The French Riviera, or Côte d'Azur has a hauteur that can be intimidating. There’s a reason the crème de la crème converges on the French Riviera—rich ocean blues, a stylish slice of sunshine, a laid-back vibe, and copious amounts of rosé. It is also the scenery that inspired Van Gogh and Picasso.
My initial impressions of this stunning coastline were painted with scenes of shimmering blue waters, the gentle swaying of olive and pine trees, centuries-old villages nestled amidst rugged landscapes, opulent hotels, and a relatively quiet cityscape. As I entered on a rainy day in Antibes in the “the summer resort of notable and fashionable people” as quoted by Francis Scott Fitzgerald, I realised why this sun-kissed stretch of coastline in the southeast corner of France is so irresistible and unforgettable. After a one-hour flight from Paris to Nice, followed by a picturesque a 20-minute scenic drive, I checked into the prestigious Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc where the entire Côte d'Azur seems to stretch out at its doorstep. Yes, this is the hotel that has been immortalised by F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night (as the Hôtel des Étrangers). And that’s where my fairytale adventure in The French Riveira began.
My own journey was filled with glimpses of luxurious yachts, encounters with the world-famous art scene, breathtaking sunsets, and much more. Along the Cote d'Azur, I discovered that there are as many variations of paradise as there are shades of blue in the Mediterranean Sea. Say oui to the eclecticism that is Cote d'Azur and make your way with this handy guide to the top attractions on the French Riviera.
Begin your journey in the rich city of Antibes, the largest business and leisure marina of Europe. The perfect antidote to the glitzy Cannes or Nice, a leisurely stroll along the picturesque Port Vauban, Europe's largest leisure port is a must. This marina is a true spectacle, showcasing an array of magnificent vessels and luxurious yachts that will capture your admiration.
Adjacent to the harbour, you'll find the old town, steeped in history that dates back to the Greek and Roman Empires. While much of the pleasure lies in simply wandering and soaking in the time-worn ambience inside the fortified medieval town that sits directly on the Mediterranean, the ancient history, sights, and the iconic 16th-century Fort Carree inside is worth the walk. And now what’s a charming port town without a Provencal market? Head over to the Marché Provençal in the Old Town where you'll discover the bountiful produce that characterizes this region. A visit here is a sensory delight—a cornucopia of fine cheeses, cured ham, aromatic spices, fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade jams and compotes, and a riot of colorful flowers that greet you at every turn. Be sure to savor socca, a local delicacy, as you bid adieu to this charming market square, for it's a culinary experience not to be missed. A must-visit if you want to know more about the locals and local cuisine, a visit here is a feast all at once—fine cheese, cured ham, spices, fresh fruits and vegetables, homemade jams and compotes and flowers that greet you in every colour. Make sure you grab socca (chickpea pancake) a local delicacy on your way out.
After indulging and perhaps making a few delightful purchases, head to the most coveted attractions in Antibes. This particular gem is closely associated with the renowned native of Antibes—none other than the legendary Spanish artist Pablo Picasso who spent a part of his life here in 1946. The Musée Picasso, which is housed in his former workshop in the Château Grimaldi is one where I got lost in time and art. Unfortunately, clicking images here is not allowed so you can’t bring back any memories albeit in your heart. Overlooking the coast of the city, the museum is housed in a beautiful stone chateau and houses 23 paintings and 43 drawings of Picasso. Under the spell of Antibes, the museum is an exploratory journey into his evolution as an artist, that ranges from drawings with simple charcoal and crayons to paintings created with industrial paint and some directly on the walls. You can easily get through the whole museum in about two hours. One of his largest works “La Joie de vivre that is emblematic of his stay in Antibes and his is also a homage to his muse Françoise Gilot” amongst others such as “Satyr, Faun and Centaur with Trident“, “Still life with owl and three sea urchins“, “The Woman with the sea urchins” and “She-Goat“ are part of this museum. Post your time travel with the legendary artist, enjoy the lovely terrace outside with magnificent views of the Mediterranean Sea and a sculpture garden with works by some well-known names.
"Quaint" truly lives up to its essence in the charming villages of the French Riviera, and I had the privilege of witnessing this first-hand in Biot that is home to just 1000 residents. Navigating through an olive tree-lined landscape, I arrived at Biot, an essential stopover where another passionate story unfurled. That of hand-blown glassmaking. Formerly celebrated for its pottery and ceramics, Biot, has evolved into the modern glass capital of France. Nestled between Cannes and Nice, it embodies the essence of an authentic Provençal village, steeped in a rich multicultural heritage and renowned for its artisanal craftsmanship. As I entered the village, I was blown by the eye-catching array of colours—buildings painted in shades of yellow, peach, and orange. You can spend time just walking in the beautiful lanes and alleys and clicking the classic French windows.
For an immersive experience of this artsy town, I started by navigating the village's narrow, cobbled streets, meandering past souvenir shops, patisseries, chocolateries, and charming cafes to reach the heart of the village. At the tourist office, we meet out guide who takes us to a couple of glass factories, including the first one established in 1956, known as La Verrerie de Biot. This transformation originated in the late 1950s, catalysed by Éloi Monod, who pioneered the use of the bubble glass technique, deliberately trapping bubbles within the glass. Today, this technique has evolved into a captivating aesthetic element. Within the ateliers of La Verrerie de Biot, amidst the searing heat of the furnaces, the glass material undergoes a mesmerizing metamorphosis before your very eyes, expertly guided by the skilled glassblower wielding the blowpipe. The colours and intricate patterns gradually emerge through meticulous pigmentation and molding processes, resulting in stunning glass creations.
From bottles and glasses, tea and coffee pots, planters and jars, plates and tumblers, vases and decanters to decorative glass menagerie in every vibrant colour and hue, a visit to the glass workshops and galleries is a truly enlightening one. Make a last pitstop at the Pierini Glass Art Center that has become a reference, receiving artists in residency from all over the world. A peek inside the gallery spread on two floors and a workshop where the artists’ work with the material will offer a range of glass-blowing and creative experiences. Who knows, what might evoke a hidden passion and see you trying your hands at glass-blowing.
Nowhere but in the most picturesque villages of France is where art thrives abundantly. A trip from one beautiful village to another convinced me that France is synonymous to the fine arts. My stay at the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc and previously at the Le Bristol in Paris led me onto the next village—Vallauris. A town steeped in history as the former city of potters and a haven for numerous renowned artists, it is here that Picasso lived. A meeting with the charming artist Agnès Sandahl [whose works in earthenware, porcelain, glass adorn the two grand hotels] at Galerie Agnès Sandahl was one of the most memorable events of my trip. The gallery itself is the historic potter’s studio, home to the town’s oldest wood-fired kiln – built in 1850, and which now belongs to Vallauris Historic Society. Inside the world of Sandahl, we were treated to her creative genius, her inspirations, her love for music and even an impromptu jig, besides the artworks that she passionately breathes life into. An immersive walkthrough of her gallery is where we also chanced upon a ceramic plate created by Picasso in the year 1956 and one by Jean Cocteau.
Vence and Saint Paul de Vence
A short drive away from Antibes, I ventured into the neighboring town of Vence, where I found solace at the Oetker Collection's second property, Château Saint Martin & Spa. This tranquil retreat allowed me to bask in the relaxed charm of the French Riviera. Nestled among the southern Alps, Vence is a medieval town with a history dating back centuries. Unlike the glitz and glamour associated with the Riviera, Vence offered a more subtle charisma.
Just a stone's throw away from Vence, I stumbled upon the fairytale town of Saint Paul de Vence. This untouched gem, straight out of a storybook, is a haven for art enthusiasts. This magnificent fortified village dating from the 11th century was a border settlement; and after the First World War it was discovered by artists. It is famous for being the home and resting place for artist Marc Chagall, who is buried in the local cemetery just outside the city walls. One of the most memorable highlights of Saint-Paul de Vence was a walk along the 16th-century fort wall that led to a breathtaking viewpoint. From there, I was treated to vistas that spanned from the Mediterranean Sea to the verdant hills and the snow-capped peaks of the Maritime Alps.
I highly recommend taking a leisurely stroll along Rue Grande, a bustling street filled with an array of stores, galleries, and boutiques nestled amidst the winding cobblestone lanes flanked by trellis and colourful flower walls and windows. This charming area instantly won my heart and proved to be one of the most photogenic spots. If you're fortunate, as I was, you might even have the privilege of witnessing an artist bring a prolific painting to life right before your eyes. At Bang & Lessin Art, an open studio run by the talented couple Louise Bang and Gui Lessin, I had the pleasure of observing Gui's artistic process. He skillfully unveiled a blank canvas, palette in hand, and painted it right there on the street—an enchanting experience to witness the transformation of the canvas.
An absolute must-visit destination for any traveler, it’s amazing how this village, dotted with beautifully manicured surroundings, the quaint stone structures intertwined with narrow, flower-lined pathways, has retained its charm amidst modern urban influences. Yet another artistic wonder is housed within this charming village, a remarkable masterpiece in the form of the Folon Chapel. Inside, I was captivated by an awe-inspiring mosaic wall portraying the village itself. Crafted by the talented Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon, this intricate artwork comprises over a million individual pieces, making it a truly unparalleled and unique experience that left a lasting impression on me.
Situated close to the world capital of perfumery, it's essential to pause and savor the fragrances while learning about the craft from a skilled perfumer. I highly recommend a visit to the charming boutique of Sonia Godet at Maison Godet perfumery, where she continues a family tradition that spans over a century. It was indeed a rare treat to discover the exquisite fragrances Sonia is dedicated to creating using the most natural ingredients and the abundance of flowers found in the region.
Whether it was Vence or Antibes, my rendezvous with the French Riviera left me beliveing that if there is paradise on earth, it is on the Côte d’Azur.