Are you wanting to have a birds-eye view of the French Riviera coast and mountains? Than why not visit some of the beautiful hilltop villages or villages perches. Where in some cases you can be as high as 1,500 meters above sea level. The Alpes-Maritimes department in south-east of France, which includes the Côte d’Azur, is home to several hundred medieval hilltop villages and fortified towns. Most villages emerged during the 12th and 13th centuries. What they all have in common is that they were built in strategic locations, to protect themselves from invasion, often on rocky cliff faces making it hard to access and easy to defend. They each have a center point, the church and a bell-tower, with the curvy cobbled alleyways winding down from there. You may also find large archways and tunnels, that presumably would have provided some shelter to the outdoor elements. Many still have a castle, or ruins of a castle, nearby. Needless to say, it is breathtaking.
Knowing which ones to visit, especially when you only have a limited number of days, is important. Our home base for a week was Nice, and we put a lot of kilometers on our convertible Fiat visiting so many wonderful places, so here is my recommendation of the top 5 hilltop villages you should visit in this area.
St Paul de Vence
Inspired by the beauty of the surrounding area, some of the world’s best artists of the likes of Picasso, Chagall and Matisse, pay tribute to this village as inspiring their best work. You can find a large collection of paintings, sculptures and drawings in the Fondation Maeght.
Today, it is chock full of art galleries and studios. Simply wander and get lost in the maze of charming alleyways where you will find lovely squares, ancient fountains, weathered doors and an abundant of gardens.
15km west of Nice – neighbouring village Vence 3km
Perched in an “eagle’s nest” fashion, this village can be viewed from afar due to its ochre colour church and botanical hillside garden filled with interesting statues, cacti and tropical plants; as well as, “Nietzshche way”, due to him writing some of his most famous works walking up and down these winding pathways.
Within the village, you will find the same crooked, winding cobblestone alleyways, shaded squares, ancient fountains and colourful window boxes and weathered doorways. There is a reason why this is likely one of the most visited villages in this area, as it is so beautiful.
Due to the high number of tourists, you will find souvenir shops, cafes and a large number of 5-star hotels and Michelin star restaurants. Eze is also home to one of the Fragonard factories which you can tour for free. Do not let the number of visitors deter you from visiting this lovely village, trust me, once there, you won’t want to leave.
12km east of Nice – neighbouring villages Monaco 7km, Beaulieu sur Mer 7km
This village is tiny, but spectacular. You are immediately struck by the tall stone-built houses that appear to be carved out of a rock. Once inside this fortified village, you can admire these ancient houses up-close and the lovely weathered doorways.
This village provides panoramic views of the surrounding forested mountains, valleys, distant cities and of Mediterranean. You will have to park below and venture up on foot, and the best part, there are very few tourists, and anything that caters to tourists, here. It is quiet, peaceful and undeniably charming.
20km northeast of Nice – neighbouring village Peille 10km
Peille is a charming ancient village clinging to the side of a mountain facing Monaco and Menton. Lose yourself in its narrow alleyways, small but beautiful squares, ancient fountains and stone archways. This village has conserved its courthouse and few chapels, dating back to many centuries ago.
Unique to this village is the surrounding walking tours, ranging from 30 minutes to 3 hours. It is a great way to explore the countryside and yes, take in more of those glorious views.
25km northeast of Nice; neighbouring village Peillon 10 km, La Turbie 8km
Roquebrune Cap Martin
With a seaside resort below, it is there where you will find luxury villas, with its history of former famous guests of Coco Channel, Winston Churchill and royalty. But to find the ancient village it is actually perched up high above. What remains now is its 11th century castle and a chapel. But, the real reason to go here is the closeup views of the Mediterranean, making this a bit unique to the other hilltop villages. We had the entire place to ourselves, and the vista made it all worthwhile.
25km east of Nice – neighbouring villages Menton 2km, Beausoleil 8km
As a holidaymaker…
The French Riviera, or la Côte d’Azur, stretches from Marseille to Menton. It’s a stunning coastline that attracts many. But there are still some quiet and peaceful spots to be found. For those that seek the mountains, go a bit inland where you will find deep river gorges, valleys and drier landscapes of Provence. The south of France is definitely my favourite holiday destination.