When it comes to flamboyant wealth and sun-caressed glamour, nowhere in Europe – with the possible exception of Italy's Amalfi Coast – can hold a candle to the French Riviera. Known in France as the Cote d'Azur, or Blue Coast, this strip of Mediterranean coastline boasts idyllic beaches, superb clifftop views, lush and secluded gardens, and towns whose names alone – Saint Tropez, Monte Carlo, Cannes, Nice – suggest fashion, style and high-society glitz. Here's what to know about the towns and resorts of France's southern coast.
A favourite resort of the international jet-set for close to 100 years, Saint-Tropez first rose to prominence in the 1920s when fashion designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli began to visit. Its fame exploded in the 1950s with the release of the Brigitte Bardot film And God Created Woman, which was set in and around Saint-Tropez's Tahiti Beach. Today, stays in Saint-Tropez still revolve around the beach. A typical holiday here involves sunbathing on Baie de Pampelonne, the main beach; wandering La Ponche, the charming historic district that was once a thriving fishing village; and sunset dinners and drinks in the Old Port, the heart of Saint-Tropez's social life.
The capital of the Alpes-Maritimes region has all the things that make the French Riviera so alluring – beautiful weather, glorious beaches, fascinating history – but unlike many of its neighbours, it's a proper working city, if a noticeably laidback one. You'll be drawn to the magnificent beachfront promenade, probably the best in Europe, but be sure to make time for wandering the extensive old town nearby too. Nice has long been the cultural centre of the south, and art aficionados could spend hours at the galleries dedicated to Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall – both of whom lived in Nice or nearby – and at the huge Musée d'Art Moderne et d'Art Contemporain, which shows an array of works from the 1950s to the current day.
It's more than just a film festival. Really. While the most famous film festival in the world has made Cannes famous, there are plenty of reasons to visit outside of festival season. Stroll La Croisette, the iconic seaside promenade; swim at Palm Beach, one of the best free beaches in town (for the full sun-lounger-and-cocktails experience, you'll need to pay); explore the Musée Picasso in the old town of Antibes; or put on your walking shoes and tackle the lovely Le Sentier du Littoral coastal trail around the Cap d'Antibes headland.
The last stop on the Cote d'Azur train line before you reach Italy, Menton lacks the international name recognition of many of its neighbouring towns, and it's all the better for it. It boasts all the trappings of a beach resort – gorgeous weather, lanes made for strolling, outdoor cafes galore – but lacks the pretension (and sky-high prices) of places like St Tropez and Cannes. Menton has long been a haunt of artists and writers, including Katherine Mansfield; a residency for New Zealand writers has been established at Villa Isola Bella, the house in Menton where she lived from 1920-1921.
The world's second-smallest independent state after the Vatican, Monaco is like nowhere else on earth. In this tiny principality and international tax haven, ostentatious displays of wealth are everywhere – don’t be surprised to see a Porsche parked next to a Lamborghini parked next to a Bugatti – and cafes and restaurants overwhelmingly cater to a 'see and be seen' clientele. High rolling visitors make a beeline for the iconic Monte Carlo casino, a James Bond favourite and the setting for Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (starring future Princess Grace of Monaco, Grace Kelly). Set high above the city is the Prince's Palace, where the Monaco royal family have lived for more than 700 years. The palace's lavish State Apartments, open through the summer, are worth a visit, and don't miss the changing of the guard which happens just before noon each day.