Located some 6 km east of Nice, in the Bay of Villefranche, with Cap de Nice on the right and Cap Ferat on the left, this charming town is as close to an authentic French Riviera fishing village as you can possibly get. It’s a less frequented place than Cannes, St. Tropez or Monaco, making it a perfect for relaxing and enjoying some watersports without having to bump into other people at the beach.
Coming in from the main road, you can look down across the red roofs of the old town, with the church and bell tower standing in the center. Beside the church you’ll find the quiet squares Place Félix Poullan and Place de l’Eglise. Rue Obscura dates from 1260, it’s a vaulted passage covered for about half its length and lighted by white lamps on the roof.
Villefranche-sur-Mer attracts an international crowd of tourists and residents, even students who come here to attend the famous French language school Institut de Français.
Top reasons to visit Villefranche-sur-Mer
The local attractions. Located in close proximity to Nice and Monaco, Villefranche is an excellent holiday destination. Here you’ll find a century’s old citadel repurposed to house the town hall, an open air theater, convention center and three museums. The town has a deep water harbor, reaching 95 m in depth between Cap de Nice and Cap Ferrat. Mediterranean cruise ships anchor here and several thousand passengers disembark for trips to Eze and Monaco.
The beaches. In contrast to Nice’s rocky bay, the beaches are sandy and attract lots of tourists every summer. Unlike most other towns on the French Riviera, there are no private beaches in Villefranche, the entire beachfront is free and open to the public. The longest beach is Plage des Marinières which stretches around the bay for about a kilometer.
The ambiance. Dating from the Middle Ages, the old town is a pastel colored cluster of buildings around the port. They are the starting point of a labyrinth of narrow streets, stairs and vaulted passages that you will want to take your time exploring.
The location. Villefranche-sur-Mer is incredibly well positioned in relation to everything along the Riviera: Nice is just a few km away (a lovely walk if you’re feeling up to it), while Monaco and Eze are easily reached by bus. Antibes, Cannes and Juan Les Pins are just short train rides away and you can take the bus to get to St. Paul de Vence and the perfumiers of Grasse.
Villefranche is easily accessible from Nice, given both the short distance between the two and the fact that it’s located on the railroad between Nice and Monaco.
- Air travel. The closest airport is in Nice, which has multiple daily flights to Paris and connections to most major European cities.
- Boat travel. From Nice, just sail around Mont Boron and voilà, you’ve arrived in Villefranche. Sheltered from the winds, Port de Villefranche-Darse covers 6.5 hectares, 800 linear meters of quays and 540 linear meters of pontoons.
- Bus travel. From Nice Port travelers can take Bus 100 that leaves every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 20 minutes on weekends. Villefranche is often included in the bus tours provided by the specialized companies which operate on the French Riviera.
- Car travel. Avoid cars if possible, as the route from Base Corniche to the old town and waterfront is very tricky in summer months due to the narrow streets and heavy traffic. Parking is either hard to find or expensive, so it’s easier to use a scooter or a bike to get around.
- Train travel. The Villefranche train station is located just a few meters away from Plage des Marinières. Many trains leave from Nice to Monaco via Villefranche, with a trip lasting several minutes.
- Planning your time. Take your time to stroll the narrow streets of Villefranche and divide your time by first visiting the towns east of Nice, including Beaulieu sur Mer, Eze, Monte Carlo and Menton, then head west to Antibes, Cannes and St. Tropez.
- When to go. Summers on the French Riviera are long and warm and winters are mild, so practically any month is a good month to visit. Of course, if you prefer spending time at the beach, summer is best but there are a lot of interesting things going on here in winter too.
Things to do
Sights. The Old Town, with most buildings dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, is filled with wonderful Provencal colors, flowers, and balconies cascading down the hillside to the sea and the waterfront quay.
The old port La Darse was originally built for the Duke of Savoy and now houses a marina and an oceanographic observatory. Buildings around the port are part of the French national heritage registry since 1991.
Villefranche’s citadel was built in 1557. Today you’ll find the town hall offices, a convention center, 3 museums and a theater.
Rue Obscure (Dark Street) is a vaulted passageway near the port which dates back to 1260.
Villa Leopolda, one of the most expensive houses in the world, was built in Belle Époque style as a residence for King Leopold II of Belgium. It’s a large estate covering 18 acres on the hills surrounding Villefranche.
Shopping. You will find a nice selection of shops on the narrow streets behind the port. L’Address on 2 Rue du Poilu carries clothing items and right next to it there’s the beauty shop Les Senteurs de Marie, with large selection of handmade cosmetics. On 17 avenue Saint Estève you can buy some fine jewelry from Bijoux Riviera and for arts and crafts make a stop at Glamour on 1 Quai Am Courbet.
Nightlife. Unlike St. Tropez and Cannes, there aren’t many clubbing options in Villefranche, just lounges and beach bars. Probably the best option is heading to Nice and getting a taste of the more diverse offering there. Bar Le Cockpit, Palm, Newport and Beluga are highly recommended places for a night out in Villefranche.
Performing arts. The open air theater at the citadel has a full schedule during the summer months, with plays, concerts and dance recitals. Contemporary art and sculpture exhibits are held at the Art and History Museum at the citadel.
Every February, the fishermen in Villefranche celebrate Carnival with a Bataille des Fleurs (Battle of Flowers). They decorate their traditional fishing boats, hold a parade, and throw flowers at each other and all the spectators. There are also music and costumes everywhere.
Just minutes away is one of Europe’s largest parks, the Mercantour National Park, in the heart of the Maritime Alps. You can hike through the park and visit beautiful mountain villages.
According to most food guides, the best restaurants in Villefranche are Les Garcons on 18 Rue du Poilu, serving dishes based on local fresh ingredients and La Mère Germaine on 7 quai Amiral Courbet, that’s been serving creative seafood dishes since 1938. L’Aparté is a restaurant on Rue Obscure, with excellent service and good prices. La Grignotière is cool bistro on 3 rue Poilu known for grilled fish, pasta, lasagna, and pizza.