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How to Visit the French Riviera on a Budget

Planning an Affordable and Enjoyable Trip to the Cote d'Azur

Nice, a beautiful city on the French Riviera.
A view of Nice — a beautiful Italian-influenced port city on the French Riviera — from above during the still warm off-season month of October. Photo © Transitions Abroad.

Simply utter “Cote d’Azur,” and it tends to conjure up images of the elite, rich, beautiful, and even the glitterati of the Cannes Film Festival. Yet this lush and lovely area of France is actually as financially accessible to those on a budget as some of the world’s less glamorous destinations. Yes, you can still visit the French Riviera on a budget, do so in style and with great enjoyment — especially now for Americans with the dollar edging closer to par with the euro. No, we cannot promise the best travel deals in one of favorite haunts of so many of the rich and famous, but you can find prices commensurate or even less than in many modern industrial countries. We will offer you some tips on how to do so.

Travel to the French Riviera in the Off-Season

I would argue that you should visit the Cote d’Azur in the off-season even if price is not a factor. Yes, it is less expensive. That is just a fringe benefit. It is also much more enjoyable. You won’t be fighting off the crowds of tourists at the many great produce markets, restaurants, cheese and wine stores, or other attractions.

The weather is also still quite mild. The incredible light and the azur sea are as beautiful as the reputation. In fact, if you are visiting from typical fall and winter climates, the warmer temperatures of the Cote d’Azur will be a welcome respite from cooler weather at home. For centuries, many famous artists, writers, and philosophers have made the Riviera their fall or off-season home, as many artists, actors, and rock stars continue to do at this very moment (no sense listing the names, as the list of just the great artists who come to this beautiful location would be endless).

The off-season (April-May, October-December) is also a time when you are more likely to have a more authentic experience of day-to-day life. You will encounter more locals, and the locals will be much nicer due to less overtourism. Because the Cote d’Azur is such a tourist destination locals may get irritated by the nonstop barrage of tourists during the summer. (Editor's note: Knowing just a few words of French to show due respect for your hosts, of course, is something we always advocate at Transitions Abroad as part of the "Golden Rule" of travel. Showing respect for the people and culture has resulted in incredible hospitality in the many years we have been traveling and living in the region. As a young man I was treated almost like a god in the region merely because I was an American, and it is a well-kept secret that the elder French admire greatly the country that helped in the liberation during WWI and WWII. Many local youth admire American popular culture icons as symbols of freedom and creativity.)

I would even avoid the South of France in August entirely, simply because much of France (as well as other tourists, of course) flocks to this area, which is on of their most popular vacation destinations, much like popular beach towns in the U.S. In France, many employees are on vacation for the entire month of August, and they often spend that entire period on the Cote d’Azur to return back to Paris with a tan.

Fishermen in Nice in the evening.
October evening looking out from the Promenade des Anglais in Nice as fishermen catch their dinner on the beach, just steps from the center of the city. Photo © Transitions Abroad.

Budget Destinations on the French Riviera

Several destinations here are mesmerizing and make for a dream trip. There is also a comprehensive public transportation system connecting the big cities and even smaller villages by either rail or bus. Many of the Cote d’Azur destinations are but a short trip away from other equally beautiful locations.

So there is no need to cough up extra euros to stay in high-style cities like Cannes, St. Tropez, or Monte Carlo in the nearby Principality of Monaco. These small cities can be wildly more expensive than a larger city like Nice.

You might consider staying in less touristy areas of the popular cities and towns. You will pay less, you will encounter more locals, and you will see some of the spectacular natural views the coastline offers.

French Riviera landscapes.
So many of the beautiful views on the Riviera come from above, since the coastline ranges from flat to steep to very, very steep — with views from all angles, and an unimaginable spectrum of ever-changing colors that have influenced painters for centuries. Photo © Transitions Abroad.

There are many wonderful cities on the Cote d’Azur that are less well-known, and therefore less expensive. Many are centrally located enough to explore the region and are wonderful destinations in their own right.

Consider staying in:

  • Vence: While it’s just five minutes from the popular tourist destination of St. Paul de Vence, fewer know about little Vence. Not only are you a short drive or local bus ride from St. Paul de Vence (or even the shore, for that matter), but Vence itself features a chapel designed by none other than the great artist Henri Matisse.
  • Villefranche-sur-Mer: When we lived in Nice, we often took the 5-minute train ride to Villefranche because we preferred the less hectic pace (and sandy beach) here. Staying here means being a few minutes away from bigger cities, but you will be in a quieter village with an enchanting medieval neighborhood and a wonderful produce market.
  • Antibes: The Antibes stretch of coast is lined with seaside cafes, and is a bustling and welcoming area. Here you can discover centuries-old history, enticing markets, theme parks, and outdoor activities. The town is also located between nearby Cannes and Nice.
  • Grasse: This Provençal hilltop village is best known for its perfume, but it is also well worth a stay here to see the lovely historic city center and to taste the flavors of the region. There is also a nice selection of accommodations for the budget traveler.
Beautiful medieval town of St. Paul de Vence, France, from a distance.
Visit the medieval art center town of St. Paul de Vence as well one of the great little modern art museums in the world — La Fondation Maeght — and then stay in the nearby town of Vence for less than $100 during the off-season. Photo © Transitions Abroad.

Lodging on a Budget on the French Riviera

You can find affordable accommodations, and that is even the case if you stay in one of the bigger cities along the blue coast.

One way to save money and have a great trip on the Cote d’Azur is to reserve a vacation rental and use it as a comfortable home base to explore the region. (Editor's note: We prefer to rent a car to have the freedom to explore the many spectacular towns along the shore and behind the the mountains of the French Riviera and the nearby Italian Riviera, easily accessible from the superhighway or along the sea. But this incredible freedom does come at a cost due to the need for car insurance.) Since this is such a popular destination, there are literally hundreds of vacation rentals, with a wide range of amenities and price ranges. You will find extra savings as well, as you have the option to visit local produce markets, neighborhood grocers, bakeries, and prepare your own meals at your leisure. There are now many fine Riviera home rental vacation websites where you can do a search of the entire region, in addition to metasites such as Airbnb and VRBO.

If you seek out a vacation rental in the off-season, you will probably find some deals — property owners are often anxious to fill their rentals after September. Many of the local tourism offices have publications or databases of vacation rentals on their websites.

Nice penthouse
Rent an apartment in old Nice in October for a fraction of the going rate during high season and cook your own food from the great markets nearby. Or just hang out and people-watch while sitting at the busy outdoor cafes. Photo © Transitions Abroad.

Another budget option is camping. Particularly in the beach cities of the Cote d’Azur, there are numerous options for camping in this area. Many of these options are of the 4-star variety. In fact, there are more than 700 results for camping on the Riviera.

Camping does not have to be rugged. Just as France has a government rating system for hotels, there is also one for campgrounds. A 4-star campground will have far more amenities and extras than a budget hotel that costs more nightly, for example.

(Editor's interjection: Let's be clear, if you can afford it, don't miss such high-season festivals as the great Nice Jazz festival in July, or the famous (and crowded) Cannes Film Festival in May. You will have to plan your lodgings far in advance to do so though, whether you camp, stay in a hostel, hotel, or rental. Budget travel is all relative to your income, and there is no price for the pleasure of getting away from countries in economic or social disarray. Either way, if you are living to work rather than working to live you likely need some of the joie de vivre the French Riviera magically provides!)

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Budget Sightseeing in Europe

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