I'm not sure what possessed me to make it to the Mediterranean coast while we were in France, but I really wanted to experience a little beach action (different than the Pacific Ocean) and thought it would be easy enough to drop through. We carved out 3 of the days of our travels to see the Riviera.
Its GORGEOUS and I love it so much, but its much farther from Paris than you imagine it to be. I thought it would be a 5-6 car drive with stops along the way. Wrong. Its 11 hours by car! We pivoted to a speed train from Paris to Marsailles (3.5 hours) and then renting a car to drive to Nice (another 2.5 hours away). The speed train was fine. There is a slightly better grade called SNCF with Wifi, a dining car, kids car and such. And a lower grade version called Ouigo. I didn't realize the difference but the pricing would make it obvious that the Ouigo is no frills. If that doesn't bother you, it works too. They leave from the same central train station and function the same way. I recommend buying your tickets in advance and boarding digitally with QR codes. The car rental was inexpensive (Around $200 for 3 days) and pick up right outside the Marsailles train station. But gas was really expensive and you we had to seek out diesel which complicated things. You can only get around the area by car so if you don't want to drive, its probably not the best idea.
The heat and moist air hits you as soon as you disembark from the train and compels you to get your tush to the beach or poolside which is the best kind of vacation feeling to me. Love that. Navigating out of Marsailles wasn't too bad and once you hit the highway its a straight shot. Toll roads and Google Maps make it easy. We didn't meander through the beach towns like I had imagined because that would have added many more hours to our drive, which we didn't have time or energy for. But that would have been nice.
From my Parisian friend:
Marseille train station is right in the city center. After you get your car you could stop for a bite to eat to check it out.
Best home/accessory store in Marseille:
Maison Empereur (located in old city center, 4 Rue des Récolettes, 13001 Marseille, France)
https://empereur.fr/eshop/fr/ On your way to Nice one of the best little fishing towns with great shops, ice cream and fish restaurants is Cassis. It is 20 minutes from Marseille towards Nice. Another really good option is Aix en Provence, this town is inland however. Very nice city center, where Cezanne painted.
We stopped at Cannes for dinner after our day of traveling. On paper its a world known beach city oozing in cultured sophistication. In reality, it was kind of tacky (to me) with wannabes along the main beach promenade, and a mostly working class small city behind that zone. I wasn't impressed. The is a row of beach clubs with tables on the sand from which to eat dinner and sip cocktails. Most don't open until July, but we were able to get dinner at one called Vegaluna. The scene felt overpriced Miami nouveau rich, which is not my scene obviously, so I can't recommend it. But the kids had a blast running along the clean soft sand and dipping toes into the Mediterranean while we waited for our food and watched the sun set. That was blissful.
From there we made our way to the Airbnb in a suburban neighborhood off the main road to St. Paul de Vence. I found a sweet guest house via Airbnb run by an older French couple. With a perfect backyard pool. I would link it because we thought it was a nice and humble spot, but they left us a scathing review. There was a language barrier with zero printed instructions about the check out process. We left dishes in the dishwasher, garbage in the waste bin, and locked and quietly departed in the premises early on the last morning. We thought that we had been extremely respectful guests following the rules we did know about. This greatly insulted them because they wanted us to say good bye and apparently wash dishes and take out trash? I'm not sure where the disconnect happened, but they thought we were heathens. While we thought we were operating by normal American Airbnb standards where there is minimal contact with the host and your cleaning fee includes dishes, bed making, and trash. I guess be wary if you are going the local Airbnb route. There are a handful of adorable hotels along the road to St. Paul de Vence but most are for couples and the 4 people suites were booked by time I was searching. Whatever you do, make sure your place has a pool. It made all the difference and added loads of fun to our stay in the South of France.
We spent a morning in the old village of St. Paul de Vence. Its a perfectly preserved medieval fortress with galleries and restaurants. The crowd leaned into the silver territory but its a really nice low key way to spend a morning meandering through the narrow stone streets. Lunch at the impeccable Le Tilleul and if I was sans children, I would have wanted to dine at La Colombe d'Or hotel restaurant with amazing views and original Picassos and Miros on display.
Next door to the village is the Foundation Maeght. A stunning architecture museum with a sculpture garden and modern art. Even if you aren't an architecture nerd, its 100% worth the visit for the serenity and beautifully planned grounds.
We checked out Cagnes Sur Mer for dinner. An unassuming beach town in between Cannes and Nice. Its nothing to write home about but we had a casual Moroccan dinner that was simply great.
The next day we spent in Nice which is a vibrant and energetic beach city. Jovial promenades, jaunty beach clubs, youthful vigor. It was so much fun to spend time along the beach promenade and in the old city. Then climb the Castle Hill to see incredible views of the port. I could have easily done a few more days in Nice alone visiting the many art museums and devoting a whole day to lounging at a beach club. The sea water was perfect - calm, warm, clear. The people watching a delight. Nice really made me smile ear to ear.
We drove over to Villefranch-sur-Mer, a small deep port next door to Nice, for dinner. Options were limited but it was a really cute spot to see with more of an Italian influence to the architecture. If we had more time we would have kept driving to Eze, another medieval fortress town with a well regarded garden. But there are only so many hours to the day and we had to head back.
We let our French Riviera experience wanting more. I would love to spend more time in this Mediterranean region. Lush, relaxed, a lot of history and plenty of modern flair. Its a good time.