15 Best Things to Do in Côte d’Azur (France)

On the French Riviera you’ll tread a path beaten by some of  the 20th-century’s most illustrious movie stars and painters.

There’s a glamour about the region that no destination in the world can equal.

You’ll glimpse this on the promenades in Cannes and Nice, or at the Place du Casino in Monaco.

Some of the plush villas built for mega-rich holidaymakers at the start of the 20th century now also open their doors to the public.

There’s a subtler beauty to the Côte d’Azur at stylish seaside resorts like Villefranche-sur-Mer, or perched medieval villages above the coast, adored by 19th and 20th-century artists for their ethereal light.

Lets explore the best things to do in the Côte d’Azur:

1.  Sights in Nice

Place Masséna

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Place Masséna

There’s a fee things that you can’t leave Nice without doing: A wander through the ravine-like alleys of the old town is top of the list, and while you’re there you have to potter around the colourful stalls of the daily fruit and flower market at Cours Salaya at the foot of the hill.

And naturally, if you want to sample an atmosphere that has beguiled tourists since the 1700s, Place Masséna and the legendary Promenade des Anglais need to be on your itinerary.

Then, for unbeatable photo opportunities get up to the Parc de la Colline du Château, between the port and the old town.

You can take the steps or an elevator to look over the harbour,  beach or old town and know you’ve arrived on the Côte d’Azur.

2. Monaco

Place du Casino

This ultra-wealthy principality in France’s far south-eastern corner is tiny, but Monaco’s cultural impact is impossible to measure.

Scenes like the Place du Casino, the geometric mosaic of sandy apartment blocks from the Marina and the Palais des Princes are familiar to all.

They conjure memories of the Jet Set, Princess Grace and decades of the mythic Grand Prix.

Another personality forever associated with Monaco is the maritime explorer Jacques Cousteau, director of the cliff-side Oceanographic Museum for more than thirty years up to 1987.

3. Èze

Notre Dame de l’Assomption

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Notre Dame de l’Assomption

Almost 500 metres above the sea, but only a short way in from the coast, the scenery from this village is extraordinary.

The pale ochre tower of the Notre Dame de l’Assomption is like a beacon, visible from coastal roads for miles.

Èze almost defies logic, with stone steep alleys that twist through tunnels and up steep stairways.

As you go you’ll be hit by incredible views of the little bay hundreds of metres below and the azure Mediterranean.

The Jardin Exotique has cactus arrangements chiselled into the slope, with panoramas that will make your head swim.

4. La Croisette, Cannes

Vieux Port

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Vieux Port

Cannes has a grace and sophistication that even the hordes of tourists can’t diminish.

And La Croisette also happens to be one of the loveliest urban beaches on the Côte d’Azur, a long ribbon of golden sand with moderate waves.

The public part towards the port gets very busy in summer, but many are happy just to wander along the promenade, between the Mediterranean and the long row of fashion emporia next to the foreshore.

Keep going to the  Vieux Port to gasp at the luxury yachts and stop at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, where the stars come for the Cannes Film Festival every May.

5. Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild

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Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild

Set high on the isthmus near the top of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is one of the Côte d’Azur’s most storied mansions.

It was built at the start of the 20th century for Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, of the Rothschild and Ephrussi banking familes.

The villa looks out over the Mediterranean from three sides, contains a tremendous assortment of valuable art and decorative items, and, best of all, has an ensemble of nine gardens listed as one of France’s “Jardins Remarquables”. Each one has a different theme, from the Japanese garden with its pavilion, to the rose garden, awash with pink flowers in the summer.

The interior is as palatial as you’d imagine, flaunting the owner’s taste for the 18th century: Even the carpets in the Grand Salon were commissioned by Louis XIV and Louis XV.

6. Le Suquet, Cannes

Le Suquet

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Le Suquet

The city’s old quarter is a break from the glitz of La Croisette, and is set on steep slope with streets so tight that you have even have to shuffle sideways at times.

Rue Saint-Antoine is a good place to start, where almost every building is grounded by a restaurant.

Originally this part of Cannes was a fishing community set within the walls of the castle.

You can get up to this landmark, which now hosts a museum with an eclectic collection of primitive art from around the world, ancient artefacts from the Mediterranean and a large assortment of musical instruments.

The 16th-century church next door is a delight, but the best reason to make the climb is to sit and regard the port and Croisette far below.

7. Saint-Paul-de-Vence

Saint-Paul-de-Vence

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Saint-Paul-de-Vence

Like many of the older settlements on the French Riviera, Saint-Paul-de-Vence rests safely on rocky spur a couple of kilometres in from the sea.

It’s medieval village, and it takes conservation seriously, banning vehicles belonging to non-residents, who have to park and walk in.

Slip on some comfy shoes, stroll the streets full of art galleries and artisan boutiques, and survey the two pine cloaked valleys from the ramparts.

Several cultural giants from the 20th century lived here, like the writer James Baldwin, the actor Donald Pleasance and Marc Chagall, who was one of many painters to call Saint-Paul-de-Vence “home” for a time.

8. Sentier du Littoral, Cap d’Antibes

Sentier du Littoral

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Sentier du Littoral

Meandering for five kilometres along the edge of the Cap d’Antibes, the  Sentier du Littoral is held as one of the world’s great coastal footpaths.

The entire length is paved and accessible, and all along the seascapes are like something out of a dream.

You’ll pause every few strides to look over the glistening waters of the Baie de la Garoupe, out to the Lérins Islands or back towards the Alps, just visible in the far distance.

In places the path is so exposed that you’ll be blasted by the wind and the waves will smash against the rocks, while in others it’s impossible to resist stepping down to the shallow waters to dip your feet in the sea.

9. Musée Marc Chagall, Nice

Musée Marc Chagall

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Musée Marc Chagall

Of the many painters who fell in love with the matchless light and colours in the South of France, Marc Chagall is among the most important.

He spent decades on the French Riviera and this incredible museum with exquisite gardens was set up under his supervision.

It holds more than 400 paintings, pastels, gouaches and drawings by Chagall, but the most spectacular works, and the reason the museum was created, are the 17 paintings depicting Old and New Testament stories.

These are displayed in two galleries, one for each testament.

Résistance, Résurrection, Libération here is a triptych, with each panel completed in a different decade before and after the Second World War.

10. Lérins Islands

Île Sainte-Marguerite

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Île Sainte-Marguerite

If you’re overwhelmed by the throngs in Cannes, this tranquil archipelago is just a short ferrry trip away.

The main destination will be Île Sainte-Marguerite, with aromatic pine forest criss-crossed by a web of walking trails.

See the Royal Fort, which was a prison in the 17th century and held the Man in the Iron Mask until his death in 1703. There’s a maritime museum here with an exciting set of artefacts recovered from the litany of shipwrecks in the seas around these straits.

Bring a picnic and your swimwear and you can spend the rest of the day lounging in the sun and bathing in the coves on the southeast side of the island.

11. Villefranche-sur-Mer

Villefranche-sur-Mer

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Villefranche-sur-Mer

Between Nice and Monaco is one of the prettiest of the smaller resorts on the Côte d’Azur.

It’s in a long recess in the coast between Cap de Nice and Cap-Ferrat, granting the beach crystalline waters and providing some of the best snorkelling conditions in the region.

The harbour is extremely chic and sophisticated with houses in ochre tones in front of shiny yachts and motorboats.

The quayside is one long line of restaurants, and as you dine nobody will blame you if you’re distracted by the yachts, the rugged hillside and the shimmering waters.

12. Massif de l’Esterel

Massif de l'Esterel

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Massif de l’Esterel

The landscapes around the city of Fréjus are made up of strange peaks with a strange red hue, which almost makes them seem intimidating.

This rock is volcanic porphyry, and at sunset it has an almost supernatural glow.

You can see much of this scenery without ever having to leave your car, but if you buy a map from the tourist office at Agay Plage there’s a network of trails to ramble.

These can be pretty steep, climbing a few hundred metres in just a short distance, and you need a head for heights.

But the panoramas, such as those at Cap Roux, will make you forget your labours.

These treks are best attempted in early summer, while later in the season many prefer the circuitous D559 in the car with the benefit of air-conditioning.

13. Port Grimaud

Port Grimaud

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Port Grimaud

This district on the water in the town of Grimaud may look historic, but was actually laid out in 1966 by the architect and urban planner François Spoerry.

The buildings are in the neo-renaissance style and sit on little fingers of land next to water channels.

With its ornate bridges and arcade palazzi Port Grimaud isreminiscent of Venice, and you can spend several hours either ambling along the 12 kilometres of quays or discovering Port Grimaud from the water.

What will strike you is the sense of peace, which is also what attracts the celebrities and tycoons wealthy enough to afford a home here.

14. Villa Kérylos, Beaulieu-sur-Mer

Villa Kérylos

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Villa Kérylos

Part of a set of exquisite mansions around Cap-Ferrat is this Greek-style villa built for the archaeologist and statesman Theodore Reinach, whose wife Fanny Kann belonged to the wealthy Ephrussi dynasty.

It was designed with the help of the historian Emmanuel Pontremoli, who was inspired by the 2nd-century villas for the Greek nobility on the Island of Delos.

Villa Kérylos meshes a close approximation of ancient architecture with Belle Époque luxury and flair.

The mosaics, columns , frescoes, windows and furniture are wonderful, as is the sight of the Mediterranean from the terrace in the gardens.

15. Traditional Dishes.

Bouillabaisse

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Bouillabaisse

Many world-renowned French classics were conceived in this small corner of the country: Bouillabaisse, the seafood stew, is from Marseille, on the western edge of the region.

Recipes can vary from restaurant to restaurant, but it will always contain a blend of fish and seafood including scorpionfish, conger, sea robin, mussels and crabs.

In the summer the world-famous salad niçoise hits the spot, with egg, tuna, potatoes and green beans.

Then on cooler winter days you can opt for ratatouille, the satisfying vegetable stew with tomatoes, courgette, aubergine and peppers.

And of course, one of the typical sights in Nice is of vendors cooking and serving socca, a crispy pancake made with chickpea flour.

Where to stay: Best Hotels in Cote d'Azur, France
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15 Best Things to Do in Côte d’Azur (France):

Sentier du Littoral