Stretching from St Tropez in the west to the Italian border town of Menton in the east, the French Riviera – or Cote d’Azur – is one of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful and popular holiday summer spots. With direct flights from Dubai and Riyadh to the region’s coastal capital of Nice, Travellers can experience the best of the Provence countryside, in bucolic hilltop villages, but also the charm of the Mediterranean with seafront settlements with beach clubs and waterfronts. Despite their worldwide popularity, the beautiful coast has plenty to offer outside the perennial hotspots like St Tropez and Cannes, hiding plenty of settlements steeped in beauty and offering a more authentic, laid-back experience. From the artsy former home of Pablo Picasso to a TV show favourite, here are seven French Riviera villages and towns to visit this summer, all easily accessed from Nice Cote d’Azur airport.
It’s easy to see why Pablo Picasso – one of the 20th century’s most iconic artists – called Mougins his home. Its location allows visitors to live coastal and village life, it’s old town is utterly charming, sitting on a hilltop overlooking valleys out towards the Mediterranean, and its jumble of winding lanes hides many great restaurants (some in the Michelin Guide), museums, shops and one of the coast’s best gelaterias. Today Mougins is one of the most well-located, picturesque and stylish villages in the French Riviera, just a 12 minutes drive from Cannes, 20 from Nice Cote d’Azur airport and 25 minutes to Antibes. A handful of beautiful boutique hotels hide around the centuries-old centre, like Luxury Retreats Mougins with its vertiginous terraced gardens and swimming pool overlooking the French countryside. Boutiques are chicer than neighbouring villages, and there are great museums which attract many daytrippers – the regionally renowned Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins, Centre de la photographie de Mougins and smaller galleries. The village keeps things interesting with a programme of summer events like festivals with food trucks and live music, which see hundreds of locals and visitors attend. Prices are a little higher here than most of the Riviera, but given the beauty and elegance, it’s forgiven.
Best hotels in Mougins
Ascend to the Old Town to capitalise on the striking position of this hilltop town. Right in the heart, though managing to feel like a remote countryside retreat, is Mougins Luxury Retreats, the most stylish hotel in Mougins with a trendy tapas terrace, tiered grounds and a swimming pool overlooking the valleys. A short walk away from the citadel so with more space to play with is Le Manoir de l’Etang – a rustic manor turned quaint guest house with gardens and a swimming pool.
Round the bend from Nice lies one of the most picturesque villages on the French Riviera, the coastal enclave of Villefranche-sur-Mer. The seaside village is the archetypal French escape and has starred in many movies and TV shows – most recently standing in for Saint Tropez in Emily in Paris. The seaside village is a jumble of colourful buildings that tumble from the steep hillside to a waterfront, which is lined by restaurants with tables just feet away from the sea (a rarity to find this close to Nice). While the waterfront is a little ritzier than its backstreets, you can head into the steep cobbled lanes to find gems like the La Grande Cave – a wine bar tiered down steps with a chalkboard menu of daily glasses and nibbles. Elegant hillside apartment blocks and close proximity to Nice, alongside a train station, make it a year-round lived-in village, with many boulangeries, pizza takeaways, shops and supermarkets all within an easy walk. Villefranche also has its own stretch of golden sandy beach and overlooks St Jean Cap Ferrat, home to the stunning rose-coloured Villa Ephrussi Rothschild and Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, A Four Seasons Hotel.
Best hotels in Villefranche-sur-Mer
Villefranche-sur-Mer’s distinct lack of five-star hotels is one of its most alluring qualities, and instead, visitors can book into one of the handful of guest houses (or, for luxury, head to neighbouring Nice or Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat). Hotel Provencal, Hôtel La Flore and Hôtel La Villa Patricia – Charme et Tradition, which come in shades of rose, teracotta and coral, respectivelyl, are all great options, close to the beach and old town.
Beaulieu-sur-Mer often lives in the shadows of its sister settlements like Eze and Villefranche, but this low-key luxe seaside commune is a secret seaside hideaway with attractive beaches, a marina and a handful of chic restaurants. Before St Tropez, this was the spot pretty young things flocked to party, staying in the strawberries-and-cream belle epoque villas that cling to the cliffs and face the Mediterranean. Perched beside the water, the village sits at the bottom of the Saint Jean Cap Ferrat peninsula, framing a waterfront with bobbing yachts and sailboats and a pine tree-lined promenade. The elegant coastal town is home to two fine pebble-sand beaches – Plage des Fourmis and Plage Petite Afrique – where shallow waters are protected by a jellyfish net boast beach cafes offer loungers and umbrellas for hire. Set back from the beach, there are some grand sea-view restaurants and cosy cafes to visit. Take a day trip to the 20th-century Villa Kérylos, built in the ancient Greek revival style and an ode to the Ephrussi family’s wealth.
Best hotels in Beaulieu-sur-Mer
Beaulieu-sur-Mer has a handful of stunning waterfront hotels, perfectly capturing the glamour of the French Riviera. Don’t miss a stay in the rosey-hued La Réserve de Beaulieu with just 39 rooms and suites, or La Résidence de la Réserve for a self-catered luxury apartment experience.
From the coast below, Medieval Eze looks like a walled garden castle – sitting atop a rocky outcrop and looking down over the beautiful blue Mediterranean. The commune lies 1,400 feet above sea level, almost equidistant from Nice and Monaco and is best known for its fortified stone citadel and cobbled lanes. The fortified medieval old town was a favourite of Walt Disney, who spent a lot of time in Eze; thanks to its cobbled terracotta alleys and cacti-lined walls is home to art and jewellery boutiques, cafes and a handful of quaint and stylish boutique hotels. As a result of its charm and beauty, Eze is popular with daytrippers; and it’s possible to outlast them thanks to some of the most well-appointed boutique hotels on the French Riviera. Eze is known for its steep lanes so expect endless hill climbs alongside delights like the panoramic Jardin Botanique d’Èze.
Best hotels in Eze
There’s a rustic, old-world charm to Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, a storied and centuries-old settlement on a hilltop above Monaco. The site is famous for its Vallonet, the oldest inhabited cave in Europe, and was once known as Roccabruna, being part of neighbouring Monaco for five centuries. The sleepy French village literally translates to ‘brown stone’ and is home to a 10th-century medieval castle and maze of charming old buildings and narrow steep backstreets, which, like most lovely French villages, hide incongruously modern and chic boutiques and artisan stores. Many of history’s illustrious figures called this corner of the Riviera home, like Coco Chanel, who owned one of the Art Deco villages that cling to the cliffs beneath the citadel, and was a favourite with Russian aristocracy, Winston Churchill and W.B.Yeats. Today, the village retains its discreet and understated charm, while also being home to the impossibly chic Monte-Carlo Country Club and Monte-Carlo Beach. There’s a winding old town with its washing lines and baskets of flowers, and a main square, with a handful of restaurants and bars, which attract a warm, social buzz in the evenings. Pop into quaint Casarella for spaghetti vongole at golden hour, and watch the coastline sparkle as the sun disappears beneath the sea.
Best hotels in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin
To experience the glamour of the Riviera’s Art Deco heyday, there’s nowhere like Monte-Carlo Beach. Part of Monaco’s Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer, the beach club and 40-room hotel is the hangout for Monaco’s elite with an Olympic sized pool, chic pontoon, four restaurants and a spa. For something completely private, book into the Villa La Vigie, nestled in trees above the beach club and the former holiday home of Karl Lagerfeld – available for weekly and monthly rental.
By population, Menton is one of the largest towns along the French Riviera – the last stop on the Cote d’Azur before Italy and a wonderful blended mix of French and Italian cultures. During the Belle Epoque, the historic town was once one of the most salubrious stops on the Riviera in the Belle Epoque, as Russian aristocracy trained down from St Petersburg to experience the sun and eternal blue – and remnants of its illustrious past still stand today, fading in the brilliant Mediterranean Sun. This is a town for lovers of authenticity; it’s a little rough on the edges, bursting with real life and is home to one of the most iconic shots of the Riviera – its jumble of lemon, terracotta and raspberry-pink old town viewed from across its many pebble beaches (home to many chic beach clubs). In Menton, you’ll find bustling streets, coffee shops and grocery stores, but also wine bars, lovely squares with greenery and outdoor restaurants and elevated waterfront eateries – many Italian. Wonder the streets to truly imbibe its warmth and shop for wonderful soaps and artisan products made using famous Menton lemons.
Best hotels in Menton
Drive 12km south of Grasse through the hairpin lanes of Provence, and you’ll come to Gourdon – a beautiful village sitting 760 metres high atop a rocky promontory. The commune lies in a forested valley with views over the Loup Rivier, and while it’s tiny in size, its cinematic views are vast – stretching over the hills and valleys to the Mediterranean, Theoule and Nice. These views make Gourdon one of the most charming villages in the South of France, affectionately named ‘Eagle’s Nest’ because of its exalted position. Gourdon itself comprises a main street lined with artisan shops, a main viewpoint with coffee shops and side streets selling Provence wares like soaps, crafts and perfumes. Daytrippers come to see the 9th-century Chateau de Gourdon, rebuilt in the 16th century, which now houses the Museum of Decorative Arts, a Medieval Museum and is fringed by gardens landscaped by André Le Nôtre – the principal gardener of King Louis XIV of France.