The Invisible French Riviera

The French Riviera is a big tourist destination in France. Marseille, Cannes, and Nice are very well known. However, there are at least a couple of towns in the region that really shouldn’t be missed. In fact, I personally prefer them to the major draws in the south of France.

We began our visit to the French Riviera in Marseille which turned out to be a fairly mediocre experience. We have some friends who live in a 500-year-old house in a small town east of here called La Garde, and we headed there next.

French Riviera

Photo courtesy of Annie Andre

La Garde

This relatively small town, which is found just a short distance from Toulon (and an easy train ride from Marseille), is the epitome of a small, rural French town. People are incredibly friendly. The thrice weekly local market is a place for locals to not only stock up on fresh produce and odds and ends, but also to socialize.

If your previous experience with French people is that they are not that friendly, please come here so you can see that is, despite the rumors, just not true. Here you will find people who will easily smile and laugh with you. Rather than be irritated with your lack of ability to speak French, or your very questionable accent, they will work around the communication barriers.

La Garde is a blue collar town, and in typical rural French fashion it becomes a veritable ghost town on Sundays and Mondays. It’s the kind of place where you can walk around at night without concern and where your kids can play outside without needing you to hover.

At a local park in the evenings, you can enjoy the jet d’eau, a series of fountains that people can frolic in. If you aren’t there in the summer, and maybe even then, you’ll probably have the place to yourself.

There are lots of outdoors activities, and you’ll definitely have no problem finding fresh food. Make sure to walk around the old section of town, too. Just look for the castle remnant on a tall hill. It isn’t hard to spot.

And, of course, you can get plenty of beach time here.

French Riviera


Hyères is known as the City of Palms. Once you walk around its medieval streets, or even the modern ones, you’ll have no problem understanding how it got that name.

It is a hotspot for French tourists but remains off the typical path for many foreign tourists. In addition to having some wonderful nature around it, the town has lots of culture, and offers great year-round activities. Although, you may need to slip on a wetsuit for some of them outside the summer months.

Aside from the wonderful local markets, they have some wonderful beaches that are packed with activities—wind surfing, Jetski, sailing, dolphin spotting, scuba diving, sea kayaking, and more.

The medieval section of town is absolutely charming and offers you a slice of French life you may not have seen before.

French Riviera Hyeres

If I were going to move to the south of France, I think this would my top choice city. It has such a great vibe and feel to it, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Not to mention it’s a place that could easily keep you busy.

It’s a great area for nature lovers, and it’s located not far from the French Riviera big hitters such as Cannes and Nice.

I really would’ve liked to have had more time to explore this region more deeply, and when I return to France that is high on my list of things to do. The French Riviera has so many wonderful cities and towns. It’s rather unfortunate that the parts that get highlighted are the activities for the rich and famous because towns like these have so much more to offer, and the Provencal culture is so lovely and incredibly laidback.

Have you visited the French Riviera? Did you explore the smaller cities or stick with the more famous cities?

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  1. So glad you enjoyed the more rural side of France when you visited us Talon. i was worried that you would be bored or think us boring considering it is off peak season and not a lot of festivals and things going on. Plenty of sports to do.

    You make a very good point about only the ritzy and pricier places being highlighted when the real parts of France are relatively unknown. i love Paris, Marseille is OK I guess but those places fall outside of the bell curve when it comes to the real French culture. Especially in the south of France which has its own subculture.

    Anywho, cant wait till our next meet up.

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    • Not boring at all! We dig those kinds of areas and getting a slice of typical life. Plus hanging with you guys was extra special.

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  2. I’ve been to the French Riviera three times now, and I love all of it – small towns and big cities! I’ve always stayed in Nice, and travelled out from there. Vence is lovely, as is Tende and Grasse. I’ve never been to either of these places, though – I’ll have to check them out next time I’m there!

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  3. We have yet to visit the French Riviera but we are sure we would prefer the smaller towns to the more tourist cities. Everywhere we go we always try to find the smaller more chilled out place where you are not bothered every 10 steps. We will mark these places down when we do decide to head there 🙂

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    • In the French Riviera’s case, as far as I’m concerned the small towns are the real finds. The bigger ones weren’t worth the visit except to pass through.

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  4. I prefer the smaller towns in Europe (and in general).So much easier to get a sense of place rather than the hustle of larger urban areas.

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    • The more we travel the more I appreciate larger cities, although in this region the smaller cities are the best for sure.

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  5. We wish we visited these little towns too whilst traveling around the French Riviera, we weren’t amazed by Cannes and Nice but we enjoyed Marseille and its multicultural mixture.

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    • I wasn’t a big fan of Cannes or Nice either. The small towns wowed me, but the big ones blech.

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  6. I think the mistakes that we made when visiting the French Riviera were A) visiting in Summer, and B) not getting off the beaten track. We were on a train trip, so we only got off at the major stops, and I wish we’d seen some of the spots that you have mentioned. My husband absolutely HATED Nice and I’m afraid it left a sour taste in his mouth toward returning to the whole area. Perhaps we just missed the best bits 😉

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    • We didn’t get a lot of time in Nice, but I was less than impressed as well. I’d definitely come back to explore the small towns, though. They were really fantastic.

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  7. So many of the small towns are phenomenal, such as Cagnes sur mer, St Paul de Vence, Biot, Menton, etc Cannes has multiple facets, some of which I like but of course it’s uber trendy and during the festival the crime rate soars. I personally don’t like the Riviera during the summer because of the throngs of tourists but if you go further into the countryside thankfully they haven’t totally perpetrated it. Not a fan of Marseille personally.

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    • I don’t even want to try to imagine how awful Cannes must be in the summer. We were there in mid season, and it was bad enough.

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