A Provençal town climbing the stiff slope of the Colline du Castéou, Hyères is almost anything you want to it be.
For summer fun like watersports and lazing by the sea, there are paradisiacal sandy beaches and matchless conditions for sailing and diving.
For culture there’s a lovely old town that winds up the hill, while Hyères has also been the muse of many an artist.
Picasso, Giacometti and Jean Cocteau all spent time at Villa Noaille on a roost above the town.
And we haven’t even mentioned the Giens Peninsula and the sensational Îles d’Hyères, natural wonders that simply must not be missed.
Lets explore the best things to do in Hyères:
1. Old Town
In their rush to get to the beaches and islands, many people overlook the historic centre of the town, which is a mistake because it’s a dream to potter around.
This is picture-book Provence, with bougainvillea, wooden shutters, street markets and restaurant terraces.
The village-like ambience and lack of cars has a lot to do with the steepness of the terrain, which gives rise to dusky, curving streets hugging the hill’s contours.
These are crossed by the Rue Portalet that powers up the hill and brings you to Place Massillon.
Here the restaurant terraces are surrounded by the ochre walls of old apartment buildings and a fortified chapel built by the Knights Templar.
2. Îles d’Hyères
Get down to the ferry terminal in Giens and you can embark on an island hopping voyage to the gorgeous archipelago south and east of this peninsula.
These islands have had a strange rabble of inhabitants, from nobility and monks to soldiers and pirates.
The largest is Porquerolles at seven by three kilometres and a delight to scramble over on foot.
There’s deep pine forest, hills, cliffs in the south and enticing beaches in the north.
Further east is the rugged and peaceful Port-Cros, which was donated to the state in the 60s and is a national park and vital bird sanctuary.
Last of all is Le Levant, which is the most remote island and is shared by naturists and the French Military.
3. Château d’Hyères
The oldest neighbourhoods in Hyères are on the slopes of the Colline du Castéou, which rises sharply and crests at almost 200 metres.
At the top are the spectral ruins of the town’s medieval castle, which dates to around the 1000s.
The Lords of Fos and Counts of Provence held sway from this fortress, and in the 16th century it was visited by French royalty: Francis I stayed in 1530 and Charles IX followed in 1564. The castle has been in ruins since the French Wars of Religion, after a siege by Henri IV that lasted five long months.
Needless to say the landscapes from up here will take your breath away and there are special platforms from where you can gaze out over the wooded Maurettes hills to the north.
4. Plage de l’Almanarre
Easily one of the best beaches in France, Plage de l’Almanarre takes up five kilometres on the west side of the Giens Peninsula.
The beach has soft, pale sands by shallow waters and is heavenly in summer.
On the days when the Mistral is blowing in early-winter and spring, bathing is off the agenda.
Instead the sea is has dramatic whitecaps and is speckled with the sails of yachts and windsurfers.
Things tend to be much calmer from June to September though, when you’ll be protected from the easterly Levante wind and can wander along to find a deserted spot all your own.
5. Villa Noailles
A trailblazing work of modernist architecture, Villa Noaille was drawn up in the 1920s by Robert Mallet-Stevens for the wealthy art patrons Charles and Mary-Laure de Noailles.
The couple commissioned paintings and funded all kinds of projects, so many stars of the 20th-century art world, like Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Man Ray, have been through these doors.
With its harsh right-angles and concrete walls it caused a bit of a fuss when it was built.
The mansion has an awesome setting, near the highest point of the town, and with far-ranging vistas.
See the Cubist Garden composed by Gabriel Guevrekian, and catch an exhibition or one of a number of annual design events like the Festival of Fashion and Photography in July.
6. Ancient Olbia
In the 4th century BC Greek colonists from Phocaea founded this ancient settlement just near the top of the Plage de l’Almanarre.
Olbia would have been a trading and defensive outpost for the larger colony in present-day Marseille.
You can come to study the archaeological site by yourself or show up for a guided tour and get to know all of the different civilisations that have put down roots on this patch of land.
Archaeologists here have made thrilling discoveries about how the Phoceans organised their towns and you’ll get a glimpse of the fortifications, dwellings, wells, religious sanctuaries and even the sewage infrastructure.
The Giens peninsula is Provece’s southernmost point, so far south it has the same latitude as the north of Corsica.
At the bottom, Giens had pine-clad hills, and is linked to the mainland by long, parallel sandy spits on each side of a large expanse of ponds and salty marshes.
These wetlands are a vital birdlife sanctuary and resting point for a host of migratory species.
On the west side the beach is sublime and we’ll come to that a bit later.
For hikes there’s a path encircling the coast weaving past deserted beaches, rocky outcrops and coves, and with unforgettable views of the little islands scattered offshore.
From the west side you can see the ferries and military ships as white dots in the huge Toulon roadstead.
8. Parc Saint-Bernard
In a town that built its fortune on palm plantations in would be a shame not to call in at a couple of Hyères’ sublime gardens.
On the slopes beneath Villa Noaille, Parc Saint-Bernard was also the work of Robert Mallet-Stevens and has sharp stairways lifting you to stone terraces.
These are planted with fragrant Mediterranean varieties like lavender, myrtle and rosemary, as well as a host of exotic species including acacia, begonia and angel’s trumpet.
Be here in spring when much of the gardens are in bloom and linger over the sight of Hyères’ terracotta rooftops and the azure Mediterranean.
9. Tour des Templiers
On Place Massillon is a military-looking tower that used to belong to a Knights Templar commandry.
So in its day there would have been a barn, cellar, mill and furnace here, as well as this tower, which is the only surviving feature and dates from the 1100s.
Inside are two chapels on different floors beneath a terraced roof.
After the Knights Templar order was suppressed the tower was eventually bought by the town.
These days it’s a little venue for temporary art exhibitions and you can clamber up the dark, tight stairway for exceptional views of Hyères’ old town and the coast.
10. Parc Olbius-Riquier
The land for this spacious park was bequeathed to the town in 1868, and a few years later it was chosen to help study and cultivate tropical species able to grow on French soil.
So the park became a branch of the Jardin d’Acclimatation in Paris and the legacy of this period is everywhere you look: There 2,000 species of trees and cactus from all around the world, and even an expert botanist will have a tough time naming all the peculiar species here.
The park will also go down well with kids for its zoo with deer, goats, monkeys and parrots.
11. Plage de la Bergerie
The east coast of the Giens peninsula is the more inhabited part, with little holiday communities and campsites.
And as there’s a bit more life on this side the facilities are a smidge better than at Plage de l’Almanarre.
So for people holidaying with young ones or in the mood for some water-based fun Plage de la Bergerie could be the way to go.
Like L’Almanarre it’s long, curling out for four kilometres, but unlike its neighbour it is sheltered from the Mistral, which can be a nuisance on the east side.
And as you sit back you’ll have the Îles d’Hyères to meet your gaze.
Whatever floats your boat, be it jet-skiing, wakeboarding, windsurfing, canoeing, kitesurfing or sailing, you’ll find it in Hyères.
If you’re experienced then spring and autumn are an exciting if occasionally dicey time to be out on the waves as this is when the northwesterly Mistral wind is at full force.
If you don’t fancy those odds you can watch the action from dry land, as Hyères has been on the ISAF Sailing World Cup circuit every year since this was founded in 2008. The race usually takes place towards the last weekend of April and is just one of seven major sailing events and regattas held in these waters.
Dive centres are ten-a-penny in Hyères, and competition is so fierce that it’s hard to know which company to choose.
There’s so many because Hyères is up there with best scuba locations in Europe thanks to the crazy variety of things to see beneath the waves.
The Giens peninsula has submarine caves, while the waters around Port-Cros are inside a Natural Park and abound with wildlife.
Add to the mix huge underwater drop-offs, wrecks and you come out with more than 40 different sites to check out.
Seasoned divers will be itching for adventure while novices won’t find many better places in the world to take the plunge for the first time.
14. Notre-Dame de Consolation
A lofty sanctuary had been here up until 1944 but the previous structure was destroyed in the war.
A modern replacement was constructed in 1952, and is notable for the participation of the avant-garde sculptor Jean Lambert-Rucki, who was a member of the Union des Artistes Modernes with Robert Mallet-Stevens.
Lambert-Rucki was joined by master glassmaker Gabriel Loire, who crafted the beautiful southern window that tells the story of Hyères.
As you might guess there are also majestic views up here, and an information board points out the landmarks on the skyline.
15. Côtes de Provence
If there’s a drink that spring to mind when you think of Provence Rosé wine (apart from Pastis!), it would have to be rosé wine.
The good news is that there are 17 domains to visit around Hyères.
Two of these are even on Porquerolles Island, so you can drop by the Domaine Perzinsky for example to look around the vineyard and winery and taste their wares.
Most of these estates are boutique operations that have been in the same family for generations.