The French Riviera conjures up images of royals and racing car drivers, glamorous movie stars and big betting billionaires.
In reality, the Riviera draws everybody — rich, famous or otherwise — with its heady mix of history, ornate architecture, classic French culture and the stunning blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. While we can’t all star in a blockbuster, marry a crown prince or laze away our days on a super yacht, we can still enjoy this magnificent part of France.
Here are ten top things to do on the French Riviera.
You don’t have to be a high roller or James Bond to appreciate the opulent Casino de Monte-Carlo, which opened back in 1863. This Riviera legend is arguably the region’s most famous attraction. You can pay an entry fee in the morning and explore the lavish salons before the gambling begins at noon. The interior, with its marble columns, huge Bohemian crystal chandeliers, ceiling frescoes and wall canvases is gobsmacking. Out the front, valets from the Hotel de Paris next door ostentatiously show off their guests’ motoring bling.
Walking along La Croisette in Cannes, you can almost smell the cash. You’ll need plenty of it to shop on this famous Riviera retail strip. It’s a veritable ‘who’s who’ of designer labels, including Chanel, Dior, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Hermes and Gucci. The nearby Palais des Festivals is home to the famous Cannes Film Festival. Check out the handprints in the footpath, left by various movie stars and directors.
The cobbled streets and public squares of Nice’s old town make it ideal for exploring on foot. Wander the markets and dine in one of the countless sidewalk bistros. Don’t miss the famous Fenocchio ice creamery, which offers close to 100 flavours. Go for your usual favourite or take your taste buds out of their comfort zone with something a little weird — like cactus!
Next, take a sunny stroll along the Riviera’s best known street — the Promenade des Anglais. It stretches for about seven kilometres beside the blue waters of the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels). To take a break from the sun, visit the Villa Masséna and see the robes that Napoleon wore when he crowned himself Emperor of France.
Fragonard has been making perfume on the French Riviera since 1926. There are two opportunities to visit this famous parfumeur and find a scent that’s perfect for you. There’s the main factory and museum in Grasse (known as the perfume capital), and a smaller facility in Eze. Both offer very informative free guided tours. You’ll pick up plenty of tips for how to choose, store and wear perfume. A huge range of scents and beauty products are available for purchase.
A tour of the Palais Princier de Monaco is the closest most of us are likely to get to a Cinderella story. It will get you into a real palace occupied by a proper prince. A selection of the State Apartments are open to the public from April to October each year. Your host for the self-guided tour is none other than His Serene Highness Prince Albert II, who narrates the audio guide. The son of the late Prince Rainier III and legendary American actress Grace Kelly shares the history of the ruling Grimaldi family and their home. Admire the Louis XIV furniture and family portraits, and perhaps dream of sitting on the throne.
An entertaining changing of the guard ceremony takes place at the palace each day at 11am. The incredible collection of more than 100 vintage and luxury cars that were owned by Prince Rainier is another royal must-see.
Get your hiking boots on and take a walk in the footsteps of the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. From 1883, Nietzsche was a regular visitor to the French Riviera and often stayed in the hilltop village of Eze. He would walk up the steep path from the sea, deep in thought and in search of inspiration. Today the two kilometre trail to Eze bears his name. The steep path climbs nearly 300 metres up to the 16th century ramparts of Eze. Your reward for this effort is a pleasant stroll around the pretty, though very touristy Eze, and amazing views of the Mediterranean.
When you’re being absolutely fabulous on the Riviera, you’ll need somewhere fabulous to stay. Nice’s 104-year-old belle-époque Le Negresco is the city’s top hotel. It gained fame in the 1960s and 70s as the place to be seen, and famous guests included Grace Kelly, Salvador Dali and The Beatles. The hotel is furnished and decorated with original antiques and artworks. This classic luxury comes at a hefty price, but it’s worth it for a bucket-list splurge. Breakfast is served in La Rotonde, which is decorated with wooden horses from an 18th century merry-go-round. Since you’re already here, you may as well push the boat out completely and have dinner at renowned two Michelin-starred Le Chantecler. Note the smart dress code.
This might be the best few euros you’ll spend on the Riviera. The train from Menton — famous for its pretty gardens — to Nice hugs the coastline and provides one of Europe’s most scenic rail trips. The train passes through Monaco and several resort towns, including Cap D’Ail, Villefranche and Beaulieu-sur-mer. Enjoy stunning views from the comfort of your seat. The 40-minute journey is a wonderful sightseeing experience at a bargain price — courtesy of the French public transport system.
Many of the Riviera’s most celebrated beaches are pebbled. If they’re a bit too lumpy for you, soft sandy beaches can be found in the luxury resort town of Antibes. A lot of the beaches are private, but you can soak up some sun for free at Plage de la Garoupe. Nearby, the Antibes Market is filled with fresh Provencal produce. It’s open on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Perched high on a cliff above Le Rocher (Monaco’s old town), the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco houses a permanent exhibition dedicated to the seafaring adventures of Prince Albert I. It’s filled with specimens, photographs and documents that he collected on his many voyages, along with an interesting assortment of scientific instruments. The highlight is the Whale Room, where massive whale skeletons — one 18 metres long — hang from the ceiling. Beneath the museum you’ll find the Monaco Aquarium, which is home to some 6,000 fish and other sea creatures, along with an array of colourful corals. Book your tickets in advance online.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do on the French Riviera? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Louise Reynolds made up her mind at the age of about four that she would one day travel the world, and has so far visited more than 30 countries across five continents and the Pacific. A hopeless Francophile, she has a particular love of visiting France. Louise’s favourite way to see the world is on foot and she has walked famous trails in Europe, South America and New Zealand. Louise also has a passion for exploring her home state of Victoria.