The city of Cannes, set on the gentle croissant curve of its eponymous bay, offers that intoxicating cocktail of movie star glamor and South of France seaside simplicity. Sprinkled amid its ancient stone churches and cobblestoned lanes are high-end boutiques and Michelin-starred restaurants.
From the vroom of Ferrari engines along the Promenade de la Croisette to the shimmer of yachts anchored offshore, the glitz of the super-wealthy never seems far away in Cannes. But this is a living, working city behind the glamor, and anybody can enjoy the good life by experiencing some of the best things to do in Cannes.
Parade along the Boulevard de la Croisette
Walking the Boulevard de la Croisette is an essential thing to do in Cannes. Hallowed ground doesn’t usually take the shape of a beachside boardwalk, but in Cannes, La Croisette is as sacrosanct as the Notre-Dame d’Espérance presiding at the roof of the city. And it’s official: La Croisette, built in 1857, is listed in France’s official cultural heritage inventory.
The boardwalk—and the road that runs parallel with it—hugs the entire sweep of Cannes’ coastline. On one side is the glittering Mediterranean lapping at the sand into which has sunk the foot of many of cinema’s great names. On the other are the hotels where they’ve lodged and the casinos where they’ve rubbed shoulders and sipped martinis.
Stroll along La Croisette for some palm-shaded people watching. You’ll hear the clack of boules, the French radio stations playing in open-top cars, and the regular rhythm of the sea underscoring it all.
Ice cream kiosks rise up like water stops at a hydration-obsessed marathon. You’ll pass famous landmarks like the stately Le Palais Miramar, once the city’s most famous luxury hotel.
You’ll probably want some nutrition to balance out the salted caramel ice creams, so find Marché Forville at the eastern end of La Croisette, one of the city’s best markets and the gateway to the old town. Open until the early afternoon, its huge interior is overflowing with produce. Spend time tasting and, yes, there are also wine stalls—this is France, after all.
Be Starstruck at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès
Every May, the great and the good of the movie industry gather on the cascading red carpet of the Cannes’ Palais des Festivals et des Congrès. First held in 1946, the presence of its eponymous film festival has platinum-plated the coastal city with a sense of glamor.
Located at 1 Boulevard de la Croisette, this major French cultural and performing arts center hosts much more than just the Cannes Film Festival. Throughout its annual calendar of events, you’ll find less well-known spectaculars such as the International Festival of Pyrotechnic Art, the Festival of Russian Art, and the Cannes Shopping Festival.
Get a photo on its famous red carpet if you’re there during the film festival. Otherwise, it’s possible to take a tour through the Palais and discover its impressive 18 cinema screen capacity within. The tour takes about an hour and a half and gives you an insight into the unassuming building’s storied history.
Explore Le Suquet
Le Suquet is Cannes’ old quarter, a fishing village from which this glamorous city flowered.
The cobblestoned corridors of this thriving neighborhood are filled with bistros, souvenir shops, and boutiques (the winding, climbing rue Sainte-Antoine is particularly good for lunch). The sand-yellow architecture is brightened by climbers bursting with Mediterranean color.
Reach the top of Le Suquet, up its wide steps and past its iron street lanterns, and you’re where Cannes began its existence as a Roman Camp.
The history flows through the monastery-turned museum you’ll find here, as well as the Notre-Dame d’Espérance church. The views are breathtaking over the rooftops and towards the masts of the yachts and the breakwater of the Vieux Port.
Go Shopping on Rue d’Antibes
Named for the resort town and yachting hub where it ends, Rue d’Antibes is a mecca for those seeking retail therapy while on the French Riviera.
Cannes’ chief shopping artery, running parallel with the Croisette, rue d’Antibes is lined with palms, hanging baskets, and flagship stores for names like United Colours of Benetton and ZARA. Studded in between are perfumeries and more exclusive boutiques.
As one of the best places to go shopping in France, this is probably the busiest street in Cannes and vies with the Croisette as the city’s chief people-watching destination. Supercars (and the occasional yellow tourist train for contrast) process through the middle.
Its side streets are also home to some excellent cafés in which to refuel before rejoining the throng. Stop in Ladureé for colorful, crisp-shelled macarons to match the interiors of the convertibles outside.
Unwind on the Beaches
There’s a wonderful array of beaches on the French Riviera, with some sandy, others pebbled, and others still concealed down long paths through lush undergrowth.
Cannes’s beaches fit right in. They’re sandy and plentiful, often with attractive boulders in the shallows that, fringed with spray, seem purpose-built for a movie’s backdrop. On the blue horizon, a filmstrip of sailboats and superyachts endlessly unspools. A day of lounging on the beach and swimming in the sea is the most popular of the things to do in Cannes.
So where to go? The Plage du Midi is the largest public beach in the city and the largest of four beaches found on the seaward side of the Boulevard du Midi, to the west of the Vieux Port. There’s plenty of room here amid the tall palms and occasional kids’ playgrounds.
The beach is known for its sunset perspective over the rouge-rocked Corniche d’Esterel bluff, so don’t forget a bottle of chilled rose and a picnic basket loaded with baguettes and cheese to complete your sojourn.
If you’d rather set up on a beach with a little more of an exclusive feel, then maybe the sands of La Bocca are what you’re looking for. West of Plage du Midi, the shallows dotted with boulders, narrow La Bocca offers colorful snorkeling and sunset aperos at Le Cabanon’s beachside terrace.
Step Back in Time at Notre-Dame d’Espérance
Perched at the top of Le Suquet, the 14th-century Eglise Notre Dame d’Espérance is a popular French landmark in Cannes. A visit is one of the things to do in Cannes, to gain a useful historical perspective on this sleekly modern destination.
After about ten minutes’ walk from the Croisette (take the Rue Mont Chevalier to pass a prison which once held the Man in the Iron Mask) and you’ll come to Notre Dame d’Espérance, beneath the old fortress. The product of a century of building works, it’s the oldest church in the city and was only completely finished in 1627.
Within the stone walls of this Gothic edifice, the air slightly musty on a warm day, you’ll find a serenity that’s a world away from the Croisette. There’s a side chapel, filled with engravings and model fishing boats, dedicated to the local fishermen. There’s also a fantastic nativity scene that comes to life for the bargain price of €1.
Beneath the maritime pines outside, it’s a lovely building to admire, the Renaissance porch and Romanesque bell tower joined by an old stone arch. Perhaps the best perspective, however, is at night, when the church is lit up and crowns the cityscape.
Delve into the Musée des Explorations du Monde
Formerly the Musée de Castre, this is one of those meta museums where the exhibits are housed within what is itself a structure worthy of being housed in a museum.
Whether you’ll be more dazzled by what’s within or without depends, of course, on what rings your cultural bell. The museum, shaded by antique umbrella pines, resides in what used to be the medieval monastery of Lérins, named for the archipelago off Cannes.
With its crenellations, keep, and stout watchtower, the monastery looks well fortified, but don’t let that put you off. The collection within its stone walls is eclectic and impressive, the private collection of a Dutch baron who bequeathed his passion project to his adopted city.
The antiques within come from even further afield than the most distant yacht silhouette you can see from the top of the watchtower. There are examples of Himalayan, Arctic, and Oceanian primitive art as well as pre-Columbian ceramics. An international collection of musical instruments takes over much of the 11th-century Saint-Anne’s Chapel.
While its 109 steps, no more and no less, to the top of the watchtower, the views over the city, the bay and the islands are rewarding.
Drive a Ferrari along the French Riviera
It’s easy to let the glamor of the Côte d’Azur go to your head. Get the look yourself by renting a Ferrari or Lamborghini taking it for a whirl along the French Riviera’s renowned coastal roads.
Driving a classic sports car here is one of the things to do in Cannes that just knits together what makes this such a special destination: spectacular sea views, luxurious comfort, and, admittedly, showing off.
Take it for an exhilarating spin along twisting roads, the view of the Mediterranean coastline disappearing and reappearing as you drive through tunnels in the scrub-covered mountainside. And of course, you could join the unofficial all-day parade of expensive cars along the Promenade de la Croisette to experience peak Riviera.
Visit Nice, Monaco and Eze
While Cannes’ siren song is difficult to resist, it’s good to remember that the French Riviera comprises more than one compelling seaside city.
To get a perspective on this, you can join a tour where you’ll discover three of this region’s most iconic destinations. Your journey will begin with a panoramic drive along Nice’s palm-lined beachfront, the Promenade des Anglais. Afterward, step onto the sun-warmed sidewalk for a guided city stroll and see Nice’s Baroque architecture and chic boutiques.
Next, you’ll travel to the hilltop village of Èze, perched 1,400 feet above the Mediterranean Sea. Explore its charming, timeworn streets and breathe in the fragrant air and magnificent views of the Mediterranean. You’ll browse the village’s local cafés and restaurants and relax over a coffee or lunch bright with Provencal flavor.
Finally, immerse yourself in Monaco’s stately grandeur. While in the city-state, you’ll see the haughty Prince’s Palace, the cathedral, and the dramatically-positioned Oceanographic Museum.
Channel Your Inner Artist in St. Paul de Vence
St. Paul de Vence is, for many, the most beautiful of the hilltop towns in the Côte d’Azur. It’s found just inland, about 45 minutes’ drive north of Cannes along the coast. A day trip to its crumbling ramparts is one of the essential things to do in Cannes.
Set into the maquis-softened hills, this 16th-century hill town and former military stronghold rises above its local surrounds like a kind of honeyed-stone airship. Join a narrated walking tour through its narrow alleys, terraced vineyards, and colorful gardens of bougainvillea and mimosa blossoms.
You’ll learn about how, in the early 20th century, St. Paul de Vence became an outpost for the Impressionist movement. Afterwards, browse the town’s shops, many art galleries, and boutiques or find a café and enjoy some French pastries with fresh coffee. If you’re staying to eat, La Colombe d’Or combines the town’s art vibe with superb food.
Walk the ramparts afterwards. Looking out over the neatly groomed cemetery, where impressionist Marc Chagall is buried, you’ll be able to see the sea sparkling in the distance as if scattered with gems.
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