There are many reasons why France is constantly jostling for the title of the number one holiday destination in the world. Most visitors are drawn to the elegant architecture and iconic landmarks of Paris, others want to see the châteaux of the Loire Valley or the beautiful towns of Alsace, and some just come for the food. In my opinion, the real gems are found in southern France.
The countryside’s natural beauty, the Mediterranean coastline and its sandy beaches, and the luxurious hotels and delicious food of the south of France only begin to describe its allure. There are charming old cities, medieval villages, striking mountains, dreamy beaches, and storied histories in this part of the country.
I’ve lived on the French Riviera for quite some years now, and I love luring friends who think they should spend their whole trip in Paris to our picturesque shores. Therefore, I am pleased to share my take on what to do in the south of France and how to have an amazing trip in the most beautiful regions of the country.
While “southern France” could encompass regions as far as the French-Spanish border, southwest France has a distinct identity. So, we’ll stick to the French Riviera and Provence below, saving the Pyrenees and most of Occitanie for another day. Read on to see why you need more time in these places than anywhere else in France!
- Most significant landmark – The Mediterranean Coastline
- Best park – Verdon Natural Regional Park, home to the Gorges du Verdon
- Best free activity – The Promenade des Anglais & its Beach
- Best activity for kids – Monaco Museum of Oceanography
- Best activity for adults – Drinks & Dining in St. Tropez
- Best food – Le Plongeoir in Nice
- Best nightlife – Waka Bar in Nice
- Best all-around accommodation – Le Méridien Nice
Best & Fun Things to do in the South of France
As you’ll see, most of the things I list below are towns and villages (and, in Monaco’s case, a country) – each one is a destination itself with many things to do there. I do my best to share the best things to do in each, as well as how much time to spend there. Most can be visited in a day, and don’t be surprised if you want to hit them all!
We’ll start with the biggest city on the Côte d’Azur and where you’ll probably be arriving: Nice, home to a major international airport and railway station with connections across Europe. This seaside city is steeped in history, culinary delights, and fantastic views.
Its most famous landmark is the Promenade des Anglais, the street and walkway that lines the Mediterranean. Don’t miss the opportunity to walk or bike it, especially to the eastern end, where the famous “I Love Nice” sign sits at the top of a panoramic hill. The beach here is made up of pebbles and small rocks, typical of the French Riviera, and very popular for sunbathing and swimming in nice weather.
On the other side of the promenade is the old town, made up of narrow cobblestone streets and charming old buildings. Its eastern end stops at Castle Hill, or the Colline du Château, which is a historic park with even more great views of the old town and promenade at the top. The old town and Castle Hill are great for guided walking tours to really understand the history and identity of this important city.
Other fun things to do in Nice include the Matisse Museum, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the flower market on the Cours Saleya, and nightlife at places like the Waka Bar. The best restaurant in Nice, and possibly on the whole riviera, is Le Plongeoir for its sea views, high-end atmosphere, and amazing food. For accommodation, my favorite hotel is the Le Méridien Nice – it has ocean and old town views, a great rooftop restaurant, and luxurious rooms.
See Related: A 2 Days in Nice, France Itinerary You’ll Want to Copy
2. Saint Paul de Vence
One of the most popular provencal villages to visit on the French Riviera is the medieval town of Saint Paul de Vence. This hilltop village will transport you straight back to the Middle Ages with its cobbled streets and medieval walls.
Located about 30 minutes from popular places to stay, such as Nice and Antibes, this small town is a popular day trip destination set slightly back from the seaside. Its narrow, pedestrianized streets are wonderfully peaceful and picturesque for wandering around. It’s a village famous for art, which you’ll notice from the many galleries throughout – and the scenery should explain exactly why it’s so popular to paint!
Just outside the walled town, there’s a Fragonard perfumery, famous on the Riviera for its fragrances made just a few miles from there. Some of the best restaurants for lunch are found on the western edge of town, near the walls and on the outskirts, where there’s more room for tables and chairs.
If you have a car during your trip, I like to combine Saint Paul de Vence with Gourdon, another very tiny village on an even higher hill overlooking the Côte d’Azur from the hinterland. Both are on the official list of the most beautiful villages in France. Without a car, you can also do this route on a guided tour from Nice, Antibes, or Cannes.
3. Gorges du Verdon
Another highly popular day trip from the coastal towns of southern France is to the Verdon Natural Regional Park, where you’ll find the famous Gorges du Verdon. This special place is also called the Grand Canyon of France for its striking natural scenery.
The Verdon River carves its way through a steep gorge surrounded by tall cliffs on both sides before emptying into the electric-blue Lake of St. Croix. It’s a popular route to drive alongside, but I recommend doing something even better – renting an electric or pedal boat, a kayak, or a paddle board on the lake and traversing the gorge via water. You can find plenty of places to rent these without reservations needed on the shores of the lake, and the trip up the river is simply spectacular.
After you’ve admired the gorges, head to the small village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, just 10 minutes away and also on the official list of the most beautiful villages in France. Here, you can have a lovely lunch, enjoy a town-center waterfall, and shop for local lavender products. By the way – if your trip is in June or July, you must plan to add a stop at one of the hundreds of lavender fields in this area.
This is a day really done best by car, but if you don’t have one, guided tours are available from Nice and nearby Aix en Provence. If you’re staying in the latter and lavender fields are high on your list, there are also tours made specifically for that.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in a Small Town
4. Aix en Provence
Speaking of Aix en Provence, usually just called Aix by locals (pronounce: ex), it’s a great destination as well. Larger than the other provencal villages but with picturesque, narrow streets in its historic center, it’s a popular starting point for those looking to visit the non-coastal part of southern France.
This was the hometown of painter Paul Cézanne, and fans of his work can tour his childhood home and his art studio. Some people consider Aix a university city, as the school here brings young people from all over France and even the world to study, giving the town a young and lively feel. There are tons of stores, both brand-name and local, and places to eat along its many old streets.
True history buffs might appreciate a walking tour of the city. Wine lovers will be very familiar with the variety from this region, specifically the rosé, and can find many winery day trips into the countryside. If you’re looking to explore much of this side of the Riviera and Provence, it may be worth spending a few nights in Aix – the Best Western Le Galice Centre Ville is comfortable and in a great spot.
5. Saint Tropez
Saint Tropez is somewhat synonymous with southern France – this little town is known as a holiday destination that the rich and famous frequent. You’ll find superyachts docked in its port, cobblestone streets crossing its old town, and some of the most beautiful beaches on the riviera just down the road.
To be honest, getting to Saint Tropez is a bit of a nightmare – after the highway, it’s just a single, two-lane road leading down the hill into the town, and it’s notorious for its constant traffic. A much more scenic way to arrive is by boat from Nice or Cannes, and it might even be faster!
Once there, you’ll find plenty of places to eat and shop along its famed port. You find even more by venturing further into the old town, with some great options on the Place des Lices, the town’s main square dating to the 1800s. Luxury and brand-name stores are all around Saint Tropez – there’s even a Dior Café.
While the town of Saint Tropez is iconic and worth a visit for first-timers, my real advice for the summertime is to go just a bit further south to the famous Plage de Pampelonne. This massive, sandy beach is truly one of the best in southern France for relaxing, watersports, and beachside dining.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Burgundy, France & Places to Visit
Cannes is another icon of southern France famous for its annual film festival and its many luxury hotels. Many visitors choose to stay here during their time on the riviera, but you can also easily visit Cannes on a day trip from most other places in the area.
Luxurious shops and cafés line one side of the Boulevard de la Croisette, while the other is where beach bars and restaurants set up chairs and umbrellas on the sandy beaches. A few blocks back, the Rue d’Antibes is another street for shopping – one of the most popular sports in Cannes.
May is the month of the famous film festival when dozens of stars descend on the town and walk the red carpet of the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès. While you probably won’t be able to access their exclusive parties and screenings, you can wait alongside the stairs to catch a glimpse of them or spot them around town. We got to see all of the stars of the Elvis movie in 2022!
If you’re a big cinema and Hollywood fan, you might consider a guided tour of Cannes given by a real screenwriter to most appreciate its local history and glamorous status. In the summertime, take to the water on a catamaran cruise to enjoy the peaceful Mediterranean Sea. Staying in Cannes is a great choice, as mentioned – if you want to do as the rich and famous do, stay at a luxury hotel like the Hôtel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes.
I don’t think any trip to the French Riviera would be complete without a visit to the principality of Monaco, outside France. This tiny country is just 30 minutes by train from Nice or about an hour from Cannes and Antibes and is undoubtedly worth at least a few hours of your time.
Of all the places I’ve already said are playgrounds for the rich and famous, it’s most true for Monaco. Here, every building, sidewalk, and garden is meticulously maintained for beauty. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Rolls Royces are normal to see parked on the side of the road or driving around here.
The famous Monte Carlo Casino, where you can try your hand at a slot or table game, is on one side of the country and a must-see. The prince’s palace, which recently opened for touring, and the Oceanographic Museum are a few minutes away on the other side. I recommend walking between the two, as you can stop at the Prince’s Automobile Collection in between.
You can also enjoy the convenience of the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour in Monaco to see everything, or consider a hidden gems guided tour for an insider’s look. I believe a day trip is sufficient for Monaco, but if you want to indulge in its luxurious glory, you can stay at a hotel within the principality, like the Fairmont Monte Carlo.
See Related: Most Photographed Cities in the World
8. Les Baux de Provence & Saint Rémy de Provence
I group these next two villages together because they are both quite tiny and directly next to each other, making for an easily combined day trip. Les Baux de Provence and Saint Remy de Provence are just west of Aix, near the (also lovely) cities of Arles and Avignon, in the countryside.
Saint Remy, the larger of the two, is famous for being where Vincent Van Gogh committed himself after removing his own ear in nearby Arles. He spent a year here, and some people consider his best work to have been produced during that time. You can tour his room at the St. Paul de Mausole Monastery, see the paint that remains on the floor, and see the views that inspired those paintings.
Just to the south, Lex Baux is a tiny village among the rocky mountains of the area that is on the official list of the most beautiful villages in France. The ruins of a medieval fortress sit at its highest point and offer displays of ancient weapons and daily life, as well as panoramic views of the old buildings below and the olive groves in the distance. It’s the perfect place for ice cream with a view.
You won’t be able to get to these places by public transportation, and having a car is the best way to see them at your own pace. Day trip tours are available from places like Aix en Provence and Arles if that’s not possible.
9. Pont du Gard
Close to the previous two small villages is the Pont du Gard, a stunning piece of the region’s Roman heritage that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s close enough to combine in a day trip with Saint Remy and Les Baux but also interesting enough to warrant its own day.
This massive aqueduct bridge was built in the 1st(!) Century, consisting of three tiers of arches crossing the Gardon River. It has withstood thousands of years of nature, war, and human development, remaining incredibly well-preserved and still standing strong.
The area surrounding the bridge has been turned into a sort of park. On the right bank, there is a restaurant and an interesting prehistoric cave, along with a nice network of hiking trails along the river and up to higher levels of the bridge. The left bank hosts more hiking and viewpoints, as well as the Museum of the Pont du Gard.
Buy a skip-the-line ticket to save time, especially if you are combining this with other nearby attractions, as it can get quite busy here. If you have the time, there are some great spots on the right bank to picnic, swim, and relax in little beach-like spots – I plan to bring a bottle of wine on my next visit!
See Related: Best Day Trips from Strasbourg, France
10. Calanques National Park
Hikers and adventurers will not want to miss exploring Calanques National Park. This vast expanse is located between the large city of Marseille and the small village of Cassis, and is best visited from the latter, which is reachable by train.
The park is filled with scenic hiking trails and beautiful beaches. A “calanque” is like a small cove, and this coastline is full of them. The rocky terrain on the shore has numerous narrow spots cutting inland for up to hundreds of feet, leaving sandy beaches at the ends.
Many trails cut through the park leading to spots on cliffs high above the sea, as well as to beaches on the calanques below. If you’re not a confident hiker, guided hikes are available, too. You can also get out on the water for a kayaking tour of this park’s coastline for a different perspective.
11. Èze Village
Many visitors consider the tiny hilltop village of Èze a do-not-miss when in the south of France, and I don’t disagree. Perched on a cliff right between Nice and Monaco, Èze is convenient and beautiful to visit.
Perhaps the most famous thing to do in Èze is to visit the Fragonard Perfume Factory and Laboratory, which is just outside the old village. The staff offers a free tour of the facilities where you can learn the perfume-making process and about many types of fragrances from one of the country’s most prestigious brands.
Up the hill, the village is composed of just a few windy, hilly streets. However, they are some of the most picturesque in the region. Wear appropriate shoes for exploring this town, as the streets are made of cobblestone and can be quite steep. That goes for the Jardin Exotique (Exotic Garden), too, and I’d also consider this hillside botanical walk a must-see here.
There are a few ways to get to Èze and enjoy its medieval charm. It’s easily reachable by car, and there are numerous tours from Nice and other areas on the Riviera that will stop in Èze. But if you like a good hike, take the train to Èze-sur-Mer, down by the sea, and walk up to the village on the Chemin de Nietzsche trail – it’s quite vertical but offers amazing views on the way.
See Related: Most Beautiful Small Towns in France
Just on the other side of the hills that back Nice to the east is the little fishing village of Villefranche-sur-Mer, sometimes just called Villefranche locally. It’s one of my favorite spots on the coast and is partially responsible for luring me to move to the region.
Villefranche is close enough to Nice that you could actually walk if you wanted to, either along the coast or up over Mont Boron via its trails. It’s also got a convenient rail station just two stops from Nice Ville. If you take the train to Monaco or elsewhere east of here, you’ll be captivated by the view of Villefranche’s massive bay and sandy beach from the window.
In fact, enjoying its long, sandy beach is one of my favorite free things to do in the south of France. In the summer, spots fill up very quickly, so arrive early. The locally-owned restaurants along the old town’s seaside offer some of the best seafood, pasta, and French cuisine I’ve had here.
You can also hike the nearby Chemin des Douaniers, a coastal path along the Cap Ferrat peninsula to the east of Villefranche, which has spectacular views of the bay and town across. There’s a great spot before the lighthouse where you can jump right into the water, too.
The last village you’ll come across before entering Italy is Menton. Some people refer to it as “the lemon town” as it’s famous for growing a local variety of citrus fruit, even hosting a massive festival to celebrate it each year.
It’s only fitting, then, that you’ll find many buildings painted in yellows and oranges in Menton. The best view of this is from Sablettes Beach – walk out to the end of the quay alongside the port for a great photo of the yellow church and surrounding buildings, the beach, and the mountains.
Every February, Menton hosts the Fête du Citron, or the Festival of the Lemon. Local artists put together massive sculptures made of lemons and oranges in the center of town, and parades run through the streets. You can buy lemon olive oil, limoncello, citrus jams, and all kinds of products from local producers.
See Related: Where to Stay in Alsace, France: Best Towns & Areas
14. Roussillon & Gordes
We’re going back to the hilly countryside of Provence for two more of the most beautiful villages in France – Roussillon and Gordes, which both made the official list. These villages are side-by-side and just over an hour north of Aix en Provence and about three hours from Nice.
Even most south of France locals I’ve met aren’t familiar with Roussillon, which is a shame, but great for crowds! Besides having a picturesque, very old historic center, the village is beloved for its Sentier des Ocres hike. This short, easy trail goes through a landscape of crimson-red rocks, cliffs, and sand that will make you think you’re somewhere in Utah.
It won’t take you more than two or three hours to do the hike and see the entire town of Rousillon, which is why you should pair it with Gordes, just 15 minutes away. This hilltop village is just generally beautiful, with old brick buildings making up its historic center and art galleries lining the streets. It’s a great place for coffee or lunch.
This combination is totally doable in a day trip from the Nice area if you are renting a car, but guided tours from there are less common. They are available from Aix en Provence, though, which you can reach by train if you want to see these wonderful little villages.
Finally, I’ve saved my favorite for last – the seaside town of Antibes. A fraction of the size of Nice and not as high-profile as Cannes, Antibes sits between the two on the Cap d’Antibes peninsula that you’ll probably see just before landing.
Antibes is made up of a few smaller neighborhoods. Biot, to its east, has a shoreline of pebble beaches just like those in Nice, and it’s one of my favorite places to spend a summer afternoon with a pizza. Juan les Pins is on the western side, with its famous summertime jazz festival, its sandy beaches, and the beach bars and clubs that line them.
In the center and on the peninsula is the old town of Antibes, a picturesque place lined by city walls and with a covered market in the center. There are countless great restaurants, cafés, and bars here. There’s also a museum dedicated to Pablo Picasso here with many of his paintings and drawings, as he spent considerable time on this part of the riviera.
The massive port is known as the superyacht capital of the world – there’s literally a section of it called Billionaire’s Quay (which goes nicely with Billionaire’s Bay, another real place with a nice beach on the peninsula). You can rent a boat (though it will be much smaller than the billionaires’) and explore the sea on your own if you’d like. I highly recommend considering staying in Antibes – the Hôtel La Villa Port d’Antibes & Spa is in a great spot and one of the best places in town.
What is the south of France known for?
Southern France, better known as the French Riviera or the Côte d’Azur, is known for its luxurious Mediterranean seaside, its beautiful provençal villages, and its rich history. Its claims to fame include the famous Cannes Film Festival, the perfume-making industry, and its many famous paintings and art galleries.
Is the south of France worth visiting?
Far too many visitors to France move on after a few days in Paris – there is a whole other (better) part of the country just a few hours south! Some of the most popular south of France tourist attractions include the glamorous city-state of Monaco, the picturesque seaside city of Nice and its famous Promenade des Anglais, and the numerous postcard-perfect villages like Saint Paul de Vence and Èze.
Are there any things to do in the south of France with kids?
Plenty of places to visit in the south of France are fun for the whole family. Children of all ages should enjoy the calm and refreshing Mediterranean Sea in the summertime, and you’ll find plenty of lovely beaches to access it. Kids will be just as in awe as their parents at the beautiful Gorges du Verdon, and there’s an ice cream shop on every corner in places like Saint Tropez and Nice. Don’t miss the Oceanography Museum in Monaco!
- Italy vs France: Which is Better to Visit?
- Most Beautiful Villages in France to Visit
- Most Famous Historical Landmarks in France
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