The Ultimate Guide to the Best Places to Visit in the French Riviera
Nice is is the fifth biggest city in France and it’s rightfully considered as the “capital” of the French Riviera considering its size and the central position between the snowy Alps and gorgeous beaches.
Conveniently located near the main regional airport, Nice can be the starting point to a great deal of day trips or week-end escapes. It’s up to you to decide if you are beach and tan addicted, a hiker eager to explore panoramic costal paths or mountain trails, a photograph looking for colourful picture-perfect villages or a fan of shopping and glamorous destination such as Monaco or Cannes.
In this list I will try to summarize the essential places surrounding Nice that you can easily visit by public transports. Being an expat in Nice I have seen them all and I deeply enjoy discovering new destinations and hikes every week-end!
1. Eze Village
This medieval village of 3,000 inhabitants rises up at 427m above sea level and dominates the coast from the top of the hill, getting the nickname of the “eagle’s nest”. Founded by Phoenicians around the 2Oth century B.C, the coat of arms of the village is a phoenix along with the saying “Isis Moriendo Renascor” which means, “When dying, I am reborn”.
Elected one the most beautiful villages of France, Eze is very popular among tourists for the striking views over the St. Jean Cap Ferrat Peninsula, the medieval narrow alleys, handicraft shops and the legendary Jardin Exotique d’Eze home to various tropical and succulent plants. The entry ticket costs 6€ but the spectacular views you will get from the top of the botanical gardens are priceless!
Eze is also a renowned destination for a wealthy clientele looking for a quiet spot between Nice and Monaco, staying at the famous 5* hotel “La Chèvre d’Or” boasting incredible sea views and lodgings.
To get here take bus 82 from Nice Vauban Bus station, or take the train to Eze sur Mer and take the bus from the train station going to Eze village. If you feel sporty climb the Nietzsche’s path from the train station (1h30), an uphill hike offering gorgeous views which took its name from the homonym German philosopher who used to walk this path to find writing inspiration and peace.
2. St. Paul de Vence
Nicknamed the “village of the artists”, St. Paul de Vence it’s a medieval picturesque village that will welcome you at the top of the hill with its relaxed atmosphere, wine yards and sea views in the background. This charming village features a medieval gate bridge, a Pétanque pitch (boule game) where locals reunite to play and many artisan and artist workshops.
Take a walk along the ramparts to have the best views over the olive trees and wine yards, admire the stone houses covered with flowers, take an ice-cream and stroll along the little alleys, explore the small squares and pay a visit to the French artist Chagall’s tombstone at the local cemetery.
To get here from Nice, take the bus n°400 (Parc Phoenix / Airport – Bus stop “Aéroport Promenade” ) which will take you to destination in 1h.
3. Villefranche sur Mer
Located at just one stop by train away from Nice, this fishing village is characterised by colourful narrow houses, little alleys and a golden beach with turquoise waters. It is a heaven of peace out of season, especially for Nice inhabitants looking for a beach break a stone away from home. The bay of Villefranche features a natural huge harbour in the Mediterranean sea and it is a renowned stop for cruises thanks to the scenic bay views and picturesque harbour.
Have a look at the medieval citadel dominating the bay which hosts a few free entry Art museums, an open air theatre and lush gardens. Sunbathe or have a picnic on the various pebble beaches of the bay and round off your day with an aperitivo at La Grande Cave at sunset! La Grignotière is a nice little family-ran restaurant cooking local food: for 19€ at lunch you will have a hearty three course meal you surely won’t forget!
4. St. Jean Cap Ferrat
This stunning peninsula located between Nice and Monaco, is a natural wonder and hiking paradise. The beaches feature transparent waters, little coves along the coastal path perfect for snorkelling and sunbathing in a more private area. At only three train stops from Nice (Beaulieu sur Mer), take the costal path starting at the Baie des Fourmies and dream about being the owner of one the many grand villas you will come across along the seaside path. The peninsula offers a peculiar landscape between the mountains and limestone cliffs in the background and the elegant mansion which mirrors in crystal waters.
Have a stroll at the little harbour of St. Jean Cap Ferrat, take the two hours hiking loop passing around the huge lighthouse and ending up at the famous Passable beach where you can take bus 15 to go back to Nice.
Visit the historic Villa Ephrussi de Rothschield, the famous pink mansion surrounded by exotic gardens overlooking the bay and famous for its perfectly preserved interiors and magnificent botanical gardens! The perfect place to unwind and sink in the local history.
Founded by Phoenicians, colonised by Greeks and then Romans, Antibes was once called Antipolis meaning in Greek “cross-city” suggesting its position opposite to Nice. Today this sandy coloured walled town is surrounded by ramparts dating back to the 16th century overlooking the Mediterranean sea and the star-shaped defensive Fort Carré offering panoramic views over the yachts parked in the harbour.
Antibes is the perfect day trip from Nice for those looking for a quiet Provençal village, winding alleys and golden sandy beaches. Antibes is the home town of the famous painter Picasso and a whole sea view museum is dedicated to him in the Old Town. Don’t miss the Provençal market taking place every morning until 12pm selling local fresh products.
During summer it’s definitely overcrowded, so head towards the coastal path of the Cap d’Antibes, a peninsula covered with maritime pines featuring little coves, grand villas, the beautiful Garoupe beach and the homonym sanctuary in the middle of a forest offering a great point of view to admire at the same time the bays of Antibes and the nearby glitzy Juan les Pins famous for its nightlife and sandy beaches.
To come here take the train from Nice and stop at Antibes (20 minutes ride).
Marked by a French-Italo culture, French is although the official language spoken in the Principality of Monaco, one of the smallest and richest states in the world. Monaco is one of those destinations to visit at least once in a lifetime and it will positively surprise you with its mixture of modern and traditional landscape.
Monarchy is still keeping this country attached to traditions and Catholic religion, but Monaco is renowned all over the world for being an avant-garde fiscal paradise, the primary glamorous destination for luxury and yacht tourism and the legendary F1 Grand Prix taking place every year in June around the narrow streets of the city.
Make sure no to miss the main highlights such as the Old Town built on the iconic “Rocher” meaning “rock” including the San Devote Chapel where Grace Kelly and the royal family are buried, the Oceanographic museum, the Royal Palace of the Grimaldi family and the Saint-Martin gardens opening out to the sea.
Don’t forget to visit the opulent Belle Epoque Casino of Montecarlo to see some of the most expensive and extravagant cars parked outside the building. The interiors are made of marble and gold decorations; it is considered as the main gambling complex in the area. Walk around the perfectly conserved gardens in front of the building feeling like a star!
Take the bus from the train station to visit the famous Exotic Gardens at the highest point of the Principality of Monaco to enjoy the best view point over the harbour and the skyscrapers.
To reach this opulent destination , take the train from Nice and in 30 minutes you will reach Montecarlo.
A 30 minutes train journey from Nice will take you in the heart of Cannes, a renowned seaside city dotted with 5 stars hotel, luxury brand shops, and world famous for the Cinema Festival taking place every year in May.
This city has a high quality of life and you will mostly see elderly people or tourists in the streets. Cannes comes to life during high season where the little bars, local shops and restaurants of the Old Town reopen to welcome wealthy visitors looking for sandy beaches, palmed promenades such as the one running parallel to the Croisette beach and the Festival Palace.
If shopping and yachts are not your cup of tea, climb to the Suquet, the Old Town, and admire the panorama from the Clock Tower little square overlooking the harbour and the coast. From here you will see the Lerins Archipelago composed by the St. Marguerite Island, a paradise for snorkelers and nature lovers, and the Saint Honorat Island, worth visiting for the monastery surrounded by wine yards and the fortress.
Best known as the world capital of perfumery, Grasse is a town situated on the hills behind Cannes surrounded by olive trees and picturesque little villages immersed in the countryside. The Grasse Cathedral hosts some Rubens paintings and a lovely point of view over the nearby hilly landscape.
The International Fragonard Museum of Perfumery is the main highlights of this colourful town: Fragonard is along-established perfume factory offering multilingual free tours taking the visitors behind the scenes of their factory and they explain the different phases of the secret art of perfume making. It is also possible to enrol to a perfume workshop and make your own personalised fragrance.
Grasse old town is the typical Provençal village at the top of the hill characterised by narrow and tall houses, little local shops and restaurants. This quintessential French town is only 1h train ride from Nice.
9. St. Agnes
Elected one of the most beautiful villages of France, St. Agnès is also the “coastal” village at the highest altitude in Europe. Nestled between sea and mountains behind the famous town of Menton, St. Agnès is less popular with tourists and it is a true oasis of peace from where it is possible to enjoy spectacular sea views and be surrounded by the Alps at the same time.
Walk the narrow cobbles streets of this perched old village, stop by the Fort Maginot Line Museum, an underground bunker used by French soldiers during the Second World War, then climb the stairs to the scenic ruined Castle of St. Agnès: the breath-taking coastal views over Italy and Menton will reward your efforts! Finish off your pleasant day in St. Agnès tasting a mouth-watering home-made dessert at the St. Yves restaurant with panoramic views over the sea and the mountains at the same time!
10. Cap d’Ail
This high-end residential area is the door to access Monaco and it’s considered the favourite holiday spot for celebrities and politicians looking to invest in luxury villas. One of the reason I usually come here is the 5km long idyllic coastal path immersed in nature and silence, from where you can admire the opulent villas, immerse yourself in the turquoise waters of the little coves along the path and snorkel.
The Mala beach is the most scenic spot to swim and snorkel: it takes quite a lot of steps to get to this secluded spot shaded by a high range of limestone cliffs covered with Mediterranean vegetation. If you need some shelter from the sun, the Sacha Guitry park at the beginning of the coastal path is the perfect place to have a picnic with sea views!
The trail links Monaco’s harbour to the Mala beach and it’s easily reachable in 3 minutes walking from the Cap d’Ail train station. A 25 minutes train ride from Nice separates yourself from this natural paradise!
11. Roquebrune Cap Martin
This little orange village perched on the top of a hill is reachable climbing a long set of stairs from the homonym train station. The village once belonged to the Monegasque Grimaldi family. Today is inhabited by many English speaker expats who decided to invest and refurbish old villas in this peaceful old village.
Take a walk along the narrow alleys, stop at the Place de Deux Frères a panoramic little square to admire the Medieval fortress dominating the coast. The entry tickets to visit this ruined fortress is 5€ and it’s worth a visit for the panoramic views over Italy and the coast. Stop for a quick lunch on the sweeping terrace of the old-fashioned coffee shop called “Fraise et Chocolat”.
Take the path longing an 2000 years olive tree and head down towards the crystal clear waters of the pebble beach. You can also take the Cap Martin coastal path taking you from the train station to the nearby town of Carnoules. I recommend you this scenic walk for the views over the Monaco’s skyscrapers or to enjoy a picnic with view in the middle of nature.
12. Haut de Cagnes sur Mer
A steep 30 minutes walk will take you from the Cagnes sur Mer train station to the medieval perched village which was once home and source of inspiration of the French painter Renoir.
Walking in the cobbled streets of the old village is like stepping back in time: many tourists come here to enjoy a restoring week-end watching people playing the Pétanque, the local boules game, sinking in the hilly panorama surrounding the old castle and tasting some local specialties. In the old hamlet, a few vintage shops or art galleries can be found.
Take the free little shuttle bus taking you at the bottom of the village and spend a couple of hours visiting the bucolic Renoir’s house surrounded by a forest of olive and carob trees and gardens. A few paintings are conserved inside his old house and this museum consists of a must-do visit for all Art lovers.
Did you found this article useful? Check out my posts about what to visit in Nice and the best coastal paths of the French Riviera!