You may not be able to go to Europe’s most glamorous coastline right now, but you can still dream about it.
With 115 km (71 miles) of coastline, the Côte d’Azur is synonymous with its legendary beaches (plages in French). Although all are beautiful to behold, each one has its own unique character, from glamorous St-Tropez and St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to the paradisiacal calanques. In high season—from mid-June through September—sun worshipers jostle for a position on pretty much every Riviera beach.
The beaches on the Riviera are a mix of public and private, with hotels and restaurants occupying long swaths of beachfront reserved for paying customers. There are usually public areas interspersed, but they can be quite crowded—and hard to spot—in summer. The true public beaches usually have no lifeguards or rental chairs and are free. Public beaches “en régie” (meaning they’re run by town authorities) offer public showers and beach rentals for a small entrance fee. Municipal beaches are usually “supervised,” meaning there are lifeguards on hand. Dogs are forbidden on all beaches and smoking is increasingly frowned upon. For an introduction to the Riviera’s glittering world of fun in the sun, here are 10 of the region’s most idyllic beaches.
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Plage de la Salis
One of the coastline’s more glamorous addresses, Antibes is lined with beaches both public and private. The Plage de la Salis has golden sands (don’t dig too deep as there are pebbles underneath) and stunning views of the old town, mountains, and the Garoupe lighthouse. It does tend to draw major crowds, especially since it’s a public beach. The upside is you’ll easily find free restrooms, showers, and parking. Like all the beaches of the Côte d’Azur, the off-season is the best season.
Plage de la Garoupe
WHERE: Cap d’Antibes
A long, sandy beach on a sparkling bay favored by sailboats, Plage de la Garoupe is one of the loveliest in Cap d-Antibes. While several sections of the beach are private (it’s the only beach in Cap d’Antibes with any private sands), there are designated public areas where you can rent beach chairs and umbrellas from mid-June through September. This northeast-facing beach offers gentler rays than the south-facing beaches along the coast and is favored by snorkelers for its rocky headland. La Garoupe actually made headlines recently not for its azure waters and white sand, but for its ban on selfie (spoiler alert: it didn’t last).
If you can’t find a spot in the public area, head to the far end of the parking lot (the end of the private beaches), where you’ll find an entrance to the area’s coastal path, Le Sentier du Littoral. The one-hour walk takes you past lovely small coves and gravel beaches where you can catch some rays sans crowds or simply enjoy the views.
Port de Crouton Plage
On the west side of Cap d’Antibes lies the charming village of Juan-les-Pins, well-known as the 1920s home of writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, and their daughter Scottie (their actual house is now the five-star Belles Rives Hotel). Port de Crouton is smaller than Juan-les-Pins’s other main beaches and sheltered by stone jetties on either side. At one end, the restaurant at Le Cap Beach has a beach that offers lounge chairs and umbrellas as well as beachside food service. On the public side, you’ll find showers and restrooms.
Like tiny pockets of paradise, more than a dozen azure blue Calanques can be found tucked away in the rocky cliffs between Marseille and Cassis, a charming fishing village that’s now a favorite of European tourists. But like any hidden treasure, it takes some effort and planning to find them, as access to the Calanques is possible only on foot or by boat. Port-Miou, the most accessible of the Cassis Calanques, is an easy 30-minute hike from Cassis city center. The next, Port-Pin, is about an hour walk from town. But the prettiest of the three, En-Vau, requires a more vigorous hike over semi-rugged terrain. You’ll be rewarded with stunning views and a slice of heavenly turquoise waters between plunging cliffs and white sand beaches. There are several nautical options for reaching the Calanques: by boat from the Cassis port or from Marseille, where you can sign up for a few hours or a half-day of Calanque-hopping.
Cassis has its own lovely beaches: Plage de la Grande Mer, in the center of town near the tourist office, and Plage de Corton, a 15-minute walk from town. Both are pebble-sand beaches with turquoise waters and exquisite views of Cap Canaille’s ruddy cliffs.
Plage des Marinières
A little ways east of Villefranche-sur-Mer city center, the Plage des Marinières curves around the bay for nearly a mile past the old town. Between steep cliffs and the glimmering sea, with excellent views of Villefranche, this narrow, coarse white sand beach is a stunner. Don’t expect seclusion, however, as the Nice-Italy train runs behind the beach (with a stop just minutes away) and its 400-car paid parking lot makes it very accessible to day-trippers. The Plage des Marinières long drop-off makes it great for kids and it’s also equipped with anti-jellyfish nets for added safety. The family-friendly vibe is enhanced by a central first aid station, beach chair and umbrella rentals, plenty of refreshment stands, and ramps for those with reduced mobility.
Plage de Paloma
Jutting into the sea between Nice and Monaco, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is one of the world’s most fabulous addresses. Although the billionaire’s mansions that line the peninsula are mostly hidden from view, you can get an idea of the luxury that surrounds you at the rose-colored Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild and take in some stunning views from its legendary gardens.
You can also experience this haven of calm at the Plage de Paloma, one of the peninsula’s five beaches and a top contender for St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat’s most Instagrammable beach. Surrounded by forest, it requires a 15-minute walk from the parking lot to get there (if coming by car, arrive early to secure a place). Popular for its wild setting, views of the cliffs and nearby Èze, and its brilliant turquoise waters, don’t expect to be alone during the high season. The beach is also the starting point, or ending point, for the Pointe St-Hospice trail.
The famous Tahiti Beach can be found at the northernmost edge of Pampelonne Beach’s three-mile stretch of white sand—half in St-Tropez and half in Ramatuelle—that can be reached from Pampelonne. Head for the stand of pine trees and be prepared for bathers in various stages of undress, as this is the Riviera’s legendary “clothing-optional” beach. Not long after Brigit Bardot’s star turn in And God Created Woman, filmed on Pampelonne, Tahiti Beach started attracting 1960s free spirits. French women who felt constrained by unequal dress codes favoring men started appearing topless, culminating in the beach’s status. It is not a nudist beach, but those can be found elsewhere around the Riviera. Like the rest of Pampelonne, there are plenty of snack bars, restaurants, and beach bed rentals.
Plage de la République
A long, sprawling beach fronting the pleasant town of Fréjus, in the Var region of Provence, Plage de la République is the most central of Fréjus’s four beaches. The beach’s large expanse of fine-grained sand and calm waters attract serious swimmers while its proximity to the Fréjus Nautical Club makes it an ideal beach for water sports. If you’re coming by car, get there early as the parking is not commensurate with the enormity of the beach, so the few spaces get snapped up quickly. It’s also accessible by bus (République stop on the Boulevard de la Libération). The beach employs lifeguards in season and has a first aid station. It does contain some private areas, but the public spaces are ample.
Set between the Veillat Beach and the Santa Lucia port, Plage Beau-Rivage is lined with a pretty promenade and a leafy park. The beach itself is a mix of sand and pebbles, with tranquil waters and wonderful views of the bay of St-Raphael and Lion de Mer Island. Set in a cove, this is a favorite of windsurfers and water-skiers, while the many activities for kids and adults in the adjoining park make it catnip for families. It is also well equipped for seniors and people with disabilities, with accessible restrooms and showers, a first aid station, and plenty of snack bars and rental stations.
The Îles de Léhrins
At the far eastern edge of the beaches in Cannes, on the Quai du Large at the foot of Le Suquet (the old town), a 15-minute boat ride takes you to the exquisite Îles de Léhrins. The smaller island, St-Honorat, can be circumnavigated on foot in an hour and is the home of 20 wine-making monks whose award-winning bottles can be tasted and purchased at the island’s boutique store (there is also a nice restaurant). Meanwhile, Île Sainte-Marguerite, a nature and bird sanctuary two miles long and a half-mile across, harbors two miles of walking paths that lead to secluded beaches and scenic picnic spots under Aleppo pines and towering eucalyptus trees. Set in crystal clear blue waters, these two islands are favored by boaters, divers, and snorkelers alike.