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Visiting French Riviera without a car

I'm thinking of visiting the French Riviera area for 4-5 days in early June, flying into Nice, and my partner and I don't drive. I was wondering what area would be recommended to stay in (I'm thinking Nice?), and what areas to travel to by train? We can appreciate good museums (I am a fan of Chagall), but prefer to see beautiful beaches and countryside, and walking in charming towns. Any tips would really be appreciated!

Posted by
27353 posts

Nice is a superb base for visiting the Riviera without a car. The TER (regional train) runs along the coast, hitting just about any coastal town you'd consider visiting except St. Tropez (which has no rail station). Nice is also the hub for a lot of buses. I don't know whether there are multiple local bus companies, but I think I always ended up on a Lignes d'Azur bus. To get up into the hills you'll probably need the buses.

I am a slow starter in the morning, and during my May 2017 visit I often ran into delays at the train station because all the ticket-vending machines were in use. I never got around to exploring the building to see whether there were additional machines somewhere outside the ticket lobby. Either allow for extra time in the moning or--if your plans are firm--buy your train tickets the night before. For the regional trains there is no price advantage to buying early, and the trains cannot sell out because there are no reserved seats. Do watch for pickpockets.

I recommend getting hold of a guidebook with good coverage of that area, because there are so many interesting places to visit. Rick's book dedicated to southern France has deeper coverage than the broader guide to France, and he is very good about including information on public transportation. A lot of places on the Riviera are extremely touristy. If that is a drawback for you, you'll need to read your guidebook carefully to find alternatives.

St-Paul-de-Vence was so overwhelmed with tourists that I wasn't interested in lingering, but it's very picturesque and the Fondation Maeght is wonderful. I much preferred Vence, which has a very nice medieval core but lacks St Paul's fabulous setting. It's all a matter of your priorities.

In 2017 I found the tourist office located on the plaza in front of the Nice Ville railroad station to be extremely helpful. In addition to information about Nice, it had brochures about some of the other nearby towns. I asked about Cap Ferrat, for example, and was given a nice brochure with a useful map.

A caution about setting off on a hike around one of the peninsulas: You may ultimately find the path petering out so that you need to walk across something like loose rock (shouldn't be an issue for younger folks), and you should not expect to see the fabulous villas of the rich and famous. Those folks love their privacy and have installed high walls. You'll basically be looking at the Mediterranean for most of the way.

Posted by
15644 posts

I recently came back from 5 nights in Nice and 2 in Marseille, then with a car 3 nights in St-Paul-de-Vence. Nice was convenient, but far from my favorite. I got the impression that St Paul was full of tourists during the day, but I was not there in "tourist hours" - midmorning to late afternoon I was out and about with the car and I loved St Paul.

I really enjoyed 1.5 days in Marseille, but it's about 2.5-3 hours by train to Nice. There are lots of towns/villages along the coast that can easily be reached by train - Antibes (Picasso Museum), Ville-Franche (my favorite), Menton, Monaco (I skipped it) are about the best-known. I liked the coastal towns more than the inland ones (which are mostly harder to get to without a car). In mid-March, the beaches were nearly empty (water's very cold) and not that many tourists anywhere. I imagine it will be more crowded in early June.

Posted by
557 posts

On the train ticketing and waiting for a machines issue -- the SNCF app, which I downloaded recently for an upcoming trip to France, offers the ability to buy TER tickets directly through the app. I did two dummy bookings, one for Nice-Monaco and one for Nice-Antibes, up until the payment page.

Here's more info in French, which does helpfully note you won't need to print or "compost" the e-tickets (if you have never bought paper railway tickets in France, you have to validate the tickets by putting them into a machine before you board the train, which is known in French as "composter").

It might be worth trying once you arrive in France, or if you want to test it now you could always buy one throwaway test ticket; a cheap option would be to try buying a ticket for Nice to Saint-Laurent-du-Var, which would only be €2.30.

Posted by
698 posts

Nice is the most central and with the most direct connections and variety. But the beach, while scenic, is also pebbles.. Villefranche-sur-Mer is quite charming with a scenic large-grain beach. The train will take you to places along the coast, but you'll need to make connections (there is bus service, but often these can get filled up first in Monaco or Nice before they get to VsM). Antibes is another choice, especially if you want a smaller scale and to stay near a sandy beach -- however the best beaches are quite far away from the train station (Juan les pins is better in that respect). And yes, make sure you go to the Chagall museum in Nice.

Posted by
613 posts

Both bus & train run along the coast.

Don't miss the perched the perched village, Eze Village (bust from Nice or Eze on the coast

Why stay in a big city? Little nearby Villefranche-sur-Mer is a gem.

If you intend any beach time, verify if your choice is rock beach or sand beach. They require different dress. You can walk sand barefoot. Rock beaches need mountain climbing boots

Posted by
11294 posts

Rick's Provence and the French Riviera book has all the information you need about getting around without a car. Note that his general France book has MUCH less information on the region.

From Nice, trains run along the coast twice an hour (last train about 11 PM) and buses run along the coast 3-4 times an hour (last bus about 8 PM). From Nice east to Menton, either works fine, although the bus can get you closer to some places (like Villa Ephrussi). From Nice west to Cannes, the bus is much slower, so I recommend the train.

Monaco has its own bus system. Although Monaco is famously very small, it's also hilly and with lots of water separating various parts of town, so walking everywhere can be harder than you would expect. I got a lot of use out of my day pass (single rides now €2, day pass now €5.50).

For inland destinations, the buses are less frequent, and are quite curtailed on Sundays, so you'll want to check schedules carefully. This is particularly true of La Turbie, where I was almost stranded (only a few buses a day). Also, Nice is the hub for buses; if you're staying elsewhere, you may have to change buses there.

One place I really liked that Rick doesn't cover is Haut-de-Cagnes, where Renoir's house is. In addition to the house itself, I found the town very charming.

Posted by
15644 posts

Just remembered - if you are buying train tickets at the machines, you need coins. They don't take any notes. I didn't try to use a credit card, don't like having it handy for small purchases (and pickpockets). I quickly learned to pay for everything with notes and keep the coins for the train tickets.

Posted by
6 posts

Thanks everyone! I will keep all of your tips in mind and have just put in an order for Rick Steve's guide. I also just booked for a 5 day trip in early June, basing myself in Nice.

Posted by
12172 posts

As long as you're interested in sights along the coast, you're better off without a car. Each town has at least one rail station for the local trains up and down the coast.

My favorite in the area is Antibes - by far. Nice isn't horrible but it's a very big city. Antibes is the perfect combination of white sandy beaches, fancy marina, restaurant/cafe area, art museum, medieval center and medieval ramparts rolled up into one walkable package. Across the peninsula is Juan les Pins, it's another good choice.