Known for the cities of Cannes and Nice, the Cote d’Azur along France’s southern Mediterranean Coast is often thought of as the playground for the rich and famous. Home to the world-renown Cannes Film Festival, the area bustles in May. Though this area is well discovered, there are still a number of ways to feel like a local and take a deeper dive into the French Riviera.
This travel itinerary takes you along the coast to Cannes, Nice, Antibes, Grasse and into the Alps to ski. We have included a lot in this Cote d’Azur itinerary, so like all of our itineraries, expect that you might not fit all of this into your trip, but use what we’ve done as a trip idea starter and enjoy the planning!
We visited the Cote d’Azur during the off-season in December. The weather along the coast was cool, but not cold an allowed for a mix of activities ranging from skiing just an hour and a half from Nice, where we biked through town and visited markets. This time of year is also budget-friendly, allowing us to stay in nice hotels at lower rates.
Day 1- Antibes: Picasso Museum, Star-Studded Restaurant and Port Vaubon
Located between Cannes and Nice and Monaco and St Tropez, Antibes has a sophisticated, yet ancient feel with its cobblestone streets and charming homes. A draw for artists and writers throughout the century, including Pablo Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald, today, Antibes still attracts the rich and famous, in particular during the Cannes Film Festival. I found Antibes to be quite enchanting, imaging myself renting a little apartment and walking to restaurants, shops, the marina and overall enjoying life in this resort town.
When you arrive to Antibes, you will undoubtedly notice the mega-yaghts in Port Vauban, called locally the “port of the millionaires.” Here and in Cannes’ marina, you can enjoy checking out these decadent super-yachts before walking around Antibes, which is surrounded by medieval walls.
Have lunch or dinner at Chez Mamo, Restaurant Mamo Le Michelangelo, where movie stars have dined. Being so close to Italy, many area restaurants serve up a mix of French and Italian cuisine, including Chez Mamo, where homemade pasta mixes with fresh cheeses and seafood amid a plethora of celebrity photos. Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Steven Spielburg, Rhianna, Sting, and many more have visited this restaurant and they’ve all snapped photos with Mamo, who delightfully stopped by my table to say hello. For those craving a little Mamo in New York City, Mamo’s son runs a restaurant in Soho.
Take a walk through Antibes pedestrian friendly streets, which have the typical feel of a Provencal village and head for the Picasso Museum, a must see in Antibes. Housed in an old castle once owned by the Grimaldi Family, Picasso lived inside this medieval castle in 1946, leaving the city 23 paintings and 44 drawings. We visited the second floor, which housed his studio and today has both pottery and paintings on display.
If you’re seeking a driver or guide while in this part of France, look up Piero Bruni of Executive Transport Service. He guided us throughout the Cote d’Azur and was a delight and a wealth of knowledge. Stay tonight at Hôtel Royal Antibes.
Day 2- Grasse and Perfume Making
Splurge a bit for a very memorable experience with Rent a Classic Car. For a little more than what you might pay to rent a regular car, you can rent a vintage sports car though Rent A Classic Car, giving you a taste of luxury along France’s stunning coast. Spend one day or a week driving a Lotus Seven, Porsche 356 Speedster, Ford Mustang Convertible or put the whole family in the Austin Mini Moke. This service will even bring the car to you.
I drove a 1972 Jaguar convertible with just the pep I needed to enjoy driving from Antibes to Grasse. After a brief lesson in driving this automatic vehicle, I was off, revving the engine along past the yachts in Port Vauban. I enjoyed the glances from locals admiring this sporty old vehicle, as I passed the market and Antibes and meandered along the coast at my own pace, which I’ll admit, did get a little faster on the open road.
Movie buffs may want to pick a car featured in films from Hollywood’s golden years. I kept thinking back to Grace Kelly and Cary Grant in their Sunbeam Alpine convertible in the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film “To Catch a Thief.” Modern movie goers may also enjoy driving the Citroën DS Convertible “Chapron”, which Rent A Classic Car leased to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for the filming of “By The Sea.”
Drive from Antibes to Grasse to enjoy a lesson in crafting your own perfume at the Fragonard Factory. Considered the perfume capital of the world, Grasse has been involved in the perfume industry for centuries. Today, many travelers visit this inland hilltop town to explore the International Perfume Museum, tour perfume factories, like Galimard and Molinard, and shop and walk in the old town. A few of the perfumeries also offer travelers the chance to get creative and craft their own scent.
At the historic Fragonard Perfume Factory, you can take a free guided tour, but I suggest going one step further and actually taking their perfume making workshop. Frangonard has two main emblematic flowers, rose and jasmine, but upon diving into my workshop, I learned that making a perfume requires so much more than just the combination of a few scents. To make a perfume, professional “noses” choose from the thousands of essences in the factory, combining dozens to make just one fragrance. Workshop leaders instruct travelers on the proper techniques–– helping you to smell and blend, until you’ve made your very own perfume.
I took a workshop with Corinne Marie-Tosello, who coached me through the process of identifying scents and made the process fun. This involved not only smelling a series of essential aromatic essences, but working to identify them with things that were personally significant to me. Corinne had me close my eyes, breathe deeply and describe each scent in a thoughtful way, before blending and smelling again. From citrus to orange blossom and things that didn’t smell all that fantastic on their own, I worked to create something unique to me.
At the end of the experience, you will have made your own small bottle of eau de cologne, which you can label and take home.
Traveling with a golf lover? While you enjoy making perfume, golf enthusiasts may like to play a few holes at Golf Saint Donat. The Cote d’Azur is home to a variety of public golf courses, meaning you don’t have to be a member to play. During the time of Napoleon, Golf Saint Donat served as the first agricultural school in France and historic buildings dot the grounds today.
Head from Grasse to Cannes and check into the Hotel Splendid, whose frequent guests have included the likes of film critic Roger Ebert. Family run with Ms. Annick Cagnat at the helm, this hotel has a cozy feel, good breakfast and stunning views of Cannes harbor. It’s also centrally located, so you can easily explore Cannes by foot. We don’t recommend renting a car.
Day 3- Cannes Markets & Mysteries
Take a morning walk at the Cannes harbor and look up for the enormous yachts to check out the historic castle high in the Cannes hills. Stroll over to the Croisette,a famous promenade on the seaside. Here, by the Palais des Festivals, check out the handprints of stars who have visited Cannes. This is Cannes version of the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California. If you can, walk on the red carpet outside of the Palais before heading back towards Hotel Splendid to enjoy a snack.
Discover the old city of Cannes, its pedestrian street “Rue Meynadier”. Venture to the Forville market, which delights with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese and “socca.” If you’re lucky, Thomas Pietri will be there making this large chickpea flour pancake. Simply made from chickpea flour, water, olive oil and salt, it’s been popular as a sort of fast food, since the early 20thcentury, though legend has it that socca dates to much earlier than that and was used as a sort of tasty weapon- poured on the heads of invading Turkish troops in the 16thcentury. It’s savory and perfect snack or lunch.
Steps away from the market, try a myriad of goat cheeses at Le Fromager Gourmet. It’s an amazing cheese shop and locally owned.
Enjoy lunch or dinner today, if you’re still hungry, by the beach at Plage L’Alba. This truly made me feel like I was in California. I had a luscious salad, soaking in the sun, the sound of the waves, and listening to some truly local live music.
This afternoon, take the ferry to St Marguerite island. It’s about a 15 minute boat trip to reach this island that is shrouded in mystery. Visit the Royal Fort, the sea museum and the former prison with the cell of the prisoner known as the Man in the Iron Mask. Alexandre Dumas, who penned The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, wrote about this mysterious prisoner and his would become fodder for TV movies and films, including a 1998 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jeremy Irons.
There are hiking trails on the island, so bring your exercise shoes if you want to take a walk amid the Mediterranean vegetation. If you can time it right, take the return boat to Cannes during sunset. You won’t regret it.
Consider dinner restaurant La Môme.
Day 4- Ski the French Alps
The Alpes-Maritimes is home to 15 ski resorts, many of which are located just an hour and a half from Nice and less than two hours from Cannes. While travelers can drive, there are also shuttles from railway stations to reach the snow. We drove to a family friendly resort, Isola 2000, which is one of the highest in the French Alps.
If you’ve never visited a French ski resort, you’re in for a surprise. For one, who doesn’t love a ski lodge with a French cheese shop and wine shop? Shops to purchase any gear, as well as restaurants are within the lodge and out along the slopes. Enjoy the apres-ski lifestyle by having hot mulled wine after you ski and a decadent jack potato loaded with just about anything you’d like.
After your ski adventure, head to Nice. Spend the night at Hotel Windsor in Nice, France, which is centrally located within walking distance to top attractions downtown, though you may find yourself spending lots of time indoors. Contemporary art is sprinkled throughout the hotel, including in guests rooms, which are inspired by famous artists. The room where I stayed on my recent visit was designed by French artist Mathieu Mercier as a reinterpretation of the painting of Van Eyck, Les époux Arnoldfini. In addition to rotating art exhibitions and special video installations, the hotel hosts special art festivals open to travelers and the public. The hotel dates back to the late 19th century, designed by an architect of the Eiffel School.
Day 5- Nice Markets, Old Town and Salad Nicoise
French born, English speaking guide and entrepreneur Eric Greiner offers the opportunity to enjoy a less strenuous biking adventure to explore Nice, which I’d recommend, through Ebike Riviera Tour. France’s fifth largest city ispedestrian and bike friendly, but hilly, making an electronic bike a great way to get a little exercise, but also more easily take on the hills of Nice’s Old Town.
Nice’s old town is charming and exploring by e-bike allowed me to easily travel at a relaxed pace, taking in the beautiful Baroque churches and pastel homes. Up until the 18thcentury, most of the city’s population lived in the Old Town, a market town whose tradition of outdoor markets continues today. We made our way through the narrow streets to Cours Saleya, the fabulous antiques market. Getting off our bikes to explore, my only regret was that I was biking, as I could have certainly picked up a few larger items, ranging from art to a vintage kimono at this outdoor market. If you like antiques or unique finds, we definitely recommend this market.
Walk or cycle through Place Massena and down to the famous Promenade des Anglais. Biking along the promenade is truly a treat and even though I did this adventure in December, Nice’s mild climate made it feasible to enjoy the adventure with some well thought out layers and gloves.
Warm up back in the Old Town with a fabulous lunch at Restaurant Acchiardo, which serves certified cuisine nissarde and has been operating since the 1920’s. It’s family run with the fifth generation in charge today.
This afternoon, head to Massena Museum back down along the Promenade. This rare Italian style villa was built back in the late 19thcentury and restored today to house Massena Museum, which travelers can go inside. Rotating exhibitions are as much a draw as the villa itself.
If you’re visiting in December, check out Nice’s Christmas Village, where you can try various culinary treats, including more socca, and shop for more unique finds.
There are many more things to see and do while in the Cote d’Azur. Enjoy!