Growing up, we’d spend a lot of time in France. Every few months, we would head across the Channel, spending a weekend walking the country’s shorelines and eating Moules marinièr. For many years, France felt like our second home.
Except this second home was the industrial wasteland of Calais.
We were the children of generation ‘booze cruise’: woken up at 5am to take a bleary-eyed ferry to northern France. Here, alongside several hundred other Brits, we would enter the magnificent ‘Carrefour’ supermarket; frantically buying cheap ‘Milka’ chocolate, whilst my parents took advantage of the knock-down alcohol prices. Eight hours later and after a brisk walk along Calais’ cement coastline, we’d head home, boarding the ferry with a car full of baguettes, boxes of vin and Haribo.
Thankfully, as we’ve got older – and with the realisation that France has more to offer than warehouse-sized supermarkets – we’ve been able to explore more of this beautiful country. From rural Normandy to snowy Chamonix; sophisticated Paris to Michelen-starred Bordeaux, France is a destination that can cater to most tastes.
However, perhaps its most beautiful part (and well-known) is its sparkling southern coastline. The South of France, complete with its own Riviera, is a dazzling mixture of turquoise waters; yacht-dotted coastlines; winding hills and picture-perfect medieval villages. Despite its eye-watering prices, this special part of Europe is one that should be visited, even just for a day trip.
As summer fast approaches, we have therefore put together a guide to visiting the South of France, including both the glitzy towns such as Cannes and St Tropez, and the beautifully rustic towns that are hidden throughout this region’s pine forests. We’ve also compiled a list of possible places to stay, including some self-catering accommodation offered by our friends at Top Villas.
A Guide to the South of France
Nearest airport: Nice
Car hire highly recommended if exploring the region
The South of France is a relatively small piece of coastline that starts at Marseille and ends at the Italian border. A strip of sparkling sea and towering palm trees, this region was a popular nineteenth century playground for wealthy British and Russians, looking for good weather and good wine. And two centuries later? Well, not a lot has changed. Yet affluent tourists aside, there is plenty to explore in this beautiful area.
The Côte d’Azur (French Riviera)
For anyone flying into the South of France, Nice is the city you’ll most likely meet first. When we first arrived at this gateway to the Riviera, we were initially a little disappointed. After eventually finding somewhere to park (a dark and impossibly narrow underground car park), we immediately found ourselves on the Promenade des Anglais (‘the Walkway of the English’), which stretches along Nice’s beach front. Predictably, this seemed to largely consist of a lot of burnt English people and little else.
Moving away from the Promenade, we decided to try a bit harder and eventually reached Nice’s old town (also known as Vieux Nice), which is beautiful. With pastel coloured buildings; pink wooden shutters; swaying palm trees; a sense of bygone glamour and plentiful cafes; this part of town offers a rabbit-warren of streets and squares to explore. Spend some time here simply wandering the streets or sitting in one of the many cafes, experiencing a part of town that has changed little since the 1700s. We would definitely recommend visiting the Place Rosesetti, which is in the centre of the old town, and Place Garibaldi: both perfect for people watching. Alternatively, if you fancy a little shopping, then do try and visit the Cours Saleya: Nice’s thriving flower and food market (on a Monday, this operates as an equally lively flea market).
Top Villas (self-catering)
Think Cannes: think celebrities and yachts. For many, this harbourside town is only equated with the glitzy film festival that graces its shores each summer. Curious as to whether this star-studded location would offer any more than just red carpets, we visited Cannes for a short day trip. What is immediately apparent is that Cannes is very much geared towards the glitz and glamour: designer shops, a harbour crowded with mega-yachts and the shining Palais des Festivals (where the film festival is held), tend to dominate this town.
However, do persevere. Wander a little more inwards into the town and you’ll find dusty book markets and the old quarter, Le Suquet. Above these lie winding streets and a pretty church, from where you can enjoy spectacular views across the Bay of Cannes.
Tiara Yaktsa Hotel
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Cannes, this is the place. A Moroccan inspired hotel, with views out over the sea, this hotel is truly heavenly. Find out more at Mr and Mrs Smith.
St Tropez will forever be equated with the unshakable 1950s glamour that came to epitomise this otherwise quiet fishing village. Since then, the town has become a firm favourite of the great and the good, even spawning its own brand of fake tan (because let’s face it, this is as near to St Tropez as most of us will get). With a summer stampede of visitors reaching nearing 60,000 a day, we would suggest avoiding visiting here during peak season. Instead, visit in late autumn when you’ll have the cobbled streets and the quieter quarters, such as La Ponche, to yourself.
Top Villas (self-catering)
If St Tropez is the millionaire of the French Riveria, Monaco is its billionaire cousin. Again, we were not sure what to expect from this horseshoe shaped tax-haven, but were intrigued enough to visit. The drive into Monaco is impressive enough to warrant a trip. Driving upwards, through hills and trees, it is hard to imagine when Monaco might appear. However, appear it does, suddenly and below you; falling away from the steep hills until it reaches the glittering blue sea below. Unless you are incredibly rich (which we are not), then Monaco is perhaps like visiting an adult Disney Land: you’ll spend most of your time gawping at super cars, yachts larger than your own home and row upon row of couture shops.
The glamorous resorts of the South of France, whilst luxurious, are not for everyone. After walking around much of them like penniless paupers, we were keen to explore a different side to this region: one where yachts called ‘Mr Millionaire’ did not feature. Thankfully, the South of France offers an almost unlimited amount of pretty, secluded villages to explore; far removed from the crowds of the costly coastal resorts.
Mougins will long be one of our favourite towns in the South of France. Sitting high above Cannes, in a forest of pine, olive and Cyprus trees, this small town has boasted notable residents, including Pablo Picasso. Yet despite its famous inhabitants, Mougins hasn’t let this go to its head: remaining a beautiful mixture of cobbled streets and medieval squares. Now a culinary centre, there are plenty of incredible places to eat here, including ‘La Place de Mougins’, a small restaurant tucked away in the old village.
Suggested stay: Les Rosées
Les Rosées is one of our favourite hotels in the world. This special boutique inhabits a 400 year house, now divided into 5 beautiful suites. Our favourite part of our stay was helping to pick the fresh fruit and vegetables from the extensive gardens, for our dinner later that evening.
You can find out more about our stay at Les Rosées here.
No visit to the South of France would be complete without a stop at the most famous perfume capital in the world: Grasse. We visited here for the day in order to pay a visit to the famous perfumery: Fragonard. This is one of the oldest perfume factories in Grasse and is well worth a visit. We came away clutching delicious smelling gold bottles and a better understanding of the intricacies of perfumery.
Top villas (self-catering)
This villa, nestled close to Grasse and many other medieval villages, including Opio, Valbonne and Biot, offers you unlimited options regarding pretty towns to explore and most importantly, where to eat. Find out more here about this spacious villa and others in the area.
Èze is a medieval village that sits snugly between Nice and Monaco, peering precariously over the shoreline beneath it. Known as the jewel in the crown of the Rivieria, Èze is a perfect blend of steep medieval streets, spectacular views and hidden galleries. During the summer, this little village gets incredibly overcrowded. However, we visited during early evening, walking at dusk to the cactus garden that sits atop this village, taking in the pink and blue hues of the Mediterranean sea below us. This maze-like village is a truly special place and one we would visit again in an instant.
View Èze hotels here.
We were fortunate enough to stay at this beautiful hotel when we visited Eze a couple of years ago. This famous hotel offers views out over the sparkling blue sea and perfectly manicured gardens, complete with a giant chess set and statues of every animal imaginable. You can read a review of Château de La Chèvre d’Or here.
Saint-Paul-de-Vence is a medieval town set atop a rocky cliff, with spectacular views of the forests surrounding it. Apparently it was a popular place for French actors to waft around during the 1960s and today there are still many artists’ galleries present. With paintings and sculptures at every turn, this clifftop town has a palpable creative feel.
Top Villas (self-catering option)
This villa is located perfectly for exploring Saint-Paul-de-Vence, located less then a half an hour’s drive away. Located next to the town of Vence, it is the perfect spot to explore the surrounding area as well as the charming town, brimming full of art galleries and craft shops.
The South of France, whilst debt inducing, really is an area that deserves exploring. Alongside the glitz and glamour of the infamous resorts of St Tropez, Cannes and Nice, the area is bursting with romantic medieval towns, sleepy town squares and heart-achingly beautiful panoramas over the Mediterranean. It is much more than simply a millionaire’s playground and offers a far richer experience than simply crowded beaches and jostling yachts. In short, it is beautiful.
We hope you can visit!
Interested in a cruise around the South of France instead? Take a read of our blog post on Wine Tasting with Princess Cruises.
This is a sponsored post in collaboration with Top Villas.