Ooh-la-la, the South of France, and more specifically, the French Riviera! It’s also known to the French and others as the Côte d’Azur, which literally means the “coast of blue”, as in that shade of sky blue we see on a perfect, sunny day. And there are a lot of sunny days on the “Côte”, well over 300 a year. It’s perhaps the most famous and coveted strip of coastline in the world.
The French Riviera has a remarkable concentration of towns dotted along the coast that immediately shout glamour, luxury and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. From the beaches of St. Tropez, movie star filled cafés of Cannes, the palm-treed promenades in Nice, and the casino and yachts of Monaco, this is life at its finest.
It attracts many of the world’s wealthiest and most famous (and beautiful) people, whether as a place to live, or just to come and play once in a while. Ridiculous amounts of money can be spent with a blink of an eye, whether for a deluxe hotel suite, caviar and champagne at a Michelin star restaurant, or shopping in over-priced boutiques.
But the truth is you don’t need to be a billionaire to enjoy the charm and lifestyle of this special place. In fact we know with a little time and effort you can live a dream life here on a student budget! Here are some tips to live large, and spend small.
When to go, where to stay
The truth is any time in the Côte d’Azur is a good time. While we think summer is fabulous on the Riviera, the best seasons are really Spring and Fall. There is a summer tourist crush that makes accommodations much tougher to find, and afford. But by the time sunny September rolls around, many places will be keen to fill up their empty rooms and apartments at discounted rates. April and May are great months as well.
To really take in the French Riviera you need to stay for a while, we’re thinking a few weeks to a few months. Or study longer-term in one of the many universities and colleges in the area. Ideally look to rent (or AirBnB) a room or apartment for a month or more, and get a huge discount versus having stayed in hotels. Also look at “pensiones”, essentially French style bed and breakfasts eager for longer-term off-season rentals at a discount (yes, don’t be afraid to negotiate).
There are countless charming towns along the coast, and a lot more inland, and many of these less famous towns will have great affordable accommodations you should look at. Remember you’re here to experience the French Riviera, not the inside of a flat.
How to get around
There is a fabulous train system in France, and regular trains run along the coast at nearly all hours. They’re also affordable, and going from say, Nice to Monte Carlo, is only about a 15 minute ride, and less that $10. Uber is also new to the south of France, and is a nice compliment to the trains (and much cheaper and more reliable than local taxis).
Another great option is renting a vehicle, especially if you’re staying for a longer period of time. This part of the world is well suited to driving around on a scooter or a moped and it’s a fabulous way to take in the stunning views, whether driving through coastal towns or up in the hills. Depending on how long you’re staying, or how many are in your group, you may even consider buying a cheap (but reliable) car or scooter for your stay, and arrange to sell it before you leave.
Live like the rich folks do
There is a whole lot you can do in the south of France that doesn’t require serious money. There are literally hundreds of beaches you can visit and still feel like you’re at a private beach club. Bring your own towel and mat, and even water and snacks to save a lot of money. If you like you can usually wander up to the private beach club’s bar and order something light and affordable and spend a little while hanging at the bar or in the restaurant.
While Las Vegas and Atlantic City have casinos, nothing compares to Monte Carlo if you’re looking for classy and an old-world exotic vibe. Live a real-life James Bond experience with an evening in the Casino de Monte-Carlo (pictured below), it’s completely free to visit. Get dressed up, eat and drink beforehand, and then be very careful about how you gamble to get the most of your evening. People watch, check out the various rooms and games being played, and learn a couple new ones, like baccarat, a French favourite. Bet minimums, play slowly, and ideally play at the tables, as that will give you the most authentic thrill. And a bonus of the tables, you’ll get free drinks if you’re playing at a table (compared to sitting at a slot machine). Most importantly, have a limit that you are comfortable to lose before you go, whether it’s $25 or $125 and stick to it.
There are beautiful cafés and restaurants all over the French Riviera and you can enjoy their charms on a budget. Try to always sit outside if an option, to enjoy stunning views and top-notch people watching. Order something small, a coffee, a Coca-Cola, or a light appetizer or dessert and take your time savouring them, and the experience.
There are lots of great things to do along the Riviera that are free yet magical, and many more that cost only a little bit. Walk along harbours and beach fronts, drive up into the towns in the mountains that overlook the Mediterranean. Visit incredible museums and Roman ruins.
Most importantly, meet a lot of people
Always be social and willing to talk to strangers in a bar or restaurant, a shoppe, at the beach or even wandering around looking at the yachts. A lot of people, locals and regular visitors, are very friendly and actually may want to help you experience their piece of paradise they way they do.
Look out for fun, happy people wherever you go, and be your charming inquisitive best as a default. Find out what they’re doing in the south of France. Are they deckhands on a yacht, well-to-do residents, party people on a budget-less extended vacation, or regular locals or other tourists like you with cool connections? Be smart and safe, but be honest about your interest in checking out their yacht or villa, continuing on to the next bar with them, getting invited to cool a event or party they’re attending or hosting. You never know what amazing experience awaits, and sometimes it is as simple as asking once you’ve befriended someone you like and trust.
Make lots of memories, take lots of photos
The French Riviera is a special place, and with these tips you can make the most of your stay. Meet lots of people, visit amazing spots, eat and drink well, breathe in the sea air, and the beautiful views. And yes, take lots of photos, these will be days you cherish forever.