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French Riviera

Things to Do in Winter on the French Riviera

Promenade and beach in winter, Nice
Typical December day on the Promenade des Anglais

The French Riviera in winter? Yes! The Cote d'Azur made its reputation in the 19th century as winter destination for upper-class folks fleeing the harsh weather of London, Paris or St Petersburg. Our Mediterranean trees and plants stay green all year and you're likely to see sunny skies more often than not even in December.

Winter Weather on the French Riviera

Chart of sunny hours in Nice, France

Nice temperature chart

As the charts above indicate, even December sees 150 hours of sunshine and an average daytime high of 13°. Winter is a great time to enjoy outdoor activities on the Riviera such as taking a beachside stroll. And there's no worry about sunburns or enervating heat!

Plus there are markets, cultural events, festivals and events. Let's dive in.

Beach Activities

I'm not going to tell you that the period from November to April is ideal for swimming. With daytime highs of 13-14°C and water temperature below 16°C, most people find a swim uncomfortably bracing. Also there are no lifeguards and the sea can get rough.

Monthly chart of average water temperatures in Nice

Bain de Noel

That doesn't stop a crowd of hardy souls from plunging in to the chilly waters for the traditional Bain de Noel all along the coast.

Bain de Noel, Nice
Bain de Noel in Nice

Red cap advisable but not obligatory! It's a fun, celebratory event with music and snacks. The Bain de Noel is held in Nice on a Sunday late-morning in mid-December. Cagnes-sur-Mer holds a Bain de Noel earlier in the month. Antibes holds a Bain de Nouvel An on January 1 on the Plage de Salis. The events are free and you can sign up on the spot. Local tourist offices have the details.

Beach Restaurants

Even on a cold winter day, the sun's rays keep the coast warm enough for outdoor dining at midday. In Nice, Beau Rivage and Blue Beach beach restaurants are open for lunch throughout the winter. Cannes has a number of beach restaurants that stay open for lunch. Try L'Ecrin Plage,Annex Beach or Plage Goeland. Le Cabanon on Plage de Buse, Roquebrune Cap-Martin is another delightful spot for a winter lunch.

Winter Walks

The absolute best thing to do during the Riviera winter is to take a walk along the coast. From late spring to early fall the treeless terrain can be uncomfortably hot but winter is the perfect time to experience the coastal views and stunning coastal architecture.

Mont Boron & Fort Alban Walk

View from Mont Boron

Take bus 98 to the La Reserve stop. Look for signs to the Lazaret Cave and take the steps leading up to Mont Boron, a verdant hill that was a favorite of vacationing Brits in the late 19th century. It's still a prestigious address with woods, parkland and ornate villas, one of which is occupied by Elton John. Follow signs to take the path down to Villefranche-sur-Mer or keep climbing up to Mont Alban Fort.

Mont Alban fort
photo by Yolande Jourdren

This 16th-century fort was part of the Nice-Villefranche defensive system, built by the Savoy dukes to discourage French and/or Ottoman invaders. There's not much to see inside which is good because it's closed most of the time. Why go? The view from the top is the best on the Riviera.

Nice Coastal Path

Nice's coastal path

Every local is sure to do at least part of this walk around the Cap de Nice in east Nice each winter in order to soak up the fading sun and the mesmerizing sea views. Weekends can be busy.

Take bus 98 to the Jean Lorraine stop. Walk ahead a hundred meters or so and take the stairs downhill to the Jardin Félix Rainaud.

Jardin Felix Rainaud

The rocky coastal path begins on the left. The path rises and falls with gradual ascents and short flights of stairs. There are a few places where benches have been carved out of the rocks no food or drink is available. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the end of the trail. In case of high wind and waves all or part of the path may be closed.

It's possible to continue the walk to Villefranche-sur-Mer by taking stairs (many of them) up to boulevard Maeterlinck after the Palais Maeterlinck is in view. The stairs are not easy to find but they're there!

Nice coastal path eastern end

Walk along the boulevard about 800 meters and you can take the stairs back downhill to the coastal path to Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Beaulieu-sur-Mer to Cap Ferrat Walk

Coastal promenade Maurice Rouvier, Beaulieu-sur-Mer

 The Promenade Maurice Rouvier is a short (about 30 minutes), easy, beautiful walk along the sea that runs from the Baie des Fourmis in Beaulieu-sur-Mer to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. It's wheelchair accessible and affords lovely views of Cap Ferrat. Take bus 15 from Nice to the Baie des Fourmis stop or take the train to Beaulieu-sur-Mer and walk to the coast.

Saint-Jean-Cap Ferrat Walk

Walking path, Cap Ferrat

A walk along and through stunning Cap Ferrat combines well with the walk Promenade Maurice Rouvier which finishes at the Pont Saint Jean in Cap Ferrat. There are 14km of pathways winding around and through the Cap-Ferrat peninsula. As you can see from the map below you have a choice of three routes.

Cap Ferrat Walking Map

The best winter walk is the coastal tour du cap (outlined in red) which leaves from the port and takes you all around Cap Ferrat. Passing the Grand Hotel, you walk around the lighthouse and past several smaller beaches before finishing near Passable beach and then returning to the village. There are stairs and hilly portions of this walk, making it a nice but not too difficult two-hour workout. Take bus 15 from Nice to Port-Saint-Jean on Cap Ferrat. The walk is well sign-posted. See more about walks on Cap Ferrat.

Cap d'Ail Walk

View of the coast of Cap d'Ail

In addition to the coastal views on one side and the Mediterranean greenery on the other, this one-hour walk around the Cap d'Ail affords glimpses of the Belle Epoque villas once inhabited by the likes of Winston Churchill and Greta Garbo. Take the train to Cap d'Ail and follow 100 steps downhill to gorgeous Mala Plage. From Mala Plage the coastal path leads to the Plage Gramaglia which is directly below the restaurant La Pinede and a shaded picnic table. Continue to two tiny beaches on the Pointe des Douaniers. From there walk about 1/2 hour to Plage Marquet on a protected cove. To return to Nice, walk 400m to the Liberté bus stop and take bus 600 back to Nice.

Cap d'Antibes Walk

Coastal path Cap d'Antibes

The Tirepoil footpath runs along glamorous and wealthy Cap d'Antibes. Book a train to Antibes with thetrainline. From the train station, take the #2 bus 15 minutes to Eden Roc and descend at the Fontaine stop. Check the schedules at Envibus.

Start the walk a La Garoupe beach. Head northwest away from town and walk the flat path around the peninsula past the Chateau de la Garoupe. Continue walking and and turn right to see (and possibly visit) the Villa Eilenroc estate built between 1860 and 1867 for the former governor of the Dutch East Indies. Return to the bus stop Fontaine by taking avenue Mrs LD Beaumont to boulevard John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The walk takes a leisurely two hours and covers 5km with very little climbing. As the path passes close to the sea, it's closed in case of wind or high waves.

Museums

Greenhouse at Parc Phoenix

Cold, rainy weather (yes it does happen) is the perfect time to duck into a museum. Nice museums are a perfect way to immerse yourself in local art, architecture and history. Or follow an art itinerary to discover the region's rich artistic tradition.

Two excellent museums that are particularly cheering in winter are the Parc Phoenix in Nice and the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco. The former plunges you into a colorful world of exotic plants and flowers, birds, monkeys and reptiles. The latter is a journey into an underwater world of coral, turtles, sharks and sea creatures of all colors.

Music and Dance

Monserrat Caballé room

Winter is high season for concerts, operas and dance. Check out the program at the Nice Opera, the Monte Carlo Opera and the Palais des Festivals in Cannes. And at 11am on January 1 everyone heads to the Nice Opera for the free New Years concert. See live music in Nice for more ideas.

Watch for special winter cultural events such as the Monte Carlo Jazz Festival and the Festival of Dance in Cannes. The International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo is the highlight of January to keep winter gloom at bay.

Local Festivals

Chestnuts

There's no better way to to get into the swing of local customs than by visiting a local festival. Food is so essential to the Riviera lifestyle, it's not surprising that local products are lavishly celebrated.

Chestnuts are honored throughout the region from mid-October through mid-November in various Fete de la Chataigne. Food stalls, chestnut and other local products and music make it a fun day out for the whole family. Check local tourist office websites for schedules.

There's nothing like a few truffle shavings to liven up a dish. The pricey fungi are celebrated each year in Saint-Paul-de Vence, Grasse, Le Rouret and Villeneuve-Loubet. The Fete de la Truffe is held on a Saturday or Sunday in December or January. Check tourist office websites for details.

Wine-lovers won't want to miss the Portes Ouvertes held each May and November in the vineyards of Bellet. All nine vineyards are open for visits and tastings without reservations the entire weekend. There are also local products for sale and a musical accompaniment in some vineyards. Check Vin de Nice for the dates.

Portes Ouvertes in Chateau Cremat

Perhaps the liveliest and most elaborate food celebration is the Fete du Citron held in Menton for two weeks each February.

Float in the Fete du Citron, Menton

The mild Menton climate is ideal for citruses, especially lemons. Look for wildly decorated floats, parades and garden tours. There are also side events devoted to flowers, fragrances and citrus-y crafts. The festival is immensely popular throughout the region. It's essential to plan in advance both to have good seats in the stands and to arrange transportation. See the Fete du Citron website for online ticketing, schedules and transport advice.

But local festivals aren't only about food. The small, hand-painted figurines known as santons are a traditional Provencal craft.

Santons

In the Alpes-Maritimes, Mouans-Sartoux presents the Foire aux Santons every afternoon from November through Christmas. The train from Nice takes about an hour.

It's worth coming to Nice in February solely to experience the Nice Carnival, a two-week long extravaganza of parades, floats and spectacle.

Float in Nice Carnival

The parades take place on three or four afternoons or evenings a week during the Carnival period.

Nice Carnival float at night

In addition to the floats there is also the "Bataille des Fleurs" in which floats resplendent in meticulously arranged flowers glide through the streets while young men and women toss flowers at the spectators. The final weekend of the Carnival includes the "Bartenders Race" and, to cap off the festivities, the Carnival King is burned in the sea on the last night followed by fireworks. There are pedestrian areas and stands around the Place Massena. Buy tickets in advance especially for seats in the stands. See the Nice Carnival website for prices and details.

Christmas Festivities

Lights and Parades

Beginning around the first weekend in December and lasting to around the first weekend in January towns large and small decorate and illuminate the town centers. Strings of lights add sparkle to trees and arch over roads while major monuments acquire colorful illumination.

Place Massena illuminated for Christmas

Nice street decorated for Christmas

Larger towns clear the streets for a Christmas parade at some point during the month. With Santas, traditional dances, floats and bands it's a great event for all ages. It's a budget-buster for small towns but it's worthwhile to check out the parade schedule for Nice, Cannes, Menton and Monaco.

Christmas Markets

Night falls early in December but there's no reason to huddle indoors. Head out to a brightly lit Christmas market! Every town and village has a nightly Christmas market in the town center with an array of local products on display. It's a great way to support local artisans who turn out everything from jewelry to honey to cheese.

Christmas Market in Nice

Nice's Christmas market takes place in the Jardin Albert 1er and is open daily from 11am to 9pm, later on weekends. Against the backdrop of a giant Ferris Wheel, dozens of stalls sell Champagne, hot-spiced wine, oysters, socca, cheese, waffles, cold cuts and all manner of local products.

Nice Christmas market

There are special children's activities weekends and Wednesday afternoons. Kids love Santa's house and the House of Sugar. Older folks are treated to a regular "Afterwork" schedule of live bands and DJs. Admission is free but the crowds can be intense especially evenings and weekends.

Christmas Market in Monaco

Christmas market Monaco

The Principality pulls out all the stops to celebrate the holiday season. The actions sprawls along Monaco's Port in La Condamine. The olympic swimming pool is the scene of lighted fountain shows. There's a Ferris Wheel and rides for the kids, parades and a full concert schedule. Active kids will love the Village of Sports with a climbing wall, zipline and more.

Ice Skating

Each year one or more towns will put up a small ice skating rink as part of the Christmas market experience. Recently the Christmas markets of Cannes and Menton host small ice skating rinks. They can be incredibly crowded though. Serious skaters head to the ice-skating rink in Nice at the Jean Bouin Sports Complex.

Christmas Creches

Despite France's principle of laïcité (secularism), Christmas creches (nativity scenes) remain hugely popular. The Christmas creche in Nice is displayed on the Place Rossetti in front of Nice's Saint Reparate Cathedral.

Creche at the Sainte Reparate Cathedral, Nice

Seventeen animated life-size automatons representing Mary, Joseph, farm animals and shepherds bring the nativity scene to life.

The most famous creche displays are presented in the village of Luceram.

Luceram creche

The inhabitants of this tiny village put together some 500 creches, remarkable for their individuality and creativity. There's even a museum devoted to this ancient tradition. A special creche circuit is marked on local maps that take you through the entire village. It's open daily from early December to early January with a brief lunch closure on weekdays. There are special ceremonies on Sunday. To get there, take bus 615 from Vauban or take the train to L'Escarene and then bus 615. It takes around 1 1/2 hours. More info here.

Amusement Parks

Nothing beats an amusement park over the holidays. Kids will love the dozens of rides, contests and prizes. The best on the Riviera is Luna Park, set up in Nice's Palais des Expositions, open daily from early December to early January. See the Luna Park website for details.

Related Pages

When to Go to the French Riviera

Things to Do in Nice

Unusual Things to Do in Nice

Day Trips from Nice

 

Last Updated May 16, 2024

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