The Côte d’Azur, often known in English as the French Riviera, is the Mediterranean coastline of the southeast corner of France, also including the sovereign state of Monaco. This is truly one of the most magical destinations I have yet to visit in my travel journeys. With so many villages to see and explore, it is hard to touch all of the French Riviera in just one short trip. However, in 4-7 days here, you can really cover the most famous spots and experience the essential pleasures of this region’s food, culture and natural beauty if you plan ahead!
To make the most of a week or less trip, I highly recommend picking one seaside village to use as a “home base” and rent a car (or hire a driver) to explore the must-see hotspots during your stay. By going this route, you will avoid the stress of packing and re-packing when moving hotels, and be able to cover more ground with the flexibility of your own vehicle or driver. However, if you enjoy living out of a suitcase from hotel to hotel, I have the perfect Ladyhattan Itinerary for you: Nice to Villefranche-ser-Mer, Eze, Monoco, back to Cap Ferrat and finish the trip in Cannes. Follow along with my tips and photographs below documenting this exact itinerary!
New York City to Nice
Before we dive into the absolute best of Côte d’Azur, please first note that traveling here from NYC or anywhere in the States is not as difficult as one may presume. Delta/Air France now offers direct flights from NYC’s JFK airport to Nice, France. These direct flights can make a trip to coastal France as easy as an 8 hour direct flight. However, if you are in a city that does not offer the Nice flight, I recommend flying through Paris and either taking a connecting flight down to Nice or Marseille. Alternatively, forget a connection flight and enjoy the speed train down to the coast if you are a fearful flyer. The TGV high-speed train offers easy connections direct from the Charles de Gaulle Airport down to major hubs along the coast. Taking a train or plane into Nice is going to be your best bet, as this hub is the most central point connecting all the cities along the coast you likely wish to explore. If you only have time for a brief trip to the coast, then just simply stay in Nice and enjoy yourself. Check out this awesome New York Times feature on “36 Hours in Nice” for the perfect itinerary.
You have to pity Nice. Overshadowed by megawatt Riviera neighbors like aristocratic Monaco, red-carpet Cannes and Champagne-soaked St.-Tropez, France’s fifth-largest city is often written off as a dowdy haven of retirees. Yet Nice packs most of its neighbors’ lures — year-round sun, Mediterranean Sea, belle époque and Art Deco architecture — with the bonuses of an atmospheric old quarter, an evolving restaurant scene, the Riviera’s best museums and some high-profile public works. Place Garibaldi, the central square, has been pedestrianized and spruced up, while the formerly lackluster port area is filling up with the city’s coolest restaurants and bars. And thanks to the new Promenade du Paillon, Nice has an alluring public park in its heart. A city for all budgets, Nice now buzzes with an energy and diversity that often surpasses its coastal rivals.
Nice to Villefranche-sur-Mer
Villefranche-sur-Mer is a commune in the Alpes-Maritimes department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region on the French Riviera. You can’t get more charming than this seaside medieval village. Far away from the gaudy crowds in St.Tropez, here is a place where you can actually immerse in the French culture and feel as if you are truly on a relaxing holiday.
Like any medieval village, Villefranche is a small city filled with narrow cobblestone and bricked streets that slope steeply down (in this case towards the sea) with vaulted passages beneath the private houses. As you walk upward (away from the sea), you can follow the ancient paths and find a variety of local restaurants, boutiques and mini markets. The highlight of our brief stay in Villefranche-sur-Mer was the Welcome Hotel. Rated the top hotel in this quiet sanctuary, the service, waterfront rooms and central location made for an absolutely perfect stay! We loved sitting on our terrace overlooking the seaside sunsets and then waking up to the lobby full of fresh croissants and espresso to start the day. The hotel, family owned and operated, takes pride in making sure that all their guests are greeted by first name when they walk through the doors. With all that said, I could not have asked for a better experience in Villefranche and hope to return again soon. Thank you, Welcome Hotel, for an exquisite experience!
Here are my most memorable takeaways and tips for visiting Villefranche-sur-Mer:
- I enjoyed mouthwatering truffle infused mozzarella (photo below) and scallops at Les Garçons – this was by far one of the best meals that I have ever had in France! Although a bit touristy because of the popularity and restaurant notoriety, this place produces some of the best french culinary experiences on the coast! If you enjoy foi gras, they make theirs in-house.
- La Belle Etoile was a bit pricier and fancier than the other restaurants in town. It was a delicious meal with impeccable service. You can’t go wrong with any of the meats – duck, pork or beef, all cooked in specially prepared secret Chef sauces. Save room for savory desserts like the molten chocolate cake. Did I mention the waiters all look like male models here?
- For a pre-dinner cocktail, be sure to try the newly renovated Wine Pier Bar located off the lobby of the Welcome Hotel. Here you can sit on the terrace and overlook downtown, the sea, and be within walking distance to any restaurant in the village. Call me a lucky lady, but I enjoyed a drink here with some extremely entertaining live music – American pop songs sung in French!
Narrow and steep cobblestone streets filled with restaurants and shops.
Live music played at the Wine Pier.
Truffle infused mozzarella.
Onward to Èze and Monaco
Continue along the coastline for about 15-20 minutes and you will reach another French Riviera gem – welcome to Eze! Here is a medieval village perched like an eagles nest on a narrow rocky peak overlooking the Mediterranean sea! To reach the actual village, you must park your car at the base of the mountain and walk by foot up the narrow, windy paths constructed back in the 12th century! Throughout the upward path that takes you into the village, you will see boutiques, cafes and shops literally built right into the side of the mountain in the form of caves. Ladies be warned, this walk is quite strenuous: no pain, no gain, right? Keep on going, gals, the steep walk is worth the priceless view and luxury that awaits you at the peek!
To me, the most intriguing aspect of Eze, is the juxtaposition of a 12th century village full of tourists and modern shops buzzing around such an ancient space. The view from the top of Eze, the historic mountain and charming 12th century castle-like architecture is completely unchanged and remains intact. The only effect time has had on the city of Eze is the change in the very people that now occupy this historical space. It’s quite entertaining to see high-tech iPhones and complicated camera gadgets being used to capture images of buildings over 800 years ago… wow!
Where to go, where to stay, what to do and what to taste? Here are my recommendations:
- For a 5 STAR splurge with premium location (on the mountain top), service and lodging, you must stay at the Château Eza or Chateau de la Chevre d’Or Eze Village. Both of these hotels have luxury guest rooms that are built into the cliffs of the mountainous village and overlook the mediterranean sea. Suites offer wood burning fireplaces and premium views. If a night here is too pricey for your travel budget, then indulge in a long afternoon lunch at the Chateau de La Chèvre d’Or’s restaurant overlooking the private hotel gardens and seaside cliffs to enjoy the 5-Star experience this hotel boasts. Please note that these hotels are a bit far from direct beach access due to the fact that they are located high up on the village peak.
- For true beach lovers, take a short drive down the hilltops and toward the sea, you will find another premium luxury hotel that offers more of a beach resort atmosphere. The hotel grounds at Cap Estel are nothing short of spectacular. Although a bit pricey, it is worth every penny. Cap Estel is perfect for the traveler looking for a more quiet and tranquil experience outside of the populated (and somewhat touristy) village scene. This hotel is also home to the top rated restaurant in the region of Eze and is the perfect spot for a glamorous lunch.
- For a less fancy and more rustic dining experience, I recommend the following dining options: Le Troubadour, Le Cafe du Jardin, Cafe D’Eze or the Restaurant at Papaya Beach.
- My favorite meal during this short stay in Eze has to go to lunch on the terrace at the Chateau de La Chèvre d’Or. Aside from classic french/seafood cuisine, the views here make the price of every item totally worth it. They offer delicious house rose wines at reasonable prices (10 Euros a glass) for those looking to stop merely for a quick drink. You will not be given access to the hotel terrace (to see this view) unless you are either a formal guest of the hotel or dining with the restaurant. Groups of tourists tried to push their way through the gates to see the magnificent sight, but were not permitted access unless they were customers of the hotel/restaurant. If there is one place to splurge on within your travel budget, this should be it!
Here is my sister and I after enjoying a beautiful lunch at La Chèvre d’Or (2 Michelin Stars).
To Monaco We Go
Check-out of your hotel in Eze and hop back in the car because the gambling and yachting capital of the world is just a short 8 kilometers away! An easy and scenic 15 minute drive, you simply follow the clearly marked signs for “Monaco” and voila, you have arrived to a land of Rolls Royces, glitz and glam. Be sure to stop at the scenic lookout stops along the way as I did (pictured below).
But first, what is Monaco? A city, state, country? You would be surprised how many people do not fully understand how unique this tiny region really is. The principality of Monaco is a tiny city-state on the Mediterranean Sea and surrounded by France, although the Italian Riviera lies a few kilometres farther east.This is the second smallest independent state in the world (after the Vatican) and is almost entirely urban. Entirely urban, indeed! As soon as we entered Monaco we felt as if we were in a seaside version of a major city like Paris! The streets were buzzing with expensive cars, locals speeding by on mopeds, and streets lined with populated buildings. I was surprised with both how urban and small Monaco really is. Because of the small size of this location on my itinerary, I would only recommend a day or so here – there is no need to do a full week trip in Monaco unless you have extensive plans, activities and connections here.
My favorite part of exploring this city-state was seeing the gigantic yachts parked throughout the prestigious harbor space – I have never in my life seen such luxurious boats! Additionally, it is worth checking out the Grace Kelly Theater and Exhibit (if available at the Grimaldi Forum), the Monte Carlo Casino, the harbor of boats, and the Royal Palace of course (at 11:55 each day you can observe the changing of the guards).
Four Seasons Luxury Found in Cap Ferrat
Cap Ferret is known as a place of leisure for the high French society and remains a trendy destination for summer holidays. Situated in between Eze and Villefranche, this classic French Riviera destination has a Beverly Hills sort of feel to it — or in other words, it feels quite exclusive. The roads are lined with tall beautiful trees and nearly all the homes are secured by tall and robust gates. The downtown area is a bit more contemporary and chic than the ancient medieval villages of Eze or Villefranche. Although there is less historical charm here, the pristine landscaping, architecture and beautiful people make this a very unique must-see destination. Here you will find yourself surrounded by the ultra trendy and intimidatingly well-dressed Europeans who likely own second homes here (luxurious beach villas).
My reason for stopping in Cap Ferrat was simple. I am a loyal customer of Four Seasons hotels around the world, and I wanted to check out their latest acquisition. The Four Seasons recently purchased the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat and has implemented new management, restaurants, and aesthetic transformations in all aspects of the hotel decor and grounds. While I do think there is room for improvement, of course, the revitalization of this classic hotel is noticeable and profound. I had an incredible time enjoying a pool seaside brunch with live jazz music, a great crowd, and luxury service. The fresh flower arrangements throughout the lobby of the hotel and perfectly manicured hotel grounds made it obvious that this hotel would now be held to a Four Seasons standard. The olympic size pool is one of the main features of this hotel. If you are not a guest of the hotel, you can pay a daily “pool fee” and enjoy access to both the hotel’s beaches and pool. I highly recommend penciling in the Sunday brunch on your itinerary – you will be overwhelmed by a buffet of fresh raw bar items to hot brunch favorites and an ice cream sundae bar. This hotel is a must-see if you stop through the fabulous Cap Ferrat. Thank you for my stay here, Four Seasons, Ladyhattan will be back.
Embodying the classic glamour and timeless chic of the French Riviera, the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat, A Four Seasons Hotel, is the Côte d’Azur’s most legendary palace hotel – an icon since opening in 1908.
Lunch tables at Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat.
The flower arrangements in the lobby of the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat are updated daily. Fresh and fabulous every time you walk through the doors.
Make sure to book your stay here around the famous Sunday Brunch at the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat. Featuring a full raw bar buffet and live jazz music by a local band.
Guests enjoy the olympic size swimming pool. The hotel offers private swimming lessons daily.
A Strong Finish in Cannes
For our final stop on the French Rivierara itinerary, we finished in no better place than CANNES. Cannes, a resort town on the French Riviera, is synonymous with glamour thanks to its world-famous film festival. Its Boulevard de la La Croisette, curving along the coast, is lined with sandy beaches, upmarket boutiques and palatial hotels. It’s also home to the Palais des Festivals, a modern building complete with red carpet and Allée des Stars – Cannes’ walk of fame. With plenty to do in Cannes, I narrowed down a few of my “must see” spots and restaurants:
- Grab an espresso at the Armani cafe and take a leisurely stroll down Boulevard de la Croisette. Enjoy a palm tree lined street with views of famous designer shops and luxury hotels.
- Make sure to take a photograph on the famous red steps of the Cannes Film Festival located at Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, 1 boulevard La Croisette.
- Say a prayer in the most important church in Cannes, the Notre-Dame de l’Espérance was built in the 16th century and has a notable 17th-century Madonna on the high altar. There is also a wooden statue of Saint Anne that dates back to the 1500s.
- Spend the afternoon soaking up some sun at the beaches – public or private, your choice! The public beaches include the Macé Beach and the Zamenhof Beach, located off the Boulevard de la Croisette. These beaches charge a small fee (€4 – €7) for use of the lounge chairs and parasols. Hours are from 8:30am-6:30pm during the tourist season. Also available for public use (and free of charge) are the Plage de la Casino along the Boulevard de la Croisette, La Bocca Beach, a gorgeous beach with golden sand, and Mouré Rouge Beachnear the fishing ports.
- Most of the “fancier” beaches of Cannes are upscale private beaches that require entrance fees of €12 to €18. Ladyhattan prefers the private beaches for a variety of reasons – drink services, clean restrooms, comfortable lounge chairs and exclusivity from the cruise ship tourists who take over the public beaches. The most well-known private beach is Midi Plage, a beautiful private beach with a gourmet restaurant at the water’s edge. The restaurant serves regional specialties such as bouillabaisse and grilled fish on a lovely terrace. Midi Plage also offers a pleasant sandy beach with reclining lounge chairs and beach umbrellas. Other private beaches in Cannes include the Belle Plage and Royal Plage, both off the Boulevard de la Croisette.
- To dance, sip champagne and feel the true “clubbing” experience right on the beach, pay a premium and get your way into Baoli Beach (photographed below).
- If you find yourself with cloudy or overcast weather, forget the beach and go explore Le Suquet (Old Town). Perched on the slopes of Mont Chevalier above the bay, the Le Suquet district represents the original fishing village. In a picturesque hillside setting, this area offers exceptional views as well as Old World charm. Le Suquet has retained some of the ambience of centuries ago. As a tourist in this area you will enjoy the pedestrian only quarter with its narrow old staircases, pleasant courtyards, and interesting historic remnants, such as the city’s ancient walls.
- For a delicious meal, my favorites go to: Au Pot de Vin, Le Mesclun, Casa Mia (top Italian in Cannes), La Palme D’Or, and Sea Sens.
An early espresso at the Armani Cafe.
Private beach spaces floating on the oceanfront. Bottle service available.
After 7 exciting days, we have seen almost all of the French Riviera (or at least the very best of it). I hope this sample itinerary is helpful for planning and prioritizing your next big trip to the South of France! Until the next adventure, keep on dreaming and planning to see the world, Ladies! Until the next sweet escape.