Gorgeous French beach towns are abundant, thanks to the country’s extensive coastlines along the English Channel to the north, the Atlantic to the west, and the Mediterranean to the south.
These range from chic resorts along the Côte d’Azur to more traditional beach towns along the north coast, and maritime cities like La Rochelle on the wild Atlantic shoreline, giving way to mile upon mile of sand dunes and pine forest.
Whether you’re looking for glamor and people-watching or a more understated chic atmosphere, there’s a French coastal city waiting to be discovered.
Famed for its film festival and glamorous beachfront location, Cannes sweeps around a wide, sandy bay, backed by pine-clad hills and the mountains of the Esterel Massif in the distance.
Cannes is the perfect combination of urban buzz and laid-back beach life. Wander around the Vieux Port, admiring the gleaming yachts.
Stroll along the palm-lined La Croisette for people-watching, and then head to the golden sands of the beach for swimming, watersports, or sunbathing on a lounge chair, iced cocktail in hand.
The swish resort town of Antibes lies between Cannes and Nice on the Côte d’Azur, just north of the craggy, forested Cap d’Antibes peninsula. A drive around the cape reveals some of the most exclusive real estate in France, where lavish villas recline under umbrella pines.
Head to the public Plage de la Gravette, right in front of the old town, or Plage de la Salis, which has white sand and views of the hazy Alps in the distance. Cap d’Antibes, meanwhile, is encircled by enchanting rocky coves.
Gleaming yachts are moored up in the Port Vauban in the town center, while a tangle of narrow alleys beckons, lined with chic boutiques and inviting cafés.
The old town of Antibes is guarded by 16th-century ramparts and the star-shaped Fort Carré, which overlooks the marina and is now a museum. Stroll around the gardens here for beautiful views over the town.
The beachfront city of Nice curves for more than four miles around the wide Baie des Anges, or the Bay of Angels. The city itself combines exclusive modern apartment blocks and belle epoque grandeur, with some lovely backstreets to explore near the waterfront.
If the beach calls, there are plenty of fancy private beach clubs around the bay, which is typical of France, and some public stretches, too. Swim off the rocks at La Reserve, a spot near the port favored by the locals, where the water is clear and the snorkeling is decent.
Visit the pretty neighborhood of Vieux Nice, where buildings in warm terracotta and ocher reflect the sunlight, and the flower market of the Cours Saleya offers a dazzling display of color.
You could very easily while away an afternoon here with a salade Niçoise, a seafood platter, and a bottle of chilled Provençal rosé.
Read: Best Beaches in Nice
Just 15 minutes from Nice, the much quieter Villefranche-sur-Mer is a traditional Riviera resort town. Here, 15th-century houses cling to the wooded hillside of Cap Ferrat and gaze out over the cobalt bay studded with sailing yachts.
Wander the steep, narrow streets of this small French town, stopping to check out the Chapelle St-Pierre, where frescoes painted by Jean Cocteau line the walls. Sit in one of a string of bars on the waterfront with a cocktail or ice cream. Swimming here is easy; a narrowish strip of golden sand lines the waterfront, all of it open to the public.
A short taxi ride from town is the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, an extravagant belle epoque mansion built in 1912. While the house and its art collection are worth a look, the fragrant gardens are the main attraction, especially if you’re visiting in spring.
Under an hour from the busy port of Le Havre, cool Deauville is a favored vacation spot for wealthy Parisians drawn by its silvery beaches and old-fashioned glamor. A famous racecourse, spa, two golf courses, and a casino add to the town’s rather dashing vibe.
Wander along the sand, which is dotted with umbrellas. Admire the bright colors of Les Planches, a boardwalk sporting a collection of 460 beach cabins from the 1920s, each one named after a Hollywood star who has attended the annual American Film Festival.
The waterfront is lined with stylish shops, bars, and restaurants, making a day in Deauville an enjoyable prospect. You could combine your visit to the town with nearby Honfleur, too.
Beautiful Honfleur lies close to the long, sandy beaches of the Seine estuary, under vast skies. It’s easy to see how the Impressionists were inspired by this lovely old town.
Monet and his peers would often set up their easels around here, captivated by the shimmering quality of the light.
The 17th-century fishing harbor is enchanting, a mishmash of half-timbered houses in pretty pastel colors clustered around three sides of the cobblestone Vieux Bassin.
Honfleur is certainly well-to-do now, but before the French Revolution, it was even wealthier. It was from here that Samuel de Champlain set off for Canada, where he founded the city of Quebec.
If you can tear yourself away from the galleries, restaurants, and general dreamy views, head through the public gardens to the town’s Plage du Butin, a sandy stretch of beach backed by shady trees.
Saint-Tropez may be synonymous with movie-star glamor and superyachts. At it’s heart, though, it’s a lovely old Provençal beach town where locals play petanque on the Place des Lices and come to shop at the twice-weekly market for cheeses, charcuterie, fresh figs and olives, and juicy nectarines.
There are, of course, some exceptionally fancy places to eat and sunbathe. The Plages de Saint-Tropez, to the east of the citadel that gazes down over the old port, is a stretch of sand lined with private beach clubs and jaunty sun umbrellas, although there are still public spaces.
South of the headland, the long sweep of Plage de Pampelonne stretches away, lined with some of the most star-studded beach clubs and restaurants in the Mediterranean. But again, there’s still plenty of space for regular beach lovers to lay down a towel.
Marseille is France’s biggest port and has a bustling, gritty feel. But it’s also a city that’s reinvented itself as a thriving destination for visitors, rich in culture and culinary adventure.
There are urban beaches, too, for when you need a break from sightseeing. The small, sandy Plage des Catalans lies on the southern side of the Vieux Port. It’s right in front of the city and popular with locals.
Visiting the Vieux Port, crammed with fishing boats, is one of the best things to do in Marseille. Arrive early and you’ll see the fishermen selling their catch. Bars and restaurants stretch around the harbor, offering the perfect opportunity to try bouillabaisse, the rich fish soup that originated here.
You can walk up the hill to the spectacular Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, the opulent marble basilica that watches over the city. You could also stay in the port area and admire the sweeping views from the top of Fort Saint-Jean, which guards the harbor entrance.
Don’t miss a chance to visit the excellent MuCEM (Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean) next to the fort. One of the best museums in France, the building itself is an attraction, housed in an elaborate lattice structure that allows dappled light to filter through. The bar on the roof here is especially lovely.
South-east of busy Marseille, the exquisite little town of Cassis is sandwiched between the limestone massif of the Parc National des Calanques, France’s answer to the Norwegian fjords, and the breathtaking Cap Canaille, the highest sea cliff in France.
Cassis is clustered around a fishing harbor, its narrow lanes lined with chic boutiques, galleries, and upscale souvenir shops that make it one of the best places to go shopping in France. Lose yourself in the narrow alleys and stop for seafood in a waterfront bistro.
If you fancy a swim, the sandy Plage de la Grande Mer is a short stroll from the harbor and has superb views of the surrounding mountains.
If you make the journey to this French beach town, be sure to head up the winding Route des Crêtes to Canaille as a side trip, as the views are stupendous. You’ll see climbers clinging to the plunging cliffs, which is a mesmerizing sight.
La Rochelle, on France’s Atlantic coast, was an important seaport in the age of exploration, from the 14th to the 17th centuries, with several adventurers setting out from here to cross the Atlantic to the New World.
Today, it’s a pleasant, stately city, built from luminous white limestone and adorned with gargoyles, turreted towers, grand old shipowners’ mansions, lighthouses, hidden alleys, and arcades. Plaques on each significant building tell you the story of the city.
As for beaches, the coastline near here is a landscape of endless stretches of sand backed by tufted dunes and further south, pine forests, the shores pounded by vast Atlantic rollers.
Cycle trails crisscross the city and wind along the coast—they’re perfect for a day out, inhaling the salty breeze from the Atlantic. La Rochelle has a great sailing heritage, too, with several operators offering day sailing trips.
In the city itself, there are colorful markets to explore, locally grown oysters to taste, and quirky craft and jewelry shops to admire on Rue St-Nicholas.
The fishing village of Saint-Martin-de-Ré is the main town on the Ile de Ré, 33 square miles of dunes, salt marshes, and sandy beaches under vast skies, connected to La Rochelle by a long bridge.
Spend your time on the island following the flat cycling trails, or basking on long, sandy beaches. One of the best is Plage des Gollandieres, an expanse of fine golden sand backed by dunes and accessed via wooden boardwalks.
The town itself, a cluster of whitewashed houses with terracotta roofs, is surrounded by chunky 17th-century fortifications and a moat, and is guarded by a vast lighthouse. One of the great joys here is just wandering around, stopping for coffee and croissants or seafood.
The captivating capital of Corsica is one of the finest French coastal cities, with much to offer in terms of history, art, culture, food, and of course, beaches.
Ajaccio is the birthplace of Napoleon, a fact of which Corsicans are deeply proud, and you can visit the Emperor’s childhood home. There’s an extraordinary art collection at the Musée Fesch, assembled in the 18th and 19th centuries by Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesc, and regarded as the most important collection of Italian art outside the Louvre in Paris.
The elegant waterfront is a joy to explore, too, lined with gracious old houses adorned with green shutters.
Just over the headland next to the city, which is dominated by a vast citadel, the long, skinny Plage Saint-Francois curves around a pretty bay. A cooling dip in this Corsican beach on a hot day is the perfect break from sightseeing.
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