For most of its history La Seyne-sur-Mer was an industrial enclave supporting the Port of Toulon.
La Seyne was a shipbuilding town, and its yards were still launching boats in the 1980s.
But since then the town has turned to tourism, regenerating the waterside, opening restaurants and building accommodation.
This transformation is symbolised by the Pont de la Seyne, a century-old steel bridge converted into a stylish belvedere.
And it’s a lovable destination, moments from the superb Plage des Sablettes beach and all the excitement of Toulon’s ancient harbour.
This is still France’s chief Mediterranean naval base, and has volumes of history to reveal to anyone intrigued by France’s military past.
Lets explore the best things to do in La Seyne-sur-Mer:
1. Toulon Harbour
Defended to the south by the Saint-Mandrier Peninsula, Toulon Harbour is a natural harbour without equal: Mont Faron behind Toulon formed both a landward obstacle and a natural watchtower.
The harbour continues to be the French Navy’s main base on the Mediterranean.
If you’re into military hardware you need catch the ferry across to Toulon for a glimpse of the warships and aircraft carriers on the crossing.
Another way to experience the harbour is to stroll along the quays in La Seyne to see the maritime traffic coming and going.
2. Fort de Balaguier
This stronghold was built in 1673 to defend the eastern lip of the Toulon Harbour.
Its most pivotal event happened in 1793 after Toulon had surrendered to the British.
A French force, led by Napoleon Bonaparte staged an assault on this fortress, which helped oust the British from the city.
It was a milestone in Napoleon’s career as he was promoted to general directly after.
The fort is still owned by the French navy, but is run by the local council, which has set up a small maritime museum inside.
3. La Pont de la Seyne
In the last decade something really inventive has been done with La Seyn’s emblematic bascule railway bridge in the Toulon Harbour.
This steel structure is 44 metres in length and was constructed in 1917. Since it was decommissioned it has been in a permanent upright position, and during restoration work was turned into a belvedere.
There’s a lift serving the lookout that has a superb perspective of one of the world’s most storied harbours.
On the lower level is a small exhibition centre where you can inspect the century-old mechanisms that used to power the bridge.
4. Plage des Sablettes
On the seaward side of isthmus fixing the Saint-Mandrier Peninsula to the mainland is one of the region’s most treasured beaches.
Plage des Sablettes is a kilometre-long curve of fine white sand bathed by waters that are clear and gentle most days.
From the beach you’ll be able to gaze at the dramatic silhouette of the Cap Sicié, as well as the Deux Frères rocks, which have a local legend rooted in Greek mythology.
There are a couple of watersports companies based next to Plage des Sablettes offering windsurfing, kayaking, scuba diving and light sailing in summer.
And in the evenings you might be able to catch a concert or firework display on the beach.
This waterside community on the way to Les Sablettes was laid out by the architect Michel Pacha at the end of the 19th century.
He developed 70 villas here, along with chalets, two hotels, three casinos, all enriched by gardens.
It was a winter destination where nobility and industrialists, sheltered from the mistral and taking advantage of the unobstructed views of Toulon.
Le Seyne’s tourist office organises a walking tour of the neighbourhood if you’d like to get closer to Pacha’s Orientalist mansions.
One of these, Villa Tamaris, is a modern art centre with temporary exhibitions by regional artists in an extraordinary environment.
6. Parc de la Navale
Just east of the marina, this seafront park sums up La Seyne’s rebirth after its shipbuilding industry collapsed.
With fresh pine groves and swaying palms the park covers five hectares right where the old shipyards used to be.
There’s a big, maritime-themed playground for little ones, and a long water channel crossed by little footbridges.
For couples it’s there isn’t a prettier place for a stroll after a meal, as you can look out over the water to see Toulon, the harbour and Mont Faron in the distance.
7. Église Notre-Dame-du-Bon-Voyage
Dating to 1673, this church was put up to cater to La Seyne’s growing seafaring congregation.
Sailors would pray for safety before departing and then give thanks on their return.
By the end of the 19th century the church was starting to fall apart, and Michel Pacha intervened.
He redesigned the facade, giving it a fashionable Neo-Gothic rose window and a portal crowned with delicate carvings.
The magnificent marble altar was sculpted in Bourg-Saint-Andéol a couple of hours to the north, and donated to the church by the local construction magnate Amable Lagane when her daughter was married in the church in 1892.
8. Forêt de Janas
For those who’d like to stretch their legs, there’s a 391-hectare expanse of woodland on the littoral hills down to Cap Sicié.
You can go on a family outing in aromatic forest with Aleppo pines, holm oaks and eucalyptus trees, and take in the south side of the harbour from this natural balcony.
By car you could simply drive the Corniche Varoise, which hugs the coast high above the water.
There are a few places where you can stop, get out and meditate over humbling views of the Toulon Harbour, Mont Faron and the Mandrier Peninsula.
9. Batterie de Peyras
One of the historic sites to track down in the Forêt de Janas is this gigantic gun installation dating to 1879. It was built at a now forgotten time, when there were worries of a new conflict erupting in the Mediterranean.
Perched above the sea at a height of almost 200 metres it was devised to rain shells down on ships attacking the harbour.
The battery was actually never used for that purpose, and the Germans converted the installation into a flak battery in the Second World War.
Their guns are still there today, together with a lot of the infrastructure like powder magazine, rainwater cistern and the barracks, which are under a layer of reinforced concrete.
10. Téléphérique De Toulon
We’ve mentioned Mont Faron a few times already, and you can catch a cable car to the top from just outside Touon.
From La Seyne it will take 15 minutes or so to get to the lower station.
The cable car was installed in the late-1950s and is remarkable piece of engineering, running for almost half a kilometre and climbing 378 metres.
It takes six minutes to reach the upper station where you’ll emerge to see the whole of Toulon and its mythical harbour spread out below.
To continue the adventure you can access a system of walking trails, while there’s also a small zoo for wild cats about 20 minutes from the upper station.
11. Musée National de la Marine
If you have any questions about Toulon Harbour and its relationship with the French Navy, this is where you can get them answered.
The Navy Museum is an august institution, founded during the rule of Napoleon in 1814. You’ll arrive via the grand monumental gate to Toulon’s former Arsenal, which dates to 1738 and was one of the few historic structures in the harbour still standing after the Allied bombing raids in 1944. The galleries deal with the history of the harbour and the various ships built and moored here, like the imperious Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.
Among the many curiosities are large ship models from the 1700s used to train sailors in seamanship.
12. Cours Lafayette Market
Every morning except Monday two long banks of stalls line this street in the eastern part of Toulon.
There are around 80 stalls, and for anyone holidaying at self-catered accommodation in La Seyne, you owe it to your taste buds to stop by and stock up on fresh fish, fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese, baked goods and all kinds of regional treats from Provence.
And as with all the best markets the selection depends completely on when you visit.
You might also be seduced by the scent of chichi frégi, a long fried donut, and socca (known in Toulon as “cade”), a chickpea flatbread baked in pizza ovens and seasoned with salt and pepper.
13. RC Toulonnais
A 15-minute drive will bring you to the home of one of the best rugby teams in the world.
This isn’t hyperbole either: RC Toulonnais are almost always competing for the big honours in the Top 14 league and regularly go deep in the Heineken Cup, which is the biggest prize in European rugby.
In 2017 the team is scattered with current French and South African international players, most notably the lightning-quick Springboks winger Bryan Habana.
So seasoned rugby fans will want a slice of the action at the Stade Mayol, while newcomers won’t find a better intro to rugby in the Northern Hemisphere.
This endearing old town is ten minutes up the slope from La Seyne.
You’ll get a taste of history perhaps lacking in Toulon, and will work your calves navigating a compact medieval core with steep alleyways under balconies laden with flowers, up stairways and through passages.
Climbing over the top of the town is the decaying tower of a medieval feudal castle, while if you’re really fit you can power your way to the top of Gros Cerveau to look down on the Mediterranean.
The Ollioules Gorge and its caves meanwhile were a hideout for Gaspard de Besse, an 18th-century brigand and folk hero who robbed wealthy stagecoaches and gave to the poor.
15. Other Beaches
Plage des Sablettes is a piece of paradise, but can fill up in July and August.
But if you continue down towards Cap Sicié you’ll come across a few more, all within 20 minutes or so of La Seyne.
There are seven in all, varying in size from the long ribbon of sand at the secluded naturist beach Plage du Jonquet to the little coves of Plage des Vernette and Plage de la Verne.
If you want some solitude you could pick one of the less popular pebble beaches, like Plage des Pins, a pine-edged cove bounded by a creaking old boat ramp on the rocks.