You might come to Provence city of Fréjus for the beaches, which are plentiful and sandy, or the port, which is an upmarket base for summer fun. The city’s military legacy is compelling, and there are museums and monuments that commemorate a heritage going back to the 17th century.
There’s ancient history to uncover too, as Fréjus started life as the Roman port city of Forum Julii, with ruins of an aqueduct and amphitheatre still here. One of the oldest Christian buildings in France is also in Fréjus within the outstanding Cité Épiscopale, which also contains the medieval cathedral and cloister.
Lets explore the best things to do in Fréjus:
1. Fréjus Cathedral
The cathedral is embedded in a complex of medieval buildings, some going back to the earliest days of Christianity in France.
Known as the Cité Épiscopale, this ensemble was fortified and was set around the Gothic Bishop’s Palace.
The cube-shaped tower that caps the cathedral’s apse is a tough-looking reminder of these defences.
The cathedral itself was mostly built in the 1200s on top of a far older church from the 400s.
There are two naves, which were constructed at different times (one belonged to a defunct parish church) and then linked by an arcade.
To the north of the cathedral is the cloister, a place of reflection for the cathedral’s clergy.
The arches and columns here are from the 1200s, with capitals depicting the Fleur de Lys, a symbol for the ruling Charles I of Anjou , and keys representing the Bishops of Fréjus.
If you look up in the galleries you’ll see delicately carved and painted images in the wooden ceilings.
These date to the 1300s and show creatures from mythology, animals and personalities from the time.
The Cathedral’s Frankish baptistery is fascinating enough to merit a separate entry.
This part of the cathedral dates all the way back to the 400s, making it the oldest Christian site in Provence and one of the oldest in all of France.
The baptistery was covered up in the 1300s and wasn’t rediscovered until 1925, and over time the archaeologists have revealed the 1,600-year-old marble floor, small terracotta pool for feet and the large octagonal pool where people would have been totally immersed.
The granite pillars around the interior are Roman in origin and have come from one of Forum Julii’s monuments.
4. Mont Vinaigre
The Esterel Massif is a range of dusty, maquis -coated mountains between Fréjus and Cannes to the northeast.
The tallest of these is Mont Vinaigre, which is more than 600 metres high and is easy to access on the DN7 road on the way to Cannes.
The 30-minute climb from the car park is stiff without being exhausting, and the path is skirted by juniper, lavender, rosemary and other wild herbs.
You can see Saint Tropez, Cannes and the azure Mediterranean from the top, while the mountain was also once the hideout of infamous 18th-century brigands like Gaspard de Besse, who has been described as a Provençal Robin Hood.
5. Musée Archéologique
The city has been digging up exciting artefacts from the ancient city of Forum Julii since the 1800s.
And many of the best pieces have ended up in this museum.
These excavations have revealed captivating insights about the makeup of the city and customs of the people who lived here, such as funeral rites and domestic life.
And it’s all laid out for your perusal: There are statues, including a bust of Hermes that has become a symbol for Fréjus, a brilliant mosaic depicting a panther, home decorations, pottery and plenty more.
6. Fréjus Aquaduct
Antiquarians can go on a little journey of discovery on the route of the 40-kilometre aqueduct that channelled water from the Foux and Siagnole Rivers to ancient Forum Julii via a line of underground conduits and tall bridges.
Right in the city there are four tall piers to ponder in the Parc de la Villa Aurélienne.
But if you’re an avid historian you can get in the car and hunt down a host of riveting sites: There’s a large trench hewn from the rock near the source at Roche-Taillée, a bridge where it crosses the Gargalon stream and a lot more besides.
7. Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Jérusalem
Also just off the DN7 in the hills behind Fréjus is a thrilling slab of 20th century French culture.
The artist, poet and film-maker Jean Cocteau was hired to design this chapel in the middle of pine and cork forest.
When Cocteau died in 1963 with the chapel still half completed, his adopted son, the actor, Édouard Dermit stepped in to complete the frescos and wall mosaics according to Cocteau’s sketches.
The building was intended to be part of the Tour de Mare neighbourhood, envisioned as an artistic community by the Nice banker Jean Martenon who commissioned the chapel.
8. Musée des Troupes de Marine
The Troupes de Marine is a waterborne arm of the French Army, and was founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1622. This museum explores the history of the Troupes de Marine, which is entwined with French colonialism and so is a rich resource if you’re interested in that period of history.
The many well-labelled display cases contain uniforms, weapons, maps, model ships and historic posters, all showing how the troop developed on a technological and cultural level from the 17th century onwards.
The location is also no coincidence as Fréjus was one of France’s largest bases for its colonial armies, as attested by the large monument to the conflict in Indochina in the 40s and 50s.
Until the last few years the city’s amphitheatre had been a picturesque ruin, with big chunks of the seating terraces and arena decaying but still very easy to make out and fun to potter around.
Victor Hugo was one of many people to sing the praises of the old structure.
The building has since been restored as a venue for public events, and the ancient sandstone has been covered with white concrete as a way of preserving the original structure and stopping it from deteriorating any further.
What you’re left with doesn’t look much like an ancient building at all, but it is illuminating to see how the amphitheatre might have appeared when it was complete in Roman times.
10. Malpasset Dam
A couple of minutes outside Fréjus is what is left of the Malpasset Dam, which was built in 1952 but broke in 1959 at the cost of 423 lives.
The site of the dam has been untouched since the disaster and stands as a kind of memorial.
You can see where a vast section of the dam was washed away in the flood, and huge pieces of reinforced concrete still litter the valley below.
A visit is of course poignant, but also informative to understand the forces at play to cause such a thick wall of concrete to rupture and to see such a colossal piece of engineering in ruins.
After perusing churches and architecture, you may be in search of something to suit younger tastes, and this waterpark fits the bill.
There are 18 slides and pools in all, some aimed at the littlest visitors and others, like the award-winning King Cobra, that teenagers will be crazy for.
Parents can make use of the various restaurants and cafes at the attraction, as well as the large tree-shaded lawn for picnics and rest.
Peak summer days are extremely busy so it pays to either plan ahead if you’re coming in July or visit this one earlier or later in the season.
12. Hông Hiên Tu Pagoda
During the First World War, Senegalese and Vietnamese soldiers were stationed in Fréjus before being deployed on the Western Front.
This Buddhist pagoda is an interesting vestige from this period, constructed by Indochinese soldiers in 1917. The building fell to ruin after that war, but was restored by refugees from the war in Indochina in the 1950s.
Buddhist festivals are held here throughout the year, and the building also holds a lot of significance for the Troupes de Marine.
In the peaceful gardens on the slopes below are statues representing the life of Buddha, as well as dragons, horses and elephants.
Amid the culture and engrossing sights you can’t forget that Fréjus is also a summer resort, blessed with eight beaches on both sides of the port.
Starting in the west is Plage du Pacha, and then to the east just before Saint-Raphaël is Plage des Sablettes.
Always a hit with families is Base Nature François Léotard a long, shallow sweep of sand made all the more accessible for its car park and facilities for elderly and disabled bathers.
You may be surprised to learn that the open, mostly undeveloped space behind this beach was once a military base.
Almost a suburb of Fréjus is this chic resort near where the Massif de l’Esterel tumbles down to the Mediterranean.
Like its neighbour there’s loads of evidence of Roman habitation, as you can discover at the town’s own archaeological museum, a handy partner to the one in Fréjus.
There’s lots of early-19th-century architecture to give Saint-Raphaël a noble presence, helped by its restaurant terraces and harbour bristling with masts.
You could step aboard for a speedboat tour of the rocky coastline stopping in creeks (calanques) and coves that can’t be reached by land, or to a glamorous beach at Saint-Tropez.
15. Food and Drink
Fréjus is fortunate to be in a fertile region for farming, but also right on the Mediterranean, so it has the best of environment.
The honey and the olive oil made locally are protected under the Miel de Provence and AOC Huile d’Olive appellations so would make great gifts if you happen upon one of the city’s outdoor markets.
For wine, the local reds and rosés come under the AOC Côtes de Provence Fréjus and benefit from the rich, volcanic Esterel soil.
There are 11 wineries and cooperatives to tackle within minutes of the city, more than enough for a day or two of touring.