The French Riviera, or Côte d’Azur as it’s called in French, is famous (and possibly infamous) for its beaches. There is an enormous variety in the approximately 125 kilometres of coastline between Menton and St Tropez, from pebbles to fine white sand, from long open stretches to small rocky coves, from urban built-up beaches to wild secluded ones, and just about everything in between. Here are my top 12 favourite beaches on the French Riviera.
You may have heard that you have to pay to go to the beach on the Riviera, or that they are all pebbly and dreadfully crowded. I want to show you that these rumours need not be true if you know where and when to go, so before I start please put aside any prejudices and expectations you might have and please don’t compare the beaches of the Côte d’Azur to beaches in Australia, South-East Asia, the Caribbean or any other beachy paradises, that would be like comparing apples to oranges.
There’s no getting around the fact that the South of France is popular; Nice and the Côte d’Azur are the second most visited destinations in France after Paris, and France is the world’s N° 1 tourist destination, so let’s face it, there are plenty of people around.
There’s a reason for this though, and that is that we have a wonderful climate in a beautiful part of the world (among other things). The département (county) where I live is called les Alpes-Maritimes because it’s where the Alps meet the sea. This geographical feature is relatively unusual and creates spectacular scenery and many different types of beaches.
If you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll know I love the area where I live and you’ll also know I’m very well travelled. I’ve been to beaches all over the world and while I probably wouldn’t describe any of the local beaches as my favourite ever, I really do genuinely enjoy the coast on the Riviera.
I love the variety, and that depending on what we feel like doing as a family on any given day, we can tailor the beach to our desires. There are places for snorkelling, places to go to jump off rocks, places where you can bodysurf or hire a sailing boat. There are city beaches with great restaurants or quiet island beaches with no facilities at all.
Here I’m going to show you some of my family’s favourite beaches in the Alpes-Maritimes, Var and even Monaco. They are all very different from one another and they are all free! I won’t be writing about the private beaches where you pay for a sun-lounger and waiter service as we almost never go to them, only very occasionally for a treat (without the kids).
Finally, before I get started there are a couple more things I’d like to point out about the Côte d’Azur. Firstly, it’s not called the Azure Coast for nothing, the water is gorgeously blue no matter what type of beach you’re on. Secondly, beaches east of Antibes are mostly pebbles or gravel, and going west you’ll fine sand. This should help you orient your choice. If you’re not familiar with pebble beaches and not sure you like the idea, take a look at this post I wrote explaining how to enjoy them, for there are plenty of reasons to like pebbles!
These beaches are in no particular order of preference. Where the name is highlighted in brown I’ve written about it in detail in another post so click through for further information. All these beaches are kid-friendly (what beach isn’t really, let’s face it, but some are more accessible than others for strollers and little people) and all are within one hour of Lou Messugo (Roquefort les Pins), most are significantly closer.
La Pointe de l’Aiguille, Théoule sur Mer
At a pinch possibly our favourite beach on the French Riviera as it offers so much: snorkelling, rocks to jump off, gentle shallow water access and not as crowded as some beaches as it involves a very easy 15 minute (flat) walk from the car park (just enough to put some people off!) La Pointe de l’Aiguille is sandy – a rich golden, grainy sand not fine white and has great views across to the mountains.
Villeneuve-Loubet is our closest beach and is thoroughly un-chic, which is what makes it appealing in my mind! It’s populated by ordinary locals not millionaires or wannabes and not even many tourists. We’ve never failed to find parking place even in the height of the summer season. A pebbly beach fun for water sports, evening picnics, gentle bodysurfing if windy and a quick dip.
La Gravette, Antibes
La Gravette is a sheltered city beach with soft white sand, close to the wonderful Provencal covered market for picnic ingredients and a snack bar on the beach in high season. There is shallow easy access into the water (though some parts are pebbly just at the water’s edge) and the water is calm. The beach has lovely views over the city ramparts, Picasso museum and Cap d’Antibes. Great for kids. Owing to the proximity of a decent size underground car park, parking is easy most of the year, which puts this very high on the list of our favourite beaches on the French Riviera.
Ile Sainte Marguerite, island off Cannes
Ste Marguerite island offers not one but many different beaches, some of which you’ll find may be empty even in summer. The trick is to get off the ferry and walk to the other side where there are plenty of tiny rocky coves, excellent for rock pooling and splashing around in. There is also a long(ish) sandy beach near the ferry jetty which gets pretty busy. St Honorat island also has rocky coves and is less visited than Ste Marguerite but is not so good for children as being run by monks you are supposed to be quiet! Excellent for adults though.
La Réserve, Nice
Now for something rather different. Nice is famous for its huge bay: one long pebbly beach (split into different names, some areas private, some public), but where we like to go is a little further from the centre, on the east side of the port, in a tiny rocky area known as la Réserve. You’ll never be alone here but it has a certain charm perching on the rocks and watching the daredevil teenagers jumping off everything and anything into crystal clear blue water.
Mala beach, Cap d’Ail
This beach is gorgeous. It’s the main reason I’m including it because its natural beauty makes it worth the difficult access. This small bay surrounded by high cliffs (and some pretty amazing villas) has two sections, with sand near the steps and pebbles further along. There are private and public bits, with a couple of restaurants, loos and water sports.
Did you note the mention of steps? That’s the problem here…well, it isn’t necessarily a problem but it’s not great for anyone with mobility issues because there are about 100 steps down from the road (and then 100 back up again at the end of the day!) However if you can make the effort you are rewarded with possibly the prettiest water on the Côte d’Azur, it’s an incredible sparkling mix of dark blue, turquoise, emerald and jade, and so very photogenic (my photo doesn’t do it justice). The other problem is parking, there almost isn’t any so you have to go very early or out of season (or on 2 wheels).
Les Calanques de Maupas, Estérel
The Estérel coast, where warm red rocks tumble into the sea dividing the Alpes-Maritimes from the Var (between Théoule sur Mer and St Raphaël) is home to a wealth of tiny creeks and bays. They all look inviting and tempt you in for a swim, it’s just finding access that can be the problem. The Calanques de Maupas is one place where there’s room to park and scramble down to stunning dark blue sea with rocks to jump off. There isn’t really a beach to speak of and because of this there aren’t many, if any, people there.
Plage Passable, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
Passable is a gravelly beach (not quite sand but not pebbles either) which needs to be pronounced the French way as its way more than just “passable” (in English)! It’s lovely! It’s especially fun for children who like jumping off jetties and not high rocks. It’s sheltered with a high stone wall on one side that radiates heat making it a warm place even out of season. During the summer the wall is covered in a magnificent bougainvillea adding to the already charming look of the place.
Port Gallice beach, Juan les Pins
Possibly our favourite beach to go to with little kids/toddlers, Port Gallice is completely sheltered, very calm and shallow for quite a way. The sand is fine and white. There are yachts moored nearby which stronger swimmers can swim out to. The port’s big car park is rarely full which makes taking lots of kiddie paraphernalia easy but the beach does get crowded. Best to go early.
Esclamandes beach, St Aygulf
Esclamandes beach is sandy, long, exposed and often windy making it a great place to fly kites, windsurf and even body surf. It’s quite different from the beaches in the Alpes-Maritimes, it’s wilder. There are areas that have private loungers for hire but it’s mainly public without many facilities.
Paloma beach, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
Named after Paloma Picasso who used to frequent it, this beach is another very picturesque place. It too is down a fair amount of steps but nothing like as many as at Mala. Paloma beach (pebbles) has a restaurant with private loungers and a reasonable proportion of the beach is free but it is only small so it can get crowded. I would suggest this beach is not as child-friendly as some of the others. Best to come early.
Larvotto beach, Monaco
For my final choice of favourite beaches on the French Riviera, I’ve chosen a beach that is yet again very different from the others on my list. In stark contrast to Esclamandes it is highly urban with tower blocks almost down to the water’s edge and yet incongruously the water is a marine reserve. This means there is plenty of fish which you can swim among, something that doesn’t happen much in this part of the Mediterranean any more unfortunately. The beach itself consists of tiny stones, nearer gravel than pebbles.
There is a sea wall along one side from where you can jump or dive into the water or use the convenient steps for easy access to the deep water. This beach is the main beach for the Principality for Monaco so it can get crowded. It has some great restaurants and lounge bars with private sections on the beach which are glamour encapsulated but the public part is reasonably spacious and down to earth (if that’s possible in Monaco!)
Parking is easy in an underground carpark that leads straight on to the beach. As well as the pricey restaurants there are ice cream places, a small children’s playground and a beach volley court (with sand). You’ll find a pontoon moored outside the area protected by the wall which stronger swimmers can swim out to. It’s not a beach I’d go to every day but it’s so different that it’s worth a visit, especially after a sightseeing session in the old town.
A final word of warning. During the summer the Côte d’Azur can be plagued by jellyfish which give painful but not dangerous stings. A telltale sign that there are méduses around is when there’s no one in the water on a lovely hot day. Here is a useful website that updates sightings daily so you can prepare your beach visit accordingly as they are never on every beach every day.
But let’s end on a more positive note, that is the length of the beach season on the French Riviera. It can start as early as late April and goes on till late October, early November. There are of course people who swim all year round and we go to the beach to walk and play throughout the winter. One of my favourite periods is late September early October when the water is still warm but the crowds have gone.
Voilà, so there you have it, a selection of some of my family’s favourite beaches on the French Riviera. There are many more in the area that I haven’t mentioned including the wonderful sandy beaches near St Tropez, but they are a bit far for regular day trips from Lou Messugo. Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments.
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