Ever wanted to be an extra in a Jean-Luc Godard movie? Then come to the French Riviera and meet the beautiful people. The motorway tears along the coast, the streets are clogged with traffic and you can’t find a parking space, but we still fall under its irresistible spell every time we visit.
And rightly so. The Côte d’Azur is a magnet of style: you can bask on the beach by day, enjoy a fabulous dinner in la vieille ville, then dance until dawn. If you prefer the quiet life, there are gorgeous hilltop villages and idyllic pre-Alpine landscapes to explore. Down on the coast, there's atmospheric Antibes with its covered market, the boutique-lined lanes of St Tropez, the fabulous yachts of Cannes, and the museums of Nice; all a delight if you can pull yourself away from the pool. There are 300 days of sun a year, and plenty of flights year-round - so, no excuse for staying at home.
However, the sheer numbers that descend in high summer can be off-putting. You'll need to book restaurants well in advance and set off early to secure your spot on the beach. Then there are the prices, which can be astronomical in July and August. Consider visiting in June or September instead, when you'll catch the heat but avoid the worst of the crowds.
Plage de la Garoupe, on the eastern side of the Cap d'Antibes, is a great place for lunch, with a string of colourful restaurants, a few rocks to clamber over, blue sea to cool you down, and bags of old-time charm. Come by boat and waiters come out and row you in to your table. If you don’t have a boat, watch the arrival of those who do.
The hills above the Côte d’Azur are dotted with ancient stone villages. Biot and Valbonne are both worth visiting, but our favourite is Tourettes-sur-Loup. This fortified village is perched on a rocky outcrop amid a sea of forested hills, and its winding stone streets have somehow escaped the tourist hordes. There are numerous potters, jewellers and silversmiths to browse, as well as a Wednesday market and some fine restaurants (including Michelin-starred Le Clovis). You can stay in the heart of the village at Histoires de Bastide.
The fields around Tourettes-sur-Loup are renowned for violet cultivation; violet-scented products line the shelves of local shops, and there’s a violet museum in the village. You can also take a course in cooking with violets and other edible flowers with chef Yves Terrillon in nearby Pont du Loup.
If you prefer smelling flowers to eating them, then spend a day in Grasse – the world capital of perfume. Envelop yourself in scent in the showrooms of the big parfumeries (Galimard and Fragonard both offer guided tours demonstrating the perfume-making process), then learn about the fascinating history of perfume at the Musée Internationale de la Parfumerie.
There are numerous markets to explore along the Côte d’Azur. Our favourites include the Friday market in Vence’s main square; the vibrant covered market in Antibes (open every day except Monday); the weekend brocante market by Cannes’ old port (where you’ll find everything from silver to old military uniforms); and the famous Cours Selaya morning flower market in Nice, which is surrounded by restaurants serving excellent moules-frites.
Pretty little Eze (home to impressive hotel Chateau Eza) is brimming with craft shops, art galleries and boutiques that could easily occupy half a day. It’s also home to an impressively prickly cactus garden, the Jardin Exotique, which has sweeping vistas over the coast. Once you’ve finished exploring, relax on the beaches of Eze-sur-Mer, reached via a 45-minute walk along the Chemin de Nietzsche (named after the famous German philosopher, who often frequented the path). It’s steep, so save your feet on the way back up and catch the bus.
The beautiful landscapes and dazzling light of the Côte d’Azur have long lured painters and sculptors (among them Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Van Gogh), and there's an array of world-class museums to visit. Among the best are:
Cannes has 2km of sandy beach curving round the bay. Some parts are public, others occupied by private beach clubs where you can hire sun loungers. The central beaches are much more expensive, so we’d advise jumping on the number 8 bus and spinning east to Port Canto (5 minutes). Here you'll find family-run Bijou Plage and the chic L’Ecrin next door. Both are lovely, the water is cleaner, and you can eat lunch on the sand. Back in town, one of the best evening hangouts is Z Plage, the beach bar to Hotel Martinez on La Croisette, where cool tunes and cocktails are the order of the day.
The Lérins Islands are a 15-minute boat ride from Cannes and make wonderful escapes from the summer crowds. The 2 main islands are Sainte Marguerite and Saint Honorat - Sainte Marguerite is the larger and nearer, with a small village, several restaurants and good places to swim; Saint Honorat is more peaceful and has a working monastery. If you’re staying in or around St Tropez, you can take a ferry out to the unspoilt Hyères Islands - there are stunning beaches around La Courtade on Porquerolles (pictured).