The French Riviera is a great destination for driving with over 300 sunshine days a year it’s no wonder one of the main highways feeding into south-eastern France, the A7 from Lyon to Marseille, is christened the ‘Autoroute du Soleil’.
Some of Bespoke Yacht Charter’s favourite self-drive road trips on the French Riviera are located not far from the Cote d’Azur’s ports and marinas meaning a spectacular journey on wheels is easy to combine with your luxury yacht charter itinerary – imagine rambling into vineyards to buy wines direct from the producer, visiting perched villages for a leisurely Provençal lunch beside a heritage-listed fountain and traversing beautiful National Parks with wildflowers and wildlife.
French roads are categorised into autoroutes (highways, marked A7, A8 etc), routes nationales (national trunk ‘N’ roads, marked N98 etc), routes départementales (‘D’ roads) and routes communales (rural ‘C’ roads) and all encompass town life as well as off-the-beaten path driving options.
Bespoke Yacht Charter would love to share with you our suggestions for 5 French Riviera Driving Itineraries – the incontournables, or inescapable routes for navigating your way at leisure around the region.
Marseille to Toulon
1 hour 15 minutes driving, plus stops (64.7 kms)
The A50 is the quickest route between Marseille and Toulon, though the most scenic is found by following the D559 road with lovely coastal towns for detours at Cassis, La Ciotat, Saint Cyr-sur-Mer, Bandol, Sanary-sur-Mer, Six-Fours-les-Plages and La Seyne-sur-Mer.
Marseille, a Mediterranean melting pot, is very congested traffic-wise, so try to base yourself somewhere outside the central city first before discovering the city attractions. Get lost in the lanes of Le Panier, take some photos of the iconic hilltop neo-Byzantine church Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde or visit Vieux Port (Old Port) and the famous fish market. Don’t miss stopping into a harbour side restaurant for the freshest bouillabaisse you’ll find in the south!
The biggest drawcard for driving this route is to visit the stunning calanques, the majority are located between Marseille and La Ciotat and form part of a National Park. Tourism Offices can provide you with maps of the calanques including Port Pin, en Vau, Sormiou, Sugiton, Morgiou, and Figuerolles and you can follow the cliff top hiking trails to reach them. Port-Miou is the one closest to Cassis that is accessible by car.
In summer months, access to the calanques is restricted because of high fire risks due to strong winds and warm temperatures so if you intend driving this route, it’s advisable to check in advance regarding road closures. You can phone the official helpline telephone: +33 08 11 20 13 13 (in English and French) or see daily updates online (in French only) at www.calanques13.com/acces-massifs-forestiers.html
Cassis and La Ciotat are worth a stop for their picturesque harbours with traditional fishing boats and seafood restaurants; Cap Canaille and the Château de Cassis have featured as the subject of many paintings. Skip both the A8 autoroute and D559 road and instead take the D141 road named the ‘Route des Crêtes’ between Cassis and La Ciotat, the views are sublime and there are look-out points all the way.
Bandol is a bustling seaside resort in warm months with a pleasant esplanade and a large sandy beach dotted with water sports operators – be sure to taste a drop or two of Bandol wine somewhere along this coast! Sanary-sur-Mer is a quieter coastal village with an active fishing port lined with pastel-coloured houses and palm trees.
Toulon, a major naval city, has a lot of history – browse the Provençal market in the Old Town, stop into the Musée de la Marine (Maritime Museum), ride the cable car up Mont Faron or drink coffee at one of the many cafeterias on Plage Puget where Victor Hugo once lived and was inspired to write Les Misérables.
If you wish to head further east, Hyères is another resort town worth a look and if you love sandy beaches the areas between La Londe-les-Maures and Bormes-les-Mimosa are fantastic, but very popular – if you visit them, try to time it as early in the morning as possible as car parking can be difficult.
The Corniche d’Or
40 minutes driving, plus stops (24.8 kms)
A thoroughly enjoyable and picturesque coastal drive, following the Corniche d’Or or ‘Golden Coast’ also known as the Corniche de l’Estérel, is not to be missed!
The basic route is spectacularly scenic as the N98 road winds from Agay via Le Trayas and Théoule-sur-Mer to Mandelieu-La Napoule and the panoramas offer picturesque views of the Mediterranean and the brooding rust-red massif of the Estérels.
Inaugurated in 1903 by the Touring club de France, the road was never intended for speed but for tourism and certainly driving the winding roads requires vigilance as the beauty of the sheer red cliffs dropping down to a clear turquoise sea can be distracting – Bespoke Yacht Charter recommend stopping off along the way and following rocky steps or gravel paths to one of the inlets for a swim.
Traffic in summer can be jam packed as motorhomes and motorbikes crawl to their next holiday spot but there are parking places to stop enroute amongst the windswept pines, mimosa and heather.
The route is popular with cyclists and there are a number of excellent hikes in the region such as the Cap Dramont walk near Agay and the hike to Cap Roux.
Gorges du Loup & Gourdon
Driving time dependent on origin, plus stops (40 kms from Nice, 28 kms from Cannes)
Off-the-beaten track for many visitors to the French Riviera, approaching Gourdon can be nerve-wracking as the narrow roads twist under towering rock faces and weave beside vertiginous drops with low rock wall barriers.
Enroute from Nice, there are many beautiful towns to stop at – Saint-Paul-de-Vence, Vence and the fortified village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup. Tourrettes-sur-Loup is a quaint village known for its violets (celebrated in the annual Fête des Violettes) and retains an old-world charm with potters and weavers studios spread along the cobblestoned streets. Many of the old village façades have been restored and the stones are cleaner than medieval times but it’s still not as busy with tourists as Eze or Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
If you are driving from Cannes direction, on the return journey stop on the way back at the perfume capital Grasse and a meal in Mougins, a pretty town renowned for outstanding restaurants.
Pont-du-Loup marks the start of the Gorges du Loup, one of the most accessible of many dramatic and hair-raising gorges that run to the coast, with splendid views along the D6 road and waterfalls such as Cascades des Demoiselles and Cascade de Courmes to see.
Gourdon is perched at an altitude of 760 metres on a rocky precipice jutting out directly above the Loup River where the Gorges du Loup comes out at the Pont-du- Loup village. Gourdon is best visited earlier in the day to beat the tourist buses, though for self-drive visitors there are 2 large car parking areas (Parking Campagnon and Rougière) at the town.
There are plenty of Provençal boutiques retailing artisanal soaps, beautiful locally made cut-glass, perfumes, olive oils, vinegars, fabrics and jewellery. The views from the main square Place Victoria are awe inspiring and can’t be beaten, especially on a clear day. The Château of Gourdon with gardens designed by Le Nôtre was previously open to the public as it held 2 historical museums, however the museums are now closed and visitation to the gardens are by appointment only (for groups of 10+ persons).
This area is popular for outdoor recreation with paragliding, canyoning and hikes include the Canal du Foulon walk and the chemin du Paradis trail between Gourdon and Pont-du-Loup.
Driving time dependent on traffic but minimum 40-45 minutes oneway from Nice to Menton or vice versa. Note: The Basse Corniche can take 2 hours+ in peak season.
The Corniches are must-do driving routes when visiting the French Riviera and offer breath taking views of the coastline and mountains. They consist of the Grande Corniche (the highest road), Moyenne Corniche (the middle road) and Basse Corniche (the lower coastal road) and sit at differing altitudes from Nice to Menton.
The Grande Corniche (the D2564) was built by Napoléon 1er and is the best known of the Corniche roads due to its origins as part of the ancient Roman road Via Julia Augusta that lead from Cimiez in Nice to Genoa in Italy. La Turbie is the highest point along the road and worth stopping at to visit the Trophée des Alpes, a Roman monument built for Emperor Augustus.
The views from the Grande Corniche are spectacular; the road itself has also been a star backdrop in numerous films including Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 ‘To Catch A Thief’ starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, who later famously became Princess Grace of Monaco in one of the region’s favourite love stories. The treacherous winding bends of the mountain roads were etched into history after Grace and her daughter Stephanie’s Rover car careered off the road in 1982 and Grace succumbed to her injuries the following day. Best viewpoints: Try the Col d’Eze and La Turbie.
The Moyenne Corniche (N7) was built in the 1920’s and follows tunnels cut through the mountains – visiting the perched village of Eze for a meal at La Chèvre d’Or is extra special. Best viewpoints: The Plateau Saint-Michel above Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Eze village, a small detour to the Mont des Mules lookout in Beausoleil. The Moyenne Corniche is best travelled west-to-east as the parking lay-bys for photo opportunities are on the sea side and due to traffic it can be dangerous to cross the road to stop.
The Basse Corniche (N98), also known as the Corniche Inférieure, is very busy in summer as it links the coastal resort towns but if you’re not pressed for time it’s a fantastic way to see the region as the road passes through Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Eze-sur-Mer, Cap d’Ail, Monaco, and Roquebrune Cap Martin to Menton. For side trips, don’t miss lunch and a coastal walk at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat or follow the Promenade Le Corbusier pathway from Roquebrune Cap Martin to Monaco.
Canton de Levens
Driving time dependent on itinerary; example Nice to Duranus is 31km and takes around 1 hour oneway.
Away from the coast you can discover the Canton de Levens, nicknamed the ‘Canton aux 10 Sourires (Canton of 10 Smiles)’, a region between the mountains and sea dotted with perched villages including Duranus, Levens, Plan-du-Var, Saint Blaise, Saint-Martin-du-Var, La Roquette-sur-Var, Castagniers, Tourrette-Levens, Aspremont and Colomars.
If you’re unfamiliar with these towns, you should take the time to visit as they are mostly untouched by tourist traffic. The area is renowned for olive production, rocky outcrops interspersed with pine forest and many beautiful churches.
- Visiting the medieval Château and museums in Tourrettes-Levens
- Stopping by the historic oil mill at Saint-Blaise
- Enjoying the outdoors of the big meadows and hiking trails at Levens
- Overcoming any vertigo to see the heritage site Saut des Français viewpoint at Duranus
- Climbing up to he Belvédère du Portalet viewpoint in La Roquette-sur-Var for spectacular views overlooking the Lower Var Valley
- Visiting the Notre-Dame de la Paix Abbey in Castagniers where you can buy chocolate hand-made by the Cistercian nuns with Spanish almonds and hazelnuts from Piedmont in neighbouring Italy
A suggested itinerary would be to take the D19 road to Tourrettes-Levens, then Saint-Blaise, Levens, Duranus and return via the western route D6202 (ex N202) with small detours to La Roquette-sur-Var and Castagniers.
Useful tips for driving on the French Riviera
French autoroutes (highways) are excellent with good facilities such as service stations, restaurants and picnic areas. It’s advisable to fuel up prior to venturing away from main towns as service stations and opening hours can be limited in rural areas, especially on Sundays.
Two useful websites that give updates on traffic information in France such as roadworks and congestion are:
Tolls (péages) are part of driving in France and generally the toll roads offer the fastest route to travel between major cities. You can check the toll prices on the following website: Vinci Autoroutes Tarifs (in French) or we suggest planning your journey using www.viamichelin.com UK drivers can access the automated péage lanes in France using Liber-t tags; find out more information here: www.emovis-tag.co.uk If you don’t have a set schedule, some of the loveliest journeys can be found by following the ‘D’ roads that often run parallel to the autoroutes or quiet countryside roads without tolls that meander past olive groves and stone mas.
Spring and autumn are great times of the year for driving in the French Riviera as the temperatures are warm and the traffic is not as heavy as July and August. French Riviera roads are usually most congested around mid-July (Fête Nationale holiday) and the beginning and end of August, when most workers leave or return from their annual holiday though summer is great for festivals and events.
Car parking is in high demand year round. If you try your luck with street parking, always check it is not pay-and-display parking first (usually the space will have signage stating ‘Payant’), if so you must buy a parking ticket from the machines in advance. Major towns including Cannes, Antibes and Nice have ample parking facilities run by either Inter Parking or Q-Park.
Other suggested self-drive itineraries
If you have time ashore from your yacht charter, some other fantastic self-drive itineraries are:
- Within easy reach from Nice Port or the Ports in Monaco, discover the Vallée du Paillon with terraced olive and chestnut plantations and hinterland villages of Peillon, Peille, Lucéram and L’Escarène
- Cross the Italian border from Menton Port and head to Dolceacqua or Apricale for lunch
- A few hours drive from Cannes or Antibes are the stunning Gorges du Verdon bordering the Var region and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence
- The Routes de la Lavande (Lavender Routes) incorporating the lavender and poppy fields of the Valensole Plateau and surrounds are beautiful to visit from July to August and reached within a few hours drive from the Ports at Saint Tropez or Cannes
- For a weekend getaway, plan a visit to the Roman city of Arles, the Camargue and Aigues-Mortes – all reached in less than 2 hours from Vieux Port in Marseille
This article was written by Rebecca Whitlocke, who with over 10 years travel industry experience loves to share ‘must-do’ destination tips and hidden spots to discover in France and beyond.
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