Sun, sea and self-drive in the South of France
Aside from Paris, the South is probably one of the most visited areas in France. For years, holidaymakers have basked on its beaches beneath the Mediterranean sun, enjoyed ambling its picturesque villages and gorging on its world-famous cuisine.
With a mix of beautiful scenery and vibrant towns, this part of the world has something to offer for absolutely everyone; not only, as I know you are thinking, the elite middle class. Surely, in the part of Europe in which everyone seems to own their own yacht and dine in Michelin starred restaurants every night, it’s going to be near impossible to travel without having a huge wad of cash, right?
WRONG. Yes, in the South of France you can dine with celebrities, you can spend a week’s rent on one night in a hotel, you can shop in some of the most prestigious boutiques on the planet, BUT you can also see Provence and the Cote d’Azur on a budget.
My sister and I spent a week in the South of France. We hired a cheap car through AutoEurope (I still miss driving that nippy Fiat 500!) and stayed in cheap hotels and AirBnBs. We bought supplies from supermarkets and ate lunch on the road, and dined in typically French restaurants in the evening.
Driving is by far the best way to see the South of France. Here are the absolute must-sees on your epic South of France road trip.
“Montpellier was once the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, an area best-known for its countless castles and vineyard routes. Although the region has now been incorporated into Occitane, Montpellier now remains one of the fastest growing cities in l’Hexagon.
While much of the hub of the city is focused around Place de la Comédie, there are plenty of other things to see and do in and around Montpellier.
Today, highlights of this Southern French city include the impressive Triumphal Arch which is known as the Porte du Peyrou (and is dedicated to the glory of the Sun King, Louis XIV), as well as many museums.
On the fringes of the city, you’ll find the Château de Flaugergues, one of the best French Châteaux anywhere in the country.”
“Nîmes, a former capital of the Narbonne province, held an important role in Roman history and many relics remain today as silent witnesses of that Roman presence.
The main highlight is without a doubt ‘les Arènes de Nîmes’, a huge arena that was used for gladiator fights. Later on, this construction also served as a fortress, an arena for bullfighting and even a homeless shelter. Today, it is a museum that you can visit for a fee (free audio guide included).
Another typically Roman building is La Maison Carrée, a well-preserved temple that used to be the center of a Roman forum. You can pay to enter, but its façade is possible the most interesting part, as no ancient decorations remain on the inside.
A last must-see is ‘les Jardins de la Fontaine’, a park that once functioned as the public Roman baths, which you can deduct from the statues adorning the park. Today, it is frequented by locals in search of a quiet place for a picnic or a stroll. Also check out the ‘Temple de Diane’ and ‘La Tour Magne’ for a panoramic view of the city.”
Sophie writes at Bitten by the Bug – check out her site here.
“Marseille is the second largest city in France with plenty to see and do.
One of which walking around the old port during the day and night, for us during sunset is the best time. Sunset because we were able to sit down and relax. People are dancing, and having a cup of tea, a glass of wine appreciate the scenery. For places that is worth it let us tell you to put Basilique Notre Dame and Cathedrale de la Major in your bucket list. If you are into Museum, the best place to visit in Marsielle is The Mucem. The Mucem is a Museum dedicated to better understanding about Mediterranean.
Le panier is a place in Marsielle that is colorful. A neighborhood where in you’ll be able to walk around and have a stop by to shops to have pastries and coffee. It is very much recommended to visit La panier in the afternoon. Cours Julien is a must to go for dinner and drinks, this place offers a lot of restaurants and bars. There aren’t many tourist visiting the city unlike others city in France that is well known. But Marsielle is one of the city in France wherein it offers a great atmosphere that will make you go back.
Ruben blogs at Gamin Traveler. Check out his guide on what to do in Marseille here.
“In the 14th-century, there was a short time when the Pope didn’t live in Rome, but in Avignon. Nowadays, you can still visit the Palais des Papes in Avignon, the palace where the Popes lived during their exile in France. This palace is huge and very imposing. Make sure to go inside. Rather than a luxurious palace, it feels more like a medieval fortress, with its towers in light stone.
Another attraction in Avignon is the Pont St.-Bénézet, which is known for the nursery rhyme ‘Sur le pont d’Avignon L’on y danse, l’on y danse’. According to legend, a former shepherd called Bénézet had tree visions that urged him to build a bridge across the Rhône (which he obviously did). The bridge was originally completed in 1185 but rebuilt several times.
Make sure to visit the Musée du Petit Palais as well. It’s located in a 14th-century palace built for the archbishops of Avignon. In the museum, you can admire several stunning Renaissance paintings.”
Sanne writes at venividiblog.co.uk.
Aix was probably my favourite of the cities we visited in the South of France on this trip. It felt less touristy than others and, although proudly holding a touch of bourgeois, it still retained so much French charm.
Aix’s tiny cobbled streets give the feel of a small French town, so it’s easy to forget you’re in a University city. The streets are easily walkable so park up your rental car and explore what it has to offer.
Dubbed the ‘city of a thousand fountains’, Aix has a beautiful feature everywhere you look. Starting at La Fontaine de la Rotunde, (a fountain on a huge roundabout), being your route along the beautifully tree-framed Cours Mirabeau, the main street in Aix-en-Provence. Notice the beautiful buildings along this road; these Hôtels Particuliers are private mansions are owned by wealthy families.
Le Grand Marcheé takes place three times a week along this route, where the street is transformed into a flurry of clothing, textiles and brocante, and don’t miss Place de l’Hôtel de Ville or Place Richelme, where there is a flower market and food market. Place d’Albertas is another not to miss.
Strolling the city you will stumble upon many beautiful churches, a number of renowned museums and much more. A visit to L’Atelier Cézanne, the famous artist’s studio, is well worth a visit, as is a photo by the enormous books outside Bibliotèque Méjanes.
You can see my photo diary of Aix-en-Provence here.
This beautiful part of France deserves much more credit in my view: here the hills meet the lavender fields, cobbled streets meet medieval-style buildings and ….
Le Luberon is home to some of the most quaint villages I have ever come across. Gordes, an inarguably pretty hilltop town, overlooks the greens of the fields below. Roussillon, with it’s terracotta buildings, seems to blend into the surrounding rocks. Lourmarin’s charm begins with the chateau on the outskirts of town, but continues through to it’s cobble-stoned core. Bonnieux, with it’s 12th century church spire rising into the clouds, is the perfect place for an afternoon stroll.
Buckle up and drive through this beautiful area of southern France. Stopping in each town at your leisure, you can truly appreciate the relaxed laissez-faire feeling that encompasses this part of the world.
I wrote a whole post about visiting Luberon National Park here.
Another particularly beautiful stop on your road trip is the city of Toulon. It’s Old Town was severely damaged in World War One, but it’s still undoubtedly charming, with its cobbled streets, intricate fountains and boutiques and bakeries popping out of the nooks and crannies.
As always, the Hotel de Ville is worth a look, but the more spectacular Opéra de Toulon on Place Victor Hugo is a must. It’s one of the largest opera houses in France and was designed by Garnier, the very same who designed the Palais Garnier in Paris.
The port was one of my favourite areas, with its hundreds of boats bobbing along in the turquoise waters. Toulon is military port as it is home to the French navy fleet in the Mediterranean. Worth a stop is the Porte de l’Arsenal which dates back to 1738. Tourists can hop on ferries to many other beaches in the area from here.
For me, the main attraction in Toulon was Mount Faron. You can hike it, get the cable car, or drive to the summit of this 458m hill, where the views of the city are simply phenomenal. You can see the five Mounts of Toulon, the beautiful coastline and the mediterranean sea stretching as far as the horizon. We were lucky enough to see a wedding photoshoot while we were here – what a beautiful location for it!
“Saint Tropez is France’s most famous village. Once inhabited by fishermen, the port is now greatly prized by celebrities. In summer, massive yachts in front of the overpriced restaurants share the place with more modest sailing boats further on the wharves. The most famous French beach clubs at the nearby Pampelonne Beach are a top activity for these summer visitors.
But Saint Tropez has more to offer than just beach, sun and VIP parties. The village has kept his historical charms. The pedestrian old town centre still looks authentic with its simple houses with pastel colours on their walls.
The short climb to the 16thcentury Citadel is worth it. You can visit the castle, but the main reason to make the efforts is to catch the most stunning 360° views of the village and the bay. Saint Tropez is even more beautiful at the end of the day, when the sun lights the houses on the port before going down behind the small mountains.
For the best experience in Saint Tropez, try plan your visit during the low season, and allow time to go to some of the most beautiful villages nearby.”
Eloise blogs at My Favourite Escapes; read her post about some of the most beautiful villages near St Tropez here.
“Often overlooked but a must if you are in the area, Frejus is a beautiful city which should be part of any South France road trip.
The city has a lot of history as it dates to Roman times when it was called Forum Julii. The amphitheatre and the aqueducts are the major attractions that remain from that time and both are worth visiting.
On a rainy day be sure to go to one of the excellent museums in the city. The Frejus museum has lots of unearthed artefacts on display, whilst the French Navy museum is a must if you’re into military.
Other places of interest include the cathedral, cloister and of course the beautiful beaches. This is both a place to explore and to relax. In the evening, wander through the city centre and have dinner in one of the typical French restaurants.”
Chris blogs at www.christravelblog.com
“Famous worldwide for its star-studded annual film festival, Cannes is one of the hottest destinations on the French Riviera. Each year film stars flock to this fashionable city, but there is so much more to Cannes than celebrities.
Whether you have a few days in Cannes, or a few hours, you’ll find it the perfect destination to completely unwind, with sun-drenched beaches, fantastic restaurants and a sublime boardwalk, known as the Promenade de la Croisette, stretching 3km across the entire bay of Cannes.
For amazing views, head to Suquet Hill, complete with historical buildings and a beautiful church, or spend a dreamy afternoon exploring the labyrinthine streets of Le Suquet, Cannes’ old quarter.
For outstanding scenery, jump in your car and drive La Corniche d’Or, a stunning coastal road which takes you to the town of Théoule-sur-Mer. Not only will you be treated to epic views of rustic red cliffs and clear azure waters, but you’re also just a stone’s throw from the beautiful Massif de l’Esterel, a series of hiking trails with incredible views.
Finish off your day with dinner at Salsamenteria Di Parma, a fantastic restaurant right next to the harbour.”
Read Zara’s post on some more incredible things to do in the French Riviera here.
“If you’re planning a trip to the South of France, chances are Nice is on your list – and for good reason. It’s beautiful, fun, and perfectly located.
What we liked best about Nice was the variety of things to see on foot. Enjoy the ocean breeze as you stroll along the famous Promenade des Anglais. See what things were like back in the day by exploring the Old Town. Wonder if you’ve been transported to Las Vegas as you admire over-the-top fountains and lights at Place Masséna.
Nice truly has something for everyone, and that goes for food too. There are typical bakeries, cozy bistros, and more lavish restaurants on nearly every street. It can be hard to choose! We had two delicious dinners in two neighborhoods: Le Comptoir du Marche in the old town and Franchin in the newer part of the city. We also found ourselves at an impromptu dance party at an inconspicuous looking Italian restaurant.
You never know what you can find in Nice!”
Sarah and Justin write at Travel Breathe Repeat. For more on Nice and its surrounding area, read their blog post here.
The undoubtedly charming medieval village of Eze is tiny, but well worth a stop on your visit to the South of France. It only takes a couple of hours to explore the entirety of this village but you can easily spend longer if you choose to mill the endless art galleries, boutique shops or have lunch in one of the restaurants here.
Perched on a hill between Nice and Monaco, Eze was rarely known until recent years. Tour guides circle through the labyrinth of small streets with strings of tourists scuttling behind, stopping to take photos at ever corner, as it is not an exaggeration to say that every view seems to be perfection. Home to just 3000 people, the town is like a fairytale, with winding streets, stairs and gardens built into the stone, and of course it is topped with a medieval castle.
The oldest building in Eze is the Church of the Holy Cross, built in 1306, and a must-visit is the Jardin Exotique – a garden of succulents overlooking the Mediterranean sea. This little town is perfectly delightful – a must if you are in the area – I recommend visiting as early in the day as you can to avoid both the crowds and the heat!
For more on Eze, see my post about it here.
“Monaco is the second smallest country in the world, tucked in the Côte d’Azur near Menton. It’s also one of the richest and most expensive countries, attracting high profile, high-earning residents because of it doesn’t charge income tax.
You might know it to be the venue for one of the most famous of all Grands Prix, the one where the streets are so narrow it’s almost impossible to overtake!
It’s a bit of a curiosity – Monty Python’s King Arthur summed it up best when describing Camelot: “It’s a silly place”. That said, no trip to the Côte d’Azur is complete without a visit there.
The opulent Casino de Monte Carlo is well worth a look – it’s open to the public every morning, and after 2pm it’s gambling time.
La Rocher, or Monaco-Ville, deserves a few hours exploring. This is Monaco old town, a warren of narrow lanes with the Musée du Vieux Monaco and Byzantine Cathedral on a dramatic headland above the harbour. The Princes’ Palace is also here. You can see the daily changing of the guard ceremony at 11.55, and visit some of the lavish state apartments.”
David and Faye write at travelwithlittleone.com.
“Menton is a sleepy, old-fashioned town on the Côte d’Azur. It’s the not-very-famous last stop on the coast before France turns into Italy.
If you’re looking for a place to party, it’s not for you. Head west to Nice or Cannes, or east to Monaco for that.
Instead Menton attracts an older, more genteel kind of a visitor. The main draws are the town’s exotic gardens and microclimate that is said to make it warmer than the rest of France. The town is also known for its tangerine, orange and lemon groves; one of its symbols is a lemon.
If you fancy a wander, head to the wonderful seafront, dotted with cafés and billowing flagpoles. Those with strong calf muscles will also enjoy the gorgeous old town – just don’t expect a stroll, the steep cobbled steps and winding alleyways make it more of a hike!
Menton is a lesser-known gem on this famous stretch of coastline; definitely worth a stop!”
Looking for accommodation in the South of France?
On our road trip, my sister and I used a combination of AirBnB and hostels or cheap hotels. Sign up to AirBnB with this link and get £25 off your first booking. Alternatively you can browse accommodation using the booking.com widget below.
Prefer a guide?
If a road trip isn’t for you, try a trip with Get Your Guide. Whether you are in a group or on a private excursion, you can still see the best of the south of France. Below are some of their most popular tours in the area!
Have you been to Provence and the Cote d’Azur?
Thanks for reading and happy travels!
This post contains affiliate links. If you click on them and purchase something from the linked site, I’ll earn a tiny (and I mean tiny!) commission at no extra cost to you, which contributes to running this blog.
Shop my travel gear for your South of France Road Trip
Enjoyed this post? Pin it for later!