Last Updated on 24th July 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
Postcard perfect villages, year ’round sun, and the glittering mediterranean sea: it doesn’t get much more dreamy than the Côte d’Azur, a slice of paradise on Earth in Southern France. Between medieval hilltop towns, modern metropolises, and countryside escapes, here’s your perfect 3 day French Riviera itinerary!
Things to know before visiting the French Riviera
First things first: the weather in Nice, and along the rest of the Côte d’Azur is unlike much of the rest of Western Europe. There’s a reason that the English flocked here in their masses during the 18th-century (to the point that Nice’s main seaside boulevard is now known as the Promenade des Anglais), and that reason is the climate.
Even if you’re visiting during the spring, you can expect to find temperatures in the late teens to early twenties, while Autumn also promises great weather. As such, pack plenty of layers so as to keep warm in the evenings and keep cool during the daytime. You’ll also want to pack a good pair of comfortable shoes to walk in; there are lots of cobbled lanes and during my recent time in the French Riviera, I regularly clocked up over 30,000 steps in a single day!
You should know before you go to the South of France that most people (especially those working in the tourist industry) have a great level of English and you shouldn’t find it too hard to order in restaurants, purchase attraction tickets, or use public transportation.
With this being said, French is still the main language of the area and it’s only polite to learn a few words of the local language, anywhere you go. ‘Hello,’ ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘sorry’ are all great places to start. Investing in a simple French phrasebook like this one will also help you greatly. Also, thanks to the Côte d’Azur’s position close to the Italian border, plenty of people also speak Italian.
Next, the easiest way to reach all of the destinations in this Riviera guide is by public transportation. Though you might be tempted to self-drive this itinerary, you’ll have plenty of parking fees, time, and most importantly, stress, by taking local buses and trains. After all, driving in cities like Nice and Monaco-Ville can be rather daunting, not to mention the scary passes along the Riviera coastline!
Day 1: Menton, Monaco & Eze
For your first taste of the sparkling Mediterranean, catch the train in the early morning to Menton from Nice-Ville station. The train takes approximately forty minutes and costs just a few euro. And if I could give you just one tip, it would be to make sure not to look at your phone the entire train journey. After all, this is one of the most stunning railway lines that Europe has to offer!
Once in Menton, you’ll need at least two hours to wander around the little lanes of the old town, marvel at the cathedral, and hike your way up to the Cemetery of the Old Château that offers breathtaking views over the entire city. Also of note in Menton are the stunning harbourside views of the colourful houses and the 17th-century church of Basilique Saint-Michel-Archange.
After enjoying the delights of the Italianate architecture of Menton, you’ll want to hop back on the train and head over to Monaco. (Alternatively, if you want to skip out on Menton and take a guided tour, then this Monaco and Eze Half-Day Tour from Nice is the excursion for you!) Just ten minutes away along the tracks, Monaco station can be found within walking distance of all the major attractions that this tiny principality has to offer.
Highlights of Monaco include exploring the Rocher de Monaco. This is where you’ll find historical highlights such as Place du Palais, which is the official residence of the Prince of Monaco. Each day, at 11:55 AM, you can enjoy the Changing of the Guard ceremony for free. Nearby, the Roman-Byzantine Saint Nicholas Cathedral was constructed in the 19th-century and is the burial place of Princess Grace of Monaco (formerly known as Grace Kelly).
Elsewhere in the tiny principality (which happens to be one of the smallest countries in Europe), there’s a plethora of other things to do. Head up to the very top to enjoy the botanical gardens with breathtaking views of the glistening Mediterranean, frequent the stamp museum, or marvel at the world-famous Casino de Monte-Carlo.
Following your stint in Monaco, it’s time to move on once more! There are two ways to reach Èze, but following an already long day of walking, you’ll likely want to catch the bus. Regular buses run between Monaco and Èze, full details of which can be found here. Alternatively, you can catch the train to Èze sur Mer before making the long trek up ‘Nietzsche’s Path’ to the top of the mountain.
Once in Èze you’ll soon discover a town that has changed little since medieval times. Winding cobbled lanes can be found intertwined with plenty of climbing vines, and in the spring, even wisteria. Though there are few ‘tourist attractions’ in Èze per se (with the exception of many souvenir shops), it’s worth noting that the Fragonard perfume factory offers free daily tours. Details can be found here.
Day 2: Saint-Paul-de-Vence & Vielle Ville Nice
Often dubbed the ‘second most beautiful village in France,’ there’s much more to Saint-Paul-de-Vence than just its towering belfry. Situated around an hour’s bus ride away from Nice (take the Bus 400 from the Promenade des Anglais- the timetable can be found here), this storybook town truly is a fairytale come to life.
Once operating as an almost city-state in its own right, the Middle Ages was a time of prosperity for St Paul de Vence, one of the oldest towns of the French Riviera. However, by the 20th-century the town’s fortunes had changed and many of the little winding lanes were in disrepair, while the ramparts were largely crumbling.
Prosperity was brought to Saint-Paul-de-Vence once more with the arrival of Soutine, Léger, Chagall and Calder, who would dine at La Colombe d’Or hotel in exchange for paintings. Now, you can admire the Folon Chapel, visit the final resting place of Marc Chagall, and lose yourself in the bougainvillaea lanes that all open onto breathtaking views of the Alpes-Maritimes countryside.
Afternoon: Vielle Ville Nice
To make the most of your time in Nice, you’ll want to discover the city over the course of at least a day and a half. Obviously, this is not nearly enough time to peel back the entirety of France’s 5th largest city, but of course, it’s a great start. The last stop on the number 400 bus will drop you close to Jardin Albert 1er, and from there it’s an easy walk to discover the old town portion of the city.
Some of the best things to do in Vielle Ville Nice include stopping inside the ever-so-stunning 17th-century Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate and purchasing a gelato from one of the many stores dotted around this area of the city.
Some of the better secret spots and hidden gems to uncover in this part of Nice include the Adam and Eve House (8 Rue de la Poissonnerie) and viewing the Roman stones behind the grills on Rue Barillerie. For even more off the beaten path activities, check out my guide to unusual things to do in Nice.
Day 3: Discovering Nice
All day: Nice
Day three of this three day French Riviera itinerary is all about uncovering the hidden side of Nice, as well as taking a little bit of time to relax on the beach, sip on a glass of rosé in a Boulevard-side café, or meander around a museum for a couple of hours. This is also a great opportunity to sample some local cuisine.
Highly recommended is tasting the local ‘socca’. This savoury dish is essentially a crêpe made from chickpea flour and the niçoise speciality and is largely consumed in Nice, Menton, and Monaco. Though you can opt for the ‘originale’ version (plain), many restaurants also serve variations with peppers, anchovies, and the like. And while many tourists believe that the best socca in Nice is to be found in the old town, it’s actually at Chez Pipo (13 Rue Bavastro, 06000 Nice).
Other must-sees during your third day along the Côte d’Azur include strolling down the Promenade des Anglais, all the while admiring the stunning Niçois architecture, paying a visit to the Musée Matisse, and enjoying the best view of Nice from the Colline du Château.
Finally, if you want to take part in a tour or guided excursion during your time in Nice, then there’s no shortage of attractions to enjoy. For example, this 1-Hour Sightseeing Cruise to Villefranche Bay includes incredible views and the chance to spy hidden gems such as Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, while this Guided Historical Walking Tour will help you to understand the history of the city a little better.
Where to stay on the French Riviera
Thanks to the ease of transport and access throughout the region, you’ll likely want to base yourself in just one location for a long weekend along the Mediterranean coastline. I personally recommend Nice as it has great transport links, an international airport just fifteen minutes from the city centre, and fantastic nightlife.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for something incredibly luxurious, then both Èze and Saint-Paul-de-Vence have their own wonderful historical hotels offering breathtaking scenic views and five-star accommodation. Check out the Chevre d’Or in Èze and Hôtel Le Saint-Paul in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.