An Insider's Guide to the French Riviera

Hôtel Belles Rives, once home to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

Hôtel Belles Rives, once home to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Image courtesy of Alison Bracker

In the 1760s, aristocratic young Englishmen began wintering from November to Easter in what they called “The Riviera” during their Grand Tour of France and Italy. Upper-class Europeans followed suit, securing The Riviera’s reputation for sunshine, glamor, and stunning locales and inspiring 19th-century coastal winter resorts to crop up from Cannes to the Italian border town of Menton.

After WW1, fashionable Parisians flocked to Nice and the Italian border via the newly inaugurated Train Bleu. During its 50-year history (1920-1970), it transported Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich to the Riviera, among many other illustrious passengers. The 1920s also saw high-profile Americans and Europeans take up the new craze for sunbathing along France’s southern coast, including Pablo Picasso, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, actress Merle Oberon, and Douglas Fairbanks, transforming the Côte d’Azur into a summer destination. 

Today, The Riviera welcomes international visitors year-round, many drawn to the allure and elegant yet casual lifestyle Alfred Hitchcock’s cinematic homage to the region, To Catch a Thief, captured. Yet, the Riviera offers guests far more than sunbathing, sea, and abundant sunshine. If you love art, delicious local food and wine, spectacular views, gorgeous walks and hikes, and exploring charming and historic nearby towns and villages, the French Riviera has your name on it. An added bonus is its proximity to the Italian Riviera, allowing you to explore two Rivieras in one trip. 

Let’s dive into some of the region’s highlights and a few of my insider recommendations.

Art and Culture

Before Picasso came to Antibes in the 1920s, Claude Monet discovered and painted it in 1883. Meanwhile, Auguste Renoir fell under Cagnes-sur-Mer’s spell on his way to Italy in 1903, and Dufy, Signac, Soutine, Braque, Miró, Chagall, Matisse, Picasso, Calder all stayed, ate, or socialized at La Colombe d’Or in St. Paul-de-Vence from the 1920s onward. As a result, the Riviera teems with museums spotlighting the careers of some of the 20th century's most influential artists.

Some of the best include:

    • Musée Picasso in Antibes
    • Musée Renoir in Cagnes-sur-mer, the artist’s home until he died in 1919
    • Fondation Maeght in St. Paul-de-Vence
    • Musée National Chagall in Nice
    • Musée Matisse in Nice

    The Matisse Museum in Cimiez, Nice. Image courtesy of Alison Bracker

    The region boasts some lesser-known cultural gems, too. A few of my favorites are:

    • Museum of Photography—Charles Nègre: An excellent museum in Nice’s Old Town with temporary photographic exhibitions.
    • The Rosary Chapel in Vence, aka The Matisse Chapel. Matisse decorated this chapel between 1947 and 1951. Since you’ll be near central Vence, visit Marc Chagall’s mosaic inside France’s smallest cathedral, Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité.
    • Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in St. Jean Cap Ferrat. A beautiful villa with nine themed gardens and spectacular views over the Bay of Beaulieu and the Bay of Villefranche. 

    Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, St. Jean Cap Ferrat. Image courtesy of Alison Bracker

    Food and Wine

    French Riviera cuisine celebrates the three hallmarks of Mediterranean cooking: Olives, wheat, and grapes. Olive trees abound in Nice’s hills, and you can book tastings and a guided tour of Nicolas Alziari’s Olive Farm, the last olive mill in Nice and one of the few in Europe that maintains the Genoese tradition of olive oil production.

    If you’re looking for something on which to drizzle local olive oil, stroll through the food markets of Cannes, Antibes, Nice, and Menton. Besides fabulous produce, you’ll find cheese, charcuterie, spices, and sweets. Perhaps the most famous is Nice’s market in Cours Saleya, where I often see local restauranteurs buying ingredients for that day’s menus.

    Cours Saleya Market. Image courtesy of Alison Bracker

    Many beach club restaurants spotlight local produce and the Riviera’s Italian culinary influences. There’s nothing like lunch overlooking the Mediterranean, particularly accompanied by a chilled glass of rosé. But did you know that in the hills 20 minutes from Nice lies Bellet, home to the wine Thomas Jefferson once called "the most elegant everyday wine in the world"? Nine vineyards represent the Bellet appellation and welcome wine tasters by appointment. There are also two excellent vineyards in Saint Jeannet, about 40 minutes from Nice. 

    My favorite vineyards:

    • Domaine de Vinceline in Bellet. Vincent and his wife Celine (hence, “Vinceline”) are passionate about winemaking, and their wines are the best I’ve had in Bellet. They also have 250 olive trees and produce delicious olive oil. Bring a French-speaking friend when you visit. 
    • Vignoble Rasse in Saint Jeannet. Another family-run vineyard with first-rate wines and enthusiastic (and English-speaking) owners.

    My tip? Book a wine tasting that includes appetizers at Vignoble Rasse. Their food is as delicious as their wine.

    Vignoble Rasse, Saint Jeannet. Image courtesy of Alison Bracker

    Traditional foods of note: Socca (made from chickpea flour, salade Niçoise, soupe au pistou, pan bagnat (sort of a salade Niçoise in a sandwich), and pissaladière, an onion tart with anchovies and olives. Although you’ll find these foods along the coast, they’re associated with cuisine Nissarde (Nice cuisine). Only 29 restaurants, most of them in Nice, have received recognition for their authentic, excellent, and seasonal cuisine Nissarde.

    My favorite is Chez Acchiardo in the Old Town. I’m not alone, so booking is essential for lunch and dinner, even off-season. 

    Given its reputation for glamor, it’s no surprise that the Riviera also boasts Michelin-starred restaurants. Mirazur in Menton, Le Chantecler in Nice (at Hôtel Negresco), Monte Carlo’s Louis XV Alain Ducasse inside the fabulous Hôtel de Paris, and La Chèvre d’Or in Eze are among the most famous. However, you can indulge in Michelin-starred quality for a song by visiting Nice’s Patisserie Julien Dugourd, La Chèvre d’Or’s one-time pastry chef.

    Where do I take friends and family when they visit me in Nice? The terrific restaurants I return to again and again are:

          • Citrus
          • Olive et Artichaut
          • Le Bar des Oiseaux
          • Vingt4
          • Les Epicureans
          • La Merenda, the one-time Michelin-starred chef Dominique Le Stanc’s tiny but superb restaurant. Cash only.

          Le Bar de Oixeaux. Image courtesy of Alison Bracker

          For a special occasion, try Monte Carlo’s elegant and recently renovated Café de Paris. Or, enjoy a drink on the square outside, steps from the Casino.

          The Café de Paris in Monte Carlo. Image courtesy of Alison Bracker

          Day Trips and Beaches

          The French Riviera is synonymous with the beach, but surprisingly, many Riviera beaches comprise galets (pebbles), not sand, and Nice’s drop-off occurs quickly and is steep. Bring water shoes, or consider renting a chaise longue for the day at beach clubs with mats leading to the water. 

          Or, do what locals do and spend a day at the sandy beaches of Cap Ferrat (especially Plage Paloma and Plage Passable), Villefranche-sur-Mer, or the family-friendly beaches of Juan-les-Pins.

          The beach at Villefranche-sur-Mer. Image courtesy of Alison Bracker

          Non-beach-goers in Cap Ferrat can explore its fabulous walking trails and hikes or enjoy two special boat trips: 

            • Take the delightful 75-minute boat trip from Cap Ferrat’s Port to Villefranche-sur-Mer between late June and late September on Tuesdays (and Fridays from mid-July to the end of August).
            • The Association SOS Grand Bleu runs whale-watching boat trips to the Pelagos Sanctuary from Cap Ferrat between April and November. 

            Alison's Favorite Day Trips

            • Eze: A charming medieval hilltop village with an impressive exotic garden offering spectacular views. Since public transportation to the village is limited, consider booking a private tour with Context Travel. Bring sturdy and comfortable walking shoes, as visiting Eze entails a steep climb on stone donkey paths and cobblestones. Intrepid hikers can follow the Nietzsche Path to or from the seaside village of Eze-sur-Mer. 
            • Saint-Paul-de-Vence: A delightful hilltop village boasting a unique artistic history.  Marc Chagall lived here for nearly 20 years and is buried here. Visit the Maeght Foundation and book a meal at La Colombe d’Or, where you might dine alongside artworks by Matisse, Calder, or Léger. 
            • St. Tropez: The French Riviera has no official starting point, but many claim it begins in St. Tropez. If you are in Nice or Cannes from mid-May to the end of September, you can catch the Trans Côte d’Azur boat to St. Tropez for the day. The journey is great fun, and you’ll have time to wander through this former fishing village and its splendid Annonciade Museum.
            • Antibes and Juan-les-Pins: In 1946, Picasso spent six months in Antibes painting in the medieval castle that now houses the Musée Picasso. It’s a must-see for art enthusiasts, as is Jaume Plensa’s sculpture overlooking the harbor. The quieter resort of Juan-les-Pins next door was F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s home and inspired his novel Tender is the Night. It is now the Hôtel Belles Rives: Treat yourself to an apéro (an aperitif) on its terrace.
            • Menton and Sanremo: Menton, the French Riviera’s final stop, features beautiful gardens, a popular citrus festival around Easter, and the Jean Cocteau Museum. Combine it with a trip across the Italian border to Sanremo to taste Ligurian charm and the Italian Riviera. 

            A view from Eze’s garden toward St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Image courtesy of Alison Bracker

            There is so much to love within the French Riviera. From iconic seaside beaches to incredible dining and history, the towns here have something to offer everyone. I hope you'll visit soon, perhaps on a tour with me!

            About Alison:
            Dr. Alison Bracker is an independent art historian specializing in modern and contemporary art. She taught art and cultural history before undertaking a post-doctoral fellowship in contemporary art conservation at the Royal College of Art and Victoria & Albert Museum. She then ran the Royal Academy of Arts' Events and Lectures Program. Alison continues to lecture and publish on modern and contemporary art and artists when she is not guiding for Context. Outside of work, she is an enthusiastic traveler who loves street photography and immersing herself in cities via their art, food, and wine. After a childhood in Los Angeles and 25 years in England, Alison now lives in Nice, France. Keep up with her work at