7 of the Most Beautiful Towns on the French Riviera

In the south-east of France, yacht-strewn shores, cliffside towns, and sleepy fishing villages simmer underneath the Mediterranean sun.

CANNES

While this resort city is renowned for the glitz and glamour of the annual Festival de Cannes, hundreds of years of history lie within the city limits. Some suggest that Cannes was named after the canes that once crowded its shores, and that Napoleon camped on its dunes during his return from Elba. In 1834, the city began its transformation from quiet fishing village to resort town after the wealthy Lord Brougham rested in Cannes during a cholera outbreak in Nice. Captivated by the village, he built a luxurious villa and travelled back every winter for 34 years.

Highlights: Stroll the mile-long La Croisette, a coastal stretch of restaurants, hotels, and shops, stop in Le musée de la Castre, visit the Palais des Festivals, and hike the nearby Massif de l'Estérel.
PHOTOGRAPH BY IR_STONE, GETTY IMAGES

MENTON

Situated near the Italian border, Menton’s crescent-shaped bay is said to be the warmest winter resort on the French Riviera. The town is most famous for its thriving citrus trees, which take centre stage every winter during the annual Fête du citron (Lemon Festival). Approximately 140 tonnes of lemons and oranges are affixed to wireframes and fashioned into giant sculptures throughout the city.

Highlights: Attend the annual Fête du citron, visit the scenic Jardins Biovès (Biovès Gardens), and check out the Jean Cocteau Museum, which sits right on the beach.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ROSS HELEN, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

NICE

The seaport city of Nice is the capital of Alpes-Maritimes département, located about 20 miles from the Italian border. Founded by a colony of Greek mariners around 350 B.C.E., the city is thought to be named in honor of a nike, or victory, over a neighbouring colony. Nice's beautiful hills, busy harbour, and majestic ruins inspired famous French artists like Chagall and Matisse, who both lived in the city at one time, and whose works are housed in local museums.

Highlights: Wake up and smell the roses at the Cours Saleya flower market, discover the Roman ruins on Colline du Château (Castle Hill), stroll down the boardwalk at Promenade des Anglais, go shopping at the Galeries Lafayette, and attend the Carnival of Nice.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS HEPBURN, GETTY IMAGES

PEILLON

Nestled among the mountains of the Alpes-Maritimes, the fortified village of Peillon sits on a rocky cliff. The pedestrian village is made of narrow stone streets, steep stairways, medieval houses, and vaulted passageways.

Highlights: View the beautiful wall frescos at Chapelle des Penitents Blancs and the Church of the Transfiguration, built at the highest point in the village.
PHOTOGRAPH BY HEMIS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

VILLEFRANCHE-SUR-MER

Founded in the early 14th century, Villefranche is known for its deep harbour, quaint old town, and impressive roadsteads. For centuries, the former military port served as the only natural harbour in the deep Mediterranean waters. The picturesque town set the scene for films like Ronin, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Never Say Never Again.

Highlights: Stroll the cobblestoned streets of old town, attend the annual Bataille des Fleurs (Battle of Flowers), visit the Citadel St. Elmo, and take in the beautiful scene at the historic Port de la Darse.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CAMILLE MOIRENC, GETTY IMAGES

Antibes

Formerly known as Antipolis, this port town was originally established as a Greek trading post and later fell under the rule of the powerful Grimaldi family between the 14th and early 17th centuries. The Grimaldi château has since been turned into a museum housing works by Pablo Picasso, who stayed there in 1946. An archaeological museum also displays the family collection of locally discovered prehistoric fossils. Tourism is now the town’s primary economy thanks to its beaches, large yacht harbours, and neighbouring science park, Sophia-Antipolis.

Highlights: Lose yourself in the music at the annual Jazz à Juan festival, grab a drink at the Absinthe Museum, and wander through the luxurious gardens at Exflora Park.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SILVIO MASSOLO, ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

VENCE

Between Nice and Antibes, the town of Vence and its medieval walled village is a journey into the past. When D.H. Lawrence was diagnosed with tuberculosis he moved to the south of France, where he wrote Apocalypse, his final work, in 1929 before dying in Vence.

Highlights: Wander old town, visit the Cathedral of the Nativity of Saint Mary, Chapelle des Penitents Blancs on Rue Isnard, Rosaire Chapel conceived by Henri Matisse, and the original entrance gate, Porte du Peyra.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BANANA PANCAKE, GETTY IMAGES

Discuss this article

Newsletter

Never miss a Nat Geo moment

Your email address
Submit