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The Ultimate Long-Weekend Guide to the French Riviera

Four perfect days in Nice, Cannes, Monaco and beyond.

cruising Monte-Carlo through Casino Square Photo: Courtesy of Hotel Metropole Monte Carlo

So you’ve got a long weekend to escape to the French Riviera, that 120-mile stretch of coastline sandwiched between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea. The well-known jewel of southeastern France first became synonymous with glamour in the 19th century thanks in part to British aristocracy who began vacationing there. In 1864 the first railway service made Nice and the rest of the Riviera more accessible, drawing in Queen Victoria. And by 1887 the region’s Cote d’Azur moniker, taken from the title of a Stéphen Liégeard book, emerged and then stuck—with good reason, too. In the blue coast, what you’ll encounter today is the same dazzling spectrum of blues that drew Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Auguste Renoir and the world’s biggest stars. Though the region combined is roughly the same size as Massachusetts—you could technically drive from one end to the other in three hours—set your pace with the crowd. Order a glass of rosé and park yourself at a cafe or oceanside for a few hours in-between sightseeing. In other words, slow down.

Monaco aerial view

Monaco  Photo: Courtesy of Monaco Press Center

MONACO

Long known for drawing movie stars and high-stakes gamblers, this constitutional monarchy that measures just over a mile once earned its principal source of revenue from orange and lemon groves. When the principality shrunk by 95 percent to its current size in the mid-19th century, the royals had to reinvent the economy. And that’s where Casino de Monte-Carlo—the casino from Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale—came to exist. Today, Monaco’s opulence extends from the Cartier store to the buses. But what you’ll also find is a city in the midst of metamorphosis. The brand-new One Monte Carlo luxury apartment complex has introduced an open-air shopping concept that stands in stark architectural contrast to the surrounding hotels. There are cranes in the sky and cranes on the shore devoted to building land into the ocean so more of Monte Carlo can exist.

WHILE YOU’RE THERE 

Play A Few Hands

Perhaps the most iconic and glamorous of the world’s casinos, Casino de Monte Carlo is also the only one with clocks. There’s a story there, of course: Before the Hotel de Paris was built, before there was ever a place to overnight in Monaco—a train pulled right into Casino Square so gamblers could gamble and then get home. The train has long since disappeared, but the analog clocks remain.

But Before You Leave . . .

Check out Le Train Bleu, the bar/restaurant some locals call the best-kept secret in Monaco. Situated just beside the entrance to the casino’s first gambling parlor, the dark-wood and tufted-leather paneling evoke the inside of an old-fashioned train car. Have a drink or try chef Thierry Saez-Manzanares’s linguine with prawns, fresh peas and Tuscan pancetta.

Get to The Garden

Suddenly finding yourself at the edge of a cliff erupting with cacti and succulents from faraway places feels almost baffling at first—like walking into a Seussian pocket tucked within Monaco’s elegant facade. Even if the subterranean cave isn’t open, wandering the Jardin Exotique’s snaking stone pathways is a completely delightful way to spend an hour and a few Euros. 

But Before You Leave . . .

At the end of the garden follow a walkway that leads straight to Villa Paloma, an intimate contemporary art museum where the staff is thoughtful, and the space isn’t overcrowded. Through November 3, Ettore Spalletti’s provoking blue-and-pink paintings are on display along with a beautifully rendered hour-and-a-half-long documentary by Alessandra Galletta.

Venture Over to The Rock

Head next Place d’Armes for clusters of cafes with outdoor seating and a market hall with local bites. Then walk up to the Royal Palace where the changing of the guard ceremony takes place daily at noon. Afterward, wander through the slivers of streets cutting through old town.

But Before You Leave . . .

Casino Square is pretty much the catwalk of the world’s great automobiles, but if that’s not enough eye candy for you, head to Terrasses de Fontvielle for an up-close look at Prince Rainier III’s private collection, which he began amassing in the 1950s. It includes a 1903 De Dion Bouton, a 1948 Delahaye 135 MS and nearly 100 other models.

Princess Grace Suite Hôtel de Paris

Princess Grace Suite at Hôtel de Paris  Photo: Courtesy Hôtel de Paris

WHERE TO STAY

The Crown Jewel

You can tell a lot about a hotel simply by looking at it. And man, is there a lot to look at inside the Hotel de Paris, which wrapped a $280 million renovation in March. Take, for instance, the two-story Princess Grace suite that starts at nearly $40,000 per night and features a private roof-top infinity pool, a bathtub where roses from Princess Grace’s garden bloom outside the window, books from her personal collection on loan from the palace. But one of the things that separates the Hotel de Paris from others that share its five-star wattage is the staff, whom the hotel management have provided empathy seminars to in recent years—lessons in listening and understanding.

Other classics: Just around the corner, is the Hotel Hermitage Monte-Carlo, an elegant Belle Epoque–style property with a glass-dome ceiling designed by Gustave Eiffel; and Hôtel Metropole Monte-Carlo featuring a Karl Lagerfeld–designed pool.

WHERE TO EAT

Chic Finger Food

With Otis Redding playing through the speakers and Bento trays that elegantly compartmentalize a whole bunch of starters that draw from chef Marcel Ravin’s Martinique heritage, the newly opened Made One sets a playful and fresh tone in Monte-Carlo. Order the codfish cakes with toothpicks through the center or smoked salmon finger sandwiches for an afternoon snack with a glass of wine.

The Perfect Soufflé

In a city with enough Michelin stars to light up the night sky, Le Grill boasts one of them. Its eighth-floor location inside Hotel de Paris was proposed by one of Aristotle Onassis’s partners who liked the idea of a restaurant with a view. This view, which reveals all of Monaco and a tiny stretch of Italy, is indeed noteworthy. As is chef Franck Cerutti’s lamb and the enormous soufflé. Our suggestion: Opt for the Gran Marnier version, Prince Rainier III’s favorite. The waitstaff will ask you to create a window in the top of it using a spoon, and then splash a generous pour inside.

Where Waves Are the Soundtrack

The shuttle to Monte-Carlo Beach, a waterfront club featuring a pool filled with heated seawater, lasts only 10 minutes. But when you’re sitting there, on the terrace of the India Mahdavi–decorated hotel and restaurant that epitomizes 1950s Riviera glamour, you’ll feel a world away. At Elsa, the first 100 percent organic Michelin-starred restaurant, enjoy the barbajuan, a velvety spinach and ricotta-style ravioli.

Cover the Table with One Of Everything

At Alain Ducasse’s brand new Mediterranean-focused restaurant, Ômer, small plates influenced by Morocco, Greece and Turkey steal the spotlight. From perfectly-cooked pekin-glazed octopus served over lentils, to cod egg and hummus spreads, lamb ravioli and artichoke pie—the food is best when shared amongst the table. Take advantage of the genial disposition and extensive knowledge of sommelier Mathias Negro, who can assess what you like in a wine and then offer adventurous alternatives (i.e. B-Qā de Marsyas, a Lebanese white, with seafood). You can also reserve the private wine rotunda for an intimate mezze and wine pairing.

Flying Monacair helicopter over Monaco

Monacair  Photo: Courtesy of Monacair

RECOMMENDED BY THE LOCALS

Catch a concert under the night sky at Salle des Etoiles, where the roof disappears each summer. Or, for the ultimate VIP dinner experience, catch Alain Ducasse’s eleated cuisine in the Aquarium—the chef hosts private dinners in the glass-enclosed space within the kitchen of his three-Michelin-star Le Louis XV restaurant. Or hop over to Chez Bruno—literally—by booking one of Monacair helicopters. The company can also fly you from Monaco to Nice’s airport in just under 10 minutes.

 

CANNES

This glittering town, with its waterfront streets and megayacht-filled docks, is imprinted with cinematic cachet—literally. Stroll down the famed Boulevard de la Croisette, an old fisherman’s port where the film festival takes place each June, and you’ll find the handprints of Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, Vanessa Redgrave and dozens of other industry monoliths. Despite the boats, Cannes is also an idyllic walking town. Whether you’re winding up through the cobblestone streets of the Suquette (suq means “top” in old French) where Cannes natives party, or through the boutique-crammed Rue d’Antibes—pack comfortable footwear. 

Cannes boat show

Cannes  Photo: Cyril Charpin

WHILE YOU’RE THERE

A Quick Site-See

For views of the city and the Vieux Port marina, take a stroll up to the Church of Our Lady of Esperance on Rue de la Castre, situated at the highest point of La Suquette. Construction on the medieval-style church, which began in the 16th century, lasted over 100 years. Even if you arrive early morning, when the streets are empty and the charming pistachio-hued shutters of the surrounding village are still closed, peer through the keyhole on the church’s giant wooden doors for a glimpse of the stained glass inside.

Local Flavor

Tuesday through Sunday morning, Forville fruit market on Rue du Marché Forville at the foot of the Suquet teams with energy. You’ll find far more than fruit, too: cheese to be sampled, logs of it sometimes stuffed with logs of salami; fresh flowers for smelling; simmering frog legs; olive tapenade; confit readily passed out by local vendors. The market isn’t massive, and certainly isn’t frilly, but it’s chock-full of charm.

Venture Offshore 

Since the fifth century, Île St. Honorat has been home to a community of monks, 21 of whom still reside there. Despite being only a 20-minute ferry ride from Cannes, the island—with its verdant fields, palm trees and unmoored rocky coastline—is transportive. Set aside two to three hours to tour the monastery and Roman-style Abbaye that’s blanketed with roses, geraniums and delicate petunias. In addition to the honey sold in the gift shop, you can also purchase wine produced from the eight hectares (ACRE) of grape vines on the island that yield up to 30,000 bottles of wine annually. There are four varieties of red, three white—all of them with a comparatively higher density of alcohol and price tag.

WHERE TO STAY

The Ultimate in Art Deco

A 2018 Pierre-Yves Rochon redesign of the Hotel Martinez’s 409 rooms preserved the Art Deco mystique of this 1929 icon while adding a sleek dose of modernity. Wrought-iron gated balconies overlooking the Mediterranean compliment the pastel blue-and-cream room palette. At more than $50,000 per night, the 18,000-square-foot penthouse suite remains one of the largest in Europe. Just don’t check out before snapping a picture on the winding staircase that spindles all the way through the center of the hotel.

Other Hotels: A few doors down, there’s the century-old Intercontinental Carlton, another Hollywood favorite. Or the slightly more removed Hotel Tiara Yaktsa, perched above the Corniche d’Or roadway that connects Sant-Raphaël to Cannes six miles away

Hotel Martinez

Hotel Martinez  Photo: JF Romero

WHERE TO EAT

Breakfast

Order the cake of the day (goji berry when we were there) or an açai bowl at Noväa Social Food, a vegetarian outpost that opened less than a month ago. The barista serves up java in colorful tin mugs plated on matching trays. An assortment of teas and fresh juices are also available. By the time noon rolls around, bowls of overflowing Mediterranean salads fill the glass display case.

Lunch

For an old-town atmosphere, head to Les Relais Des Semailles, a traditional Provence-inspired restaurant inside a 17th-century building. The exposed beams, shallow ceilings, stone walls and upstairs fireplace exude charm. The food is simple and at $40 for a three-course lunch menu, very reasonably priced.

Dinner

Once a year, when the Cannes Film Festival judges gather at the two-Michelin-star La Palme d’Or, Chef Christian Sinicropi serves up a cinematic menu inspired by the festival president. For 2019, for example, Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu landed himself a Birdman-inspired radish salad and Revenant beef pie. But most nights, expect inventive French cuisine served in three “movements” on ceramic plates designed by the chef’s wife. A word of advice: Say oui, when asked whether you’d like to sample the pre-dessert cheese trolley. A connoisseur will help you narrow down three options from the dozen-plus that are available atop the rolling cart.

WHERE TO DRINK

Daytime

Under the helm of beach director Sam Chescoles, La Plage du Martinez reopened in April with a new look, new menu and new summer party program that fuses old Hollywood with a touch of Miami. The extensive cocktail menu spans spicy kumquat margaritas and guava Daiquiris, best enjoyed with the restaurant’s reinterpretation of fougasse—a local specialty that’s “like pizza but not pizza,” as a local told us. Or the Choco Loco, a giant chocolate-encrusted slab of frozen yogurt that’s topped with fresh fruit and compote drizzles, table side.

For Evening

Stop for a glass of wine at La Môme’s horseshoe-shaped cocktail and raw bar. The space is a chic mix of wood paneling, velvet and leather and the location is prime—situated between Rue d’Antibes and La Croisette.

 Late Night

Grab a seat on one of the terrace stools at Charly’s Bar, a low-key stone cave hangout in the Suquet, and people-watch into the night—or follow the crowd and bar-hop through the bustling nook it’s situated in.

WHAT THE LOCALS RECOMMEND

Journey to Grasse

Drive 20 minutes inland to Grasse, the heart of a perfume industry that has been prospering since the 18th century. With an abundance of water and farmland far enough from the ocean air, flowers thrive. July is lavender season, while August is sunflower season the time to catch the Fête du Jasmin festival. While you’re there, tour the widely regarded Fragronard Factory, which includes a Perfume Museum on the upper floor. Or stop by the newly opened 1000 Flowers boutique in old town where perfumer Jessica Buchanan offers in-house bespoke fragrance consultations.

Rosé All Day

Located about an hour drive west of Cannes, Château D’Esclans is home to the Whispering Angel rosé empire and a stunning 108-acre vineyard comprised mostly of Grenache grape vines—some of which are nearly a century old. Book your tour and tasting in advance. 

If You’ve Rented A Boat

Look out for Catamaran Pizza, a red sailboat floating between the Iles de Lerins with a banner down the middle of the mast that simply says “PIZZA.’ The folks that run it cook 20 different varieties of pies aboard the boat. It’s funny and practical and instead of soda, they’ve got Champagne.

Château D’Esclans

Château D’Esclans  Photo: Courtesy of Château D’Esclans

NICE

Nice’s sprawling metropolis—the fifth largest in France—includes a vibrant old-town district with a down-home feel that’s not to be overlooked. Aside from a legacy shaped by artists and writers who came to visit and sometimes stayed (ahem, Matisse), Nice is best known for its cuisine—a Franco-Italian mashup that ditches butter for olive oil and veers heavy on the garlic, chard and tomatoes. Should the flavors leave you hankering for more of Italy, there’s a five-hour ferry that shuttles back and forth to Corsica seven days a week.

Promenade des Anglais in Nice

Promenade des Anglais in Nice  Photo: H. Lagarde

WHILE YOU’RE THERE

Take A Stroll

The palm-lined Promenade St. Anglaise has been written about by James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and Ernest Hemingway. With ornate 19th- and 20th-century edifices on one side and the ocean on the other, you can walk, hop in the water, keep walking and then repeat along this four-mile stretch. If the Opéra de Nice’s elaborate exterior captures your attention, stop inside for a 2 pm tour before wandering into old town for a pan bagnat at local-favorite A Buteghinn’a.

Flora and Fun

Sample local cheeses spanning the very fresh to the very aged (which look more shrunken) at the Marche aux Fleurs Cours Saleya, one of the Riviera’s most famed markets. You’ll find everything from local strawberries quaintly presented in miniature baskets, a dozen different varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and a section lush with local flowers. What you’ll also get here is the opportunity to plant yourself in the middle of the community’s social scene. It’s the place where neighbors, friends and regulars come to chit-chat.

The Three Corniches Via Convertible

Aston Martins are hard to drive. You’ve got the steering wheel on the right, and in the Riviera there’s also the matter of narrow roads—the perpetual “I’m about to get side-swiped” feeling. So rent one from Rent A Classic Car and have a skilled chauffeur guide you through the Three Corniches—the panoramic roadways that connect Villefranche-sur-Mer, Cap Ferrat, Èze and all the famous mansions in between (Madonna’s place, Bono’s digs, the chateau where the Rolling Stones wrote Exile On Main Street). With about 300 days of sunshine annually in these parts, you’ll want to opt for a convertible.

 WHERE TO STAY

In the heart of Nice, there’s Villa Victoria, a restored townhouse with old-school appeal and a bougainvillea-blanketed garden. For one of the area’s best views, check into Château de La Chèvre d’Or in Èze, a medieval village perched high up in the cliffs. The drive is about 30 minutes east of Nice.

Château de La Chèvre d’Or in Èze

Château de la Chèvre d’Or in Èze  Photo: Courtesy of Château de la Chèvre d’Or

WHERE TO EAT

Niçoise Lunch Feast

Family-run for four generations since 1927, Chez Acchiardo on Rue Droite offers a fantastic selection of typical cuisine and has hospitality in spades. Start with a kier (black currant liquor with white wine) and an appetizer platter that includes Pissaladière (a flatbread topped with caramelized onion), Les Petits Farcis (miniature meat-stuffed tomatoes, peppers, eggplants) and Panisse (rectangular fried chickpea flour cakes). With an atmosphere shaped by weathered white stone walls, red gingham place settings and label-less bottles of local wine placed on the table, diners are made to feel like locals.

More Dining: Michelin-star chefs in the area head to the equally casual La Table Alziari for stuffed sardines and homemade ravioli served with a rich beef sauce. For La Socca—a salty chickpea flour bread that’s like a crepe-tortilla-hybrid—head down the block to Chez Theresa, which delivers the specialty around town via bicycle.

WHAT THE LOCALS RECOMMEND

For a quick cardio boost, Studio Cyclone, the Soul Cycle of Nice, offers 45 minute whole-body workout sessions as early as 7:45 in the morning. Afterward, treat yourself to an ice cream cone. Italians living in the area will tell you Arlequin Gelati on Avenue Malaussena rivals anything you’ll find in Italy. Each of the ingredients used (pistachio, fig, hazelnut, coffee, mint, vanilla) are sourced from very specific places for heightened flavors. And given the city’s rich art history, visit contemporary gallery Espace a Vendre or the French art museum and school Villa Arson.

 

 

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