A guide to the many treasures of the Riviera—far from the glamour and glitz.
Famous for its indigo skies and beachside revelry, no place on earth says “bling-fest” like the French Riviera (the Côte d’Azur in French). And for many travelers, that’s intimidating—or even a deal breaker. But behind the mega yachts and paparazzi, there’s another more authentic Riviera, sheltering untouched landscapes, sleepy villages, and remote beaches where the locals like to go.
The Côte d’Azur’s 90 miles of coastline stretch from Saint-Tropez to Nice and the Italian border. When French and European tourists descend in summer, you can step away from the coastline and make like a local. Or, if you can get away in the spring or fall when the weather is still warm enough for every kind of fun in the sun, that’s when you’ll have the beaches to yourself.
Stick to the Old Towns
It’s easy to see why artists like Monet, Bonnard, Chagall, and Picasso, not to mention writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Graham Greene, couldn’t get enough of Vieil Antibes (old Antibes). Behind the promenade Amiral-de-Grasse and Vauban’s 17th-century sea walls lies a rabbit warren of colorful, flower-laden fishermen’s cottages leading to the medieval Château Grimaldi, home of the Musée Picasso (and once Picasso himself). You’ll also find laid-back cafés and tiny restaurants where you can sit outside and watch the world go by.
In Cannes‘ 12th-century old town, your walk up the winding cobbled Rue St-Antoine to Le Suquet is rewarded by the Musée de la Castre and the medieval Tour du Suquet and its eye-popping views of Cannes, the glimmering coastline, and the Îles Lehrins beyond. At the foot of Le Suquet, the Marché Forville—one of the Riviera’s best local markets—offers a tempting array of Mediterranean specialties, along with homemade socca (chickpea flour cakes) hot off the griddle and the cream-laden tarte Tropézienne. Afterward, grab a coffee in its café-lined square.
Among the vibrantly colored 16th-century villas of Nice’s Italianate old town is the house where Matisse lived and worked in his last years. Nearby at the Cours Saleya, local chefs flock to the organic farmer’s market, where you can grab some cheese, olives, and bread and climb the Lesage stairs (or take the elevator) to shady Castle Hill Park for the best views of Nice and the coastline.
Alpine Walks and Perched Villages
You can drive the vertiginous, hairpin roads of the Alpes-Maritimes, a few miles behind Nice and Menton, but to explore this national parkland at the border of Italy (it was Italy until 1947) along its hundreds of miles of footpaths is to discover some of France’s most breathtaking mountain vistas. In the Roya Valley, dine on freshly caught river trout and discover rare 600-year-old Italian frescoes at remote Notre-Dame-des-Fontaines in the tiny village of La Brigue; take in the breathtaking views from Saorge’s mirage-like 17th-century monastery, and savor the beauty of medieval perched villages Briel, Sospel, Sainte-Agnès, Gorbio and elegant Roquebrune-Cap-Martin (beloved by Monet, Dalì, Virginia Woolf, and Coco Chanel) along the way. Go in May for a riot of wildflowers or in fall when the light slants golden over the mountains. If you’re short on time, hop on the Train des Merveilles (train of wonders) from Nice to the Italian border, stopping at these spectacular hilltop towns along the way.
The Îles de Lérins, 15-minutes by ferry from Cannes, glisten like twin jewels in the electric-blue Mediterranean. Nature lovers adore Île Sainte-Marguerite‘s miles of quiet trails, scenic lake with a bird-watching hide, rock-and-sand beaches, cool Eucalyptus forests, and a museum and the historic Vauban fort (where the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned).
Next door, pint-sized Île Saint-Honorat is home to 23 Cistercian monks who make award-winning wines and spirits from their island vineyards. Day visitors are welcome for wine tastings and to take the mile-long hike along the island’s pristine coastline, then to La Tonnelle’s airy terrace for lunch.
At the Côte d’Azur’s westernmost edge, off the coast of Hyères, Porquerolles, one of three Îles d’Hyères, is a beachcomber’s dream for its miles of sandy coastline and hidden inlets. Much of the island is preserved forest, but its relatively well-priced hotels, water sports, walking, cycling routes, and unspoiled beaches make it a favorite for romantic getaways and family outings. In the fall, after the crowds depart, you’ll have the island to yourself. La Villa Carmignac houses one of France’s great contemporary art centers on acres of vineyards and scenic grounds.
Hidden Coves and Beaches
It’s difficult to get away from the usual resort clutter along the Riviera coastline, but it can be done. Between Saint-Tropez and Cannes, the Estérel Corniche shelters glittering coves and white-sand beaches (not so easy to find along the Côte d’Azur, where pebbles are the rule). The 140-mile-long coastal path between the sea and the Massif de l’Estéral reveals hidden calanques (sheltered inlets with crystal-blue waters) and untouched coastal scenery. Though the Estérel’s main towns of Saint-Maxime, Fréjus, and Saint-Raphaël are no exception to the tourist-resort rule, their old towns are worth a look, especially Fréjus, harboring some of the Riviera’s best-preserved Roman ruins.
Along the coastal path of La Croix Valmer, also part of the protected Conservatoire du Littoral, head to the long, white-sand Débarquement and Sylvabelle beaches, or further along, at Cap Lardier, lovely Gigaro, and Briande beaches are yours to savor.
An Art Lover's Dream
From the end of the 19th century till the 1980s, the Riviera was a magnet for artists, writers, designers, and architects memorialized in a trove of world-class galleries and museums.
In Nice, the Musée Matisse (who spent his last years here) and the Musée Chagall house two of the great dedicated collections of France. A few steps away, the Musée d’Archéologie and a Roman amphitheater tell the story of Greek and Roman Provence. MAMAC, Nice’s museum for contemporary art, houses an important permanent collection, and the gemlike Musée des Arts Asiatiques is not to be missed. In Nice’s old town, the Musée de la Photographie Charles Nègre presents the greats of photography from the earliest times to the present.
Other notables include the Chapelle Folon and the Fondation Maeght, set at the heights of elegant Saint-Paul-de-Vence; the Musée d’Art Classique, a brilliant blend of ancient and modern in the lovely village of Mougins; the Musée Fernand Léger in Biot, an artisan’s village and hub for artisanal glassblowing; the Musée Picasso in Antibes’ old town; and in Menton (famous for its lemons and Marco Colagreco, voted World’s Greatest Chef 2020 at Mirazur) the Cap Modern, featuring Eileen Gray’s modernist E-1027, which inspired Le Corbusier’s Cabanon a few paces down the road. Menton is also home to the Musée Jean Cocteau and his wedding chapel in the Menton town hall.
Craft Your Own Fragrance in Grasse
In France’s—and the world’s—epicenter for perfume making, you can create your own fragrance at the historic Villa Fragonard, home of the Musée Fragonard (one of the oldest perfume-makers in France), or at the historic perfume houses of Galimard and Molinard. Or choose a luscious signature scent at 1,000 Flowers—a chic boutique on Place aux Aires in Grasse’s charming old town—by master perfumer Jessica Buchanan, who honed her skills at Grasse’s prestigious Institute of Perfumery. Or see the source of it all on a visit to the La Domaine de Manon, growers and suppliers of rose, jasmine, tuberose, and other flower essences to the world’s great perfume houses, like Chanel, Dior, and Guerlain. Grasse’s old town’s Musée Internationale de la Perfumerie covers 4,000 years of perfume history.
Escape to a Tucked Away Resort
You can find plenty of well-priced B & Bs, and family hotels tucked away in the more remote villages, but for an unforgettable weekend far from the bustling crowds, head to the Château de la Messardière, 10 minutes and a world away from Saint-Tropez. Set back from the coastline among acres of gorgeous gardens and olive groves, its eye-popping views of the Mediterranean, fabulous restaurants, tennis courts, pools, and private terraces make it perfect for a romantic getaway. But it’s just as ideal for a family retreat: its play area, tucked away in the corner of the chateau grounds, offers kids aged 4-16 their own private cinema, a kids-only pool, pinball, a full-sized pirate ship, cooking classes and much more, with all-day attendants so adults can relax on their own.