It’s glamorous, it’s glitzy and there are some stunning places to explore. But can you do the French Riviera on a budget?
I’m going to be honest straight from the start and say, we did do the French Riviera on a budget. But we also stayed with a friend. OK! OK! Hear me out…
My friend lives in Nice, on the beautiful Cote d’Azur, and invited us to stay with our not yet 1 year old daughter. However, on arrival it turned out that his apartment wasn’t really suitable for looking after a one year old. Cue manic searching for accommodation that has a working shower and isn’t above a restaurant that looks like a potential fire hazard.
Can you get a cheap Airbnb or hotel in Nice at short notice? It turns out that, yes, you can… For around €40-60 a night, we could have ended up with a half decent hotel near the train station in Nice. However, we didn’t do that and my friend duly made it up to us by being a great host.
Now, this article could also have been one of our 48 hour in Nice style guides, but as you’ll find out, there is more to see. Yes, you can make a long weekend and cram in some great Cote d’Azur experiences. But for maximum effect, make it a week or so.
With that out of the way, here is how to do the French Riviera on a budget.
As the main gateway to the French Riviera, you’re most likely to fly into Nice if you’re visiting the region. Unless you’re coming from elsewhere in mainland Europe, in which case you might arrive by train or bus into somewhere like Cannes.
The airport is now served by a tram from just outside the terminal into the city. However, when we arrived this wasn’t the case and we needed to get a bus into the city centre then jump on a tram. All tram journeys in Nice cost €1.50, so this is an inexpensive and efficient way of getting from the airport to the Vieux Port or Centre Ville.
Where to stay?
Nice is a sprawling city, so staying central is probably the best idea. The train station, as mentioned, had plenty of hotels in alleys and streets nearby. Likewise, the Vieux Port (old port) offered a selection of Airbnb’s which varied from worryingly cheap to very expensive.
We were staying in the Riquier area, which definitely felt less glamorous than the old town. However, it still had a selection of decent restaurants and supermarkets on the doorstep as well as a couple of tram stops. I would recommend it, especially if you spot an affordable option for an Airbnb or similar. Visiting the French Riviera on a budget will definitely involve finding the cheapest accommodation you can, and I have spotted some hostels and hotels for between €25-35 a night.
What to do in Nice?
Somewhat disappointingly, the main beach in Nice is of the pebbled variety. Anyone who has been to Brighton will know what I mean. So although the Promenade des Anglais is packed full of tourists and the sea beckons, the beach itself isn’t the best. However, getting into the Mediterranean for a dip is a must do, so you’ll likely end up here at some point.
Surely the whole point of visiting the French Riviera is enjoying the beach, and as the number one budget experience, this will likely be top of your list.
Castle Hill/Colline de Chateau
Dominating the eastern end of the Promenade des Anglais, this hill separates the old town of Nice from the old port. You can either climb the winding pathway up the hill, or take a lift. Normally we’re walking types, but we had a baby in a buggy, so we opted for the lift. It’s free.
Once at the top the views in all directions are fantastic, very Insta worthy. As evidenced by the millions of people doing Instagram stories. There are pleasant gardens, a series of mosaics that tell the story of Odysseus (brush up on your Greek mythology) and a couple of small cafes. Better still, bring a picnic and enjoy the shade of a tree.
Nice Old Town
Like pretty much every European city, there’s an Old Town which is a maze of narrow pedestrianised streets lined with boutique shops, gift shops and restaurants. Wandering around and enjoying the ambience is great, and stopping for a coffee or ice cream and doing some people watching is definitely the way.
In the evening, the area also has several bars and clubs too which were clearly very popular with locals and tourists alike.
Marché du Cours Selaya
Set just back from the waterfront is this bustling market where you’ll spy antiques, food and clothing. Its on 6 days a week and is great to spend a while browsing. If you’re like my girlfriend, you’ll want to buy everything you see. If you’re a vintage trinkets hunter then make sure you have suitable amounts of hold luggage when you’re heading home.
Villefranche sur Mer
Its just around the headland from the Old Port, but if you want a sandy beach this is the place to come. The beach is super skinny and is hemmed in by the train track, but the plus side to this is that its easy to access via the train. You can also get a bus.
It is possible to walk from Nice to Villefranche, but the walk goes around the headland and most of it is alongside a busy road. Its a pretty walk, but if you’re not into inhaling car fumes, get the bus.
There are several really good museums in Nice, including the Matisse Museum (which is a little way out of town) and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (or MAMAC). Entry is €10 and the permanent collection includes some great modern classics, pop art and new realism.
Eating and drinking
I always find that eating in France that really saps your budget, but done right you can keep that daily spend right down.
France isn’t short of kebab and pizza joints, and if you don’t mind a bit of junk food then you can fill up for between €6-10. Our street in Riquier, Route de Turin, had plenty of cheap eats including a decent falafel/shawarma bar and a good budget pizza restaurant.
Nice has a speciality, besides Salad Nicoise (which you must sample while you’re in town). Socca, is a chickpea flour based pancake and is a good snack with a drink around lunchtime. It’s cheap and kinda ubiquitous, especially in the old town. Socca is more of a snack than a full meal, but for just a couple of euros, you can grab some socca and a coffee.
For budget eats in Nice, head to any boulangerie (bakery) and buy a baguette. Then head to either a supermarket, or better still, a fromagerie (cheese shop) or market and pick up some salads, meats and cheeses. Picnics are the order of the day when the weather is good, so find a spot to sit and enjoy your baguette avec fromage. The beaches and the castle on the hill both make excellent picnic spots.
If you’re looking for some after sightseeing refreshment, on the waterfront near the market, there are lots of restaurants and cafes which do happy hour drinks. Pick up a cocktail for around €6, or a beer or wine for slightly less (around €4-5).
If you’re in the French Riviera, you’ve got to go to Monaco right? High rollin’ Monte Carlo is where the rich and famous hang out and moor their super-yachts while they pop in the casino to blow a million on red.
Can you do Monaco on a budget? Short answer… Yes.
First things first. Don’t stay in Monaco. It’s not cheap and you’re better off getting the train in from Nice if you’re saving money. A return ticket is around €7, takes about half an hour and trains run every hour throughout the day. The bus is even cheaper, at €1.50, so if you’re really stretching the pennies this might be the best choice. It’s only an hour on the bus from Nice too….
How much for one night in Monaco? You won’t find much under €150 a night. Go for it if you’ve got the expendible paper. But as this article is titled ‘French Riviera on a budget’ lets assume you don’t have that much to spend.
Honestly, there isn’t much of a reason to do more than a day trip to Monaco. It’s lovely and well worth seeing, but unless you’re planning on doing something in particular, you’re better off staying in Nice or another nearby town and commuting in.
What to do in Monaco?
Assuming you’re arriving in Monaco by train, the station is a short walk from everywhere. Seeing as the whole principality is only a few kilometers long there isn’t much chance of getting lost, but there is a good bus service which isn’t expensive.
Everything is quite well signposted in Monaco too, so…follow the signs.
Walk the harbourfront
There are a couple of harbour fronts, Port Hercule being the largest. This is probably the first place you’ll come to when walking down the hill from the station.
We were actually here the day after the Grand Prix, so we found the Grandstand in the process of being taken down. What that means is we didn’t get to stroll easily along the harbour, so instead we went to…
At the far eastern end of Monaco, Lavrotto beach is a sandy cove where you can enjoy some riviera weather and feel like a high roller for a few hours. The beach is small, but perfect for taking a swim or enjoying a drink with a view.
Our friend bought his inflatable kayak (which was quite funny watching him carry it through the sweltering hot Monte Carlo streets), so he went exploring. I think he nearly got on board some Russian mafioso’s yacht, but got turned away by some heavies.
I digress. Lavrotto beach is a nicer beach than the main one in Nice, so makes for a good trip if the weather is right. It’s also backed by several cafes, most of which are not too expensive. Prices are mostly the same as in France, with a coffee around €2 and a beer around €4.
Japanese Garden/Princess Grace Memorial
Having walked all the way from the station to Lavrotto beach, we got to experience the Japanese Garden which was a nice detour in the sun. It’s not very big, and it’s not in Japan, but it makes a nice place to sit for a moment to escape that Riviera sunshine. Especially if you’re carrying an inflatable kayak and you have a toddler in a buggy.
Casino de Monte Carlo
Probably the icon of Monte Carlo and Monaco, the casino is unmistakably grand. Did we take a selfie outside? No. Lots of other people seemed to be though.
Monaco Old Town
You can see the peninsula from the harbour, but we didn’t quite make it over to Monaco’s old town. But, its a short walk over and if you want to explore the alleys and boutique shops then its definitely worth a detour.
As we’d arrived the day after the Formula One, there were roadblocks and all sorts of distractions, so we just headed to the beach.
Is it worth visiting Monaco?
Although Monaco was very sanitised and a little bit too much like a concrete monstrosity, it was nice to visit and tick it off the list. We had some food (just sandwiches) and a couple of beers and coffees, which weren’t too expensive. The bus ride back from the beach to the station was very cheap, around €1.50, and most people we interacted with were very friendly.
The location is stunning and it was quite funny walking around and spotting famous roads (from the Grand Prix) and buildings like the casino. The town itself though doesn’t feel like somewhere you’d want to spend more than a few hours.
But yes, it is worth visiting. Why not?
I know this article is titled, “French Riviera” on a budget, but hey…. We went to Italy too. Sue me.
Getting to Sanremo (also spelled San Remo) from Nice, we actually messed up. We should have gone from Nice main station, but our guide (my mate) recommended going from Nice Riquier. There is no direct train from Riquier and you need to change at a town called Ventimiglia, just over the border in Italy. It’s not a particularly good looking town and the station is a nightmare to get a ticket, so go to Nice station and get a direct ticket to Sanremo. Trust me.
To go all the way is around €20, or if you take the bus you can do it for around €6-7.
So, whats the fuss with Sanremo?
We’re fans of Italy and after a few days in my mate’s apartment we decided to book somewhere nice. Sanremo ticked the box of beach resort town with enough going on to warrant a visit.
It’s actually famous as the location of a film festival and a casino, so not massively dissimilar to the French side of the riviera. And being Italy, its blessed with nice food and a pleasant coastline. Or that was the theory.
We stayed in the middle of town in an apartment rental through Booking.com. We paid around €50 a night for a self catered apartment right in the Piazza Christopher Colombus (a local-ish hero).
The beach in Sanremo
First up, beaches in Sanremo are not all that. Many of them are the type you have to pay to use and they tend to be packed full of deckchairs and parasols. There was one free one we found, which was very busy and not particularly pleasant. Reason being it was packed in like sardines and the beach was fenced in by a breakwater.
Hiring a sunlounger was around €15 for the day, which I think was for two people. Although the sea was clear and the beach was mostly sandy, in general, Sanremo beaches didn’t inspire us with delight.
BUT… On the way in to Sanremo from Ventimiglia, there are plenty of what look like lovely beaches with barely handfuls of people on them, and this was in peak season. If we were to visit again, I would definitely look at some of these smaller villages between the French border and Sanremo.
The beach might have been a disappointment, but Sanremo is a lovely town. The main drag is lined with boutique and high street shops, affordable restaurants and quaint alleyways. The town was quite buzzy when we were there, but we were in town during some sort of local event which might have had something to do with it.
There is a promenade which stretches along the waterfront, allowing you to walk past all the beaches and the marina. We found a great restaurant at the Bay Beach Club, which served a great aperitivo (free snacks) alongside your Aperol spritz, with an exquisite view.
Giardini Regina Elena
This beautiful park overlooking the town towards the sea is a great spot to relax in the shade on a balmy Mediterranean day. The walk through winding alleyways is a pleasant experience itself, as you escape the hubbub of the town centre.
Sanremo’s closest airport is Nice, or, there are also regular connections from Genoa and Milan by train.
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How much to do the French Riviera on a budget?
There are lots of other things we didn’t do to have the full French Riviera experience, like heading to Eze, Antibes, Saint Tropez or Cannes – just for example. But, for a relaxing holiday in the beautiful south of France, and getting to experience the glamorous city of Monaco, we had a great time.
So how much did our budget French Riviera experience cost us all in?
Food and drinks
- Prix fixe (set price menu) meals – €15
- Beer or wine in restaurant or bar – €5
- Cocktail on the beach – €8-9 (less in happy hour)
- Street food snack such as falafel or burger – €7-8
- Pizza from a decent restaurant – €9-12
- Pizza slice from a hole in the wall – €3-5
- Hostel or cheap room in Nice – €25-35 per person per night
- Cheap self catering apartment in San Remo – €55 per night
- Tram or bus around Nice – €1.50
- Day return train to from Nice to Monaco – approx €8 (book online for best price)
- Train to Sanremo from Nice – €24 one way
With miscellaneous purchases, like snacks, entry to attractions and transport, expect to spend around €50-60 per day without budgeting.
Bring a picnic, walk everywhere, find the cheapest hostel possible and use a refillable water bottle. Potential French Riviera budget approx €35-40.
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Have you travelled around the French Riviera? Do you have any budget tips for travellers? Share them in the comments box below…
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