French Riviera, the sun, the beaches, the sea. The postcard we had in mind about Cote d’Azur is the classical view from Nice, with all these elements joined under the blue sky. But this is manifestly incomplete. This fantastic region has much more to explore!
Several of the best villages in Cote d’Azur are just a couple of kilometers away from the seaside. It’s easy to see why these wonderful small cities have been called home by several artists, especially during the 20th century. Of course, the warm climate of the Riviera plays a significant role in it. Plus, the landscapes are among the most beautiful in the world. Picasso and Matisse are only two of the most famous painters who lived here.
Among all different beautiful villages, we chose the three best spots that we think are a must-visit here. There is no ranking among them, and favoring one over the other is just a matter of personal taste.
Looking instead for the best villages on the coastline? Check out our guide of Côte d’Azur!
Delicious tip: A car is necessary to visit most of these places. The public transportation is unreliable. Furthermore, it’s pleasant to drive around these roads.
Vence, the pearl of Côte d’Azur
The village of Vence sits on top of the hills behind Cagnes-sur-Mer, at the border of the Parc Naturel des Préalpes d’Azur. It’s less than 30 minutes away from Nice, making it a perfect place for a half-day excursion from that city. Vence is a beautiful medieval walled village, developed around its cathedral. The church is the oldest building of the town, with some of the stones dating back to 4th century. Inside the cathedral, there is a mosaic from Marc Chagall. Walking around the city center is one of the best things you can do in Southern France. The small alleys create a fantastic atmosphere, like being thrown in a remote past. The village kept its original buildings from the Middle Ages, and its state of preservation is incredible.
On top of the beauty of the city, one kilometer far away from the town center there is a little gem waiting to be discovered. The Chapelle du Rosaire is considered the masterpiece of Henri Matisse. He started working on this small chapel (belonging to Dominican order) in 1947 when the artist was already suffering from cancer and was almost unable to move.
The chapel is the pure definition of spirituality. It doesn’t matter whether you are religious or not. This is a place where it’s difficult to keep emotions inside. Matisse designed every part of the building. He painted, painfully moving a long stick while sitting on top of a high chair, incapable of moving his legs, the three murals. On the bottom end of the chapel, the Via Crucis, with the 14 stations represented in one single artwork. On the right wall, the Virgin and the Child, with the abstract images of Mary and the young Jesus. Finally, on the right wall behind the altar, Saint Dominic, founder of the order owning the chapel. The altar is in an unusual position, placed diagonally with respect to the chapel. In this way, the guests and the nuns of the nearby convent could attend the mass together, at the same level.
A final note for the stained glasses. Matisse worked for many years with collages and decoupages, exploring the endless possibilities of juxtaposing bold colors next to each other. Here in his chapel the artist develops this concept by creating an incredible composition of colored glasses, brighten up by the morning sun. The effect is amazing, as the colors from the windows are projected on the white walls. This place is one of the greatest religious buildings in the world, something that goes beyond the concept of religion and touches the most hidden strings of everybody.
Delicious tip: the Chapel has weird opening times. Check the website a month before to plan your visit! You can reach it by walking from the city center, but it’s a steep ascent. Otherwise, you can take your car. You can find parking on the side of the road just in front of the building.
Mougins, Picasso’s last lover
Picasso lived the last 12 years of his life in a house-atelier just outside this city. He joined a plethora of other artists, politicians, and celebrities, who spent part of his life in this amazing village. Every part of this place is just picture-perfect. The sun enriches the limestone used for most of the buildings of the city, offering a delicious contrast with the blue sky. In the meantime, the wind carries the scent of the pines that surround the city. It’s just magnificent.
On top of that, Mougins is also one of the food capitals of the French Riviera. Paloma, two Michelin stars, is just outside the city walls, while L’Amandier, one of the best bistro in France and Alain Ducasse’s first workplace, is hidden in a small alley in the center of the town. Finally, we suggest checking out the Museum of Photography (free entry), where you can get one of the best views of the Cote d’Azur. We also recommend a visit to the Classic Art Museum. This small exhibition is beautiful, with ancient tools placed next to modern artworks, showing the influence classical world had on 20th-century art movements.
Èze, walking on the coastline
The most picturesque villages in French Riviera? Èze should be in this ranking. This small town is in a breathtaking position, directly on top of a cliff in front of the sea. Calling it a city would be improper though, as there are no residents. This village is like a museum, entirely composed of a maze of small pedestrian alleys and medieval buildings. Most of the buildings are now art galleries and souvenir shops. While this place felt a bit like an amusement park compared with Vence and Mougins, the real treat here is the view. Visit the botanical garden to get the best panorama over the region!
The best way to reach Èze is by taking the so-called “Nietzsche Path”. The name originated from the fact Friedrich Nietzsche lived in this village for a couple of years, while he was writing his book “Thus spake Zarathustra”. The trail starts from the village of Èze Bord-de-Mer (which is, guess what, on the sea!), and climbs to the village of Èze. The starting point is reachable by car, by taking the bus 100 from Nice, or by train stopping at the Èze station.
Do not be fooled by its relatively short length (it’s 1600 meters long), this is a very steep ascent, with almost 400 meters of difference in altitude. The landscapes from the road are incredible. The blue sky is reflected in the sea, with the cliffs and the forest surrounding it. Èze and its walls show gradually during the ascent, and the effect is stunning.
Delicious tip: do not even think to attempt the walk with flip flops or slippers. The road is steep, and it can become slippery. Grab a pair of closed shoes and walk in Nietzsche’s footsteps!
Several others villages would be worth a mention. Grasse, Valbonne, Gourdon, just for naming a few. After all, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world, so rent a car, grab your camera and explore this fantastic region!