Cannes on the Cote d’Azur, which English speakers call the French Riviera, is famous for the world’s most glamorous annual trade show – the Film Festival. Each May, the sunny city attracts the great, the good and the wannabees of the movie world – drawn to the glitzy, glamorous town like moths to a flame. For the duration of the event, red carpets abound, parties are held, superstars parade and blow kisses to celebrity-spotting fans and paparazzi, Champagne corks pop and Cannes’ beaches are groomed to photo-op ready perfection.
But there’s a different side to Cannes that makes it a year-round bucket list destination and a perfect weekend getaway…
Explore the old town
Head to the old district of Cannes, built on a hill, it’s known as Le Suquet. Once a fishermen’s quarter, it’s home to steep cobbled alleys and candy-coloured houses their window boxes dripping with flowers. Wander and get lost in the little winding streets where you’ll find plenty of boutiques, bars and bistros.
Don’t forget your camera because this is a very photogenic little part of Cannes with fountains and hidden gardens, and make your way to the top of the hill of Le Suquet. It now houses has a collection of paintings and puts on a different exhibition each year. From this lofty position, which has a tranquil feel, quite different from the Cannes that lies below, you have sweeping views over the bay of Cannes. Climb the 109 steps of the square tower which crowns the chateau, for a bird’s eye view and 360 degree panorama. If you don’t fancy the hike to the top, hop on the Little Tourist Train.
At the base of Le Suquet, visit Marché Forville the city’s outdoor produce market near the Maritime port. Each morning, stalls are piled high with local produce, delectable olives, cheeses, fresh vegetables and pasta daily except Monday, when it becomes a flea market.
Life’s a beach
In the centre of Cannes there are 33 sandy beaches spread over 7.5km. Every year the city funds the reclamation of sand washed out to sea in the winter. As a result, the width of beaches has increased from 25 to 40 meters. Scattered among the private beaches are public areas including les Rochers, Nadine, Pointe Croisette, Roubine, Mace and Gazagnaire. Each summer the town protects bathers from jelly fish and the latter three beaches have special nets in place until the end of September. Locals favour the miles of public beach along the Boulevard du Midi les Rochers (opposite La Bocca railway station), a bit of a local secret, and great for snorkelling. Take some bread and the fish will eat out of your hands.
Promenade. It seems everyone who visits Cannes just loves to walk along the Croisette. I’ve never seen so many glittery T-shirts in one place! There are plenty of kiosks selling food and drink en route, and chairs are available (free) to drag under the shade of trees or sit and soak up the sun. Spot your favourite celebrity’s handprints on the star-studded floor in front of the Palais des Festivals!
Off the coast of Cannes lie the Îles de Lérins, the Lérins Islands. You can visit the Île Sainte-Marguerite and Île Saint-Honorat by taking a short shuttle boat ride which run regularly throughout the year from Quai St Pierre. It’s a real escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Saint-Honorat has been inhabited by monks for more than 1600 years. Nowadays, the 25 monks who live here produce wine from eight hectares of vineyard. They also make a local speciality, Lerina liquor, and honey. Wander the pine tree-lined the paths and visit the abbey for complete relaxtion. There are a couple of restaurants and it’s an idea place for a picnic, idyllic and tranquil.
The Musée de la Mer is in the former Royal Fortress on the Île Ste-Marguerite. It’s the largest of the islands and separated from Saint Honorat by just 600m of water. Built by Cardinal Richelieu, minister to Louis XIII, the prison once housed the Man in the Iron Mask.
And don’t miss the first underwater eco-museum in France has opened in Cannes, off the island of Sainte Marguerite. British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor has created six statues made of an ecological material to raise public awareness and promote the return of underwater flora and fauna to this now protected space where boat mooring is prohibited. Amask and snorkel are all you need to visit.
Even when the Film Festival is over – Cannes film credentials are ever present. Take a guided tour to see the street art and famous locations.
Where to eat
The Croisette beaches are lined with Instagrammable restaurants and dining here is one of the Riviera’s great pleasures.
Wine and dine: Fouquet’s Brasserie, 10, boulevard de la Croisette at the Majestic puts a Riviera touch to the cuisine of the Champs-Élysées landmark of the same name. The menu has been designed by 3 Michelin-star Chef Pierre Gagnaire. Their Sunday brunch at a civilised 12-4pm, complete with Champagne, is superb.
Locals love: In the old district of Cannes you’ll find the city’s oldest restaurant. Da bouttau (top photo) was founded in 1860. Picasso dined here and it’s long attracted the film festival stars – from Sean Connery to George Clooney.
Shop until you drop
If you’re a fan of shopping and in particular posh brands, head to two long parallel streets: La Croisette and rue d’Antibes. All the big names are there – and you’ll need a big purse.
Enjoy a sundowner
Aperitif time on the Cote d’Azur is one of life’s great pleasures. There’s plenty of choice in Cannes from the bars in the old town, along la Croisette and in the city. La Rotonde Grande Dame Champagne Bar is just about perfect. You can sit and listen to the gentle lapping of the waves while you gaze at the sun setting over the Lerins Islands.
Where to stay – bucket list hotel
For a luxury stay (de rigeur in Cannes), Hôtel Barrière Le Gray d’Albion is ideal. It’s long been the secret refuge of the stars of cinema who love it for its refined comfort. All 200 designer rooms and suits are decorated in an understated muted palette of soft colours – very Chanel-like and not ostentatious. Nearly all rooms have balconies and the views over the sea or rooftops of Cannes are superb. The big King size beds have a cocooning effect – essential for your beauty sleep in this city of beautiful people.
There’s a great terrace restaurant that’s like a little oasis in the city, and a perfectly air-conditioned designer bar. Guaranteed to make you feel like a celebrity, the hotel is in a perfect location. It’s just steps from La Croisette where you’ll find the hotel’s beachside restaurant Mademoiselle Gray and beach area Plage Barrière, and a stone’s throw from Le Suquet.
Hôtel Barrière Le Gray d’Albion