The Cote d’Azur, that clear stretch of coastline in the south of France, dotted with ritzy holiday destinations, historic hilltop towns, twisting mountain roads and white pebble beaches leading into the azure water.
It’s a classically gorgeous part of Europe and a scenic French Riviera road trip is the perfect way to explore it.
The riviera is a fairly short section of the coast so you could pick a base and do day trips if you don’t want to be checking into a new hotel every other day. But I think it’s nice to stay overnight in different cities as it’s usually in the evening and first thing in the morning when you see places at their best.
To give you an idea of distances, Monte Carlo to St Tropez (which covers most of the Cote d’Azur) is only 120 kms and a 3 hour drive, even when taking the winding coastal road. So in theory you could comfortably see the best of the French Riviera over a 3 day long weekend.
3 Day Itinerary
If you do only have a long weekend, here’s my recommended short itinerary using Nice as your base for 3 nights.
Explore Nice’s Old Town then take the short drive to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat for a quick swim or hike and to watch the sunset over Nice.
Drive inland to hilltop town Saint-Paul-de-Vence for an early lunch. Continue on to Cannes with an optional pit stop in Grasse, another hilltop town. In Cannes, stop for a drink on La Croisette, the famous boulevard lined with luxury boutiques on one side and white sandy beaches on the other. Stick around for a glitzy dinner or continue on to Antibes for a more relaxed affair.
Take the coastal road up to micro-nation Monaco to see how the other half lives in Monte Carlo. Be sure to check out the small historic quarter (Monaco-Ville) with the Prince’s Palace, not just the casino and fancy yachts. Once you’ve had enough of the ostentatious wealth return to Nice via the inland road, making stops at La Turbie and Eze for spectacular views over the bay.
Spend the morning relaxing in Nice either sunbathing on the pebble beach, sampling local food at the farmers market or take a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais before heading home.
Option: Swap Menton for Monte Carlo for a more down to earth day trip.
7 Day Itinerary
For a more relaxed road trip with plenty of beach or hiking time, I suggest this 7 to 10 day itinerary.
Follow the above 3 day itinerary plus:
Make the half hour drive from Nice to Antibes (stay 2 nights). Go for a leisurely lunch in a little restaurant or creperie in the compact old town. Burn off all that good food with a walk through the pedestrianised streets then around the pretty waterfront. Stop by for a look at the Picasso Museum, housed in a former chateau built upon the ancient Greek city of Antipolis.
Drive to Garoupe Beach to hike the coastal path around the Cap d’Antibes. It’s an easy walk which should take a couple of hours, returning via the inland path. Swim in the calm waters at Juan les Pins and stick around for the sunset.
Leave early for Cannes, not for more fancy dinners but to catch the ferry to Ile Sainte-Marguerite. Spend the day exploring the unspoilt island via the pine and eucalyptus lined trails. Stop at the Museum of the Sea to visit the prison cell of the Man in the Iron Mask. Return to Cannes for the night.
If you want a little more glitz and glamour, spend the day in Saint-Tropez but a more interesting final destination is the large port city Marseille. Stop in Saint-Tropez for sure and maybe even hilltop town Hyeres but stay overnight in Marseille followed by a day trip to Cassis and the Massif des Calanques.
To extend to a 10 day trip I suggest spending more time in each place, visiting in more depth, rather than visiting more places.
Extended Road Trip – More of Provence
For the ultimate Provence road trip you could extend your trip further along the coast to include Marseille and then inland to the famous Provencal towns Aix-en-Provence, Avignon and Arles.
Marseille is so often overlooked by tourists due to its undeserved seedy reputation. Well maybe not completely undeserved, it is a port city after all, but for a tourist staying in the touristy areas you have little to worry about except surviving the steep climb up to Notre Dame de la Garde and finding the freshest seafood.
Marseille has some rocky beaches but the more interesting water excursion would be an island cruise to If and the Frioul archipelago.
A short drive north and you’ll be in the most cliche Provencal town Aix-en-Provence. Wooden shutters block the light from the pale terrace homes, gigantic plane trees shade the main streets which lead to cafe filled squares as lavender fills the air. No really, it’s just like that. It’s cliche pretty but a nice spot to relax for a couple of days while day tripping around the countryside.
On your final full day in Provence, take your time exploring the smaller towns around Aix. Avignon is the most popular day trip for the incredible Palais des Papes but don’t miss Arles for it’s huge Roman amphitheatre.
Before leaving Aix, get up early to experience to one of France’s most delicious gourmet markets, held most mornings in the old town.
Plan Your Own Itinerary: 18 Destinations in Provence & Cote d’Azur
Main Cities on the Cote d’Azur
- Nice – The biggest city on the Cote d’Azur, pebble beaches, an historic old town, a wide range of restaurants and beautiful scenery.
- Antibes – More down to earth and affordable than the most of the coastal towns, pretty sandy beaches, plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities like hiking and kayaking.
- Cannes – Glitzy yet pretty, can be relatively quiet outside of festival season and big events. Similar atmosphere to St Tropez but with more things to do.
- St Tropez – All the glitz and glamour is in St Tropez. If you’re not interested in fancy restaurants, nightlife and high-end shopping this might not be the place for you.
- Monte Carlo, Monaco – An interesting stop with palaces, luxury yachts, the famous casino and and over-the-top wealth on display.
- Menton – I only have fleeting knowledge of Menton but my friends and Menton residents Easy Hiker have plenty to share on their blog.
- Eze – One of the most well known and visited hilltop towns, especially popular for its coastal views and proximity to Nice.
- Saint-Paul-De-Vence – Ancient ramparts and a stunning hilltop position. One of the highlights of the south of France.
- Grasse – Relatively unspoilt by tourism, Grasse offers fantastic views towards both Antibes and Cannes.
- La Turbie – Up the hill from Monaco, La Turbie borders the principality and lies on the Grande Corniche scenic road between Monte Carlo and Nice.
Small Coastal Towns
- Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferret – Some incredible luxury hotels and residences in this area, thankfully the scenic walk around the headland and swimming in the clear water is free.
- Villefranche – A small beach resort town with nicer beaches than Nice but watch out for cruise ship tourists on day trips. Traffic and parking is a problem, you might want to get the train here.
- Cassis – A good spot to base yourself while exploring the Massif des Calanques and Cap Canaille.
- Massif des Calanques – Not a town but a magnificent fjord-like coastline between Cassis and Marseille. Highly recommended for nature lovers.
Other Cities in Provence
- Marseille – A huge port city with the best seafood in France, incredible food, markets and restaurants for all budgets and a surprisingly pretty old town.
- Aix-en-Provence – The jewel of Provence. A hugely popular destination and deservedly so. Best visited off-season if you’re not a fan of crowds.
- Avignon – Another beautiful town with a rich culture and history and also overrun with tourists in summer.
- Arles – Worth visiting for the Roman amphitheatre dating from the second century BC. Much quieter than Aix and Avignon but there’s less to see.
Road Trip Tips
You have the choice between three main scenic roads for your road trip:
- Basse Corniche – Low Coast Road which takes you along the sea.
- Moyenne Corniche – Middle Coast Road which you’ll take if visiting Eze.
- Grande Corniche – Great Coast Road is the higher road which winds past La Turbie and the Col d’Eze (Eze Pass). This is the most spectacular of the drives.
The tourist board has a number of useful guides to different routes you can take either by car, bike or hiking as well as a couple of tourist trains with spectacular scenery.
When to Visit
Winter is the ideal time to visit if you’re looking for sunshine, fewer crowds and lower prices. But if you want to go swimming, which you probably do, visit in September or early October when the water is still warm yet the mad summer crush will be over.
It’s not that summer is a bad time to visit, it’s the perfect season if you want to visit the region at it’s liveliest, with the most events taking place and the best weather. But be prepared for crowds and traffic along the coast.
What to Eat and Drink
Provence is famous for its cuisine but each town has its own specialties too. Look out for local markets where you can pick up fresh picnic supplies and enjoy the local food when you can. Here’s a few specialties to look out for in Provence and along the French Riviera.
- Soupe au pistou
- Salada niçoise
- Pan bagnat
- Red rice from the Camargue
- Pastis de Marseille
- Rosé wine
Where to Stay
If you visit in the off-season you should be able to book places when you arrive at your destination. But if you’re planning your road trip for the spring/summer or during a festival you’ll need to book well in advance to get decent accommodation.
Note that parking is outrageously expensive in most places, usually setting you back at least €20 per night. Check before booking.
A few recommendations for you:
Nice – Ibis Styles Centre Gare or HI Hotel Eco Spa
Saint-Paul-de-Vence – La Vague de Saint Paul
Juan-les-Pins (near Antibes) – Hotel Juana
Cannes – Five Seas Hotel
Marseille – The quirky Mama Shelter Marseille or more traditional Sofitel Hotel.
How to Get There
Car: If you don’t have your own car I always use and recommend Hertz.
Flights: Nice and Marseille are major airports serviced by both full service and low-cost airlines. Low-cost airlines flying to the region include:
Train: The TGV fast train is available to most destinations in the south of France. There are cheap local trains which stop everywhere along the French Riviera.
If you’re trying to plan your itinerary you have a few options:
- If you’re passing through, in one direction, drive along the Basse Corniche coastal road with a couple of inland stops.
- If you’re making a round trip, drive along the coast and then back through the winding mountain roads (Grande Corniche) and hill towns.
- Select a base and take day trips.
This map show two road trip itineraries for the south of France, one along the French Riviera and the other I’d call more of a Provence road trip.2