When planning a trip to France, no doubt Paris is the first city that comes to mind. In fact, during our first two visits to that lovely country, we spent most of our time in the French capital. While we love Paris for its world-renowned sites, food, and wine, on our last visit, we toured some of the most beautiful towns in the South of France, aka Côte d’Azur.
After getting our car with Vehicle Rent, we drove from West to East on the French Riviera. Our one-week road trip started in Montpellier and finished in Monaco. Sometimes we made a detour to visit places far from the water. Although we stayed overnight in Marseille and Nice, and saw bigger cities like Montpellier and Toulon, the highlight of our journey was the tiny, beautiful towns on the French Riviera. Some of them had their land sizes inversely proportional to their charm. As we traveled, we took in all the beauty, romance, and history of each site we visited.
The drive itself was another attraction. We certainly faced some challenges when it came to driving on narrow, ancient streets, but they were all worth it. At each turn, from the countryside to the coast, we traveled from medieval villages to affluent small towns, with houses built on the hills in classic Mediterranean style. We saw beautiful beaches, purple rows of lavender, Roman heritage monuments, magnificent architecture, and more.
Planning a road trip to visit beautiful towns on the French Riviera? Look no further. This guide will lead you to the most beautiful towns you could ever imagine.
Nine beautiful towns in the South of France
Montpellier (216 miles from Barcelona) was where we started. It was in the 13th century that Montpelier was an important trading center between the Mediterranean, Spain, and North of Europe. A stroll through the city took us from medieval streets to modern architectural feats.
What we saw in Montpellier:
The Place de la Comédie
It is Montpellier’s symbolic heart. Place de la Comédie is the perfect place to start exploring Montpellier since it is adjacent to the historic city center. Once known as the Place de l’Oeuf (Egg Square) because of its oval shape, it now has a lively ambiance due to the number of restaurants and shops found in the area. Enhanced by the 19th-century Opéra Comédie building and the Greek-mythology inspired Three Graces Fountain in the center, Place de la Comédie is a spot not to be missed.
Promenade du Peyrou and Château d’Eau
At the highest point in Montpellier, this square accommodates a monumental statue of Louis XIV, who ruled 1643–1715 and made Montpellier the administrative capital of the Languedoc region. Standing on the edge of Promenade du Peyrou, we had a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside (including Saint-Clement Aqueduct) since no buildings border the square. The 18th-century Château d’Eau is an enormous water tower fed by the eight-mile-long Aqueduct.
Montpellier’s Cathédrale St-Pierre
Situated in the heart of the city, Cathédrale St-Pierre was built as a church in 1364 and became a cathedral in 1536 when the seat of the bishop was transferred from Maguelone to Montpellier. Besides its massive silhouette, the most eye-catching feature was the imposing portal with its twin pillars that give the effect of a medieval fortress.
Montpellier‘s Triumphal Arch
Also known as Porte du Peyrou, Montpellier’s Triumphal Arch is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Situated at the eastern end of the Jardins du Peyrou, it honors the glory of King Louis XIV.
Fifty miles from Montpellier, we could not exclude Arles from our itinerary. This picturesque city is a great destination for history and art lovers. It was already an important spot from when the Ligurian tribes lived on those lands about 800 BC., Arles became a leading city when the Romans took the town in 123 BC. In fact, the Roman ruins are one of Arles’ big attractions. Much later, the Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh lived there (1888-1889), and produced over 300 paintings and drawings during this time.
What we did in Arles:
Saw the Amphitheatre
This wonderfully preserved arena was built by the Romans in 90 AD to hold 20,000 people who came to watch gladiators and chariot races. Today, the space is an important venue for festivals, plays, and bullfights. Arles Amphitheatre, modeled on Rome’s Coliseum, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Strolled through the ancient streets
Arles is small enough to explore on foot. More than 2000 years old, its history moves from a Greek trading post to a Roman colony, which gave the city a long and extraordinary architectural heritage. For a couple of hours, we strolled on the narrow streets of the old town and along the Rhône River. We observed the ancient architecture and looked for a few sites which Vincent van Gogh recreated on his canvas. If you desire to retrace the steps of the artist in town, I would recommend the Van Gogh Walking Tour.
Visited Espace Van Gogh
Although Van Gogh spent only a year in Arles, it was one of the most important places for his career. Despite his artistic genius, the Dutch painter was a victim of mental illness. After suffering from a mental episode in which he cut off part of his ear, he was admitted to a hospital. The Espace Van Gogh is the former hospital where the Post-Impressionist received medical care. Nowadays, the building houses the town’s archives, a media library, a school of literary translation, and bookshops. Entrance is free, and the courtyard is definitely worth a visit.
Strolled at the Place du Forum
In the Roman days, this location would have been the center of all political and social events – the Roman Forum. Now, the bright yellow cafe illustrated in one of Van Gogh’s paintings attracts most of the visitors. Although the site looks cluttered with umbrellas and coverings hiding details of the walls, it was still thrilling to stand outside the Café du Forum, where the Dutch artist painted Café Terrace at Night.
Located a bit off-the-beaten-path from the Mediterranean coastline (57 miles northeast of Arles), Gordes is one of the loveliest villages we saw in the south of France. We’re glad we included it in our itinerary, and so will you.
When we arrived in Gordes, the view from the road was breathtaking. Having a valley between us, we had a stunning view of the sandy-yellow village built on a neighboring hill with houses and buildings smoothly rooted in the cliffside. It radiated beauty!
Surprisingly, we didn’t have a list of things to explore in Gordes, but it worked well. Gordes is a place to wander. In a couple of hours, we strolled up and down the narrow cobblestone alleyways framed by stone houses. At each turn, we faced postcard-quality scenery. Sometimes we found dead ends, while at other times, we were rewarded with expansive views of the valley and the Luberon mountains.
Gordes, like many other beautiful towns in the South of France, has a rich history. Occupied by the Romans, the village exhibits evidence of their occupation, including the Roman road passing through the valley below. The village has endured numerous invasions, religious wars, the plague, two earthquakes, and a bombing at the end of World War II for being an active resistance center.
The lavender fields
We were three happy campers in Aix-en-Provence. Where can I start? First of all, we were stunned by the beauty of the lavender fields laid out like a painting along the way between Gordes and this superb town! Taking small detours, we chased the lavender fields of Provence from Luberon to Verdon, then headed south to Aix-en-Provence. The drive was simply gorgeous!
Note: This trip took place in mid-June when the blooming season begins. When planning your trip, you will want to know that the flowers last until the beginning of August. We strongly suggest visiting in mid-June to avoid the tourists. Nevertheless, it may vary slightly from year to year, depending on rainfall and temperature.
Staying in Aix-en-Provence
One of the things I love about traveling is discovering new places. It is rewarding to get a better understanding of the way people live in a different part of the world, their culture, and history. Aix-en-Provence was one of these finds.
Aix-en-Provence (or simply Aix) is a small, classical Provençal town located 48 miles south of Gordes. Besides offering lots of reasons to visit, nowhere else in the South of France, did we see the art of living so well displayed. Folks (us included) enjoyed themselves at the outdoor tables of restaurants, bistros, and cafes located in the delightful old town quarter. Laughing, conversations, and clinking from our rosé wine glasses blended in the air, and absorbing the Mediterranean style, we enjoyed the night hours after the sun disappeared.
On the following day, we had no shortage of beautiful sites to see. Here is the list of things we admired in this charming French town:
What we saw in Aix-en-Provence:
Cours Mirabeau and its fountains
Lined with cafés and double rows of plane trees, Cours Mirabeau is the hub of the city. This boulevard is framed by pastel-colored townhouses and adorned with four beautiful fountains. The atmosphere was relaxed and chic.
Aix is often called the City of 1,000 Fountains, and those located on the iconic Cours Mirabeau were lovely. At one end of the street is Fontaine de la Rotonde. Besides its exceptional dimensions, it features three eye-catching figures on top. They represent justice, agriculture, and fine arts. Smaller, but still impressive, the mossy fountains also caught our attention. There was a touch of romance about them. A few small birds flutter in the area, enjoying the cool mist formed by the water that comes from a natural water source.
The outdoor markets
If you are in Aix-en-Provence, you will want to spend time visiting at least one of their open-air markets. They are a way of life in Provence. Mingling with locals, we surveyed the stalls and tried some samples. We loved it. They sell a wide variety of food, including but not limited to, freshly baked pastries, fruits, piles of ripe tomatoes and peppers, local cheeses, sweet treats, flowers, olives, smoked meats, preserves, herbs, and, of course, bread.
Statue of Paul Cezanne
The painter Paul Cézanne is Aix-en-Provence‘s most famous resident. It is said that he became the first artist of his generation to deliberately and successfully break away from Impressionism. His work influenced 20th-century abstract art. Cézanne was a great influence on Picasso, who followed the path towards Cubism.
Cezanne lived and worked in Aix, and the city is proud of its famous artist. His statue can be found near Fontaine de la Rotonde.
Toulon is about 50 miles southeast of Aix-en-Provence. We didn’t spend a lot of time there, but in a couple of hours, we visited the most acclaimed landmark of the city: Mont Faron. There are two different ways we could reach the top of the mont: by car or the Téléphérique du Faron, aka cable car. We took the cable car.
It was easy to understand why this cable car ride is perhaps Toulon’s main attraction. After a six-minute ride, we reached the top. Although the weather was hazy, we had the most spectacular views of the city, Toulon Bay, and the offshore islands. From above, the city looked beautiful.
Note: Hiking trails, a zoo, restaurants, and a museum can be found on top of Mont Faron.
6. Saint Tropez
“With no silver spoon, I’m drinking champagne like a good tycoon.”
My husband is a big fan of Pink Floyd, and for as long as we have been together, he has been saying that Saint Tropez is his dream destination. I like Pink Floyd too, but apart from being a fan of the talented English band, I always wanted to be on this famous waterfront.
After a 43-mile drive from Toulon, we arrived in the luxurious town of Saint Tropez. Famous for being overloaded with white-sandy shores and crystal-clear waters, we were ready to roll.
What we did in Saint Tropez:
Relaxed on the beach… of course!
When Brigitte Bardot showed up in Saint Tropez in the 1950s to film And God Created Women, she transformed the rustic fishing village into one of the hottest destinations in the South of France. The famous Pampelonne (site for the movie) is a stunning three-mile stretch with snow-white sand and warm waters.
When we arrived, we walked along the water until we found a quieter, public spot. We rented lounge chairs and a beach umbrella and relaxed. The air was warm and pleasant. It seemed like the sun really shines brighter, and the Mediterranean is truly bluer in that part of the world. It was a paradise.
Got mesmerized by the real Saint Tropez
This coastal town of the French Riviera is just what I had imagined all these years. However, tucked in the Mediterranean shoreline, it is smaller than what I expected. Despite its size (population of less than 5,000 people), it welcomes five million visitors a year.
Saint Tropez is a village, but not just any village – it is a fancy one filled with fast sports cars, luxury brands, yachts, fancy boutiques, and fine restaurants. It is gorgeous and glamorous, but pricey (not a surprise). In fact, Saint Tropez is listed as the most expensive destination in France based on the cost of lodging.
Besides indulging ourselves on the beaches and being amazed by this worldly destination for the rich and famous, here is a list of other things we did:
Wandered on the streets of La Ponche / The Old Town
Saint Tropez is a well-off community, but it is also a charming little town with narrow streets and picturesque courtyards. The historic center is a pedestrian-friendly labyrinth of cobblestone lanes filled with restaurants, shops, and cafes – the best walking spot in the city.
Took in the views from Citadel
Saint Tropez Citadel is a 17th-century fortress built on the top of a hill above the harbor to defend the coast against enemy invasions. Now, it houses a maritime museum; however, we visited it for another reason: from there, we had the most incredible view of the entire town, the bay, and beyond.
The distance between Saint Tropez and Antibes is 60 miles.
Antibes was one of the most beautiful towns we visited in Côte d’Azur. Located on the Bay of Angels, this waterfront-fortified town was first known as Antipolis by the Greeks when its port was used for trading. Nowadays, it is a sophisticated resort that attracts travelers from all over the world. We not only relaxed in Antibes but also visited its historical sites.
What we did in Antibes:
Wandered through the Old Town
All of Antibes’s attractions lie within the historic center, so walking inside the medieval walls was the only way to see the true colors of the city. It was pure joy! As we wandered through its maze of narrow, cobblestone streets lined with honey-colored houses, we witnessed delightful scenes of residents’ everyday life.
A dead-end of a tucked-away alley seemed to work as a dining room for a gentleman. Meanwhile, small stands on the main lanes displayed fresh, colorful produce, and tons of cozy restaurants, cafés, art galleries, and quaint shops that warmly welcomed visitors.
Strolling down Rue Thuret, we found an old stone arch with a large tile map of the old town of Antibes mounted on its walls. Walking through, we reached a vibrant open-air market filled with overflowing stalls of fruits, vegetables, and crafts. The ambiance was lively and enjoyable.
Strolled along the sea wall
Not too far from the market, we climbed the 10th-century stone walls that previously protected the residents from invaders attacking from the sea. Similar to other medieval barricades, it now attracts more visitors than all the intruders they once stopped.
Wandering along the seawall, we had a stunning view of the historic Old Town and the surrounding area. The contrast was evident. Staring in one direction, it looked like this medieval village with red-roofed houses hadn’t changed much in centuries. On the other side, the view of the harbor filled with luxurious yachts was the confirmation of a contemporary world.
Visited Picasso Museum
One of the Antibes’ most distinguished residents was Picasso, who lived in Château Grimaldi for six months in 1946. While in town, he produced a new work almost every night creating around 23 paintings and 44 drawings. Picasso donated all to the château on the condition that they remained on display to the public. The building, turned into the Picasso Museum, became one of Antibes’ bigger attractions. Later, the collection expanded when his wife Jacqueline Picasso donated – after Picasso’s death – more of his artwork. The museum now carries 245 of Picasso’s paintings, drawings, and ceramics along with pieces from other contemporary artists like Joan Miro.
Hung out on the beach
One of the main reasons to take a trip to the South of France is to enjoy the warm water of the Mediterranean coastline. Antibesis no exception, and has no shortage of sandy, beautiful shores. We enjoyed Plage de la Gravette, a horseshoe-shaped stretch of sand located just below the ramparts. It is probably the busiest one in the area due to its location, yet it was perfect for a quick swim.
Note: The drive from Antibes to Nice, where we spent the last two nights for this road trip, was approximately 14 miles. From there, we took day trips to Èze, about eight miles, and Monaco, roughly a 13-mile journey.
There is no hilltop village in the French Riviera more picturesque than Èze! Located 1,400 feet above sea level, each well-preserved medieval street was an invitation to wander at a slow pace and absorb the local vibe. Èze is truly one of those towns that allowed us to step back in time and imagine how life could have been in a different era.
Although small, Èze is lush and packed with history. Research shows that Èze was first populated around 2000 BC. Greek traces were found in the region before it was occupied by the Romans, then the Moors. Later, it was a disputed area between the Turks and French. During the Middle Ages, Eze was completely destroyed in the War of the Spanish succession. Finally, in 1860, it was designated as part of France who rebuilt the beautiful village.
What we did in Èze:
Rambled through the narrow streets
The entire medieval village has narrow cobblestone streets, so cars are nonexistent. Like everyone else, we parked in the parking lot below and walked up to the village. Èze is gorgeous! Well-kept houses wrapped by bougainvillea and streets covered by aged pavement are the same as they were centuries ago.
As we rambled through winding lanes and hidden courtyards, we found ourselves in the most beautiful spots with striking views of the sea. Shops tucked into stone walls shaped the streets. Small boutiques, art galleries, workshops, spice shops, restaurants, cafes, perfumeries, and more occupy the ancient-style buildings.
Note: No itinerary is necessary to visit Èze. However, if you need a map, stop by the tourist office near the parking lot.
Visited the Botanical Garden (Le Jardin Exotique d’Eze)
Situated at the very top of the hill, the Botanical Garden requires a small entrance fee but is worth it for two reasons: 1) It seems like an oasis in the middle of the ancient village. It features over 2000 different types of cactus, succulents, and other botanical species. 2) It offers outstanding views of the French Riviera
Monaco is the world’s second-smallest country with less than one square mile in total land area. We might not have known a lot about this tiny nation before, but we certainly have heard about its world-renowned annual Formula One Grand Prix, which tracks through the city streets. We also recognized the city’s biggest attraction, the Casino de Monte Carlo.
Although not part of France, I’m glad we included it on our journey through all the superb places in the French Riviera. Famous for its glamour, I must say we found some areas of the city quite underwhelming. We didn’t expect that.
Nevertheless, the Old Town of Monaco, aka Monaco-Ville was quite beautiful. Also known as Le Rocher, which means The Rock, it consists of a labyrinth of medieval alleyways enhanced by some of Monaco’s best attractions: Prince’s Palace, St. Martin Gardens, and Monaco Cathedral to name a few.
What we did in Monaco:
Watched the Changing of the Guard, the Prince’s Palace
We didn’t plan to see the Changing of the Guard at the Prince’s Palace, but we happened to be in the area when crowds started gathering outside the gates. It wasn’t as impressive as London’s Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, but it was definitely worth seeing. The white-helmeted, white-socked Carabiniers du Prince have the duty to protect the palace’s royal residents.
Built as a fortress atop Le Rocher in the 13th century, this lavish residence sheltered the Grimaldi family (13th century) and Prince Rainier III and his wife, Princess Grace (20th century). Today, the ruling Prince of Monaco, Prince Albert II, calls the Palais du Prince home.
Visited Monaco Cathedral
Originally, the site held the 13th-century chapel that later (19th century) gave place to the current cathedral. Monaco Cathedral used white stones that have a special quality of naturally getting whiter when it rains.
Monaco Cathedral, also known as Saint Nicholas Cathedral, is an important symbol of Monaco’s identity, history, and faith. However, it is probably mostly popular due to noble events that took place in this site: 1) venue of Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace marriage; 2) burial place for most princes of the royal Grimaldi family. Additionally, the cathedral held Grace Kelly’s funeral.
Wandered in the Garden Saint Martin
Monaco’s total land area is smaller than the size of New York City’s Central Park. Considering its size and its density of both buildings and population, green areas in this municipality are scarce. To solve the issue, this city-state created beautiful gardens where locals and visitors escape to relax and unwind.
We visited Saint Martin Garden. Perched on the cliff in Monaco-Ville near Saint Nicholas Cathedral, it offers breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. There are also interesting sculptures, small ponds, and greenery in abundance.
Visited Casino Square and Monte Carlo Casino
The square is the home of the Casino of Monte Carlo, which was made famous in the book and movie Casino Royale. Not being a gambler and having a traveler under the age of 18 with us, we just took a peek at the entrance of this ornate gambling house. I could only imagine how lavishly decorated it is inside.
The hotel has been featured in James Bond movies when the international spy hits the casino in Never Say Never Again, GoldenEye, and Casino Royale.
Walked by Opera de Monte Carlo
Opened in 1879 by Prince Charles III, who desired additional cultural entertainment in the city, the grandiose Opera House became part of the casino. Locally known as the Salle Garnier, it is the sister of the opera house in Paris, the Palais Garnier. Both houses are named after their architect, Charles Garnier. We didn’t take the tour, but the Monaco Garnier architecture was spectacular from outside.
Through its 40-year history, the venue has hosted several international performers such as Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Yet, one of the most famous events took place in 1966 when Grace Kelly and Rainier III hosted the celebration of the centenary of Monte-Carlo.