The French Riviera
27 March 2023
The Blue Coast of France
Stretching along the Mediterranean Sea in southern France, the French Riviera - also known as Côte d'Azur - offers a captivating blend of cultural richness and sophistication. Encompassing a geographic size of 7,000km², this lilliputian region is home to 5 million souls who have built lives in bustling cities like Nice and Cannes. But beyond the vibrant cities, what makes the French Riviera so special is its stunning landscapes, tantalising cuisine and fascinating history.
The French Riviera has long been a crossroads of cultures, with a rich history of trade, migration, and cultural exchange. So, while the region’s official language is French, you’ll find that this place is home to vibrant and diverse communities, each with their own unique traditions, languages, and customs. Discover quaint Italian gelato shops by the sea, sample authentic Mediterranean cuisine in the most gorgeous surroundings, or explore local produce in one of the region’s endless markets.
But there is so much more to this region than the incredible food and colourful markets. This is a region of boundless beauty, offering visitors a tantalising array of sights, sounds, and experiences. From the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera's high-end fashion boutiques to the quaint charm of its hilltop villages, this region has a rich cultural heritage that is just waiting to be explored.
What makes the French Riviera, the French Riviera?
1. A rich historical tapestry
The French Riviera may be the land of glamour and sophistication - but above all, it’s a place of rich history. This cultural crossroads has been shaped by centuries of migration, trade, and artistic exchange. From ancient Roman ruins to medieval fortresses and opulent palaces, there is no shortage of historic landmarks to explore in the French Riviera.
In the heart of Nice, the vibrant Place Masséna stands as a testament to the city's rich history. Once home to the Roman city of Cemenelum, today this bustling hub of activity stands to showcase the city’s architectural and cultural heritage. This is a place that has seen everything from the rise of the medieval Kingdom of Savoy to the Napoleonic Wars. As you stroll through the square, prepare to be left speechless by the beautiful Baroque architecture, the impressive fountains, and the famous red ochre buildings that frame the square.
Just a short walk from Place Masséna is the Promenade des Anglais, one of the most famous seaside promenades in the world. Dating back to the 18th century, this is a place steeped in history, where British tourists would once flock to enjoy the French Riviera’s mild climate and stunning scenery. Today, it's a must-visit destination for anyone traveling to the French Riviera, with its palm-lined boulevards, sparkling blue waters, and stunning Belle Époque architecture.
A visit to the French Riviera wouldn't be complete without a stop at the historic Palace of the Princes of Monaco. Built in the 13th century, this awe-inspiring palace has stood on the Rock of Monaco for centuries, serving as the residence of the Grimaldi family since 1297. It is a testament to the region’s rich history. Step inside to be transported back in time, as you marvel at the intricate details and grand façade of the palace's architecture. Watch the guards in their elaborate uniforms march with precision as you take in the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony; explore the Museum of Napoleonic Souvenirs - home to a fascinating collection of items associated with Napoleon Bonaparte, or drink in spectacular views from its vantage point on the Rock of Monaco. Here, you can take in breathtaking panoramic views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Monaco harbour.
2. A diver's paradise
Stretching along the Mediterranean Sea, the French Riviera is renowned for its stunning natural beauty, from its picturesque coastline to its inland landscapes. But the region's beauty doesn't end at the water's edge. Beneath the surface lies a world of wonder waiting to be explored: the underwater world of the French Riviera. With its crystal-clear waters, diverse marine life, and fascinating shipwrecks, the French Riviera offers some of the best diving and snorkelling experiences in the world. Whether you're a seasoned diver or a beginner snorkeler, the French Riviera's paradisiacal underwater world promises to be an unforgettable adventure.
The Lerins Islands, located just off the coast of Cannes, offer some of the most incredible diving and snorkeling experiences in the region. The crystal clear waters surrounding the islands are home to a diverse range of marine life, including colourful fish, octopuses, and even sea turtles. Spend your days exploring the vast underwater caves and grottoes dotted along the coastline of the islands as you swim through hidden passageways and fascinating rock formations. Take in the Sagona shipwreck: a haunting glimpse into the region’s wartime history. Built in 1892, the Sagona was originally used as a cargo ship, before being converted into a passenger ship in the 1920s. In 1944, during World War II, the ship was attacked by a German bomber while carrying Allied troops and supplies. Today, the ship - still largely intact and featuring its propellers, boilers and cargo holds - sits 40 meters below the surface, now home to a variety of marine life from groupers to barracudas and moray eels.
Situated at the base of a towering red rock cliff near the charming town of Saint-Raphaël, the Cap Roux dive site is a true natural wonder. From rocky reefs and underwater cliffs to fields of swaying seagrass and sandy bottoms, the site offers a vast array of different habitats to explore. Among the most spectacular sights here are the steep walls that descend to depths of up to 60 meters, providing a breathtakingly dramatic backdrop to the teeming marine life that inhabits the area.
Fun Fact: The Côte d'Azur is named after its stunning blue coastline, which is often compared to the color of the Mediterranean Sea.
If you’re an experienced diver, perhaps one of the most unforgettable parts of the Cap Roux dive site is the "Grotte du Sarde," or the "Cave of the Sarde," an underwater cave system that is accessible by boat. As you approach the open-topped grotto, be prepared to witness a natural wonder that has been eons in the making. This is a masterpiece of nature; a place where the walls, dappled with sunlight, come alive with colours and textures. Explore every nook and cranny of the grotto as you marvel at the delicate formations of stalactites and stalagmites that have formed over centuries.
Tiny fish dart in and out of the rocks, while crabs scuttle along the sandy bottom, but the most special inhabitant of these grottoes are the spiny lobsters. These fascinating creatures are known for their impressive size and striking appearance, with long antennae, sharp spines, and a distinctive red and orange coloration. They live in the rocky crevices and grottos of the underwater landscape, where they feed on small fish, mollusks, and other crustaceans.
Discover the eerie Rubis submarine wreck, located just off the coast of Saint-Tropez. A French navy submarine that sank in 1958, the Rubis now lies at a depth of around 40 meters. As you descend towards the wreck, the impressive silhouette of the submarine’s metal casing looms closer. The Rubis has made its home on the seabed for over 60 years, offering a unique chance to explore the remains of a real submarine and get a glimpse into its interior spaces - including the remains of the control room, torpedoes, and other equipment. But perhaps even more impressive than this haunting structure, is the way that nature has reclaimed it. Explore man-made metal curves covered in marine life - from schools of fish to colourful coral formations - as you swim through narrow corridors and compartments, taking in the eerie silence of this underwater time capsule.
Fun fact: The French Riviera is home to an underwater sculpture park called the Musée Subaquatique de Cannes - sculptures include a giant head, a man sitting at a desk, and a life-sized car, all covered in marine life.
3. Incredible natural beauty
The French Riviera boasts a stunning Mediterranean coastline that stretches for over 120km, with some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe. Characterised by crystal clear turquoise waters, golden sand, and beautiful rock formations, the French Riviera’s beaches are a favourite for locals and tourists alike, who descend on the region year-round to soak up the sun and enjoy stunning views.
Plage de la Garoupe in Antibes is a true gem on the French Riviera, offering incredible views of the Cap d'Antibes. Set against the lush greenery of the peninsula, the sparkling turquoise waters and fine sand of this secluded beach create a picturesque scene - a peaceful retreat away from the hustle and bustle of the more popular beaches in the area. Whether you’re looking for a place to take a refreshing swim or spend a lazy afternoon lounging on the beach, this beach is the perfect spot to relax.
If you’re looking for something a little more upbeat, Promenade des Anglais beach in Nice is one of the most famous beaches on the French Riviera, and for good reason. The lively beach promenade is home to street performers, artists and musicians who spend their days entertaining the crowds. The vibrant atmosphere is infectious, with locals and tourists mingling together, playing beach volleyball or enjoying a refreshing dip in the sea. The long, wide stretch of pebbly beach is perfect for sunbathing and people watching - just pull up one of the iconic blue chairs that line the promenade to spend an afternoon soaking up the sun and enjoy the lively ambiance of this famous beach.
But the beauty of the French Riviera is not limited to its beaches - they’re just part of what makes up the region’s breathtaking natural beauty. This is a place that is also home to stunning natural parks and reserves, such as the Mercantour National Park. Tucked away in the southeastern region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Mercantour National Park is a stunning natural wonder with soaring peaks, lush green valleys, and pristine Alpine lakes: a paradise for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.
Home to some of the highest peaks in France, the park’s often snow-capped summits offer breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. Waterfalls, rushing streams and serene mountain lakes make the otherwise rugged mountain terrain an incredible hiking destination, and with over 600 kilometres of trails, there are endless opportunities to explore the park's stunning natural beauty. Venture deep into the mountains to discover hidden valleys, high-altitude lakes, and stunning panoramic views, or sit quietly to watch a rich diversity of wildlife in their natural habitat - including rare and endangered species like the Alpine ibex, the chamois, and the golden eagle.
Nestled between the stunning Calanques cliffs and the deep blue sea, the Calanques National Park is a breathtakingly beautiful protected area renowned for its imposing limestone cliffs, hidden coves, and turquoise waters that are perfect for kayaking and swimming. The park covers an area of approximately 20,000 hectares, and includes a diverse range of habitats, from rocky shorelines and scrublands to dense forests and wetlands. Perhaps one of its most striking features, the rugged limestone cliffs of the Calanques National Park rise steeply from the sea to create a dramatic backdrop for the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean. These cliffs are home to a rich array of flora and fauna, including rare species such as the Bonelli's eagle and the Hermann's tortoise.
The charming fishing village of Cassis stands as a gateway to the park - offering a glimpse into the beautiful adventure you’ll be embarking on. Known for its picturesque harbour, Cassis is lined with brightly coloured boats and dotted with waterfront cafes and restaurants. Take a stroll along the quayside and watch the fishermen bringing in their catches, or simply relax with a glass of local wine and enjoy the view before heading in to the national park.
Good to know: The French Riviera is known for its stunning gardens, including the Jardin Exotique in Monaco, which features exotic plants and stunning views of the Mediterranean.
4. The most amazing architecture
This stunning region boasts a rich cultural heritage that has been shaped by centuries of trade, invasions, and artistic innovation. From the Italian city-states to the Greeks, and even the ancient Phoenicians, the French Riviera has been a crossroads of cultures since the dawn of civilisation, and it is the interweaving of these cultures that make up the fabric of the region’s identity. Whether you’re admiring the Roman ruins in Nice or the Belle Époque mansions of Cannes, it’s easy to see just how much the architecture of the French Riviera is a mesmerizing reflection of the region's diverse cultural influences. This is a place whose long and fascinating history is told in each and every brick and cobblestone.
Standing atop ancient Roman ruins in coastal cities like Nice, admiring incredible architecture that has withstood the test of time, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the centuries of cultural influences that have shaped this region into the colourful mosaic that it is today. The influence of the Italian Renaissance is evident in the architecture of many buildings and monuments throughout the region. The elegant arches, ornate facades, and intricate sculptures are a testament to the lasting impact of this period of artistic and cultural innovation. Take in the Palace of the Dukes of Savoy - a grand building that was constructed in the 17th century, boasting stunning architecture that showcases the influence of the Italian Renaissance. With its elegant arches, ornate facades, and intricate sculptures, this palace is a must-visit for anyone interested in the rich cultural heritage of the region.
Take a walk through the ages as you admire the architectural shaping of more modern cultural movements such as the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles of the early 20th century, which can be seen in the stunning buildings and public spaces that line the region's coast. Discover the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat: a magnificent example of this incredible architectural style. Built for the Baroness Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild - a prominent art collector and philanthropist - the villa is an opulent reflection of her love of art and beauty. As you approach the building, admire its beautiful curved lines, organic motifs, stained glass and wrought iron detailing.
Inside, the villa is a feast for the senses, with richly decorated rooms filled with art and antiques from around the world. The grand hall, for example, features a stunning ceiling painted with scenes from classical mythology, while the music room is adorned with delicate frescoes and intricate woodwork.
In contrast to the Art Nouveau style, the villa's gardens are designed in the Art Deco style, with geometric shapes and clean lines. The gardens are divided into different themes, each with their own unique atmosphere and plantings, from the exotic Japanese Garden to the fragrant Rose Garden. This is a building whose every detail has been thought about: adorned with intricate patterns and decorative flourishes, it reflects the natural world and the harmony between man and nature.
Good to know: The Cannes Film Festival, one of the world's most prestigious film festivals, takes place annually on the French Riviera.
5. The vibrant cuisine
The region's cuisine is a delicious reflection of its diverse cultural heritage. The cuisine of the French Riviera, also known as Provençal cuisine, draws on a wide range of flavours, ingredients and cooking techniques from all over. Dishes inspired by the flavours of Italy, Spain and the Middle East pair with local ingredients like fresh seafood and fragrant herbs to create dishes that are both vibrant and delicious.
In fact, one of the key influences on Provençal cuisine is the Italian culinary tradition, which has had a significant impact on the region's cooking since the Middle Ages. Italian dishes like pizza and pasta have been adapted to local ingredients, resulting in unique Provençal variations like pissaladière (a pizza-like dish made with caramelised onions, anchovies, and olives) and gnocchi à la Niçoise (gnocchi served with a tomato-based sauce flavored with basil and garlic).
The cuisine of the Middle East and North Africa has also had a significant influence on Provençal cooking, thanks to the region's long history of trade and cultural exchange with these areas. Dishes like tabbouleh (a salad made with bulgur wheat, parsley, and tomatoes) and couscous (a North African dish made with semolina) have become staples of Provençal cuisine, often flavoured with local herbs like thyme and rosemary.
Perhaps the most iconic aspect of Provençal cuisine, however, is the emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients. The region's abundant produce, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and zucchini, is used in a variety of dishes, often paired with local seafood like anchovies, sardines, and octopus.
And - as with most European regions - no conversation about Provençal cuisine would be complete without mentioning the region's wine. The French Riviera is home to several world-renowned vineyards, producing a range of wines from crisp whites to full-bodied reds. The region's rosé wines, in particular, are celebrated for their light, fruity flavour and beautiful pink hue.
Provençal cuisine is a beautiful reflection of the French Riviera's diverse cultural influences, combining fresh, seasonal ingredients with techniques and flavours from around the world. So whether you're savouring a fresh seafood dish by the water's edge or enjoying a glass of local wine at a cozy bistro, you're sure to be captivated by the rich and delicious culinary traditions of the French Riviera.
Good to know
Toplessness is perfectly acceptable on the beaches and the locals aren’t shy - however, don’t walk around the city in skimpy beachwear or bare-chested. Away from the shore, dress as you would in any non-coastal city.
It might be tempting to pop a couple of Nice’s signature round galets pebbles into your beach bag to take back home, but don’t! Each year, some 15,000 cubic meters of gloriously smooth pebbles from the nearby River Paillon are poured onto the beaches along Promenade des Anglais to slow down natural (and human-assisted) erosion. Play your part in preserving Nice’s legendary pebble beach – or risk a €38 (US$40) fine.
Dress up rather than down! This is France's glam coast, so bring some posher outfits and dress up for nicer mid-range restaurants, clubs and bars – no jeans and sneakers (though black or 'smarter' jeans are usually acceptable).
Dress modestly when visiting churches - make sure to bring a scarf or two to cover bare shoulders and exposed thighs.
Bring your own bag or basket to the market - there are so many incredible markets in Nice, but you’ll need your own bag or basket to carry everything home!
Avoid restaurants touting a ‘menu touristique’ – follow locals instead to authentic eateries, with menus only in French and kitchens fuelled by seasonal produce sourced from regional farmers and artisan producers.
Tap water is safe to drink in Nice, and ordering une carafe d’eau (a jug of tap water) rather than bottled water in restaurants saves euros and reduces plastic consumption. Be sure to also bring your own water bottle to fill up while walking around town, as there are free drinking fountains in both terminals at Nice-Côte d’Azur Airport and in various spots around town.
Beware of pickpockets in tourist-crowded areas such as Vieux Nice’s Cours Saleya markets, and on trams and buses into town from the airport. Don’t leave personal belongings unattended on the beach – your valuables are safer left back at your hotel.
If you notice a lack of people jumping into the shallows or swimming further out to sea, it's usually for a good reason. Mauve stinger jellyfish (Pelagia noctiluca) plague the Med at certain times of year, particularly in August. Ask around before entering the sea, and take the lead of locals – if they’re steering clear of the water, do the same.
A treasure trove of beauty
The French Riviera is a treasure trove of stunning natural beauty, rich history, mouthwatering cuisine, and awe-inspiring architecture. From the vibrant streets of Nice to the glamorous yachts of Monaco, there's something for everyone to enjoy. It's a destination that truly offers it all, and you'll leave feeling refreshed, inspired, and in love with the charm of the Mediterranean coast.