Alpes-Maritimes lies in the south-east corner of France, just west of the Italian border. The department has a population of over a million, around 90% of which is found in the urban areas along the coast. An increasing number of these are people who have retired to enjoy the benefits of the region's warm weather.
Alpes-Maritimes is the home of the French Riviera (Cote d'Azur), one of the most famous resorts in the world. Sheltered from the harsh Mistral wind by the mountains of Provence and the Alps and with the Mediterranean Sea to the south, it is extremely popular with tourists throughout the year thanks to its consistently mild and sunny climate.
The French Riviera has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Neanderthal remains dating from around 80,000 years ago have been found in caves outside Nice, with evidence of even older hunter-gatherer settlements nearby.
Around 900 BC the Ligurian tribes settled along the coast, leaving fortifications and rock paintings (which can still be seen on Mount Bégo in the Vallée des Merveilles). Their population later merged with Celtic settlers.
The area was captured by the Romans in the 1st century to defend valuable trading posts. After the fall of the Roman Empire the area changed hands many times, between Barbarians, Saracens and finally the French. The department of Alpes-Maritimes was created in 1793, though it had different boundaries at that time. Its present form dates to 1860 when Nice was annexed by France from Sardinia. Since the beginning of the 20th century the department's population has more than tripled.
- Saint Tropez
- Juan les Pins
The French Riviera enjoys a warm climate with 300 sunny days per year and mild winters. Downpours can be heavy but are less frequent in the summer months.
Average temperature on the French Riviera
|Period ||Celsius ||Fahrenheit |
|January-March ||10 ||50 |
|April-June ||17 ||63 |
|July-September ||22 ||72 |
|October-December ||13 ||55 |
Despite the French Riviera's worldwide fame, there are actually relatively few sandy beaches. The best ones can be quite expensive as a result. Many are privately run, although if you are a guest at a nearby hotel there will probably be a discount.
Just outside Cannes, the Meridien Garden Beach is one of the Riviera's most popular and is surrounded by shops, cafés and restaurants. Plage du Martinez is another famous beach, frequented by the rich and fashionable. For a child-friendly option, try the Blue Beach in Nice (privately owned, so an entrance fee is charged).
The beaches of the French Riviera are highly popular during the day. When the sun goes down there is a lively nightlife scene, with clubs, discos, casinos, bars and restaurants.
There are numerous nature and water parks throughout the region, many of which are suitable for children. Marineland is the best marine zoo in Europe and holds night shows in July and August.
Museums, galleries and culture
The Cannes Film Festival, usually held in May, is the world's most famous film festival. Founded in 1939, it is also one of the oldest. The success and prestige of the festival lies in its ability to strike a balance between the artistic and commercially successful.
Juan-les-Pins and Nice hold annual jazz festivals. The Nice Carnival is a huge winter event that attracts over a million spectators (make sure you book a place to stay in advance).
Thanks to the ideal climate and near-perfect soil, rosé wine is one of the Riviera's specialities – although a wide variety of good reds are also produced there. High quality rosés are usually cheap and well worth trying. There are hundreds of private vineyards in the area where you can taste the wine before you buy it. White wines are also made in the region, though in smaller quantities.
Although the Maritime Alps are close to the warm climate of the Cote d'Azur, they still receive large amounts of snow. There are 465 mountains over 2000m and near the Italian border, 6 over 3000m. Consequently, the department is one of the best in the country for skiing – both downhill and cross-country. Due to their high altitude some resorts, such as Isola 2000, will stay open until the end of April. Other popular areas are Auron and Valberg/Beuil. Many of the smaller resorts have cheap lift passes.
The region boasts many spectacular golf courses, with stunning views of the Mediterranean and the Alps; Saint-Endréol, not far from Cannes and Saint-Tropez, Frégate in Provence and Saint-Donat near the perfume capital of Grasse, to name some of the best.
Along with its excellent beaches, many different water-sports are available along the Riviera, including sailing, surfing, water-skiing, diving, snorkeling and sea-fishing.
Inland, there is an even wider range of options, from cycling and mountain-biking to rock climbing, canoeing, rafting, caving (including the world's first underground via ferrata, guide-led and open all year round) and horse-riding. There are show caves near Basses-Beaumettes and adventure forests for families with young children.
There are around 4000km of well-maintained, marked trails for safe and scenic walking. For long-distance walkers, no less than 6 GR trails cross the region.
Col de Bleyne, Gourdon, Greolieres and Lachens are internationally famous paragliding and hang gliding sites.
Food and drink
Some of the best in the country, local cooking in Alpes-Maritimes tends to be fairly simple and often includes lamb and lots of the region's vegetables – aubergines, courgettes, peppers and tomatoes. Pasta and pizza are also popular due to the influence of nearby Italy.
Ease of access
Nice Airport is served by many airlines, including low-cost ones such as easyJet. Flights leave from Bristol, Newcastle, Liverpool and London airports, as well as from Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Paris-Orly. The area is therefore cheaply and easily accessible.
Within the department, rail transport (a line connects the coastal cities) is slow and some roads can be congested due to the high volume of tourists. Buses will give access to places not on the rail line. However, hiring a car is probably the best way to travel if you want to explore the hill towns and other locations slightly off the beaten track. The best places to hire from are the main rail stops (St-Raphaël, Nice, Monaco, or Menton) or Nice Airport.
Value for money
Favoured by the rich and famous, prices on the Riviera are notoriously high. Nice may be somewhat cheaper than other coastal cities, with more reasonable hotels and hostels available.
With the stunning beaches, scenery and weather of the French Riviera, as well as a huge range of attractions and activities inland, Alpes-Maritimes is a favourite holiday destination for over 9 million tourists per year.