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The French Riviera – also known as the Cote d’Azur – is one of those ritzy and glitzy destinations that can easily burn a hole in your pocket. However, even if you’re not a ballin’ celeb, it’s still possible to travel the French Riviera on a budget too – you just have to be a bit more savvy.
Luckily the public transportation system in the south of France is fantastic, with buses and trains that will allow you to hop from place to place. As you travel along the coastline you’ll discover picturesque towns, sandy beaches and beautiful clear waters, making it impossible not to fall in love with the place.
The Cote d’Azur doesn’t have an official start and end point, but most people seem to suggest it starts in St. Tropez and ends in Menton. Below is a list of the best places to visit on the French Riviera, which I’ve organized geographically from west to east along the coastline. I would recommend a day for each of these places.
The French Riviera is commonly thought to start in Saint-Tropez, which is a town located about 68 kilometres (42 miles) west of Nice. Saint-Tropez is known for being quite a glamorous destination and it was a playground for the international jetset in the 1960s.
Once a small fishing village, Saint-Tropez is now a buzzing tourist resort, with lots of luxury hotels and great nightlife.
If you’re a fan of trendy beach clubs, check out Nikki Beach Saint Tropez, which is set on beautiful Pampelonne beach. This famous beach club is known for its party vibes and you may even spot a celebrity or two while you’re there. Spend the afternoon tanning, drinking cocktails and listening to tracks from Nikki Beach’s world-class DJ’s.
Cannes is probably my least favourite of all the French Riviera destinations just because I feel like it’s lacking in charm, but it’s still worth a visit to see the famous promenade and Palais des Festivals et des Congrès. A fun time to visit is during the Cannes Film Festival, although accommodation prices can be astronomically high at this time.
Try to see Cannes at night, when you can stroll through “Le Suquet” and grab a 3-course meal in one of the many restaurants. Keep walking up the hill and you’ll reach the clock tower, which offers views of the twinkling lights over Cannes.
Juan Les Pins
Located to the west of Nice you have Juan Les Pins, which has the sandiest beach on the French Riviera. Along the beach there are several piers where you can soak up the sun, or you can bring your towel and sit on the soft sands.
Lounge chairs at the beach bars can be quite pricey though, so if you don’t feel like getting out your wallet then there are two free sections of beach you can choose from.
If you’re looking for a chic place to stay then the Hotel Belle Rives is a famous hotel that used to be a villa owned by Great Gatsby writer F Scott Fitzgerald. The atmosphere at the hotel is laid back, although there are several bars where you can sit outside and order a sunset cocktail.
This is where I’d suggest you base yourself, since Nice has so much going on. You could easily spend a week getting lost in the Old Town trying all the different restaurants and Happy Hour bars.
There are lots of things to do in Nice – make sure you take along the famous Promenade des Anglais and visit the colourful flower market, Marche aux Fleurs. If you’re feeling athletic, hike up the Castle Hill for incredible views over the entire city.
You can easily find an incredible apartment in Nice for around €70-€80 per night on AirBnB, making it a great spot to park yourself up for a week or two.
The French really know how to prepare food, so if you’re looking for a good dinner in Nice I’d highly recommend Les Garcons if you’re looking for a delicious set menu at a reasonable price.
Since the beach in Nice is incredibly rocky and uncomfortable, you’re best off heading to Villefranche, which boasts the closest sandy beach. Because it’s only a quick ride away on the train or bus, Villefranche tends to be packed with people on weekends which can make it very noisy and crowded. The beach, however is pretty and the water is crystal clear.
The village of Villefranche-sur-Mer is very picturesque to wander around though, with lots of colorful buildings and potted plants hanging from the walls. The town is home to several restaurants where you can enjoy a bowl of fresh moules frites (mussels with fries).
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild is a gorgeous pastel pink house with a fountain and gardens located at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. This was perhaps my favourite sight to see in the South of France.
Classical music plays in the gardens, which creates quite a dramatic atmosphere as you gaze from the balcony above. There’s also a tea room at the villa so you can sit and enjoy lunch on the terrace.
Built at the beginning of the 20th century, the villa was designed by the French architect Aaron Messiah for Baroness Béatrice de Rothschild. The Rothschilds were a very famous Ashkenazi Jewish family who acquired their wealth from banking and had opulent residences all over the world.
Beatrice’s main passion was collecting art and over the years she acquired many beautiful paintings and pieces of furniture. After her father died she decided to build her dream home in Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera and filled it with the objects she had collected. Today you can do a self-guided tour of the house and gardens with the help of a free audio guide.
Adult tickets cost €16, while youth tickets (7-25 years) cost €11.
Jutting out on a peninsula between Villefranche-sur-Mer and Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is a popular vacation spot for wealthy elites and European aristocracy. It’s apparently the second most expensive residential location in the world after Monaco!
To really appreciate its beauty, hike along the coastal path, which is signposted and stretches for 14km. Highlights of Cap Ferrat include the Four Seasons Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat and Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, which I mentioned previously in this article.
Another great destination on the French Riviera, Beaulieu-sur-Mer has a relaxed beach and is quite than its neighbour Villefranche. This beach is only a couple of stops on the train from Nice Ville, so it’s the ideal beach to visit if you want a sandy beach that’s not too far from the city.
The added bonus is there’s a grocery store nearby so you can stock up on water and snacks.
Next on this list of best places to visit on the French Riviera is Eze Village (pronounced a bit like airzzz). The village is perched on the top of a mountain, offering stunning views all around. From Nice you can take the #112 and #82 bus – just don’t get confused and take the train to Eze-sur-Mer, which is all the way down at the coast.
Eze is a tiny little town with stone buildings, art galleries and a few restaurants, plus two luxury hotels called Château de La Chèvre d’Or and Château Eza. You can also take a look at the church and wander around the exotic garden, which is filled with cacti, sculptures and exotic plants.
Cap d’Ail is accessible by train from Nice and has the best beach on the French Riviera. The reason I say this is because it’s far more secluded which means less tourists encroaching on your towel at the beach. When you leave the train station you’ll want to head straight towards the water and walk to your right along the footpath.
Some people sunbathe on the rocks here, but if you keep going for about 20 minutes you’ll come across a beautiful secluded beach. There’s no shop at the beach to buy cheap beers or snacks, but there are 2 restaurants serving food and drinks. Prices are definitely on the expensive side (it’s France after all), so you can always bring your own packed lunch.
No trip to the French Riviera would be complete without taking the number 100 bus to Monaco.
The bus journey in itself is beautiful, offering sweeping views of the ocean along the way.
Once you arrive in Monaco, get off the bus at the Tourist Office and walk towards Cafe de Paris and the Casino de Monte Carlo, which is instantly recognizable with its Belle Époque architecture and expensive parked in front.
Featured in two James Bond movies – Never Say Never Again, and GoldenEye – Monte Carlo casino is the most famous casino in the world. While there’s no particular dress code to enter the public areas, you’ll need to dress smart to enter the game rooms.
Next up pay a visit to see the famous Formula 1 Fairmont Hairpin Bend, then head straight towards the port, where there’s an outdoor Olympic-size swimming pool if you want to cool off from the heat. Hike up to the Prince’s Palace, which is perched on top of a steep hill. The climb is a bit tiring on the legs, but it’s worth it for the views at the top.
While you’re at the Prince’s Palace you can buy a ticket to see the state rooms and visit the Oceanographic Museum, which has more than 6,000 marine life specimens on display.
To cap off your day visit Brasserie de Monte Carlo, which has an awesome Happy Hour that starts at 5pm. With half price beers and cocktails, you really can’t go wrong.
For more information about how to spend a day in Monaco, check out my Monaco day trip guide.
At the end of the French Riviera is Menton, which lies close to the Italian border. The town’s proximity to Italy means you can find plenty of pasta and gelato.
Menton is incredibly beautiful place, known for its citrus gardens, mansions and pastel colored buildings. It’s also the sunniest place on the French Riviera and the region’s unique microclimate makes it the perfect place for lemon-growing. If you want to buy gifts to take home, you’ll find shops selling all sorts of lemon-based goods, including lemon soap and lemon-infused olive oil.
Highlights of Menton include the colorful old town and Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange – a gorgeous Baroque cathedral with a 53-metre tall bell tower that stands over the town.
Getting to the French Riviera
You can get to the south of France by plane, train or bus.
Flying to Nice
Most people fly into Nice Côte d’Azur Airport (NCE). This airport is served by a number of budget airlines, including Easyjet and Wizz Air. You can also fly there with airlines such as British Airways and Air France. From the airport you have a few options for getting into Nice city center (if that’s where you’re staying). You can take the line 2 tramway, which has free WiFi and costs just €1.50. If you get off at Jean Medecin stop you’ll be right in the center and from there you can walk to your accommodation in downtown Nice. If you’re staying elsewhere on the French Riviera then you can catch a train from the train station.
Taxis from Nice Airport to Nice city center cost a fixed rate of €32 and this price is good for day or night. Although the taxi drivers accept cards their machines are often broken so it’s best to bring some euros in cash. Yout other option is to order an Uber, which is slightly cheaper, costing around €20.
There are also a number of express buses that run from Nice Airport to towns along the coast. For example:
- For Cannes – Cannes Express bus #210
- For Monaco – Monaco Express bus #110
- For Antibes – Antibes/Golf Juan Express Bus #250
Train and Bus
If you’re coming from Paris or another part of France then you can take the train using the SNCF train network. The high-speed intercity train between Paris and Nice takes around 6 hours and you need to make reservations in advance. Trenitalia also operates trains between Italian cities and Nice. You can book trains with SNCF, Rail Europe, Omio or ItaliaRail.
If you’re on a budget then the cheapest option would be to travel by bus, although the journey is usually longer than the train. There are two main bus stops in Nice – Nice Airport (Bus Station – Terminal 1) and Nice (Vauban Bus Station). Flixbus operates buses to Nice from 79 European cities and has an app for easy booking.
Getting Around on the French Riviera
The French Riviera has an excellent transportation network so if you’re on a budget I’d suggest visiting each town by train or bus.
However, if you plan on staying a while and want to visit lots of towns, then a rental car will give you more flexibility. The coastal roads are easy to navigate but be aware you may get stuck in traffic in peak season. If you find yourself visiting the French Riviera in the height of summer, try to drive in the early morning or evenings to avoid traffic. To compare the best rates on Nice rental cars, check out Rentalcars.com.
SNCF operates trains to most towns and cities along the French Riviera. You can buy tickets from machines at the train stations or online through the SNCF mobile app. Train is quicker than the bus, but slightly more expensive.
The buses are incredibly cheap and most are operated by the Lignes d’Azur bus company. Their website is quite useful, offering timetables, trip planners and route maps. Although buses are cheaper than the train, they usually take longer since they make more stops. They can also get pretty full in the summer months so you’ll want to make sure you’re at the front of the line for the bus.
A Final Word…
So that completes this list of the best places to visit on the French Riviera. I’d advise choosing one per day. In summertime the weather can get incredibly hot, so I’d advise doing your main sightseeing in the morning or evening, then spending most of the day at the beach.
There are so many incredible towns and villages on the French Riviera so it’s wise to spend a week here so you can see it all.
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