Nothing says glamour like the French Riviera. Since the 18th century, this stretch of land along the Mediterranean coast has served as a favorite vacation spot for the likes of both the renowned American author F. Scott Fitzgerald and modern-day celebrity super couple David and Victoria Beckham.
Along the Riviera's coast and further inland, you'll find such famed destinations as Cannes, Gourdon, Grasse, Marseilles and Saint Paul. Despite the L.A. glamour the region tends to attract, the towns themselves are quite quiet and quaint. Streets are lined with cobblestones, along which you'll find unique candy shops, local markets and a creperie on just about every other corner. Across the region, the mood is one of joie de vivre. There is no rushing in the Riviera—both locals and tourists idle about, casually strolling the streets, stopping for a bubbly water or a glass of rosé from one of the many revered wineries in the region.
If you're aiming for a more sophisticated vacation, Cannes is a great choice. Most famous for its annual film festival that attracts thousands of celebrities each year, the region is rife with all things high-end, from charming hotels near the water to boutiques on the Rue d'Antibes. Stroll side streets to find hidden gems like less expensive shopping and reasonably priced wine shops, while along the port, stop to admire the yachts of the rich and famous. Beaches here are private, with most space allocated to guests of the surrounding hotels—a sign of exclusivity that can only be found in Cannes. Note that Cannes is an extremely popular vacation destination among Europeans and Americans alike, so expect the town to be crowded. There aren't a whole lot of places in the French Riviera that won't be populated with tourists, but there are a few towns where the number of visitors will be less dense, such as Gourdon and Grasse.
Cannes, Grasse, Gourdon and Saint Paul are nicely located near each other, though the distances must be driven. Cabs are available, but can be expensive, so it's best to rent a car or pre-arrange tours or shuttle services with your travel agent or hotel concierge.
Gourdon is a smaller version of Saint Paul, another popular Riviera town famous for its art galleries, shopping, and for housing the grave of artist Marc Chagall. Gourdon offers all of these things—minus the gravesite—as well as a magnificent view of what is called "The Balcony of the French Riviera." Glancing out at it, you see the greenery-capped towns of Nice, Antibes, Cannes, Saint-Tropez and more.
For stunning views of Gourdon, you can take an approximately two-and-a-half hour hike that begins in the town and follows an old mule track to the entrance of the Gorges du Loup. If possible, arrange for transportation to be waiting for you at the bottom—parts of the long hike are quite steep.
In Grasse, you'll discover a perfumery town that has been around since the 18th century. As you'll soon find in the French Riviera, fragrance is an important facet of French culture; across the Riviera, the smells of lavender, jasmine and rosemary plants frequently dance under your nose. Be sure to take a bottle of your favorite scent home; you can even create your own unique scent.
Farther away is the port town of Marseilles, one of the oldest cities in Europe and also one of the most populated. The town is small and—except for near the water—is very hilly and therefore not easily trekked. Unlike Cannes, Gourdon and Grasse, you must be a little more resourceful in finding things to do in Marseilles. Along the harbor, the town holds a market, where you will find perfumes, spices and clothing for sale. Further in town there is Notre Dame de la Garde, a church that provides one of the best views of the port. A must in Marseilles is ordering bouillabaisse, a fish-based vegetable soup for which the city is famous.
It's hard to see all the French Riviera has to offer in a short trip—even a week's stay is too little. Take the time to explore the region and its charming provincial towns, and the French Riviera is bound to become your favorite vacation destination, too.