One of the greatest things about the Côte d’Azur is its proximity to the mountains and nature. You don’t have to go far to find yourself surrounded by unspoiled countryside and wild natural landscapes. And it is in the heart of this beautiful inland area that you’ll find some of the best places to get up close and personal with some rather unusual animals. If you enjoy visiting wildlife reserves, animal parks and zoos then you’re in for a treat because this area has some pretty interesting ones. As well as tortoises, wolves and bison in gorgeous mountain locations, the Côte d’Azur also has one of the world’s oldest aquariums and a charming urban zoo. Here is my pick of the best wildlife reserves, animal parks and zoos in the Côte d’Azur area.
The Biological Reserve of the Monts d’Azur
This 700 hectare reserve in the mountains behind Grasse was created with the aim of bringing back native wild animals from prehistoric times; the animals that roamed the area before humans all but wiped them out. Safari parks in Europe are usually all about animals from Africa and Asia, but this park is unique in that it showcases its own native animals, not those of another continent!
The Monts d’Azur reserve is home to European bison (Europe’s largest native mammal), roe deer, wild boar, Przewalski horses (the only species of horse never domesticated by man and the closest to a prehistoric horse), red deer, chamois, royal eagles and vultures. Wolves are also starting to come back naturally though you are not likely to see any.
The reserve covers an open prairie surrounded by Alpine forest and cliffs. It’s a beautiful natural setting and very peaceful. At 1000 m altitude it’s cooler than on the coast and you’ll feel a million miles from the busy Côte d’Azur.
Visiting the reserve you have the choice of a guided walk (90 mins) or a horse-drawn carriage with guide (60 mins). Or snowshoes and dog-sledge in winter if there’s snow. The walking tour covers rough ground so wear appropriate shoes. It is not possible to wander freely around the park owing to the presence of wild animals at liberty but with the guides you get up pretty close to the animals (certainly close enough to enormous bison for my liking!)
Tours are available in several languages and because visitors to the reserve are limited in numbers you must book in advance (at least a couple of days). We found our guide to be very friendly, knowledgeable and passionate about conservation.
On site there’s a souvenir shop, toilets, café and playground for kids. It’s also possible to reserve lunch in the restaurant and even stay overnight in a variety of accommodation including eco-lodge glamping tents.
Opening Hours: 1 Dec – 31 March Wed – Sunday 10 am – 4.30 pm, 1 April – 11 Nov during school term Wed – Sunday 10 am – 5 pm, school holidays every day 9 am – 5 pm.
Price: from 10€ – 22€ depending on age and activity.
Location: Thorenc, 1 hour’s drive from Nice.
Alpha Parc Wolf Reserve
**** UPDATE OCTOBER 2020 Alpha Parc is sadly closed for the forseeable future having been badly damaged in the floods of 2 Oct. I’ll keep you informed if it opens again ****
Wolves used to exist in the wild in the southern Alps but were hunted to extinction in the 1930s. Since the 1990s they have been making a comeback and this park sets out to showcase 3 different viewpoints of how the wolf can or cannot co-exist with sheep farming. Set in the beautiful surroundings of the Mercantour National Park at Alpha Parc you get to view wolves in their natural habitat and learn all about the pros and cons of their return through an excellent audio-visual presentation (in French but you can get headsets for other languages at the ticket office).
There are 3 packs living in the park in separate areas and just be warned that as they live in natural forest sightings cannot be 100% guaranteed. Having said that I have never been disappointed. One way to make sure you absolutely do see the animals is to go during feeding times which you can find out from the information desk. The first one is usually around 11 am though do check to be sure.
Chamois and hares also live naturally in the forest so you may get lucky and spot one. During the summer there are daily birds of prey shows and there is also a small petting farm. It is possible to book a “keeper for the day” experience at a (high) extra cost. The site includes a café, shop, toilets, picnic tables and a children’s playground.
The park is located at 1500 m altitude so be prepared, even in summer it can be cool and the weather can change rapidly. In winter there is likely to be snow. The visit is along forest tracks and quite steep in parts. Sturdy footware is advisable. For a full write up about Alpha Parc check here.
Opening Hours: every day from April till 11 November, then only open to the public during local school holidays. Closed on Christmas day and 1 January. 10-6 in July – August 10-5 the rest of the year.
Price: free (under 4) to 14€ depending on season and age. Family prices available.
Location: In the hamlet of Boréon near St Martin Vésubie, 1 hour’s drive from Nice.
Le Village des Tortues – Tortoise Village
The tortoise village is a located in the heart of the Var in the native area of an endangered species, the Western Hermann’s Tortoise. It has been set up as a centre of education and conservation, to help understand and protect not only the local tortoises but 50 species from across the globe, many of which are endangered.
The park covers 2 hectares of natural scrub land where 1500 tortoises live in sympathetic enclosures. Species from warmer climates are housed in a large glass house. The animals vary from tiny aquatic tortoises and fresh water turtles to huge land creatures and are easy to spot if you come on a sunny day, ideally in the morning, in spring and summer.
Feeding time is advertised as 10 am daily but the day we visited was apparently an exceptional fast day! From November to February when Mediterranean tortoises are hibernating it’s possible to visit the hospital to find out more about the conservation and care of the animals.
There are guided visits every day at 10.30 and 2.30 in French. You can book a tour in English if reserved in advance. We didn’t take a tour and found the signs (in French and English) informative enough for our level of interest.
There is a small gallery of art and curiosities related to tortoises and a conference room for lectures, a café (only open from April to October from 12-2 pm), toilets and a small play area for kids. This quirky animal park is probably not for everyone but will hugely appeal to those with an interest in reptiles, conservation and most younger kids.
Opening Hours: 15 March – 15 Oct 9 am – 7 pm, 16 Oct – 14 March 9.30 am – 5 pm, Dec & Jan Wednesday and weekends only.
Price range: free –under 3) to 15€ depending on age.
Location: In Carnoules, in the Var, 1 hour 20 mins from Nice.
Parc Phoenix, Nice
Parc Phoenix is a 7 hectare botanical and zoological urban park with around 2000 animals from 70 different species. The park is beautifully landscaped with the animal enclosures dotted around various themed gardens and 2500 plant species. It has one of the biggest glass-houses in Europe with 6 different climatic zones, where iguanas wander freely among the tropical plants.
It isn’t really a zoo in the traditional sense, but more a park with animals. Expect to see lemurs, otters, wallabies, tiny marmoset monkeys, Nile crocodiles, kookaburras, peacocks, flamingos, giant tortoises, porcupines, rheas (cousin of the ostrich) and parrots as well as farm animals. Inside the glass-house you’ll also find snakes and insects.
There are a couple of good outdoor play areas for kids, toilets, a small café and a lake with ducks, swans and other birds as well as tortoises. Picnics are allowed.
Opening Hours: Open every day 9.30 am – 7.30 pm 1 April – 30 Sept, 9.30 am – 6 pm 1 Oct – 31 March.
Price range: free (under 12) to 5€.
Location: on the western edge of Nice opposite the airport.
Aquarium at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco
The Musée Océanographique de Monaco is a world-class oceanography museum spectacularly located on the cliff face looking out to sea on the rock of Monaco. It houses a small but excellent aquarium. Among its 6000 creatures you’ll discover coral reefs, a shark lagoon and fish of the Mediterranean all within 100 or so different tanks.
The aquarium, which is one of the oldest in the world, is heavily involved in conservation and education with a strong breeding programme. Hundreds of fish have been born in its tanks. Activities can be booked for an extra fee such as touching and feeding the fish in the touch pool.
As well as fish, the museum has an interesting turtle enclosure on the roof terrace, housing 7 endangered African Spurred turtles from Mali. The spectacular setting, with its 360° panoramic views of Monaco and the Mediterranean, also has a fun children’s play area and restaurant.
Only days before writing this a new attraction opened, which I have yet to go to personally. The Odyssey of Sea Turtles is a 550 sq m open air enclosure for sea turtles. There is a rehabilitation programme for injured animals though this section is apparently not open to the public. I will update as soon as I have more information or get there myself.
Opening Hours: Open every day of the year except during the 3 days of the Grand Prix (in May) and Christmas Day. Oct – March 10 am – 6 pm, April- June + Sept 10 am – 7 pm, July – Aug 9.30 am – 8 pm.
Price range: 5€ – 16€ depending on age and season (ticket is valid for the museum and aquarium).
Location: In the old town of Monaco, Ave St Martin.
Have you been to any of these wildlife reserves, animal parks or zoos? Please feel free to add your experiences or recommendations for other places to see animals on the Côte d’Azur.
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