The French Riviera: Beyond the Beaches

Villefranche-sur-Mer: Riviera for romantics
By Rick Steves and Steve Smith

"French Riviera" often conjures up images of its glamorous (and packed) cities — Monaco, Cannes, and Nice. But for some of the Riviera's best scenery and an escape from the touristic crush, follow the coast road between Cannes and Monaco. While it is easy to travel the coast by public transportation, a rental car gets you quicker to inviting hill towns, colorful markets, and tucked-away museums.

Halfway between Nice and Cannes, Antibes offers silky sandy beaches, an enjoyable old town, good hiking, and a great Picasso collection. The town's glamorous port glistens below its fortifications, with luxurious yachts and brightly painted fishing boats. In the 1500s, Antibes' Fort Carré, which now dominates the port, was the last French stronghold before the Italian border. Today, its festive Old City is charming in a sandy-sophisticated way, and its daily market, spread beneath a 19th-century canopy, brings out the locals. Antibes sits atop the ruins of the fourth-century B.C. Greek city of Antipolis. The Museum of History and Archaeology, featuring Greek, Roman, and Etruscan odds and ends, is the best place to get a sense of this town's ancient roots — even without English explanations. I liked the 2,000-year-old lead anchors.

Sitting serenely where the Old City meets the sea, Antibes' Picasso Museum offers a remarkable collection of the master's work — paintings, sketches, and ceramics. Picasso, who lived and worked here in 1946, said if you wanted to see work from his Antibes period, you'd have to do it in lovely Antibes. Several photos of the artist make this already-intimate museum more so.

For a lazy afternoon in the sun, stretch out on Antibes' golden sandy beaches — the best lie between the port and Cap d'Antibes. Antibes is also the launching point for several scenic hikes along the rocky coast.

Villefranche-sur-Mer, between Nice and Monaco, is a romantic's top Riviera choice. Come here for upscale, small-town Mediterranean atmosphere. Narrow cobbled streets tumble into a mellow waterfront, a scenic walkway below the castle leads to the hidden port, and fancy yachts bob in the harbor below. Pebbly beaches and a handful of interesting sights keep visitors just busy enough.

See the stunning interior of the Chapel of St. Pierre, Villefranche's cultural highlight. Relax on the harbor cruise. At the park, enjoy a lively game of boules (like a grown-up version of marbles). In the evening, your biggest decisions are between a beachfront dinner or an ice cream-licking village stroll. Fit in both.

Along with Antibes and Villefranche, here are some of my other favorite French Riviera towns:

The hill towns of St. Paul and Vence offer a break from the beaches. An easy 45-minute bus ride inland from Nice, St. Paul is part cozy hill town and part local-artist shopping mall. It's appealingly artsy but gets swamped with tour buses. Meander into St. Paul's quieter streets and wander far to enjoy the panoramic views. Or consider a steep 15-minute walk uphill to the prestigious (and high-priced) Fondation Maeght gallery, with its world-class contemporary-art collection and pleasant gardens.

Just a 10-minute bus ride from St. Paul, the enjoyable hill town of Vence bubbles with work-a-day and tourist activity. (No boutique shortage here.) Once a haunt of D. H. Lawrence, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall, the town has a buzzing daily market and small cathedral with a fine Chagall mosaic. Matisse fans make the necessary pilgrimage here to see the much-raved-about Chapelle du Rosaire for its stained glass and brooding tile sketches.

Eze Village, floating high above the sea, is a spectacular medieval town mixing perfume outlets, fancy boutiques, outrageously priced hotels, steeply cobbled lanes, and jaw-numbing views. A 15-minute bus ride east of Villefranche, Eze Village makes a handy stop between Nice and Monaco. Drop in on the Fragonard or Gallimard perfume outlets to watch the production process and shop the fragrant collections. Nearby hills provide ideal picnic perches. On a clear day you can see Corsica.

Steve Smith is the co-author of Rick Steves' Provence & the French Riviera.