White sandy beaches and cerulean waters may seem like a coastal cliché, but in the French Riviera it’s a reality. 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. If you manage to tear yourself away from the gorgeous coast, you’ll find yourself in the heart of Provence, the notable southern province of France. The Riviera is a small section of Provence, which includes the seaside cities of Nice and Marseilles. Explore further and 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. Provence and the Riviera’s warm climates make them the perfect destination at any time, but there are certain annual periods where they truly shine. We’ve assembled a list of our top 10 favorite annual events in Provence that are as various and delightful as the province itself.
1. Lemon Festival, Menton
The Lemon Festival in the Cité des Citrons–’City of Lemons,’ for non-French speakers–is a visual feast and a pungent experience for your taste buds. Throughout February and March, the festival displays hundreds of thousands of lemons, oranges, and other citrus fruits in the shape of astounding themed floats and sculptures. 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) use the lemons that gave the fest its name! Here are some other artisanal souvenir suggestions from the area to jump-start your shopping.
2. Nice Carnival, Nice
Around the same time (from the mid-February to the 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! Even when it’s not Carnival time, see what it’s like to spend 48 hours in Nice. The festivities often converge in the Place Masséna, including the carnival parade, with 18 floats and papier mâché figurines that travel alongside street performers and colorful crowds. Other festivities include the flower parade, with 20 flora-covered floats (90% of the blooms are grown locally) that delight onlookers hoping to catch a stem tossed by the parade models, and the nighttime Parade of Lights, with floats that illuminate the evening with a brilliant glow. We suggest you purchase tickets in advance for reserved seating. Don’t miss the anything-goes Rock ‘n’ Roll Race, in which runners 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 apartments 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 about the sport and the opportunity to see the bulls competing in the ring are just two activities you can expect. If you can, we recommend you attend the April fest (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. After all, that’s 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 month across three main theaters and smaller venues, and you can catch new productions of operas and operettas. The programs change annually, but you can count on Mozart making an appearance; his work has been a mainstay at the festival since its inception in the postwar artistic revival of France. There are plenty of shops and cafés to keep you busy during the breaks between recitals among the idyllic patchwork streets of Aix-en-Provence. Snag a seat for a performance in the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, the medieval origins of which 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 temporarily showcase performances ranging from cinema, to ballet, to 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, in addition to other locations across the city of Avignon. Programs change every year and help many performers make their worldwide or French début. Avignon doesn’t begin and end with the festival, as our 48 hours in the city will prove, and while you are visiting Avignon, be sure to catch a performance or two of the “Off” Festival. This is an independently organized collection of live theatre unassociated with the official festival that coexists separately yet respectfully during the Avignon summer. Be inspired by our Avignon vacation rentals while you’re at it!
6. Fête de la Musique
Have you ever wished 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! This is the day of the Fête de la Musique, a countrywide music festival that promotes musicians at all skill levels 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 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! Our South of France apartments are perfect for experiencing this musical jubilee!
7. Lavender Festival (Digne-les-Bains)
Whether it’s 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 by organizing a multi-day festival for them! Drive down to this hot springs epicenter and administrative capital in early August for the Corso de la Lavande. Lavender is heavily incorporated into the program; it’s strewn across parade floats, sold at the farmer’s 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! In mid-May, 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 wherein 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. If you want to stay in Cannes longer to soak up all the city has to offer, our Cannes vacation rentals have you covered.
9. Mimosa Festival, Mandelieu
The town of Mandelieu-la-Napoule will brighten your winter with a bit of color. The Mimosa Festival is held for ten days each February 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. Floats decorated by the flowers in their canary-hued brilliance glide across the streets. In addition, there’s music, street entertainment, and all-around festivity. Illuminated and meticulously crafted floats dazzle the eye on certain nights. Don’t just limit your experience to being an onlooker 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 of 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 anchored yachts 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 that’s 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 advantage of this laid-back sophistication, even as you observe the adrenaline-filled excitement of the Grand Prix.
What are your favorite spots and events in the French Riviera?
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