Travel to French Riviera In Winter: Nice, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Antibes

Is it worth visiting a summer sun destination for a break out of season? In this post,  I explore visiting the French Riviera in the south of France in the middle of winter.

Gary Bembridge of Tips for Travellers in Monaco inWinter

Do I recommended visiting the French Riviera in winter when it is known for its sunny summer days? Absolutely.

In the centre of the French Riviera is Nice. The glamorous holiday resort of Nice is situated in the south of France on the Cote d’Azur, on the French Riviera. It’s situated between the ultra‑rich playground of Monaco and Cannes, which is the city synonymous with movies and movie stars.

The large airport of Nice serves this very large and popular tourist area. As a result, it is actually the second busiest airport in France after Charles De Gaulle in Paris. The minute you land, you know that this area is a rich person’s playground, as large private planes are strewn around the airport.

I visited Nice for five days over one New Year period, slap‑bang in the middle of winter.

Evidence of how popular it is in winter, the flights from London post‑Christmas were surprisingly packed. Our flight was completely 100% full. Car rentals were very difficult to find online, with many of the well known rental companies having absolutely nothing on offer! It seems that visiting the French Riviera in New Year in the middle of winter is one of the glamorous things the rich, the famous, or, certainly, the aspirational do.

Four things really, really stood out for me about the type of people visiting the French Riviera at this time of year:
1.    We saw huge amounts of fur coats, which you don’t really see in London. It is not very politically correct to do that in London.
2.    We saw lots of women, and men, for that matter, wearing extremely large and very dark sunglasses with very large and ostentatious designer logos on the side, like Chanel,  Dolce Cabana, and Versace.
3.    Smoking. Lots and lots of smoking. In the streets, in the bars, in the restaurants, smoking, smoking, smoking.
4.    Italians, presumably because Nice, Monaco, Cannes are all within very easy driving distance of Italy. I’m not saying all visitrs were Italian, but there was very much a definite type of Italian style and look.

What will I cover in this review about Nice and the French Riviera out of season?
I’m going to talk about Nice, Cannes, Monaco, and Antibes, which are all within easy traveling distance of each other. I’m going to give you a couple of tips about what to do if you’re visiting Nice and the surrounding area out of season, which will also be useful if you’re visiting it in season.

Tip 1: Book Hotel Well In Advance
My first tip, as I suggested in the opening, is make sure that you book a hotel well in advance. Out of season, a booking advance normally means bargains, but clearly, somewhere like Nice and the French Riviera appears to be quite popular out of season, so make sure you do it in advance.

We got a great deal at a fabulous hotel right on the beach front of Nice called the Palais de la Mediterranee. This hotel had been closed for 25 years, and reopened on the 5th of January, 2004. It is a stunning hotel with lots of style and history.

Tip 2: Ensure Hotel Has Lots of Facilities

My 2nd tip is that if you’re visiting out of season, make sure you book a hotel with plenty of facilities that are going to occupy you. You are there out of season, so you’re not going to be going the whole beach thing. You’re not going to be outdoors a lot, so you want to make sure it’s got restaurants, it’s got gyms, it’s got spas.

For example, the Palais de la Mediterranee had a pretty nice gym and indoor swimming pool. It had spa and saunas, and a casino, which actually in the end wasn’t very great, but it did have a casino.

Tip 3: Hire a car
The best place to stay is in Nice and hire a car. The reason I recommend stayingNice is because it is in the center of all the places that you’re going to want to fan out and visit. It is not as busy and as manic as some of the other places in the region in winter, and it is also very beautiful.

It’s very easy to get into Nice from the airport in a hire car. You basically drive out of the airport onto the Promenade des Anglais. It’s just straight in there to all of the major hotels along the beachfront.

Because it’s cold ‑‑ the temperatures range from about 0 Celsius up to about 8 degrees, so you’re not going to want to do a lot of outdoor things. But you will want to be exploring the countryside, like Cannes, Antibes, and Monte Carlo, and so hiring a car is very important. It will work out much cheaper than using taxis and tours.

Tip 4: Stay in Nice
Stay in Nice because it is in the middle of the region that is best to explore. There’s not a lot to do in winter in Nice because it really is more geared to being a summer holiday resort. But you have the very beautiful, long Promenade des Anglais which stretches right along the beach front  for quite some distance. It’s very pretty all along the front, with a broad promenades to stroll along and people watch.

The Promenade des Anglais is linked to the very strong link that Nice had to the UK and to England. In fact, Nice was popularized by the English aristocracy taking a lead from Queen Victoria, who would go and summer in Nice,  escaping out into the beautiful sunshine. The English aristocracy took on Nice and so you’ll find quite a lot of English touches to it.

Within Nice, to be honest, there’s not a lot to do. There is the standard hop-on hop-off bus tour to go on. Though I’m not actually recommending it as there’s not a huge amount of stuff to see. I think you can just do it yourself through ambling around! There are some museums. Probably the most important of the museums is the Matisse Museum. He painted many paintings in Nice. He actually died in Nice in 1954.

Nice does have quite a strong tie into art and artists, especially linked to the Second World War. During the war, when France was occupied by the Germans, Nice was in a neutral area. It was eventually occupied and then liberated in 1944 when the Allies came in. It was also actually occupied by the Italians for a while because it was so close to Italy when the Italians were on side with Germany.

In terms of strolling around, there are some nice shopping areas. The shopping area’s not particularly great in Nice. They do have some pedestrianized areas, but it’s not particularly special. If you want to go ambling through nice, curving streets and attractive streets, there’s other places like Antibes which are better to do.

Tip 5: Day in Monte Carlo
You must spend the day in Monte Carlo. The drive out there is really quite stupendous. You weave your way up the mountain and over down the other side into Monte Carlo. It really is great. As you drive, there are a couple of places to stop and take in the scenery, and take some photographs looking back towards Nice. It is quite magical.

Once you get into Monte Carlo, it’s quite easy to find your way around. Basically, follow the signs to the casino! There is lots of underground parking underneath the very famous casino. The tourist center is based in a park, just above the underground parking.
If you look at any pictures of Monte Carlo, you will see that every square inch is filled with apartment blocks crammed into this very small space. They have built everywhere they can, and then gone deep down wherever they can to build parking garages deep in the ground.

The main thing to do in Monte Carlo is just to soak up the wealth! Walking all over the streets are people just dressed in obviously very expensive clothes and obviously loaded.

Also take a stroll down to the harbor. Because it’s out of season, most of the boats and private yachts are wintered there. They’re basically parked there out of season, so you get to see all of these incredible private yachts from close up. I’m calling them yachts but they’re really ships. It’s just amazing wandering around looking at these stunning yachts, which are all being maintained and overhauled during the winter period.

One of the things that seems a common thread in France and in the French Riviera at Christmastime is they all have Christmas fairs everywhere. There’s one in Nice, and the one in Monte Carlo is right there on the harbor front. It has this small Ferris wheel and other small rides, along with a nice fair selling bits and pieces and a small ice rink. It’s quite a nice Christmas‑y, wintery thing going on.

If you walk around the harbor, and onto the harbor wall, you can get a view of some more commercial ships coming in. Then follow the pathway around the mountain and you will get to the famous aquarium, which was established in the early part of the last century. It’s quite an amazing place. There’s a great history and incredible displays. Just a little bit further on from that is the palace which you can tour, depending on the time of the year.

In all the bars and restaurants, you see pictures in the windows of all the various celebrities that have been there. Celebrities frequent these bars when they come in on the yachts, and so the whole harbor area is a great place to soak up and spot celebrities.

You also need to go into the casino. You have to pay about 10 euros to go into the casino. It is worth paying because this building is almost like a palace. You have to be over 21, and you can’t be dressed too scruffily. At night you need to be dressed very smartly to go into the casino. It is just an incredible place. Even if you just go into the lobby which you don’t have to pay to go in, make sure you do go in. Well worth having a look at.

Tip 6: Visit Antibes
Antibes is in the opposite direction from Monte Carlo. It’s about 20 kilometers outside of Nice. This is a place to just go and meander and soak up stuff. There’s an amazing Picasso museum here. Picasso lived in the area, and he left a collection of paintings and drawings here.
They have quite a big pedestrianized area, which is the old town. It is a great place to meander around because there’s much more interesting shops than there is, say, in Nice. There’s more little patisseries, little bakeries and restaurants. Again, if you’re going out of season, you’ll have an amazing Christmas fair to explore.

The old historical city walls are still very well intact and worth checking out.

Then, of course, there’s the harbor. The harbor is probably second to Monaco in terms of the yachts. I’d always thought of Cannes as being the place that had great yachts, but certainly in winter, it seems to be Antibes is really the place. The most incredible yachts you see and even more of the ship‑type yachts than in Monte Carlo. I’m guessing it’s perhaps slightly cheaper or something to dock them in Antibes, or there’s more space there. You get to go very close to the yachts because of the way they’re laid out, and take some great pictures.

The only thing that I would say, if you go at Christmastime, is do go and have a look in the city square. They have the most alarming and…I’m sorry if you’re from Antibes and offended by this…the most alarmingly and bizarre Christmas display! I think what they’re supposed to be inspired by those snow globe things you shake and it has snow effects in?  It’s just quite bizarre. Some very surreal looking penguins and reindeer. It’s just quite unusual. It was almost a little bit alarming.

Tip 7: Visit Cannes
Cannes is another day trip. Cannes is a place I visited and spent a quite a bit of time at. Cannes is a place that’s never really excited me. Obviously, Cannes has a lot of history. It’s perceived as being extremely glamorous because of the Cannes film festival every year in the summer and also the big advertising film festival.

In reality, Cannes, unlike Nice, Antibes and certainly unlike Monte Carlo, seems they had a lapse of judgment at some point in time in terms of the buildings they allowed to be built. You have some very grubby late 1960s / 1970s style buildings. The actual center, where the festival is, is a bit of a monstrosity with a horrible, nasty concrete building. A bit like Festival Hall in South Bank in London, which was built just after the war. It’s not an attractive building at all. Of course, you want to go and see it because this is where the film festival happens. I was very lucky once to go to a big do at the end of the advertising festival once, in there.

If you stroll along the beach front there, it’s always very busy. It’s much busier than any of the other cities. You’ve got hotels like the Hilton Hotel ‑‑ which, again, is not a very attractive building ‑‑ next to the absolutely stunning Carlton Hotel, which is the one that the big stars stay at at the Cannes Film Festival. An absolutely beautiful hotel, and a little bit further down, the Hotel Martinez, which I was very lucky enough to stay at a couple years ago when I had won a prize to go to the advertising film festival there.

There’s some very bizarre mixture of stuff in Cannes. It just doesn’t feel as classy as you would expect it to be. I’m sure if you go there in summer, it is more attractive and glamorous, but out of season it’s not. There are, of course, though, because of the nature of Cannes, lots of designer shops so guess if you like clothes shopping it will appeal more.

On the way back to Nice, visit the Auto Museum on the A8. As you head back from Cannes, go on the toll motorway this time and you will pass the Automobile Museum, which is a very large museum. It has a couple of hundred cars, particularly focusing on rallies and stuff, and is very well worth visiting.

Tip 8: Perfume Factories
If you really want to do something very tourist‑y, the only other thing which I would suggest as a tip to do (which I didn’t do it on this trip, but I have done it before because it is fun and worth doing) is go and visit one of the perfume factories. Most of the perfume factories are situated in Grasse.

Some of the most famous perfume factories are in Grasse, like the Molinard, which has been going since 1849, which is well worth visiting. Grasse is also the traditional center of the perfume industry, but if you head up towards Monaco, there’s also a couple on the way there, so you could either do this on the way there or on the way back.

That, then, is the French Rivera out of season. It really is well worth doing. We spent four days there, and we were very, very busy. That was probably about the right time to spend there. We could easily have probably spent another day, and just chilled out a little bit more.
Make sure you book a hotel well in advance. It is out of season, but make sure that you book in advance. Book a hotel with lots of facilities to occupy and keep you busy. Hire a car because you are going to want to travel around. Stay in Nice because it is in the center of things. Make sure you do Monaco and Monte Carlo early on, because it’s just very beautiful and is well worth spending a lot of time walking around.

Visit Antibes with the Picasso Museum, the shops, stroll through the little meandering lanes, and see the yachts. Go to Cannes, although out of season it’s not quite as glamorous as it is in season. If you want to do the tourist thing, go to the perfume factories and buy yourself some rip‑off fragrances of some of the famous fragrances. They’ll tell you it’s exactly the same, but obviously they’re not. They’re more imitations.

Got any thoughts and comments, or tips? Please leave a comment!


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Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

3 Responses

  1. Follow UK says:

    Totally agree with Gary on this,

    I also recommend it, absolutely beautiful place to escape when the winter sets in and although it is warm it has a lot more to offer then heat.

    The food and people are great, so to me if anything that comes first and the heat is makes it even that much better.

  2. Kelly says:

    This is a fabulous article. It is the first week of January & we are staying just outside Cannes on a BA City Break. Hotel is Comfort Suites Cannes Mandelieu. Nice little hotel. A very good deal with BA. 5 days/4 nights. We have completely used this article as our only travel guide & it has served us very well. We particularly enjoyed Grasse. Lovely little town set in the mountains with picturesque views. We may not have gone there if I hadn’t read this article. Thank you Gary!

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