When it comes to things to do in French Riviera, I came prepared. I already knew a lot about Côte d’Azur, reading about the famous names on its beaches, exclusive resorts, and Hollywood stars who once got wet in the shallow waters of Cannes, Nice, Saint-Tropez, about Princess Grace and Picasso’s retreat.
So now, I just had to do my own French Riviera hopping.
The Film Festival in Cannes or the Casino in Monte Carlo are the things you just have to hear about over the years, and the whole coast is wrapped in such a cloud of glamour-like advertisement that you have to think that this is probably “the best place on Earth”, with “the best sea and the best beaches”, and “the best…” everything. Prices are included accordingly, of course.
Well, think again. Or better yet – go there and see it for yourself and you will get the picture.
Things to do in French Riviera
Sure, the coast of southern France is lovely. It radiates that special charm you expect when coming to the country, and it is interesting to swim in the same place you know Brigitte Bardot did just that.
Also, it’s quite expensive if you want to dine in popular restaurants or sleep in famous hotels. But, those are not the only options.
Also, French Riviera beaches are pretty, especially in small villages along the coast, but if you are looking for a vacation retreat with the beach and the sea high on your agenda, this shouldn’t be your first pick. People come here because it is the French Riviera, not because it has “the best snorkeling ever”.
I had a lovely time there and went hopping from one side of the coast to the other. So, let’s start from the beginning.
It was 2003, an extremely hot August. I spent a few weeks in Paris for the first time, chasing around places that the 19th century artists occupied, went to Giverny and Rouen to visit Claude Monet‘s house (more about it in the previous posts), and a friend and I have decided to go swimming for a few days.
We took the train from Paris to Toulon, a port at the very beginning of the Côte d’Azur. Even though the place is a port, not as beautiful as neighboring towns, and it was mostly inhabited by migrants back then (not a lot of women outside in the evenings), it was still a wise decision to stay here. Toulon was a comfortable town with everything we needed and prices that were far less than in other small towns. It was only half an hour away from Saint-Tropez.
Peek into Saint-Tropez
“The Côte d’Azur stretches from Saint-Tropez to the town of Menton, almost on the border with Italy. If you take the train, you can go from one side to the other in just about two hours, and a bit more than 10 Euros.
In order not to go on and off the train all the time to see another beautiful small village along the coast and pay 4 or 5 Euros each time, there is the special rail pass ‘Isabelle’ that costs 10 Euros and allows you to hop on and off the train throughout the day. That way everything is easy to reach – the Casino in Monte Carlo, the famous English Promenade in Nice, or the view of the yachts in Saint-Tropez bay,” this is what I wrote back in 2003.
(I think that the Isabelle pass is now about 12 Euros.)
One of the things to do in French Riviera is to visit Saint-Tropez. It’s the first town on the coast for me and so charming. With a population of fewer than 10,000 citizens, this small town with narrow streets, bohemian cafes, and authentic architecture gets overwhelmed during summer when it welcomes about 100,000 tourists.
Not only that the French would advise you not to go because of such crowds, since there are a lot of other pretty little towns along the coast, but you will also stumble upon the same “recommendations” in guidebooks (as I did). But, still, I had to peek at least, to take a walk and have a coffee overlooking the sea.
If you take another half an hour by train, you will get to Saint Raphael. This is a lovely town with a sandy beach and typical cafes along the waterfront, and a pretty 12th-century church. (Having a drink here was somewhat cheap compared to other parts of the coast.)
Cannes and Nice
Another 30 mins and I reached the station in Cannes. What the Promenade des Anglais is for the town of Nice, that is what La Croissette is for Cannes.
It’s a long walkway along the Mediterranean with the beach on one side and the boulevard on the other. To tell you the truth, I did rush a bit through these two towns, being all impatient to see all those other smaller and lesser-known places on the coast. But I did take a walk along both promenades (which is one of the things to do in French Riviera), took a swim, strolled around lovely streets, and went back to the station.
And so, the two towns remained as somewhat similar in my mind. One hotel dominated the center of Cannes, the other the center of Nice, and it almost seemed like they were occupying the same spots.
There is the old fortress overlooking Nice and you will have a great view of the bay from its terraces. On the other hand, Cannes is proud of its Palais des Festivals et de Congres, where the famous Film Festival is taking place. Both of these towns have few museums, nice wide squares with fountains. And I just loved the Old Town of Nice (such charming authentic architecture), and Flower Market.
Bay of Monaco
And how about Monaco and Monte Carlo? Everything you heard about the place – it’s true. You can immediately notice that this is a wealthy city-state, refined in style and taste, with a lovely bay, a view of the yachts, and an imposing royal palace overlooking the city, all pleasant and cozy.
Prince of Monaco Charles III founded the famous Casino in Monte Carlo in the mid-19th century when the city had financial difficulties. He didn’t want to impose more taxes on people, so he came up with the idea of the Casino. This brought a lot of visitors to the city and the population grew from merely 3,000 to more than 15,000 and continued to grow further. The Italian translation to prince’s name is Carlo, hence – Monte Carlo.
Tax-free zone attracted a lot of companies, so the business grew, a lot of golf clubs and prestigious sports associations were opened, the famous Grand Prix emerged, and numerous museums. The monarchy turned to tourism and it got even more popular when Hollywood actress Grace Kelly married prince Rainier III.
You might find it interesting that the first part of the Casino was designed by Charles Garnier who actually did the design for the Paris Opera House. In Monaco, it is possible to visit the Royal Palace, the private royal collection of antique cars, the Oceanography museum, the exotic Cactus Garden, etc.
I remember being sorry for missing out on the exhibition of Andy Warhol’s work, which took place only a month before I arrived.
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