Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur

What to Do in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France


Article written by Elisa - Travel Writer & Local in France
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The postcard-perfect town of Villefranche-sur-Mer is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the French Riviera. Reminiscent of the hillside towns of Italy’s Liguria region, Villefranche-sur-Mer has a distinctly French vibe. The azure waters of the sea are more than inviting and lap the town’s promenade, lined with colorful houses and restaurants where you can enjoy delicious Provençal meals.

Villefranche-sur-Mer is one of the best day trips from Nice and a must-stop of any French Riviera road trip. But it is also a great place to spend a couple of relaxing days.

From strolling up and down the Old Town to visiting charming churches to exploring the coast by boat or hike, here are the best things to do in Villefranche-sur-Mer.

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Things to Do in Villefranche-sur-Mer

1. Saint-Elme Citadel

Citadel - Villefranche-sur-Mer

One of the unmissable things to see in Villefranche-sur-Mer is its stunning seaside fortress. Overlooking the bay, it was built in the 16th century to protect the town from pirate attacks and foreign invasions. After WW2, it was used as a US naval base for almost 20 years.

Today, Saint-Elme Citadel houses the Town Hall and several fascinating museums, all free to visit.

Stepping inside, you can visit the Volti Foundation, which displays works by the namesake French sculptor; the Goetz Boumeester Gallery, which showcases contemporary paintings; and the Roux Collection, which focuses on ceramics and figurines. In addition, the fortress hosts temporary open-air exhibitions and cultural festivals.

The Citadel of Saint-Elme is also the spot to admire beautiful views of the Villefranche Bay.

2. Saint-Michel Church

Saint-Michel Church - Villefranche-sur-Mer
Saint-Michel Church Inside - Villefranche-sur-Mer

Strolling through the Old Town, you will pass by Saint-Michel Church. Located above the harbor, this gorgeous church dates back to the 18th century and boasts a simple-looking  Baroque facade.

You need to enter Saint-Michel Church to fully appreciate its beauty. The most important piece inside is the 1790 organ. Built by the famous Grinda Brothers, it is among the oldest organs in the Alpes-Maritimes region, which is why it is listed as a historic monument. 

Another unique element of the church is the life-size carving of a recumbent Christ, made from a single piece of fig tree wood. According to a legend, this magnificent piece was carved by an unknown slave in the 18th century.

3. Old Town

Old Town - Villefranche-sur-Mer

Villefranche-sur-Mer has a wonderful Old Town, which is the perfect place to take relaxing walks while letting your eyes wander.

Stroll along the cobblestone-covered, winding, and narrow streets lined with colorful houses embellished by shutters, doors, iron-wrought balconies, and flowers to match. Most buildings you will see are from the 12th and 13th centuries.

In the charming streets of Old Town, you will also find quaint shops for souvenir shopping and locally owned cafés perfect for a break and people-watching.

The Old Town has several interesting spots, including the Saint Elisabeth Chapel. This chapel dates back to the 16th century and boasts a unique striped facade. Today, it is mainly used as an exhibition venue.

4. Rue Obscure

Rue Obscure (XIVth century) - Villefranche-sur-Mer

Another thing to see while walking around the Old Town is the Rue Obscure. This curiously named covered street is well worth a stop.

Originally, it was a normal-looking street, but with the enlargement of the Citadel over time, it ended up being completely covered. So, this dimly-lit passageway began to be used by locals to store their goods, sell outlaw goods, and hide during times of war.

The Rue Obscure is only 130 meters long and full of history and charm. Given its unique construction and medieval look, the Rue Obscure has been featured in many movies and TV series, including classics such as Never Say Never Again, The Red Shoes, and To Catch a Thief. When I visited Villefranche-sur-Mer in February 2024, the Rue Obscure was partially blocked by construction works. Let’s hope it will be fully open again for the good season!

5. Saint-Pierre Chapel

Saint-Pierre Chapel (painted by Jean Cocteau) - Villefranche-sur-Mer

Close to Villefranche-sur-Mer’s waterfront is the charming Saint-Pierre Chapel. This small chapel boasts a facade painted in dusty pink and buttercup yellow, which makes it particularly beautiful.

Dating back to the 14th century, the Saint-Pierre Chapel was used for centuries by local fishermen for storing boating equipment and fishing nets.

The chapel was abandoned and neglected after the 19th century until artist Jean Cocteau convinced locals to let him restore and paint it

There is an entrance fee to admire Jean Cocteau’s frescoes inside the Chapel. Don’t miss the collection of ex-votos (or offerings) left here by sailors over the centuries.

Remember that it is prohibited to take photos inside the chapel.

6. Royal Port ‘La Darse’

Port - Villefranche-sur-Mer

Villefranche-sur-Mer is a seaside town, so visiting its waterfront is a must!

The Royal Port is located on the west side of the bay. This natural creek was first fortified in 1550 by the Dukes of Savoy. La Darse, as the harbor was initially named, was almost completely reworked starting in 1730.

Taking the new name of Royal Port, the great redesign saw the addition of the lighthouse, the dry-dock basin, the arsenal, the forge, and the prison.

Besides its historical value, the Port Royal de la Darse is a functioning and busy port. Strolling up and down Quai de la Corderie, you will see luxury yachts and commercial fishing boats anchored side-by-side. Plus, the Port Royal is a superb viewpoint: get ready to admire a 360-degree view spacing from the main pier over Cap Ferrat and the surrounding hills!

TIP: The restaurants along Quai de la Corderie offer superb views of the Port and the sea plus are the ideal place to taste local cuisine and Italian cuisine. During the high season, secure a table by booking in advance.

7. Beach Day

Beach - Villefranche-sur-Mer

Villefranche-sur-Mer is a seaside town on the French Riviera, so you can’t exempt yourself from spending a day at the beach. Smaller and lesser-known than other beaches on the French Riviera, there is, however, something for everyone.

The Marinières Beach is located right in the town’s bay. Covered in coarse sand, it is particularly crowded in summer. This is a family-friendly beach thanks to the anti-jellyfish net and lifeguard service, umbrellas and loungers to rent. There are also plenty of cafés and restaurants nearby for a meal break.

The Darse Beach is located near the Royal Port. Small and secluded, it is ideal for those looking to escape the summer crowds to enjoy a relaxing swim or an adventurous snorkel. This pebbly beach also offers breathtaking vistas of the bay.

The Guardian Angel Beach is a small cove located right after Marinières Beach. With azure waters, it is the perfect spot for swimming. In addition, it is dog-friendly. 

8. Rent a Boat with or without a Skipper

Boats for rent - Villefranche-sur-Mer

One of the best ways to soak up the laid-back atmosphere of Villefranche-sur-Mer while marveling at its beauty is by boat. Not only will you have the chance to take in breathtaking coastline views, but you will also be able to swim and snorkel in crystal-blue waters.

In Villefranche-sur-Mer, you can either rent a boat with a skipper for a day of complete relaxation or without a skipper if you want to be the captain of your boat.

Samboat offers both rental options, and its prices are competitive. However, it has a limited number of boats available, so you will need to book well in advance.

Get ready to take sail and discover from a different perspective the Villefranche-sur-Mer, the peninsula of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and the Mala Cave for an unforgettable day – Click here to rent your boat in Villefranche-sur-Mer

9. Combat Naval Fleuri Festival

Flower Battle - Villefranche-sur-Mer

The Côte d’Azur is among the most lively places in France all year round, thanks to the fantastic festivals that animate the calendar of the various towns.

While Nice has its Carnival and Menton the Fête du Citron, Villefranche-sur-Mer hosts the Combat Naval Fleuri.

This unique show, taking place in the town’s Port one of the Mondays of February, is unlike anything else in the country. As part of the carnival celebrations, the Combat Naval Fleuri is a playful competition among traditional wooden boats known as ‘pointus.’

During the event, these picturesque boats are decorated with locally grown flowers, and the crew wears traditional Provencal costumes.

The competition consists of sailing around the port and throwing local flowers (mostly mimosas) to the public. Of course, your part will be to get the boats’ attention and catch the most flowers thrown from them.

The Combat Naval Fleuri dates back to 1902. It is a cultural event with free admission. Before the combat, there is a flower parade along the port’s quay.

Combat Naval Fleuri - Villefranche-sur-Mer

10. Hiking

The area around Villefranche-sur-Mer offers excellent hiking opportunities perfect for exploring the coast and the inland landscapes.

Here are the best trails you can consider walking during your vacation:

The Sentier du Lazaret is a fabulous coastal trail of medium difficulty. Spanning for 6 km, it takes around 2 hours to complete.

The Fort du Mont-Alban trail is a beginner-friendly hike that goes inland. It is 4.5 km long, and you can walk in about 2 hours.

The Circuit de Saint-Michel is perfect for marveling at beautiful sea vistas. Of intermediate difficulty, the 5 km takes approximately 3 hours to be hiked.

The Circuit de la Rade is a 4 km loop trail that is easy to walk and can be completed in 1 hour and 30 minutes.

11. Take a Day Trip

Eze - France
Eze is an easy day trip from Villefranche-sur-Mer

If you have a day to spare, a great idea would be to visit one of the other stunning towns along the French Riviera. Easy to reach by regional train or car, here are our day-trip suggestions from Villefranche-sur-Mer.

Nice is an elegant seaside town boasting a vibrant cultural scene and lively nightlife. While in Nice, don’t miss strolling the popular Promenade des Anglais while soaking up the town’s glamorous vibe. If you visit Nice in winter, try to see its famous Carnival, which takes place in February.

As glamorous as Nice, Monte Carlo is the place to experience the life of the rich and famous! Everywhere you look speaks of luxury, from high-end restaurants to haute-couture boutiques to giant yachts. While in Monte Carlo, make sure to visit the iconic Monte Carlo Casino.

The colorful town of Menton makes for another fantastic day trip. Located close to Italy’s border, Menton portrays an atmosphere that beautifully mixes French and Italian elements. With colorful shuttered houses with terracotta roofs, must-sees are the Jardins Biovès and the Jardin Serre de la Madone. If you visit Villefranche-sur-Mer in February, then the Menton Lemon Festival is a must.

Eze is a small hilltop town with a perfect location to marvel at the spectacular panorama of the French Riviera. Originally a fortified stronghold, Ezre’s medieval charm is enhanced by its stone houses and the silence of its narrow streets.

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