Driving the French Riviera is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The roads twist over mountain ranges, drop down to the sea, skirt rocky shorelines, and rise to promontories. Along the way, panoramic views over the glistening Mediterranean Sea add to the allure of this unforgettable journey.
There is a good bus network along the Côte d’Azur coastal road, and a tram conveniently connects Nice Airport to the city centre and various historic sites. Many villages and towns are best explored on foot, however to fully explore the region, reaching remote areas and hilltop villages, renting a car offers the most flexibility and fun. After all, who could resist the opportunity to take a road trip on the Côte d’Azur over some of the world’s most iconic stretches of shimmering tarmac?
This French Riviera drive takes you over the famous Corniches – or balcony roads - which provide three parallel options for the drive between Nice and Monte Carlo in Monaco each offering different vistas of the mountains and coast.
The Corniche Inférieure (or Basse Corniche) is a superior bet if beachcombing is your aim as it hugs the coast more closely than its higher-level alternatives. You’ll skim past – and maybe stay awhile at – beach resorts Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Cap d’Ail before rolling by Monaco’s sleek, yacht-filled ports to downtown Monte Carlo.
Next up is the Moyenne Corniche, which can be followed all the way to Italy. It was built in the 1920s to help ease tourist traffic on the lower road. Pick it up from Nice Airport and drive towards Menton, known for its botanical gardens. Allow time to visit hilltop villages and to stop at coastal vantage points.
Finally, there is the Grande Corniche – sometimes called the Haute (high) Corniche. Perched above the others, it traces the ancient Roman road, Via Julia Augusta, and a route marched by Napoleon I in 1815. A little more recently, the mountain pass at Col d’Èze featured in the James Bond film GoldenEye.
Head west from Nice in the direction of Marseille and you’ll hit yet another incredible coastal stretch. The Corniche de l’Esterel or Corniche d’Or slices through the Esterel Massif mountains, at times dipping down right to the shoreline.
Terracotta, tangerine or blazing red – the volcanic rock changes colour depending on the angle of the sun and time of day. Dense groves of pine and eucalyptus trees make the colours pop even more.
The road joins the Bay of Cannes to Fréjus, a port town with a Roman amphitheatre and aqueduct. Stretching for 40km, it’s easily doable in a couple of hours – though you’ll probably want to stop off, admire the views and maybe drive it just one more time.
Between January and March, the French Riviera coastal roads erupt in vivid yellow as the mimosa is in bloom. The aptly named Route du Mimosa or ‘golden road’, links eight lovely villages along a 130km stretch.
The route begins in Bormes les Mimosas. The hillside village added the floral element to its name in the 1960s and holds a parade in February to celebrate its abundant flora. The route ends in fragrant Grasse, known as the capital of perfume.
Most visitors to the Côte d’Azur fall fast and hard for its charms, and the world’s most celebrated artists certainly weren’t immune. Modern masters including Pablo Picasso lived and worked here.
A series of 60 lecterns making up The Painter’s Trail is dotted along the coastline, with information about the places that inspired those creative minds, and the legacy they left behind.
Close to Nice, the Musée Picasso in Old Antibes has a collection of his paintings and sculptures, within his one-time seaside residence. Picasso lived and worked here on and off for half a century.
Perched on a hilltop, St-Paul-de-Vence is a strong contender for the highest number of galleries per capita. Picasso was a regular wanderer of the zigzagging streets, and his paintings hang in the dining room of La Colombe d’Or. Don’t miss Joan Miró’s Labyrinth and gardens dotted with his surreal sculptures by the Fondation Maeght.
In summer, the roads up from the Côte d’Azur into Provence are sandwiched between vast lavender fields. Drive inland from Nice towards the Luberon valley, one of the most prolific lavender-growing areas, and prepare to be enveloped in a patchwork of purple hues and gorgeous scent. The fields are in bloom from June, and, in July and August, they’re joined by towering golden sunflowers.
The Route Napoléon, first opened in 1932, follows the route taken by Napoléon I (Napoléon Bonaparte) in 1815 on his march from Elba to Grenoble. We’d recommend joining the route by heading inland on the scenic D2085 away from the coast roads. Once past Grasse, you join the stunning D6085 and enter the Parc Naturel de Prealpes d’Azur.
The limestone lined route takes you up to a breathtaking wilderness. Places to stop along the way include St Vallier-de-Thiey with its impressive network of caves, Barrême, where you can visit the lavender distillery, Digne-Les-Bains where Napoleon stayed overnight in the Château de Malijai and Gap, with its medieval cathedral.
Just after Gap, you reach the highest point on the route at Col Bayard, at 1250 metres above sea level. After Col Bayard, you’ve the opportunity for an unmissable detour – the 3-mile (4.8km) Col de Gleize route which has 11 hairpin bends and a gradient averaging 9% along its length. There is a car park perfect for a picnic at the peak.
The remainder of the route is filled with small villages and towns with a plentiful mix of history, traditional culture and local cuisine such as in the town of La Mure, famous for its pork dishes flavoured with mountain herbs.
The total drive time to Grenoble is around 7-8 hours but to fully enjoy the scenery, history and immerse yourself in the character of the region you could easily take a week.
The sparkling waters of the Verdon Gorge are within easy reach of Nice on a 40-mile drive that takes around 2.5 hours.
Head for Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, a beautiful Provencal village with a tiny monastery high above the town before driving to the gorge.
Once you are there, the 250-million-year-old gorge and limestone cliffs above the topaz blue Verdon River are breathtaking. Take to the water in a kayak and spend the day on the Lake of Sainte-Croix.
Spend the rest of the day enjoying all that the Verdon Regional Natural Park has to offer from water sports to hiking and horse riding and head home as sun sets by the beautiful lavender fields of the Valensole plateau.
Nice is the perfect centre from which to explore the Côte D’Azur but it’s worth heading away from the coast to explore the iconic hilltop villages of western Provence.
Take the A8 autoroute and then the A7 as far as Cavaillon and then leave the motorway behind on the D900 which takes you over the Luberon mountains to honey-coloured hilltop villages like Gordes and Rousillon, Bonnieux and Menerbes.
In the height of summer, it is best to arrive early as parking is at a premium in some of these beauty spots and it can often make sense once you are parked to kick back and while away some time people watching and soaking up the atmosphere in a village centre café.
To make this a circular tour, head back to the coast via sun-kissed Apt which lies between the Vaucluse and Luberon Mountain ranges. Founded by the Romans in 1st century BC, the town is great for shopping and famous for its stunning shop window displays of the local delicacy, bejewelled crystalized fruit, as well as a thriving Saturday open air market brimming with local produce.
Marseille, France’s second largest city offers a wealth of cultural attractions, from ancient buildings to art galleries, museums as well as great bars and restaurants. This Nice to Marseille road trip via the A8 autoroute takes a little over 2 hours and for once we’d say it’s worth driving straight there.
Once in Marseille, start off in the Vieux Port (Old Port) where it is possible to book parking in advance. Enjoy a coffee and a chance to watch the boats come and go.
Visit the MuCEM Museum, which is dedicated to the history and culture of the Mediterranean area.
Stop off in Le Panier, the city’s shopping district to browse its trendy boutiques. Enjoy lunch on the terrace of one of the city’s laid-back restaurants.
Finish off your trip by taking the funicular (or climbing) up to the hilltop basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde with its breathtaking views of the city.
This road trip from Nice to San Remo in Italy takes you along the coast road beyond Menton. Before you cross the Italian border, consider taking a detour north up the Col de Modone, a 13km route with a gradient of 6.7% which is popular as a training ground of professional cyclists.
Back on the coast road you reach Italy and the small frontier town of Ventimiglia. Take time to explore the open Roya Valley and stop off in the village of Dolceacqua to enjoy an Italian coffee.
San Remo, your destination on this trip, a health resort in the Italian Ligurian coast since the 1860s, is known for its music festival and as the city of flowers. The Romanesque cathedral, Villa Nobel, home to the famous scientist and the gardens of the Villa Ormond are all well worth a visit and if you fancy abandoning the car, hiring bicycle to enjoy the 24km San Lorenzo to Ospedaletti cycle path, offers new vistas of the hills, mountains and coast around the town.
In summer, when France’s city dwellers make for the beach, it could be said that just about all roads lead to the South of France but taking a road trip French Riviera style is a popular option at any time of year.
The quickest route from Paris is via the Rhone Valley route on the A7 Autoroute and then onto the A8 Autoroute along the coast.
Taking the train is another option with direct Eurostar trains or the high-speed TGV (Trains à Grande Vitesse) reaching Avignon, gateway to the Riviera, in just 3 hours from Paris.
Flying to Nice and picking up a hire car from Nice Airport is a great option. This is the main airport on the Côte d’Azur and is a global hub served by all the major international airlines.
At the airport it is easy to find our friendly Nice Airport car hire team with convenient locations at both terminals 1 and 2. If you are planning a Côte d’Azur road trip, our Avis rental offers flexible one-way booking, giving you the option to pick the car up in Nice and drop it off at another location as well as a 24-hour drop off service tailored to your trip.
If you’ve not driven in this part of the world for a while, it is worth brushing up on latest road rules for France before you go. If you are new to car rental or not a regular renter, we’ve created a handy checklist of how to prepare for your rental car road trip.
In Nice, as in the rest of France, you’ll be driving on the right-hand side of the road. It’s worth remembering that rush hour like in most cities, is typically from 7.30am to 9am along the French Riviera coastal road, so the roads will be busier at this time.
If you are thinking about parking, in the centre of Nice itself, parking is straightforward, either on street or in public car parks.