Christmas on the Côte d’Azur is full of fun, often full of good weather and probably a great deal more festive than you might think.
I’ve put together a round up of christmassy things to do and places to go on the French Riviera and nearby based purely on my family’s experience and interests. It’s far from exhaustive, just my ideas, so please feel free to add any events I’ve missed in the comments below.
Most towns in the area will have some form of Christmas market, perhaps with a theme, usually only for a day or two and nearly always in the month of December, not before (though there are some exceptions). Here are some of my favourites
Aix-en-Provence: the earliest market in the area. It usually runs from mid November to late December in the Cours Mirabeau consisting of regular chalet-style stalls selling everything and anything (gift based). There is also a separate market for the traditional 13 desserts of Provence in the week before Christmas in Place François Villon – Les Allées Provençales. Click here to find out more about the 13 desserts and here for exact dates.
Le Rouret: this lovely market lasts just for one day in late November or early December. Le Rouret Christmas market is billed as “pure tradition” in the sense of past times/olden days and differs from many others in that it focuses on traditional artisanal crafts with displays of past trades and people dressed up in period costumes. You won’t see much plastic tat here but you will find a lot of lovely produce and live farm animals for children to pet. I’ve written about it in detail here. My advice is to go early, it gets very crowded and parking can be a problem. To find the exact date check Le Rouret website.
Valbonne Village: one of my favourites, Valbonne Christmas market isn’t a “chalet” market, rather the streets of the old village are filled with market stalls just like every Friday morning but more of them, more christmassy and longer lasting. To get into the Christmas spirit there’s nothing like a wander around this market followed by a drink in the square and a mosey around the seasonal show by the church, town hall and river. Over the last couple of years this has been an incredible display of fire and lights. The market takes place in the 3-4 days up to and including 24 December. Full details of the programme (there are carols and other concerts, activities for children, a Santa race etc) can be found here.
Nice: the Christmas market is a classic affair of wooden chalets selling Christmas trinkets, jewellery, food, crafts, clothing and other gifts. It is normally held in and around Place Massena or Jardin Albert 1er where you’ll also find the Big Wheel, a children’s area of trampolines and bouncy castles, usually a merry-go-round shaped like a Christmas tree, oyster and champagne bars, vin chaud and a skating rink. The views from the giant ferris wheel are lovely and the atmosphere is always very festive here. Each year has a different theme and it usually runs from the first weekend in December to early January. Click here for dates and details.
Monaco: the Christmas market on the port usually has a food theme with plenty of chalets serving delicious seasonal and festive food from around the world. There’s also a big wheel here along with a small fair for children and a wonderful skating rink – the outdoor swimming pool on the port is turned into an ice rink for much of the winter. The market is open from early December to early January. Check here for dates and times.
Roquefort les Pins: my town of Roquefort has its own festive celebration showcasing Christmas around the world at its annual “Noëls du Monde”. A quarter of the population of the town is foreign and to honour this people from places as diverse as Poland, Peru, Holland, Haiti, Australia, Italy, Sweden, UK, Lebanon, New Zealand, South Africa and more come together to share their Christmas traditions with food, crafts and other specialities. It usually takes place on one day in mid December, on the same day as the main Christmas market which has stalls, animals, rides for kids, Santa, magic demonstrations and a walk by lamplight at 5 pm with hot chocolate offered by the Mairie.
Various vineyards: for something rather different, several local vineyards are holding Christmas markets. For an idea of what might be on take a look here (an old round-up of wine themed Christmas fun from where you can click through to specific vineyards for updated news).
Other locations: there are always plenty more small Christmas markets selling unique handmade or exclusively imported gifts in private houses, hotels, schools, churches etc across the region throughout the festive period from late November onwards. A good place to find them advertised is through this useful Facebook group Côte d’Azur Living, South of France (this is also a good place to find out about carol concerts).
Decorations & Illuminations
Lucéram: one of the highlights of Christmas on the Riviera has got to be visiting the lovely perched village of Lucéram to see the display of hundreds of Nativity scenes (creches/cribs). It’s so very different from regular town Christmas decorations, unique and wonderfully festive. Read all about it here. The village is decorated from early December to 6 January.
Nice: Nice’s Christmas illuminations are always rather lovely centering on Place Massena and the water mirror/fountains in the Promenade du Paillon, the streets around Massena, Ave Jean Medecin, Place Garibaldi, the Promenade des Anglais and around Cours Saleya. There’s always a giant Santa opposite Lenval (the children’s hospital) on the Prom for the unlucky kids in hospital over the festive season to look out at and several large postboxes dotted around town to send Christmas wish lists to Father Christmas. See plenty of photos here.
Shows and carols
Another option for The Nutcracker is to watch a live cinema screening from The Royal Ballet at CIV cinema or any of the other venues that offer live cinema screenings on the Côte d’Azur (to find out more about live CINEMA screening click here).
Valbonne Christmas Spectacle, as part of the Christmas market in Valbonne village there is always a magnificent show of some sort usually involving fire and or lights. Check the website for details (information often not available till December). This event is FREE.
In early to mid December there are usually carol concerts in English by local choirs Riviera International Singers and Big Blaze Chorus. Don’t be put off by out of date websites, if you want to have a listen to carols and festive music then get in touch with the choirs through the links I have provided! There are other Christmas and Advent carol services at Anglican churches throughout the region.
Skating at outdoor pop-up rinks has become an integral part of Christmas fun in many places around the world and the Côte d’Azur is no exception. My family love the rink at Monaco (the pool on the port is transformed into a rink for 3 months every winter). Skating to the backdrop of sailing boats and super yachts under a bright blue sky in mid-winter is an unbeatable experience! (It’s also rarely crowded, you aren’t limited in time and you don’t have to book.)
Patinoire à ciel ouvert Monaco Port, open nearly every day from early Dec to end Feb.
If you want to have a mountain experience, hopefully surrounded by some snow, the pop-up rink in Auron is rather lovely. Open every day from December to the end of March (weather permitting).
Nice Place Massena, open every day from 11 am – 8 pm (sessions of 90 mins) while the Christmas market is on.
If you’re after something typically local to Provence and traditional at Christmas then do take a look at Santons. These are clay figurines that come in many different shapes and sizes from standard Nativity scenes to more original characters from village life. They are used to decorate houses at Christmas time and are available at most Christmas markets and at special fairs “Foire aux Santons” in a number of places. They are highly collectable and make great gifts too. To find out more about Santons click here.
Here are the locations of some Foires aux Santons on the Côte d’Azur and nearby. The biggest and best is further afield in Marseille. Click on the links for dates and further details. Mouans-Sartoux, Aix-en-Provence and Valbonne.
I have tried to keep all links relevant but I’m constantly amazed at how useless many websites are and plenty aren’t kept up to date, sorry if the information you are looking for doesn’t come up! For a very thorough programme of festivities in the Alpes-Maritimes check here, though pay attention to the dates as even here some information isn’t always up to date!
If you’re interested in finding out more about Christmas in France in general then you might like to take a look at the following posts from the archives:
The traditional bain de noël or Christmas swim. How can you not love a part of the world that regularly has this kind of weather during December? There are Christmas dips in Cagnes sur Mer, Villeneuve-Loubet (plage de la Fighière) and Nice from the first week of December onwards.
What do you like to do to get into the Christmas spirit? Please add any suggestions in the comments below.
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