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A Beginner’s Guide to the South of France

Annie Gabillet

Sipping rosé while you gaze at the turquoise waters of the Côte d’Azur. Browsing fresh produce and antiques at hilltop markets in Provence. Cruising clifftop roads or running through lavender fields. These are a few dreams that come to mind when we think of the South of France. The region has a lot to offer if you’re looking for a glamorous scene. But it also appeals to vacationers who want to escape it all for life’s more simple pleasures. If you’ve never been to this ultimate European getaway spot, chances are you hope to make it one day. Start planning now with our beginner’s guide to the South of France. 

Where to Go in the South of France

The South of France is vast, but Nice, Saint Tropez, and Provence are three distinct areas most people associate with the region. Here’s what you can expect in each place.

Nice 

Nice is, well, nice. Like Los Angeles and Barcelona, Nice lets you mix city fun with beach life. The city, located about 25 miles from the border with Italy, has an Italian feel to it, with its colorful, slightly washed-out buildings, delicious pizza and gelato (go to Fenocchio!), and easy living. But it’s definitely French, as you’ll tell by the upscale luxury that permeates the greater region. In Nice, be sure to check out Vieux Nice, the old town. You can also easily access Cannes or cute hilltop towns like St. Paul de Vence or Èze. In fact, the hotel and restaurant Chateau Eza in Èze offers a beautiful cliffside setting and sophisticated food for lunch. From Nice, make your way further east to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat or Monaco, for some French Riviera glam.  

Courtesy of Annie Gabillet

Saint Tropez

Saint Tropez just might be the Disneyland of the South of France. It’s touristy, but delivers. If you’re looking for beach clubs (like Club 55 or Nikki Beach), yachts, and luxury shopping, this is the place for you. The surrounding area can be a little more relaxed, but just as beautiful. Consider staying in or exploring nearby towns like Ramatuelle or Bormes-les-mimosas and venturing into Saint Tropez proper and nearby Pampelonne Beach when you want to people watch.

Courtesy of Annie Gabillet

Provence

Inland Provence is a quieter, more relaxed and affordable sister to the Côte d’Azur hubs of Nice and St. Tropez. In Provence, you’ll find lavender fields, dry rosé, and villages out of a different century. You can visit smaller French cities like Aix-en-Provence or Avignon, or head for the hilltop towns of the Luberon Valley — Gordes, Lacoste, and Roussillon are some of the best. Other villages like L’isle sur la Sorgue, with its famous market, or St. Remy de Provence, are worth a visit. If you want more bustle and to see the Mediterranean, check out Marseille, France’s second-largest city. There, try the classic Bouillabaisse (fish stew) and consider a detour to Cassis, a fishing port famous for its water inlets shaped by steep limestone cliffs, aka calanques.

Courtesy of Annie Gabillet

Where to Stay

Airbnbs, VRBOs, hotels, and bed and breakfasts (also known as “gîtes” in France) are all solid options. In Nice, there are classic beachfront hotels like the Hotel Negresco, but you can also get a charming and affordable flat in the Vieux Nice. In St. Tropez, consider staying in a smaller hotel outside the town proper. And in Provence, you might want to opt for a vacation rental that comes with a pool and outdoor seating to enjoy long meals after a day shopping at the local market for delicacies.

When to Go to the South of France

No matter what the season, you won’t regret finding yourself in the South of France. Fall tends to be a little warmer than spring, and July and August are extra busy, since that’s when the majority of French people take their vacations. If you go in the winter, you might want to stay closer to Nice, since the city will have more going on than some of the more tourism-driven villages. In the summer, you can expect temperatures in the high 80s in Nice for example, while it drops to the mid 50s in winter — still better than much of Europe! In Provence, be prepared for the mistral (50 mph wind storms), that come during the winter and summer.

Courtesy of Annie Gabillet

What to Pack

If you go in the warmer months, you’ll for sure want a chic swimsuit. With its deep-v, The Capri from Summersalt is definitely a showstopper. On the beaches in Nice or Cannes, you might find some women sunbathing topless. A bikini always gives you that option if you’re feeling adventurous. Also plan to dress up your summer dresses with accessories, like an oversized hat and silk blend scarf that can double as a hair wrap à la Grace Kelly or beach coverup.

How to Get Around

Trains, planes, and automobiles are all viable ways to travel in the South of France. One convenient way to plan your trip is to fly into Paris and then take the TGV high-speed train to Avignon (it takes about three hours on train vs. seven hours in a car). At the Avignon train station, you can rent a car and use it to explore Provence. Then either drive down to Nice, stopping in Aix-en-Provence and St. Tropez on the way, or Marseille. You can fly back home from Nice Côte d’Azur Airport or Marseille Provence Airport. You could also swap that itinerary and fly into the South of France and then make your way north and back to the train station in Avignon before heading to Paris.

However you get to the South of France, you won’t want to leave.