known as the Côte d’Azur, is a dreamy French region that extends east along the coast from Menton and Monaco to Théoule sur Mer and up into the Southern Alps. The Riviera contains several cities (Nice and Cannes among them), 14 natural parks, Roman ruins, medieval villages and whale watching just off shore. Don’t think of the Côte d’Azur as just a summer locale, either. Sure, these cities heat up come July as the masses parade down boulevards and beaches, but winter is one of the Riviera’s best-kept secrets with snow falling just two hours north of the shore. Here’s how to make the most of your stay in the South of France.
When to Go
The Côte d’Azur is protected by hills in the west and the Mercantour Alps in the northwest, meaning a mild Mediterranean climate year-round. Expect almost 300 days of sunshine, with stretches of rain around the shoulder months of March and April, as well as October and November. June and September are some of the best months to visit the region, while July and August are the height of season. Tourists cram the beaches in the summer months, making it harder to snag beach beds and dinner reservations.
Winter is far from beach weather, but temperatures rarely hit freezing. Large towns and some of the smaller villages host traditional Christmas markets selling local specialties and mulled wine (or vin chaud). The region’s 15 ski resorts open for season in December, with the closest (Auron, Isola 2000, and Valberg) a little over two hours away by bus from the Nice train station or airport (1.50€ for a one-way ticket).
In February, Nice hosts one of the Riviera’s main winter events, the annual 15-day carnival, with 16 floats parading through Place Massena. In Menton, the city throws the three-week La Fête du Citron, or Lemon Festival, featuring floats filled with over 140 tons of local oranges and lemons.
French Riviera Travel Tips
- If you plan on staying in just one spot, like Nice or Cannes, don’t worry about renting a car. These towns are pedestrian friendly, so you can walk almost anywhere or easily hop a train or bus to a nearby village. Plus, traffic in and out of Cannes and Monaco is notoriously bad and parking spaces are tough to find (and overnight fares are pricey).
- Uber operates throughout most of the Côte d’Azur and into Monaco (but not vice-versa) and is a much easier option than calling a taxi or waiting for one at a designated taxi stand.
- Major department stores and grocery shops may be open Sundays, but most of the smaller boutiques and markets are closed. The same goes for restaurants, which may also be closed Mondays. Museums in France are typically closed either Mondays or Tuesdays.
- Most of the private beaches shut their doors come October or November, packing up for the season. Thirty beaches across the Côte d’Azur, however, remain open year-round. This includes Plage Beau Rivage and Blue Beach along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, as well as L’Écrin and Plage Goëland on the Boulevard de la Croisette in Cannes.
- Travelers planning on doing a fair amount of sightseeing can visit 180 attractions on the French Riviera with the Côte d’Azur Card (45€ for a 3-day adult pass; 72€ for a 6-day adult pass). The pass includes access to museums like Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum, as well as kayak rentals in Menton and guided cruise tours around the coast.
Getting to the Côte d’Azur
The Aéroport Nice Côte d’Azur is the main hub for the French Riviera and the second busiest international airport in the country after Paris. Delta is the only airline to offer direct flights from the US to Nice, with daily service from New York (JFK). A number of other airlines, such as British Airways and Air France, offer daily connecting flights into Nice with stops in cities like London and Paris.
The A8 motorway, or “La Provençale,” connects Nice to Aix-en-Provence in the west and the Italian border in the east. The 950 km (or 590 mile) drive from Paris to Nice takes about eight hours.
The rail system links the French Riviera to other destinations throughout France, as well as major European cities. From Paris, it’s about a five-and-a-half-hour ride to Nice on the high-speed TGV train.
- Buses and trains snake throughout the Côte d’Azur, connecting coastal towns to perched medieval villages. With the Ticket Azur (1.50€), you can hop on buses that link Nice to nearby towns like Grasse, Saint-Paul de Vence, Eze Village and Monaco. The ride from Nice to Menton on the line 100 bus (which departs from the port) is a scenic trip east along the rugged coastline with stops in beachside towns like Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu, Cap d’Ail and Monaco.
- The Regional Express Train, or TER, connects major coastal cities throughout the Riviera, from Fréjus to Ventimiglia, the first town over the Italian border. Trains run about every 30 minutes and most of the stations sit within walking distance of the town center, or offer a bus service from the station. You can purchase tickets from machines at each station, just be sure to stamp your ticket in one of the validation machines before hopping on board.
- From June to September, the guided voyage on the Trains des Merveilles (15€ round-trip) runs from Nice to Tende in the Valley of the Marvels, with stops in perched villages like Peille. The train climbs nearly 3,280 feet high on the two-hour trip through the lush Mercantour National Park.
What to Do in Cannes
- Start the morning in typical French fashion strolling through the stalls of the Forville market in Le Suquet (the Old Town), which sells vegetables and locally caught fish Tuesdays through Sundays. On Mondays, it transforms into the marché brocante, or antiques flea market.
- Even if you’re not in the market for a new Chanel bag, walking along the iconic Boulevard de la Croisette is an experience in itself. Stretching nearly two miles along the Bay of Cannes, the promenade is lined with designer boutiques like Cartier and Céline, as well as some of the city’s landmark hotels like the InterContinental Carlton Cannes.
- Beaches in Cannes are situated mostly along the Croisette and Boulevard du Midi and divided into two types: private and public. Sprawl out at the most popular swimming spots like the Plage du Palais des Festivals or book a beach bed at the Grand Hyatt Cannes Hôtel Martinez’s Zplage beach club, the largest private beach on the Croisette.
- Sail away from the slew of tourists by hopping on a 15-minute ferry ride to the Lérins Islands just across the bay. The first island you’ll reach, Sainte-Marguerite, is covered in pines and green oaks with shaded pathways prime for hiking. The island’s claim to fame is Fort Royal, a former 17th century prison where the Man in the Iron Mask was held. You can pause for a picnic anywhere on the island or take a seat for lunch at waterfront restaurant La Guérite, with a lounge that transforms into a bohemian beachfront soirée on the sand come sunset.
- On the smaller island of Saint Honorat, tour the Lérins Abbey and its seven chapels, which date back to the fifth century. The abbey’s monks also lead wine tastings guiding you through the six grape varieties cultivated on the island’s 20-acre vineyard.
Where to Eat & Drink in Cannes
- Cocktails aren’t what you seek out on the Riviera, but Le Bar l’Amiral at the Grand Hyatt Cannes Hôtel Martinez has a team of award-winning mixologists (including the 2014 Champion of France) who whip up reinvented classics served in proper stemware. The hotel is also home to Cannes’s only two-star Michelin restaurant, cinema-inspired La Palme d’Or, with cuisine served on ceramics handcrafted by the chef.
- A spin-off of the original in Nice, La Petite Maison de Nicole in Le Majestic is a celeb favorite. Pop art and billowy white curtains drape the restaurant’s interiors and the scene heats up come weekends as musicians serenade tables.
- The flagship of the Bâoli group, Bâoli Cannes is one of the hotspots to hit up during the annual film festival. Set on Port Canto at the far end of the Croisette, the Asian-meets-Mediterranean restaurant transforms at midnight into one of the most vibrant nightclub spots in the city.
Related: How to Enjoy Cannes Like a Celebrity
Where to Stay in Cannes
In Cannes, it’s all about the right address. The five-star hotels sitting on the Croisette are more than just favorites during the film festival; these luxe lodgings are an integral part of Cannes’s history.
- Intercontinental Carlton Cannes: The backdrop to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 thriller “To Catch a Thief,” the century-old hotel still pays tribute to the film’s leading lady, Grace Kelly. Guests can stay in suite 623 where the film was shot, or opt for Kelly’s sea-view namesake suite, one of the most opulent of the 10 Prestige Suites dedicated to the stars who’ve stayed there. The 4,000-square-foot Sean Connery suite—the largest of them all—is a personal favorite of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and features its own private elevator for VIP entrances.
- Hôtel Majestic Barrière: With its landmark Carrara marble staircase and pool crafted from Murano mosaics, the 350-room Art Deco beauty looks just as glam today as it did when it opened back in 1926. Views look straight across at the steps of the Palais des Festivals—where the stars walk the red carpet—and the seventh floor Majestic Barrier Suite (one of the most luxurious penthouses on the Riviera) shows off vistas of the Lérins Islands. Just one floor below, the Christian Dior Suite’s décor is inspired by the brand’s Parisian headquarters with replicas of the late designer’s furniture.
- Grand Hyatt Cannes Hôtel Martinez: The seventh-floor penthouse here is one of the largest on the continent and most expensive in the world, with two Jacuzzi tubs and a 2,900-square-foot terrace lined with 200-year-old olive trees. The Art Deco-style sea-view rooms feature pearl-white satin accents; bathrooms with saunas and Turkish bath showers; and chaise lounges on balconies looking out to the Estérel Mountains. Even if you can’t swing a room here, try and make time for one of the signature oxygen treatments at the L.RAPHAEL Beauty Spa.
- Other top-rated hotels along the Croisette include the JW Marriott Cannes, Le Grand Hotel Cannes, and boutique 3.14 CANNES, one block behind the boulevard. If you’re looking for a convenient and more affordable option that teeters on the minimalist side, French-based Okko Hotels recently opened their first spot on the Côte d’Azur, a 125-room hotel in the train station with an expansive rooftop terrace.
Things to Do in Nice
Nice is a city that deserves more credit than travelers give it. Get your bearings by climbing up Castle Hill, home to the former citadel where the town got its start. A maze of paths wind their way up from both Place Garibaldi and the Old Town. Expect to get lost on the 10-minute light hike (there’s also an elevator at the edge of the Promenade des Anglais), but all routes lead to the same viewpoints over the port, Baie des Anges and Old Town.
A popular promenade for the society set in the 18th century, the Cours Saleya pedestrian street in the Old Town is now home to the daily markets. Striped awnings open up over rows of vegetable, fruit, and flower stands every day of the week except Mondays, when the antiques market takes over.
A hotbed for artists, the region features over 100 museums, 12 of which are dedicated to a sole artist who lived and worked in the Riviera. In Nice, two museums are worth the trek to the hilly neighborhood of Cimiez: Musée Marc Chagall (8€, closed Tuesdays), home to the artist’s 17 Biblical Message paintings, and Musée Matisse (free entry, closed Tuesdays), set in a 17th-century Genoese building near Matisse’s former residence, the Hotel Regina, and the cemetery where he’s buried.
Travelers who want to get deeper into the history of artists who called this region home can follow the Painters Trail, a route marked by 90 lecterns featuring replicas of artwork placed in the same spot they were painted.
Where to Eat & Drink in and Around Nice
- Many of the restaurants are centered around the Old Town, but the congested streets mean plenty of tourist traps. Reserve a table at Olive & Artichaut, a small French bistro with an open kitchen concept and market-inspired fare that’s hearty without being too heavy. For a grab-and-go option, swing by gourmet Asian street food spot Banh Meï, where you’ll find matcha-infused pastries and Korean-style burgers.
- Evenings in summer are a moveable feast that starts (and ends) with rosé. Locals chase the sun from terrace to terrace, stopping for a carafe of local Côtes du Provence rosé wine at each spot. You can’t go wrong with the house wine, and many bars offer happy hour deals. Take your pick of terraces in the Place Garibaldi square (Campo Caffé is a local favorite), settling in for apéro, or pre-dinner drinks, and regional specialties like pissaldiere (a caramelized onion tart).
- Le Vivier lounge opened last year in one of the city’s most scenic spots—a cliff 20 feet above the sea in a former 19th century eatery that was the place for Nice’s society set to see-and-be-seen during the Belle Époque.
- The French Riviera holds more than 50 Michelin stars spanning 38 restaurants. Jan is one of the newest on the list, tucked in a romantic, cave-like setting a few blocks behind the port. South African chef Jan Hendrik plays on his native flavors like biltong, fusing them with Mediterranean market finds like olive oil from Menton and fresh herbs. Martinique-born chef Marcel Ravin is also mixing Mediterranean flavors with touches of the Caribbean at his one-Michelin-star restaurant Blue Bay in Monaco, which shows off sweeping views from the waterfront terrace at the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort.
- La Chèvre d’Or in the medieval village of Eze is worth the trek to the top. Located 1,300 feet above the Mediterranean, this seasonal restaurant (open March through November) is a destination in itself with the full French fine-dining experience (cheese trolley included) and floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows. During the Grand Prix, this perch makes for prime celebrity yacht spotting as boats cruise in and out of the bay below.
Where to Stay in Nice
Cote d’Azur Day Trips
From the Côte d’Azur, you can wind up deep in Provence or in the heart of the Italian Riviera in just a few hours. Some of Europe’s most stunning canyons, Les Gorges du Verdon, are less than two hours away with the ride as scenic as the canyons themselves. Don’t have a car? You can still get around the region with the streamlined public transportation system. Here are some ideas for easier-to-reach day trips.
Cruise the Capes: Between Monaco and Cannes you’ll come across a few scenic stretches of coastal paths, such as Cap d’Ail’s hour-long walk past the Belle Époque villas between the beaches of Mala and Marquet. One of the more popular excursions, the Cap Ferrat peninsula (also known as the millionaires’ peninsula) shows off views over the French coastline all the way up to Italy throughout nine miles of pedestrian paths.
Visit a Medieval Village: Hike the hour-and-a-half-long Nietzsche path leading from Eze’s seaside up to the medieval village. Stroll the narrow streets lined with artisan shops and studios, stopping for a glass of wine on the terrace of 400-year-old Château Eza, built into the city’s thousand-year-old walls. The fortified village of Saint-Paul de Vence sits between Nice and Antibes, with the line 400 bus (1.50€ one-way) running directly from Nice’s city center on the hour-long journey. The village that once drew artists like Calder and Chagall still features many of their pieces at modern and contemporary art museum Fondation Maeght. Reserve a table well in advance for lunch at nearby La Colombe d’Or to dine in the spot these artists and others held court back in the ’40s and ’50s.
Bask at a Beach Bar: Skip town when it comes to beaches in Nice and Cannes. The ones surrounding these cities are much better (and less crowded) options. Call ahead and reserve a bed (the first row facing the sea goes fast) at the newly opened Deli Bo. beach bar in Villefranche, a seaside outpost of the restaurant that’s a lunchtime favorite in Nice (+33 04 93 62 99 50; 20€ for the day). In Cap d’Ail, Eden Plage Mala sits on a smaller bay with pedal boat rentals, massage cabanas and an upscale beach bistro serving fresh catch of the day (+33 04 93 78 17 06; 30€ for a full-day beach bed rental during season).