White sandy beaches and cerulean waters may seem like a cliché for coastlines, but in the case of the French Riviera it is a true description. Outlining the southernmost edge of France, the Riviera – immortalized in the 1955 film To Catch a Thief — is home to sun-dappled cities and lifestyles of luxury. But once you’ve managed to tear yourself away from the gorgeous coast, you’ll find yourself in the heart of Provence, the notable province in the south of the country. The Riviera is just a small section of this region, which includes the seaside cities of Nice and Marseilles. Further in you’ll discover mountains, inlets, lavender fields, and our favorite postcard villages in Southern France.
Provence is bordered by the Rhône River to the west, Italy to the east, Hautes-Alpes and Drône to the north, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. With a warm climate, Provence (and the Riviera) makes the perfect destination any time, but there are certain periods of the year where they truly shine. Here we’ve assembled a list of our top 10 favorite annual events in Provence, as wide-ranging and delightful as the province itself.
1. Lemon Festival, Menton
Located in the “Cité des Citrons” – City of Lemons, for non-French speakers – the Lemon Festival is a visual feast and a pungent experience for your taste buds. Lasting throughout February and March, the festival displays hundreds of thousands of lemons, oranges and other citrus fruits shaped into astounding floats and sculptures in the spirit of each year’s theme. The city of Menton has been hosting this annual event since 1929 to advertise the region’s bountiful harvest, and the Lemon Festival has only grown in popularity over the course of its eight decades. We’d advise you to arrive by train; transportation hubs in Nice or Marseilles will connect you to the local lines leading to Menton. While you’re at the festival, be sure to visit the Salon de l’Artisanat, an arts and crafts showcase – some of the products (jams, soaps, fragrances) are bound to use the lemons that gave the fest its name! Here are some other artisanal souvenir suggestions from the area to get your shopping jump-started!
2. Nice Carnival, Nice
Around the same time (from the middle of February to the very beginning of March) Nice hosts its own festival. Step away from the winter doldrums and embrace the oncoming spring with a flurry of activity in the French Riviera! (See what it’s like to spend 48 hours there in Nice!) The festivities often converge in the Place Masséna: the carnival parade, where 18 floats and papier mâché figurines travel alongside street performers and colorful crowds, the flower parade, where 20 flora-covered floats (90% are said to grow in the local region) delight onlookers, hoping to catch a stem tossed by the parade models and the nighttime parade of lights, as floats illuminate the evening with a brilliant glow. For reserved seating, we suggest you purchase tickets ahead of time. Don’t miss the anything-goes Rock ‘n’ Roll Race, where runners – some dressed in quirky costumes – compete for the first place title. And if you want to extend your time in the French Riviera take a look at our apartment offerings in Nice.
3. Feria d’Arles, Arles
For a taste of Spain in the French Riviera, look no further than the Feria d’Arles. Two separate festivals are held annually in Arles, one in April and one in September. The former celebrates the beginning of the French bullfighting season and incorporates traditional Spanish music and dance into the festivities. The latter places bullfighting front and center; presentations on the sport and the opportunity to see the bulls competing in the ring are just two activities you can expect. We recommend you attend the April fest if you can – the Easter Feria – for the energy and flamenco dancing, but the Rice Feria in September is equally dynamic! Don’t forget to attend the main attraction of the festivals – matadors facing off against fearsome bulls. Olé!
4. Festival d’Aix, Aix-en-Provence
Culture connoisseurs should mark their calendars for July. That is, after all, the month of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, a world class jubilee celebrating the art of opera since 1948. (Experience a whirlwind 48 hour tour of Aix-en-Provence for a better lay of the land.) Concerts are held throughout the weeks across three main theaters and smaller venues, as are new productions of operas and operettas. The programs change annually, but count on Mozart making an appearance or two: his work has been a mainstay at the festival since its inception in the postwar years of an artistically-revived France. Set among the idyllic patchwork streets of Aix-en-Provence, there are plenty of shops and cafés to keep you busy in the breaks between recitals. Snag a seat for a performance in the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, whose medieval origins make it the unofficial icon of the festival. Stay in our Aix-en-Provence apartments to reap the full benefits of the month-long celebration.
5. Festival d’Avignon, Avignon
A convergence of some of the world’s leading artists, Le Festival d’Avignon hosts an astounding 35 to 40 shows during the course of its annual season in July. Nearly two dozen venues become temporary theaters to showcase these performances, ranging from cinema to ballet, and theatre to workshops. Many of the presentations take place in the courtyard of the Palais des Papes, a legendary Gothic palace and UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as other locations across the city of Avignon. Programs change every year, helping many performers make their worldwide or French début. (But Avignon doesn’t begin and end with the festival, as our 48 hours in the city will attest.) While you are visiting Avignon, catch a performance or two of the “Off” Festival – an independently organized collection of live theatre unassociated with the official Festival. The two coexist separately yet respectfully during the Avignon summer. (Be inspired by our Avignon vacation rentals options while you’re at it!)
6. Fête de la Musique
Ever wish your life was a musical? On June 21, feel free to burst into spontaneous song – others won’t judge you, and perhaps they will join in! That’s because it is the Fête de la Musique, a countrywide music festival that promotes musicians at any skill level and sponsors free concerts. All genres are welcome, and people are encouraged to attend live performances and listen to tunes throughout the day. The celebration, established in 1982, has since spread to locations across virtually every inhabited continent (sorry, Antarctica). You’ll find the spirit of the Fête de la Musique spanning the Riviera, from major cities to rural communities. The date is also special for another reason: as the summer solstice for the Northern Hemisphere, expect longer daylight…which means more time to dance, sing and jam out! Our South of France apartments are perfect for experiencing this musical jubilee!
7. Lavender Festival (Digne-les-Bains)
Whether you’re drawn by the color or fragrance, the lavender plant is especially mesmerizing in the summer air. Southern France is known for extensive fields of these purple herbs, and the picturesque town of Digne-les-Bains goes a step further: they organize a multiple-day festival around them! Drive down to this hot springs epicenter and administrative capital in early August for the Corso de la Lavande, where lavender is incorporated heavily into the program: it’s strewn across parade floats, sold at the farmers’ market, and celebrated for its regional historical resonance in music and dance. While you’re in Digne, pop over to the treasured Gassendi art museum or go for a dip in the village’s famous thermal baths!
8. Cannes Film Festival
Where along the French Riviera can you find the highest concentration of A-list actors and filmmakers? The Cannes Film Festival, of course! Mid-May of every year the stars of Hollywood and worldwide cinema descend upon the city for the most prominent – and influential — film festival in the world. Cannes is also the site of a highly competitive contest, where selected movies vie for awards, including the fabled top prize: the Palme d’Or. Lest you think of the festival as the predecessor to the Academy Awards (a comparison not entirely unfounded), the invitation-only event makes it a priority to present motion picture premieres and introduce the next generation of filmmakers to the world. Take advantage of the city’s coastal locale through boating and aquatic activities, or by indulging in retail therapy at the Promenade de la Croisette’s designer boutiques while you’re in town. (Our guide on how to best spend 48 hours in Cannes will give you an idea of what to expect.) Wish you could stay in Cannes longer to soak up all the city has to offer? Our Cannes vacation rentals have you covered.
9. Mimosa Festival, Mandelieu
Need a bit of color to brighten up your winter? The town of Mandelieu-la-Napoule has you covered. To celebrate the blooming of the mimosa plant – a powerful symbol for the Mandelieu people, who lost the harvest between the years of 1929 and 1931 – the Mimosa Festival is held for ten days each February. Floats glide across the streets, decorated by the flowers in their canary-hued brilliance. Music, street entertainment, and all around festivity abounds. On certain nights illuminated and meticulously crafted floats dazzle the eye. Don’t just limit your experience to an onlooker role during the festival — walk through a mimosa forest, learn about the cultivation of the plant, or stop by a perfumery to see how the mimosa fragrance is captured in a bottle.
10. Grand Prix de Monaco, Monaco
Chic is not a word generally associated with car racing, but it’s an apt description for the world-famous Grand Prix de Monaco. The annual prestigious automobile race, held each May, takes place along the glamorous Monégasque streets. But make no mistake: despite the stunning location, this is no easy drive. The narrow roads, tight turns and uneven elevation make the Grand Prix a challenging fight to the finish line. The Formula One chase attracts much of Monaco’s – and the world’s – elite, some of whom view the race from their yachts anchored in the harbor, adjacent to the circuit. Perhaps best known for the Monte Carlo Casino, Monaco is an autonomous city-state nestled in the French Riviera. There’s a seductive elegance to the region, exemplified by its beaches, stylish shopping and dining, and royal family (American actress and fashion icon Grace Kelly became a Monégasque princess in 1956). We recommend you take full opportunity of this laid-back sophistication, even as you observe the adrenaline-rushing excitement of the Grand Prix.
Readers, what are your favorite spots and events in the French Riviera?
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