When it comes to beautiful villages, the South of France is a shameless show-off. With the hills rising steeply above the Mediterranean coast, the Cote d’Azur is simply littered with perched medieval villages rich in history and atmosphere.
There are so many delightful villages to explore from Nice that narrowing it down to just five almost seems cruel (and will no doubt attract some argument) but here are some of favourite villages that you must see whilst on holiday in Nice.
Saint Jean Cap Ferrat
Jutting into the Mediterranean, the little seaside village peninsula of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat is just 8km from Nice and is one of the three major capes of the French Riviera, perhaps even the most beautiful. It is also one of priciest in terms of real estate with plenty of secluded villas hidden behind high fences, belonging to the rich and sometimes famous. The only one of these villas that is open to the public is the flamboyant flamingo-coloured Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, built by Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild. It gives an interesting insight into how the super wealthy lived during the Belle Epoque. The walking tour of the gardens here features nine breathtakingly themed gardens and a famous musical fountain which "dances" to Mozart every twenty minutes or so.
The village itself is rather small but there are many lovely terrace cafés and restaurants along the port. The three beaches which are probably the best attraction for the casual visitor include Cro de Peï Pin which is the biggest beach located just north of the port; Paloma Beach which is most protected from the winds, has less sun in the afternoons, and is about 5-10 minutes walk from the port; and, finally, Passable Beach which has some pretty views of adjoining Villefranche. Our favourite part of St.Jean-Cap-Ferrat though is its awesome hiking path, which will take you along the rocky seaside all the way around the peninsula and has breathtaking views to go with it.
Located a little inland from the French Riviera near Antibes, the lovely little village of Biot is a real treasure trove with a rich history. The village is famed for its glass production, where Eloi Monod created La Verrerie de Biot. By introducing carbonate of soda to the glass making process he paved the way for world-renowned bubble glass. There are many different glass studios in Biot, and quite a few of them can be visited free of charge.
The history behind this perched village is quite fascinating. It was first colonised by the Romans almost 2000 years ago, was a Templar's commander in the 13th century and was then invaded by Maltese knights. There is evidence of all of this in the medieval gateways, coloured mosaics, and Maltese crosses you see as you stroll through the village. Biot was abandoned after the plague destroyed it but repopulated again by 50 families originating from Italy in 1470.
If you ever manage a day trip out to Biot make sure you don't miss out on the large Gardens of la Chèvre d'Or, which cover about a hectare of land that includes pretty terraces, citrus trees and Italian style gardens brimming with flowers. A little insider tip: the orange infused vinegar sold at "Le Mas des Orangers" is simply divine.
Peillon is a tiny medieval village with true Old World charm, situated about 20km from Nice with picturesque cobblestoned streets and lovely historic buildings. It is so tiny and inaccessible that no cars are allowed inside the village. You will need to park near the plaza, which is the entrance to the village. Due to its size, there is just one little gift shop in the area called "La Maiouneta" (meaning little house in Nice dialect) where you can find some postcards, paintings, and hand-made ceramics modelled by local artisans for sale.
No bus full of tourists jostling you about here, just a few small hotels and restaurants located outside the village. Why should you visit this place in the middle of nowhere you ask? Well, it is nestled like an eagle's nest on a hill above a sheer cliff, so the stunning views themselves should make this excursion from the coast very worthwhile. Don't be disheartened by the short drive from Nice through a somewhat dismal industrial area, the gorgeous valleys and steep mountains with the little rivers and forests really make this detour worth it. Visitors should be sure to visit the nearby olive oil mill and the chapel of the white-robed Penitents with its lovely Jean Canavesio frescoes.
Villefranche-sur-Mer is one of our favourites and is just 3km away from Nice. With its small yet picturesque harbour and long sandy beach with crystal clear mottled blue water, it really is very pretty and definitely deserves a visit. The harbour, which is mainly now a pleasure port, also has small fishing boats moored. The promenade is filled with a number of bars and restaurants where you can enjoy a coffee or a glass of vino right along the waterfront, whilst lazily watching the world go by.
The old town, situated just behind the harbour, is filled with beautiful ancient houses painted in vivid shades of orange, red and apricot, that line steep cobblestoned streets and create many lovely photo opportunities. As well as meandering around discovering the village, there are several monuments in the town that are interesting to visit such as the as the 16th-century citadel or walled fortress that stands poised above the sea, and the 14th-century Chapelle Saint Pierre, which is considered to be the most beautiful chapel on the Côte d’Azur.
Villefranche-sur-Mer is one of the most sought-after areas to reside in and its most famous resident is none other than Tina Turner. The village's attractive location has also been featured in quite a few cinematic productions: Hitchcock’s 'To Catch a Thief', 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels', 'The Jewel of the Nile' and 'Ronin'.
The charming village of Eze is located around 9 km from Monaco and, despite the crowds, is arguably one of the most picturesque spots in the region. A little tip: during the high season go early or late in the day to avoid the bus-loads of tourists. Like many of the villages in this region, Eze is perched like an eagle's nest atop an imposing cliff with breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. Located just above the village amidst the ruins of the medieval castle is the Exotic Garden, filled with interesting statues of earth goddesses, cacti, tropical plants and winding paths. With its panoramic views across the village rooftops and the coast, it also has one of the best lookout points on the French Riviera and is well worth the admission price. On a sunny day, it is the best €6 you will ever spend during your holiday in the South of France.
The medieval village is entirely pedestrianised with narrow cobblestoned streets and alleys. Following the path up towards the village, you will see a slightly orange church on the hill ahead of you with its square clock tower and pretty shaded courtyard which has picturesque views looking out over the valley. The relatively plain neoclassical façade of the church conceals an impressive interior where you can see several interesting paintings and frescoes. Eze is also home to one of the factories of Fragonard, one of the leading producers of perfume in France. The visits are free and the site is open every day of the year.
In the 1880s, famous inhabitant Frederic Nietzsche used to pant his way up and down the hilly path (now named the "Nietzsche Way") composing chapters to his philosophical opus ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’. The trail should take about 45 minutes for fit walkers to reach the seaside town of Eze and its train station or the small beach of Saint Laurent d’Eze. Walking up will generally take a lot longer. If you are in the mood to splurge out, there are two exceptional hotels in Eze: the lovely gardens and five-star hotel of La Château de la Chèvre d'Or which has also been awarded two Michelin stars for its gastronomic restaurant and the Chateau Eza with its private beach.