What’s the first thought that comes to your mind when you think of the French Riviera or the Cote d’azur? For us, the French Riviera is a colourful mélange of delectable food and the sunny promenade in Nice, dazzling villas and yachts in Cannes, extravagance in Monte Carlo, art and culture in Antibes, stunning drives along the coast, and isolated villages in the French Alps. But all this is in retrospect. When we first embarked on a road trip through South France, we had never imagined we would see such variety in landscape and culture.
Before you start swooning, a word of warning. This part of Europe is stunning but it can be notoriously expensive – it might not be the place for you if you’re on a tight budget! However if you’re dead set on dilly-dallying with celebrities and millionaires sun-bathing on their yachts, here is a suggested 5 day itinerary for exploring the French Riviera that will take you the most breathtaking sights of this beautiful region of South France.
Day 1: Nice
Nice is a bustling cosmopolitan and thanks to its warm weather and terracotta sun, it is the second most popular French city amongst tourists. Hours can be spent meandering through the alley-ways, sampling the delicious Nicoise cuisine. The Promenade De Anglais (Walkway of the English) along the Mediterranean sea stretches till the eye can see and is popular amongst tourists and locals during the day. Stroll along the promenade as you absorb the atmosphere and marvel at the ever changing colours of the waters.
Most of the famous sites of Nice including the Castle Hill (the best vantage point), Place Rossetti, Opera De Nice, and the Notre Dame cathedral are within walking distance of each other. At night, the Promenade metamorphoses into a quiet hangout with people sitting on benches and enjoying the cool sea breeze. Although fine-dining is something one must experience in the culinary capital of South France, there is no dearth of reasonable places to eat in Nice for those on a tighter budget. This town has a very relaxed feel about it and we loved exploring it at a slow pace.
Highlight: For us, it was the exotic flavours of Ice Cream at Fenocchios. Delicate orange blossom, cactus, and lavender were just some of our favourites. We loved it so much, we devoted an entire article to it 🙂
Driving: Nice is 30 kms away from Vence, where we stayed. Parking in Nice can be expensive but is readily available at the dedicated parking spaces along the Promenade.
Day 2: Grasse and Antibes
Ever since we saw the movie Perfume: The story of a Murderer, we have had a burning desire to visit Grasse. This medieval town, also known as the perfume capital of the world, had to feature in our French Riviera road trip. We set out for a tour of one of the oldest perfumeries in Grasse: Galimard and spent an unforgettable afternoon learning about the perfume making process. Grasse, thanks to its inland location and altitude, lends itself well to flower farming. Fields of flowers and perfumeries dot the town roads. Most perfumeries offer free tours.
From the fragrant town of Grasse, we made our way to the seaside resort town of Antibes. Everything about this quaint little town is mesmerising. From the walk along the harbour to the numerous squares that house cute little cafes and restaurants doling out exquisite dishes, Antibes is magical. No wonder Pablo Picasso spent six months in a sea facing Château painting master pieces. The same Château is now a museum dedicated to the world renowned artist, and for a reasonable entrance fees of 6 Euros, you can see an impressive collection of his paintings and sketches.
Once you have sampled your fair share of art, walk over to the Provencal market in Cours Massena in the Old Town to savour fine cheese, cured ham, and ambrosial wine. The best, however, is yet to come. End the evening by paying a visit to the ‘Green Fairy’ (Absinthe) at the Absinthe Bar, which is right besides the Provencal market.
Highlights: The tour of the Perfumerie in Grasse and The Absinthe Bar in Antibes
Driving: This drive (Vence- Grasse -Antibes- Vence) is 75 kms
Day 3: Vence and Mercantour National Park
To get the real feel of a road trip and to explore the areas outside Cote d’azur, we reserved our third day for an impromptu drive to the Mercantour National Park, which lies further North and shares the border with Italy. First we fuelled our hungry tums with the buttery croissants and French coffee in the town of Vence. We went for a gander to the fortified village of St. Paul De Vence, exploring its historical sites and monuments. Vence, with its fountains and intricately-carved buildings, is right out of a fairy-tale.
Satiated, we left for our long drive to Mercantour National Park, without any fixed agenda in mind. The scenic drive took us through gorgeous valleys, quaint little French towns, and home-run restaurants where we sampled some locally produced cheese. Meandering through the Maritime Alps, we reached the sleepy village of Isola. It was eerie, probably because of the time of the day. We managed to find a small café and indulged in an espresso whilst enjoying the views of the majestic mountains towering over us. The best part of the drive was that it took us to unchartered territory, close to nature and away from the glitz of the French Riviera.
Highlights: Walk in the fortified village of Vence and a long drive into the Mercantour National Park
Driving: Approximately 125 Kms.
Day 4: Èze, Villefranche Sur Mer, and Monaco
On the fourth day, we explored the Eastern side of Nice, starting with the picturesque sea-side town of Vellefranche-Sur-Mer. After having a hearty breakfast at a road-side café overlooking the sea, we went for a dip in the waters of the Villefranche beach which is one of the most pristine beaches of the French Riviera.
Continuing our drive on the Grand Corniche (A corniche is a road cut into the edge of a cliff), the highest of the 3 corniches that run from Nice to the Italian border, we explored the small medieval village of Èze. It boasts of one of the best views of the French Riviera. At one point on the Grand Corniche you get a spectacular view of the Mediterranean sea with the perched village of Èze in the foreground. You HAVE to stop and take this view in – it is truly stunning.
The last stop for the day was the municipality of Monaco, that is a city-state (so a new country to visit ;)) very close to the Italian border and famous for the F1 Monaco Grand Prix held annually. We spent our time in Monaco exploring Monaco-ville, a picturesque part of the city that is still a medieval village at heart with quaint cafes, pedestrian streets, and a magnificent Palace. If you are feeling particularly lucky, you should definitely place a bet or two at the Grand casino in Monte Carlo
Highlights: The drive on the Grand Corniche from Nice to Monaco and back as well as the view from the village of Èze
Driving: 110 kms of pure scenic beauty.
Day 5: Cannes and Isles
World renowned for hosting a popular film festival, Cannes, which was once a quiet fishing village, has been transformed into one of the most opulent towns in the world. Known for its fancy boutiques, Cannes is a shopper’s delight. So we had to go there and check it out for ourselves. To be honest, it wasn’t our favourite part of the road trip (it shouldn’t come as a surprise since we don’t like overcrowded places!), but once we ventured into the old town, we fell in love with the cobbled alleys and the street art on offer.
Since the first four days of our French Riviera road trip had been quite busy, we wanted to end the trip on a relaxed note. And so we did. In the bay, off the coast of Cannes, lie Îles de Lérins (Lérins islands), that are accessible only by ferry. Two of the islands – St. Margaruite (the biggest and the closest to the shore) and St. Honorat (smaller and further) are accessible by ferry. We opted for St. Honorat primarily because it’s quieter than the other and has a beautiful monastery and a castle overlooking the sea. We climbed atop the castle, grabbed a few chairs, and relaxed in the afternoon sun.
Highlights: The leisurely stroll on St. Honorat followed by a relaxing nap atop the castle
Driving: Vence- Cannes- Vence is a 60 Km drive
There you have it! Our favourite itinerary for an unforgettable French Riviera Road Trip 🙂
- If you’re flying to the French Riviera from London, Nice Cote d’azur airport is the most convenient. Cheap tickets are available on EasyJet and British Airways throughout the year.
- We flew into Nice, but since we had rented a car, we had the flexibility of staying away from the expensive city centre of Nice. We chose a small family run Auberge (Inn) just outside the picture perfect village of Vence, a short 25 minute drive from Nice’s airport. We stayed at Auberge des Cayrons. Prices were approximately €30 per person per night without breakfast. Free Parking was available on site which was a big bonus since finding free parking in and around Nice is next to impossible.
- Car rental can be quite expensive in South France. It’s best to compare rental cars in Nice before boarding your flight as companies can charge really high prices on the spot.
- Nice Cote d’azur airport is the most convenient to fly into from London and cheap tickets are available on EasyJet and British Airways throughout the year.
- The ferry ride to St. Honorat Island costs 13 Euros.
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