In 1982 an independent association was created to list France’s most beautiful villages and promote picturesque French villages of quality heritage.
Today, the list for ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’ includes 159 locations with strict criteria to be designated one of the chosen few from over 30,000 communes:
there must be some rural character with no more than 2,000 inhabitants
they must have two national heritage sites
there must be an on-site evaluation and
the application must have mass support from the town council.
One of the major principles of the association is the protection of historical and cultural heritage. Labelled villages must show a real strategy to preserve and promote their heritage.
Naturally, this means there’s no great rush for the towns to implement modern conveniences that international tourists usually demand such as internet cafés or multiplex cinemas and shopping malls. Instead, you’ll find local markets, historic monuments and traditional festivals.
Many of the villages are located off the beaten track so they are a great base for exploring rural France.
I had the pleasure of contributing my opinion about Gassin, a town in the Var department, in a blog post about the most beautiful villages in France curated by Phoebe Thomas. Phoebe runs a gite on the Côte d’Azur called Lou Messugo and she is a great source of travel advice for visitors to this region!
Today’s post is my second attempt at joining the ‘All About France’ monthly blog link-up hosted by Lou Messugo (my first attempt was a rookie fail, I forgot to add my link!).
School returned from the summer holidays this week and with la rentrée out of the way what a great excuse to share some of my favourite locations throughout the French Riviera (and a handful in the Var) that are more than deserving of glory on Instagram..
I hope you enjoy reading about my Top 15 French Riviera viewpoints for amazing photos:
Les Moulins de Paillas near Ramatuelle
Situated at an altitude of 325 metres, these old windmills are located on the D89 road at the top of the village of Ramatuelle towards Gassin.
Mills were built in Ramatuelle from the 16th century to grind wheat for flour, and five mills originally stood in this area – one mill was restored in 2002, two are ruins only, two are on private land.
The location gives excellent views of Pampelonne to the east, the Gulf of St Tropez to the north and La Croix Valmer in the south. In fine weather, it’s possible to see the Îles du Levant and Port Cros.
Les Moulins de Paillas near Ramatuelle
If you would like to visit, Ramatuelle Tourist Office gives guided tours by appointment, or you can visit for free on Saturday or Sunday mornings between 10.30am-12.30pm from April-October. Other mills in this area are Moulin à vent de Verdagne and Moulin Brulat.
Mont Vinaigre and Cap Roux in the Esterels
The highest peak in the Esterels (614 metres), Mont Vinaigre is on a grande randonnée (GR) track so you must follow the red and white trail markings. The hike to the summit takes around one hour with wide views to the bay of Cannes. There is a vehicle barrier part way along where the trail changes to stones so baby strollers aren’t advisable.
Closer to the sea, the 3.5 hour hike to Cap Roux is doable with older kids (the paths require sturdy footwear but aren’t steep or dangerous) and an orientation map at the summit details main peaks and points of interest. On descent, the red rock of Saint-Barthélemy has a great view over the sea and afterwards I recommend a swim at nearby Calanque Maubois which is reached via stairs from the main road.
I’d suggest avoiding these hikes in summer (especially weekends) as they are very popular and parking is an issue. Also, when there is hot weather and mistral winds the paths may be closed due to fire risks; you can check in advance at this website: http://statique.sigvar.org/frontblocks/risques/index.php
Cap Roux and nearby calanque
San Peyre in Mandelieu-la-Napoule
The volcanic cone of San Peyre overlooking Mandelieu-la-Napoule offers a medium-grade uphill walk through shaded forest path of the Parc du San Peyre, onto a paved walkway.
There are a handful of steps so it is not wholly wheelchair-accessible to the summit, however the park has picnic tables and flat walking areas for travellers with reduced mobility near to the carpark area.
The path to the summit isn’t steep – our eldest son managed to walk up most of the way with us when he was a toddler, however do be warned the path is not fenced and there are some steep rock cliffs.
The walk to the summit from the carpark itself takes just 10 minutes uphill leading to some small fenced chapel ruins, and an orientation table in the old donjon (keep) with views to Cannes, Tanneron, the Lérins Islands, Théoule sur Mer and of course over Mandelieu, the port and the Château de la Napoule.
My son (2 years old in this photo) walking to the summit of San Peyre / view to Cannes / Château de la Napoule
Musée de la Castre watchtower in Cannes
The summit of Le Suquet (including the small wall rim reached by stairs near the church) give great panoramas over Cannes and to the Lérins Islands and Esterels, however the best view on a clear day is from the watchtower at the Musée de la Castre.
Great views from the top of Le Suquet (Cannes Old Town)
Chapelle de la Garoupe in Antibes
I’ve lost count how many times I’ve walked up the rocky, santon-lined chemin du Calvaire to the terrace in front at Chapelle de la Garoupe (also known as Église Notre Dame de la Garoupe / Chapelle Notre Dame de Bon Port).
If you don’t fancy the walk up, there is a sealed public road (the surface is fine for baby strollers and wheelchairs but be warned there are no pavements) that leads to the church. Recognising the site’s potential they are building a caféteria; in the meantime there are plenty of snack kiosks at plage Salis for an ice cream or cold drink afterwards.
You can’t access the lighthouse there, however the church is decorated inside with ex-votos giving thanks from sailors and worshippers for protection from shipwrecks, weather, and disease. The church is also the starting point for the annual Fête de Notre Dame du Bon Port parade that you can read about here.
The reason I trudge those rocky steps is the view is lovely at the top – from under the umbrella pines your line of sight reaches from Golfe Juan to Juan les Pins to Antibes and beyond, and plane spotters would love it here as it sits on the coastal flight path. Take some cheese and wine and enjoy the view at sun set.
chemin du Calvaire is the rocky, santon-lined path to Chapelle Garoupe
Gourdon, a medieval village built at the summit of a cliff above the Gorges du Loup, is reached via a drive along some hair-raising roads fringing waterfalls and treacherous drops. Outdoor enthusiasts love the area with hiking (including the chemin du Paradis track), paragliding and canyoning popular.
The village is deemed one of the ‘Plus Beaux Villages de France’ and it features on most tour itineraries in the region – partially for the shops selling souvenirs such as perfume bottles, honey and gingerbread, but mostly for the outstanding views that reach from nearby Pont-du-Loup below at the mouth of the Gorges, to the Esterels and Nice.
One of the highlights of Gourdon is the Château de Gourdon and its underrated gardens. The gardens include an Apothecary Garden devoted to medicinal plants used in the 17th century, and the main terrace area was designed by Le Notre who also designed the gardens at Versailles. Sadly, the Château and gardens can no longer be visited unless by prior arrangement in groups of 10 (it housed a Historical Museum and Art Museum that are both now closed).
Birds-eye views from Gourdon
If you want to linger in the village for lunch, head to La Taverne Provençal at place de l’Eglise – the coq au vin is delicious and the view from the terrace is worth it.
Colline du Château and Mont Boron in Nice
It’s a tie for top viewpoint in Nice – the easily accessed Colline du Château (Castle Hill) or forested (and less busy) Mont Boron.
One of Nice’s major tourist spots, Colline du Château (Castle Hill) is my ‘go-to’ place in Nice to take any visitors. Reached via steps from rue du Château or rue Ste-Claire, an elevator next to Tour Bellanda (small fee payable) or the petit tourist train, there is actually no castle there however there is a playground, snack kiosks and numerous vantage points for superb views of Nice Old Town, the seafront and Nice Port.
views from Colline du Château (Castle Hill) in Nice
Mont Boron, further east, is set in a national park forest with paths interspersed with fitness equipment, pine trees and picnic tables. Offering a shady respite on warm days, the views are more wide-reaching than Castle Hill and spread across Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat peninsula.
Many of the paths are paved, and while the ground surface is hard dirt and rocky in many places it is still manageable with a sturdy baby stroller or wheelchair. Take a picnic with you as there are no shops or restaurants and the toilet facilities near to the carpark midway to the summit are often locked!
You can also wander around the outside of Fort Alban fortress, though you can’t go in unless you’re part of a guided group.
To drive to Mont Boron from Nice Port, follow boulevard Carnot uphill and near the top turn left at the traffic lights by Carrefour Market into boulevard du Mont Boron. Drive along for 200 metres before turning right into route Forestiere du Mont Boron – this road is very narrow where the houses are but continue on and it leads to the top. If you don’t have transport bus 14 leaves from place Garibadi in Nice; get off at stop ‘chemin du Fort’ which is near the picnic tables.
Check out this drone video (by Drone in Nice) that provides the best aspect of the panorama from Mont Boron and Fort Alban:
Villa Ephussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
One of the French Riviera’s top attractions, this glorious villa is a testament to the eclectic collections of Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild that include antique furniture, china and art.
The pink-hued villa occupies prime real estate on the Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat peninsula which affords it amazing views from the villa and expansive gardens to Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer and as far as Monaco.
Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild
If you visit Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in conjunction with either Villa Kérylos at Beaulieu-sur-Mer or the Jardin Exotique at Eze you can receive a reduced entrance price – ask at the ticket offices. For a detailed explanation, read my tourist tips for visiting Villa Ephrussi de Rothchild.
Jardin Exotique in Eze
The crowning glory of Eze is this unexpected garden planted at the top of this perched village (429 metres). The garden is filled with cacti, succulents, agaves and various warm-climate plants and offers one of the best panoramas over the tiled roofs along the whole coast, with Corsica being visible on clear days.
Due to the nature of the village, accessibility for baby strollers and people with reduced mobility is quite restricted.
Kids get free entry to the garden, and my tip for one of the best times of the year to visit Eze is late July when Eze hosts the annual Eze d’Antan Festival, a medieval celebration with a falconry display and stalls with craftspeople making pottery, jewellery and weapons worthy of any knight or crusader. The festival also holds a medieval banquet if you fancy sharing barrels of wine and eating platefuls of spit-cooked meat until your belly is full.
While the Jardin has the highest views, some other Eze locations that are just as superb for photo opportunities are the Château de la Chèvre d’Or, the chemin Nietzsche walking trail that leads from Eze village to Eze-sur-Mer and Château Eza, particularly from the terrace.
The Moyenne Corniche (N7) and Grande Corniche (D2564) roads
While the Basse Corniche (low) weaves from Nice to Menton via the coastal towns, the real views are found along the Moyenne (middle) and Grande (high) Corniches.
Immortalised in Hitchcock’s 1954 classic film ‘To Catch a Thief’, these roads have hair-raising bends and more than one vertiginous view of the sea, Riviera towns and stunning real estate.
The Moyenne and Grande Corniche roads / ‘To Catch a Thief’
Still popular as film locations, it was along this stretch that Princess Grace of Monaco met her untimely death in 1982 when the car she was driving with Princess Stephanie swerved off the N53 leading from the Grande Corniche to the Moyenne Corniche.
The actual bend of the road where the accident occurred has a simple stone marker – if you are a fan of Grace she was much revered in Monaco and there are 2 statues of her there (one near the Forum by Larvotto; the other at the memorial Princess Grace Rose Garden in Fontvieille), her tomb is found at the Monaco Cathédral plus the Direction du Tourisme & des Congrès (2 boulevard des Moulins, 98000 Monaco) has maps for a free 5.5 kilometre walking trail that covers 25 spots in Monaco that were significant to Grace with accompanying photos – ask them for the ‘Parcours Princesse Grace’.
Monaco / Monte-Carlo
I had difficulty pinpointing the best view in a principality shadowed by high-rise buildings and towering hotels because there are ample locations for spectacular vistas. However, if I whittle down to a handful that I feel cover the awe-factor, here are a few suggestions:
The rooftop of the Oceanographic Museum (Musée Océanographique de Monaco) for good views and there is a terrace restaurant, play area for kids and a turtle enclosure to keep the little ones amused.
La Chaumière restaurant terrace (next to the Jardin Exotique) for views across to Port Hercules and the Palais Princier.
L’Horizon Deck on the top floor of Hotel Fairmont Monte-Carlo is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner but I think it’s best for a sundowner when you can enjoy a glass of champagne.
Great views from La Chaumiere and L’Horizon Deck
Vista Palace Hotel in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin
The exterior façade is stuck in a time warp and the interior décor of the hotel is ‘80’s chi-chi and chintzy (thank goodness for the current renovations and revamp until December this year) however the Vista Palace precariously jolting out of the cliffside has one of the best locations for unobstructed views over Cap Martin and Monte-Carlo.
The pool area and Restaurant Vistaero have great views, and if you want to bag one of the best room panoramas in the hotel ask for a Corner Suite with a Monte-Carlo view.
views from Vista Palace Hotel
Auberge de la Madone in Peillon
Far from flamboyant, this traditional hotel-cum-restaurant serves tasty Nissart dishes (the kitchen is run by Milo and his sons, one of whom trained under top chef Alain Ducasse) but I’m recommending it as a getaway for a romantic lunch or dinner and it gets top points for close proximity to Nice, easy car parking, a lovely outdoor dining terrace with flower-filled urns and an unbeatable view of Peillon village.
Auberge de a Madone, Peillon
Castle ruins in Sainte-Agnès
Sainte-Agnès is 20 minutes’ drive from Menton and at an altitude of 800 metres above sea level it is the highest coastal village in Europe. From the top of the village, you can follow a steep path to the castle ruins and a medieval garden where there are excellent views of the mountains, the bay of Menton and Italy.
Sainte Agnès, the highest coastal village in Europe has superb views from the castle ruins and medieval garden
The village does not throb with tourists as you would expect being so close to Menton and the Italian border so it makes a nice trip for families, and if you have children aged 5 years and older the Tourist Office has a treasure hunt they can follow and find 15 clues throughout the village (ask for the ‘Jeu de Pistes’).
One of the town’s attractions is the Fort de la Ligne Maginot that was built in the 1930’s to protect the bay of Menton. This series of concrete bunkers can be visited where you can see machinery, communications equipment and barracks where 350 men were stationed – recommended for anyone interested in military history but check opening hours before visiting as the hours fluctuate seasonally.
Couvent des Franciscains (Franciscan Monastery) in Saorge
Listed as a Historical Monument in France, the Franciscan Monastery located at Saorge in the Roya Valley has passed through centuries of use as a monastery, military quarters and a hospital.
Today, it is used as a retreat for artists and writers and is open for public visits (check opening hours as they close during the day).
Monastère de Saorge
Other places of interest to visit in Saorge include La Madone del Poggia, and Église St-Sauveur with a colourful interior. If you love churches, make the detour to La Brigue to see Notre Dame des Fontaines – enjoy a picnic on the riverbank then enter this small off-the-tourist-circuit church where you’ll be overwhelmed by the incredibly detailed frescoes on the walls and ceilings, some of the best in southern France.