Your Budget Guide to the French Riviera

by  Lane Nieset | May 12, 2014
French Riviera
French Riviera / bbsferrari/iStock

The French Riviera’s charming coast towns are known as the Mediterranean playground for celebrities and the jetset crowd. But travelers can also experience the best the destination has to offer without breaking the bank, so long as they don’t fall into the tourist trap of spending far too much on lunch and drinks. When you know the right places to look, the Riviera is full of ways to save without skimping on seeing the local culture. Here are some of our favorites:

Home-Base Hotels
The French Riviera gets more than 300 days of sun per year, so one of the easiest ways to save is on accommodations – you'll want to be out enjoying the sunlight anyway. The bus and train systems make it super easy to explore nearby towns, so skip notoriously pricey towns like Monaco and make your base a cozy hotel near the sea in Nice or Cannes. A few options:

The Villa Saint Exupery Beach hostel is in the center of Nice, just a 10 minute walk to the Old Town and the Promenade des Anglais. With private rooms and doors, the property boasts rates starting at around $20 per night for a dorm bed and $69 for a private room. What’s more, all rates include breakfast, wi-fi, and a walking tour of the city.

Another affordable hotel in Nice is the 17-room, three-star Hôtel Villa la Tour, once part of an 18th century convent. Rates start at about $82 per night for a basic room and includes wi-fi. And you don’t sacrifice location for the price, either – the hotel is located near all of the shops and nightlight in Nice's Old Town, and some of the rooms even have a balcony or scenic views. Either way, the hotel's rooftop garden is always a prime spot for elevated city views.

If you want to be close to the Boulevard de la Croisette in Cannes and feel like a celebrity without paying an exorbitant price, the boutique Villa d'Estelle has a mix of suites and apartment-style options, with rates starting at about $203 for a one-bedroom loft with sky windows and a kitchenette.

Culture & Sights
In Nice, most museums don’t charge for entry (except for a few national museums like Musée Marc Chagall). The region has been the home of many famed painters and writers, so opportunities abound to explore works inspired by and created in the city. These include the masterpieces of Henri Matisse, whose work is showcased in the Matisse Museum in a 17th century villa on the hill of Cimiez, near the Gallo-Roman ruins.

Back down in the Old Town, the flower and vegetable market takes place nearly all week in the Cours Saleya. The except is on Mondays, when an antique market – featuring all sorts of gems from vintage vinyls and Chanel purses to paintings and silverware – takes over. The Cours Salyeya can also be a great place to enjoy coffee in the sun, but prices can be high since the area attracts a lot of tourists. For a thriftier alternative, head out to the promenade and perch on the upper terrace at the new restaurant Ark for views of the sea, rosé wine, and tapas.

Another great option for lunch is a picnic on La Colline du Château, or Castle Hill, with a park and incredible views over the Baie des Anges, the port of Nice. You can stock up on your favorite produce at the Cours Saleya market, or try one of the local specialties, like socca, a chickpea crêpe, or pan bagnat (a sandwich filled with Niçoise salad).

Other delicious markets in the area include the Marché Forville in Cannes, filled with local produce and open every day except Monday (also one of the best spots to sample socca), and the Provençal market in the heart of Old Antibes under the hall of Cours Massena, brimming with cheese makers and florists.

Eating & Drinking Like a Local
The French Riviera boasts can’t-miss cuisine that features a mixture of French, Italian, Mediterranean, and Provencal dishes. For traditional French, the family-style La Rossettisserie in Nice’s Old Town sits in a cozy spot hidden on a side street. Here, enjoy roasted meat with sides of mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, ratatouille, or tomato salad (around $20). In Cannes, Le Relais des Semailles is a more upscale option with an affordable three-course menu ($48) serving items from the market, such as fish of the day, homemade gnocchis, and prawn salad.

There's plenty to do during the day as locals and visitors flock to the beach and enjoy the sun, but there’s also more than enough on offer as far as nightlife goes, whether you prefer upscale beach bars and nightclubs or pubs and low-key cocktail bars. In Antibes, for example, there's the Absinthe Bar with live piano in a vaulted cellar, while in Nice you can find live jazz at Shapko Bar and a great selection of cocktails at the new hotspot Le Comptoir Central Electrique.

Day Trips
For only €1.50 (about $2.07), you can catch a bus and take a day trip to a number of places around the Riviera, including Monaco, about a 40-minute ride from Nice, and Eze village, a medieval town overlooking the Mediterranean (that can also be reached via the Nietzsche Path on an hour-long hike). Other public transit-friendly destinations include Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, a peninsula with hikes and great places to go cliff diving and picnicking, and Saint-Paul de Vence, another medieval town higher in the hills filled with galleries, boutiques, great views, and window shopping.

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