The French Riviera is synonymous with glitzy movie stars, suave gentlemen, sophisticated women, and the shimmering blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. And while it offers all the sunshine and glamour the postcards promise, the Cote d’Azur gives you so much more than surface-level beauty — including two unique ways to experience this glorious strip of coastline.
Skip from beach to beach and village to village along the pebbly (or sometimes sandy) shores from sea level (sur-Mer); or, explore ancient villages just a thigh-pumping hill climb away, perched (perché) atop craggy cliffs that give you jaw-dropping glimpses of the coastline below. Either way, you’ll see — in no time flat — why this region has captivated tourists and native villagers for generations.
Exploring villages “sur-Mer”
Nice is a natural home base for discovering the beaches and towns that dot the Mediterranean. With its charming old town (Vieux Nice), fashionable boutiques, fabulous markets, and 7km (4 mi) of beach, Nice has everything you’d want in a coastal town — times a thousand. Home to the Matisse and Chagall museums, restaurants that spill out into the streets and all the luxury brands you could ask for, Nice is still a fishing village at heart, which balances old world charm with new world swagger.
Just a few kilometres to the east (a wonderful walk if you’re up for it), sits the town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, a charming fishing village that happens to sit smack in the middle of a couple of Riviera powerhouses. Reputed as having one of the five most beautiful bays in the world, Villefranche doesn’t have to try too hard to be simply amazing and seems comfortable playing its role of understated neighbour to the stars.
Travel a bit farther east and you’ll reach Saint Jean-Cap-Ferrat, which sits alluringly on a peninsula that juts out into the sea. It’s home to a beautiful protected bay, stunning beaches, and upscale cafés. And just a pleasant stroll away, Beaulieur-sur-Mer (which literally means “beautiful place by the sea”) features what’s known as the most idyllic climate on the Riviera, given its sheltered location from northerly winds. Beaulieu-sur-Mer also offers both local and luxury shopping, bustling bakeries, wonderful restaurants, and delightful cafés.
Head farther east still and you’ll encounter the ever-so-glamorous city-state of Monaco — home to movie stars, high rollers, and a legion of super yachts (yes, that’s a thing). While it’s hedonistic, excessive, and utterly self-indulgent, it’s a can’t-miss stop on any trip along the French coast, if only for the people watching and harbour gazing alone. Take a stroll through its maze of streets and get a glimpse of another world.
Exploring “villages perchés”
From a home base of Nice, Monaco, or any of the villages in between, you can leave the beach behind for a completely different take on the French Riviera.
A stunning collection of hilltop villages are perched like nests on top of hills and cliffs — mere kilometres from the coast as the crow flies, but a twisty drive up narrow roads that can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to reach from your starting point along the seashore. These villages are known as the “villages perches,” and (in varying degrees) have retained their medieval charm since as far back as the 12th century.
Eze, which sits between Nice and Monaco and at an altitude of 427m (1,400 ft) above sea level, is a popular village that dates back to the 1300s. Stony streets, windy hills, broken staircases, and ancient buildings open up to occasional and unexpected stunning views of the sea below. While authenticity has admittedly given way to tourism when it comes to shops and cafés, the medieval architecture and ancient mystery of the place is undeniable, making it a worthwhile stop on any visit to the region.
The farther up you’re willing to go, the fewer tourists you’ll find — and the more stunning the views you’ll be rewarded with. Tiny villages such as Peillon and Gourdon are perched precariously atop cliffs about 500m (1,640 ft) high, and feature steep windy streets lined with medieval houses and vaulted passageways. Sainte Agnes, at an altitude of almost 800m (2,624 ft) above sea level, is claimed to be the highest coastal village in Europe. Its tricky access means the village gets fewer visitors. Needless to say, it’s worth wandering off the beaten path to take in the old village architecture and spectacular sea views.
The range of landscapes and experiences you can encounter on the French Riviera means you’ll need to come prepared: bathing suit, camera, and comfy walking shoes top the must-pack list. And if you really want to fit in, maybe some chic evening wear to experience a night out in some of the swankiest towns in the world. Whatever you’re in the mood for, the Cote d’Azur promises to indulge your senses, from whichever view suits you best.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in France encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.