Villefranche-sur-Mer (photo: Adobe Stock)
Villefranche-sur-Mer (photo: Adobe Stock)

An Essential South of France Itinerary

Enjoy the sybaritic lifestyle of the Riviera before village-hopping in Provence.

Broadly defined, Southern France is the part of the country that unrolls south of the 45th parallel. But the more widely used and less clinical term “South of France” carries the romance; it refers to the French Riviera (on the Mediterranean) and Provence, adjacent to the Riviera to the northwest. Add in the tiny notch that encompasses Monaco (which twinkles between Nice and the Italian border) and the correct name is Côte d'Azur. 

Note that the labels “French Riviera,” “Provence,” and “Côte d'Azur” are frequently used interchangeably; but you’d be hard-pressed to find regular visitors who’d say they’re “on the Riviera” unless they can taste the salt spray of the Mediterranean.

The Coast

The Côte d'Azur delivers a variety of backdrops and moods. Some of the beaches are sandy, while others gleam with smooth white stones; some towns are glitzy, victims of overbuilding in the last decades of the 20th century, while others are intimate, human scale, and lovely. Some of the famed seaside promenades are great fun for people watching, yet other walks along the Mediterranean are serene and offer glimpses of tiny golden coves.

Nice (photo: Adobe Stock)
Nice (photo: Adobe Stock)

With a population of more than 300,000, Nice—France’s fifth-largest city, after Paris, Marseille, Lyon, and Toulouse—makes for a fine and convenient base. It buzzes with life and serves as the anchor of Côte d'Azur. Even among cities and towns along the Riviera, Nice is uniquely resplendent, boasting fanciful architecture and an arty vibe. There aren’t many places in the world where you can admire belle époque and art deco facades dipped in orange, rose, and pink—and characteristic shutters in every conceivable shade of green—but this is one. Nice’s open-air market for antiques, flowers, and produce is among the best anywhere; the local candied fruit and marzipan confections crafted to evoke a myriad of natural forms are the pride of the city.

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Nice is easy to navigate on foot, and you’ll immediately understand its appeal if you walk its wide, palm-tree-lined, four-mile-long Promenade des Anglais, which hugs the gently curving Baie des Anges. On one side are the city’s lidos, where you can rent a lounge chair and plunge into the startlingly blue sea; on the other side are landmark buildings, such as the ornate, pink-domed century-old Hotel Negresco. If you walk east, you’ll find yourself in Old Nice, a warren of pastel buildings—and a pedestrian’s delight—filled with cafes, galleries, jewelers, candy stores, and gift shops. If you haven’t yet had your fill of pastel architecture, continue on to Nice’s old port, a picturesque spot where you can spy the latest in modern yacht design. Just east of Nice is Villefranche-sur-Mer, a pretty coastal town that has managed to retain its local charm even as it depends on tourism. Tiny Villefranche has something of a time-capsule quality; you can sit on the quay enjoying mussels, watching kids leap off rocks into the water, the humble milieu evoking postwar cinéma verité. Staircases set between the modest, colorful apartment buildings seem made for exploration—or just scenic postprandial exercise. 

To the east of Villefranche lies one of the Mediterranean’s most exclusive enclaves, the lush peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat; it’s comparable in many respects to Portofino, which makes sense since both jagged, wooded peninsulas jut out from the same coastline. The beauty of Cap-Ferrat is legendary; its irregular shape makes for stunning scenery, hidden coves, and serpentine hiking trails that wind through Italian cypress. But to many well-heeled travelers, the destination is synonymous with one address: the famed Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, which was built after the turn of the 20th century. Located on the tip of the peninsula, with its much-photographed swimming pool hovering above the sea, the hotel has been managed by Four Seasons since 2015.

Place du Casino (photo: Adobe Stock)
Place du Casino (photo: Adobe Stock)

Once you arrive at Cap-Ferrat, you’re only around nine miles from the diminutive principality of Monaco, some of the most famous sites of which are in Monte Carlo. A playground for the uber-wealthy, Monaco has encouraged overdevelopment that has all but eclipsed the sort of appeal associated with the nearby locations discussed above: you won’t find the quirkiness and local color of Nice, the homey charm of Villefrance, or the natural splendor of Cap-Ferrat. Nevertheless, Place du Casino, ringed by one of the world’s most exalted gambling houses (dress formal) and the grandeur of the Hotel de Paris, is a pleasant spot for an alfresco lunch or an ice cream. 

Also on most Riviera itineraries, just to the west of Monaco, is the hilltop medieval town of Eze. Though it may feel contrived and too touristic for some, it offers spectacular sea views, art galleries accessible from cobblestoned streets, and botanic gardens that seem to float in the sky. And to round out any trip to the Riviera there is Cannes, the site of the renowned film festival. 

Like Nice, Cannes boasts its own iconic seaside walkway—the Promenade de la Croisette—where you can grab a bright blue chair and watch the world go by. But perhaps the best way to experience Cannes is to book a room at a luxury hotel that offers the ultimate Côte d'Azur experience: a private pier where you can order a bottle of rosé to be delivered right to your chaise.

The Country

Though your base in Provence may be less than an hour’s drive from the coast, this inland region is a world apart. The pace is slow, yet the area awakens all your senses. Tables of delicacies await you on market day, and pâtisseries are everywhere (this is France, after all) but are distinctive to the region because of the carefully stacked calissons (soft almond cookies with colorful icing) that will bring out the child in you. Roman ruins coexist among the orange-tiled roofs and ubiquitous shutters. You’ll see flourishing lavender fields as well as a red jumble of buildings in tiny Roussillon, sitting atop red cliffs like a mirage.

Aix-en-Provence (photo: Adobe Stock)
Aix-en-Provence (photo: Adobe Stock)

Some of Provence’s best-known towns are actually closer to Marseille than to Nice. To be efficient about your journey, plot out a rough rectangle, northwest of Marseille, with Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Avignon, and Roussillon as its points (Saint-Remy-de-Provence is midway between Arles and Avignon). 

To many, the heart of Provence is Aix-en-Provence, a rather large university town with 143,000 inhabitants. The lavishly wide Cours Mirabeau, more than a quarter-mile long and lined with plane trees, is the perfect spot to enjoy Provencal life from the comfort of a bench or an outdoor café. But smaller plazas abound, brilliantly catching the afternoon light and adorned with fountains. If you schedule one outing here, make it to Cezanne’s studio, where the post-impressionist master worked until the end of his life and where his still-life objects have been left mostly intact.

You’ll make little discoveries everywhere in Arles, where centuries collide. There’s nothing like strolling around its two-tiered, 1,900-year-old amphitheater, which evokes Rome’s Colosseum, and glimpsing a brightly striped awning framed by one of 120 stone arches. From outside its walls, Avignon seems formidable, even stark, but inside the walls, the medieval center is like a fairy tale, with lanes so narrow you can almost touch each side at once, gray-blue shutters in distressed cinematic style, candy shops that sell chocolate-dipped olives, even a beautiful carousel near City Hall in Place de l'Horloge.

A beautiful carousel near City Hall in Place de l'Horloge (photo: Adobe Stock)
A beautiful carousel near City Hall in Place de l'Horloge (photo: Adobe Stock)

It’s difficult to put your finger on why Saint-Remy is considered the Hamptons of Provence, or why it feels so good to be there, when each town features its own distinctive loveliness. But to encounter it on market day—which is de rigueur—means being enveloped in the terroir of Provence, as a young cheese-monger in a green apron may offer you a slice from a wheel of Fontagne, then a sliver of Saint-Paulin, then something with herbs. Soon, you know you’ll be buying enough for dinner.

Traveler Fast Facts

WHAT IT IS: 

Among the most glamorous and popular resort destinations on the planet, the South of France is blessed with seaside promenades and clear waters and a seemingly endless array of charming villages on or near the coast. Its sunny and inviting climate, superb seafood, natural beauty, and festive lifestyle continue to draw jetsetters from all over the world.

CLIMATE: 

The warmest part of the country, the South of France experiences hot, dry summers. Temperatures vary somewhat less on the coast than inland: for example, in July and August in seaside Marseille, temperatures may reach the mid-80s during daytime and drop to the high 60s at night; in Aix-en-Provence—just 20 miles north—daytime highs are similar but nights can be in the 50s. 

Note that even in winter, the South of France, with its abundant sunshine and daytime temperatures in the 50s, has long offered a temperate escape for Parisians. Menton, not far from the Italian border, is particularly renowned for a balmy microclimate that keeps things warm and comfortable even in January.

GETTING THERE:

Nice Côte d'Azur Airport is France’s third busiest after Charles de Gaulle and Orly, both in Paris. You can reach much of the Côte d'Azur—including Monaco, Antibes, and Cannes—by car or helicopter in less than an hour. Nice Côte d'Azur accommodates private jets and is served by such major carriers as Air France and British Airways; direct seasonal flights from the U.S. are available through Delta (via JFK) and United (via Newark).

COVID-19 CONSIDERATIONS:

You’re home free if you show proof of full vaccination and a perfunctory sworn statement (which airlines normally provide) certifying the absence of COVID symptoms and of any contact with a confirmed case.

France is far less welcoming to unvaccinated and partially vaccinated visitors, who must provide a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before departure to the country or a negative antigen (rapid) test taken within 48 hours before departure; and a new antigen test or biological exam upon arrival in France. (This is done at the airport; travelers who test positive may be quarantined for 10 days at their own expense.) In addition, unvaccinated and partially vaccinated travelers must self-isolate for seven days after arrival; take an additional PCR test at the end of the isolation period; and provide a sworn statement certifying the absence of COVID-19 symptoms and of any contact with a confirmed case and agreeing to the testing and self-isolation requirements. (Children under 12 are exempt from the testing rules.) That said, conditions can change rapidly.

To reenter the U.S., vaccinated travelers must show a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of departure. Non-fully vaccinated travelers must show a negative test taken within one day of travel or present multiple documents proving recovery from COVID.

Traveler Report Card

ACCOMMODATIONS:

For grandeur, splash out at the Four Seasons’ spectacularly situated Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat (A+). Its pool suite is one of the most exclusive accommodations in all of Europe. In Cannes, look no further than La Plage du Martinez at the Hotel Martinez (A) to find nirvana: you can be pampered right on the beach, or score a coveted spot on the hotel’s private pier. Breakfast is served under lemon trees in a garden created by landscape architect Philippe Niez. La Villa Gallici (A), a long-admired Relais & Chateaux boutique property in Aix-en-Provence, contains 17 rooms—but opt for one of the six suites to be guaranteed a private garden or terrace. Villa Gallici has the feel of a private home, with a series of sitting rooms wrapped in luscious fabrics. 

CUISINE:

Tucked into a light-filled, gilded jewel box of a dining room, Le Louis XV-Alain Ducasse (A+) in Monaco’s Hôtel de Paris is arguably the most prestigious place to eat on the Riviera. Sample chef Dominique Lory’s take on local seafood, including langoustines, blue lobster, and Mediterranean bass. La Rotonde (A), the iconic brasserie at Nice’s Hotel Negresco, drips with opulence and Italian influence. Menu standouts include foie gras confit, Charolais beef tartare, and black truffled artichokes ravioli. And if you love bouillabaisse, a pilgrimage to Côté Mer–La Bouillabaisse (A+) in Arles is a must. 

Note: The writer received complimentary accommodations from La Villa Gallici and Hotel Martinez.

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