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How to do the French Riviera on a budget

written by James Shackell September 11, 2019
A beautiful coastline in France

The words ‘French Riviera’ and ‘budget travel’ don’t usually squeeze into the same sentence. This is the Côte d’Azur, right? Summer playground for billionaires, movie stars and people with private helicopters.

And a lot of travellers get put off by this razzle-dazzle, thinking they need a superyacht to visit Cannes, Saint-Tropez and the Iles d’Hyeres archipelago. But that’s not really true. You can have a great time on the French Riviera without burning through the Euros.

Here’s our budget travel guide to the French Riviera.

1. Sail small

A sailboat on the French Riviera

Photo by Filip Stoklas.

Obviously the best way to see France’s southern beaches is by sea. You can hire a car and drive the coastal highway between Marseille and Nice (the D559 is the most scenic route), but you’ll miss the whole point of the Côte d’Azur: being close to water. There are plenty of smaller chartered yachts that run around Saint-Tropez, Cassis and Antibes, and they’re generally pretty easy on the hip pocket. The best way to save some coin is to join a small group sailing tour. You’ll stop in all the major ports, reduce your carbon footprint, and avoid peak season hotel rates (which, as you can imagine, are daylight robbery).

2. Get a rail card

If you’re more of the land-lubber type, there’s a great SNCF rail line that runs along the French Riviera. It connects all the big towns, and even stops at quirky villages along the way like Villefranche and Theoule-sur-Mer. The coastal train generally runs every half hour in both directions, and stops around 10pm. Tickets are surprisingly cheap too. A round trip from Nice to Cannes will set you back around 14€, and SNCF even runs discount tickets for travellers aged between 18 and 27 (just ask about their ‘carte jeune’ rates).


3. Be smart with accommodation

A beautiful beach in Nice, France

Photo by Alexey D. Vedernikov.

If you’re travelling in peak season (August), or even a shoulder month (March, April, October or November), expect to pay a lot for Côte d’Azur accommodation. There’s not a lot of ways around this. Most hotels in the port towns will be charging peak rates, and they’re still booked up months in advance. One thing you can do is stay in Nice and just take day trips along the Riviera. You can reach most towns within a couple of hours, avoid notorious money traps like Monaco, and then it’s just a matter of finding one or two budget hotels in Nice.


4. Eat local

French pastries and cakes at a market

Photo by Damien Raggatt.

This is good advice for anyone, regardless of budget. In pretty much every French Riviera town, there’s a touristy restaurant strip right along the main harbour. Ignore this. It’s not where the locals eat and the prices are always inflated. Instead, look for local street carts and open-air food markets, especially the ones slinging regional treats like fougasse (salty herb bread), socca (chickpea pancakes), niçoise salad and barbagiuan (fried Swiss-cheese fritters). You’ll spot markets almost everywhere. Cannes’ Marché Forville market is open every day (except Mondays), and Nice’s Old Town flower and vegetable market is always buzzing in the Cours Saleya. Check local market sites for upcoming timetables. You’ll save a fortune.


5. Do free stuff

In a way, the French Riviera is perfect for budget travellers, because all the natural highlights and beaches cost nothing. It’s not like London or New York: you don’t come here to buy tickets and spend money on activities. You come to hike clifftops, laze on the beach and use words like ‘azure’ – all of which are free. Here’s a few ideas to get you started. In Nice, hike up to la Colline du Chateau for amazing coastal views, then check out the Matisse Museum (journalists, teachers, war veterans and kids under 18 get in free). In Cannes, hike to la Croix-des-Gardes and then wander the old Le Suquet district. If you’re in Monaco, Fort Antoine, Monaco Cathedral and the Prince’s Palace are all completely free.


6. Shop smarter

Cheese for sale at a market

Photo by Damien Raggatt.

If the French Riviera is known for two things, it’s beaches and shopping. In major towns like Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez, you’ll find all sorts of high-end designer stores, which obviously aren’t great for the budget traveller (check out La Croisette Boulevard in Cannes for a taste of this sort of thing). But if you’re smart with your money, you can still pick up a bargain along the Côte d’Azur. Most stores in Nice hold big sales in the second half of July. Cannes has an amazing flea market, the famous Forville Market, where you can rummage happily for days. In Saint-Tropez, you want to head for the Place des Lices Market, which stocks plants, antiques, homewares and local food. Pro tip: haggling isn’t really a thing in southern France, even in the markets. What you see is what you pay.

7. Stay in smaller towns

Generally, the most expensive towns along the French Riviera are Cannes, St. Tropez, or Monte Carlo. Nice isn’t quite so bad, thanks to its size. But to really save some coin, look for more obscure options. Little coastal towns like Vence, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Antibes and Grasse. Grasse, in particular, is amazing – tucked up in the Provencal hills – and most travellers zoom straight past it. These smaller towns might have fewer hotels to pick from, but the rates are generally a bit friendlier. If you want to save even more, consider travelling in the off-season, which runs from April to May and October to December. It might not be beach weather, but you’ll get the Côte d’Azur more or less to yourself.

We’re a little bit biased, but we think the best way to explore the French Riviera is on a sailing adventure. Check out our range of tours here

Feature photo by siebenla, Shutterstock. 

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