Important Things to Know About French Beaches
The beaches on the French Riviera have different rules and things to consider than the beaches in the USA or UK. Here’s what you need to know:
Public vs Private Beaches
The beaches on the French Riviera are divided up into both private and public beaches, with the former setting you back anywhere from €20 to €120 per visit. Private beaches provide loungers and umbrellas (and, often, lockers), and are far less crowded. You can reserve a spot for either half the day or a full day.
The private beach loungers are serviced by a bar and restaurant (usually with waiter service), making them a calmer and more enjoyable way to spend a peaceful day of reading and floating in the water. They’re a nice place to spend time year-round, and the water stays warm until well into the fall.
Note that bringing food on the private beaches is not allowed, since the authorities who manage the respective venues expect visitors to buy or have their meals at the eateries set up on the beach.
Tricky Restaurant Pricing
Some beach restaurants, such as the Negresco Beach Club in Nice, take advantage of unsuspecting patrons by making it so that it’s impossible to know what your end bill will be. Watch out for pricing by weight (such as “per 100g” pricing), as it usually ends up being much more expensive than anticipated. And, since you don’t have a scale at the table, you’re stuck paying whatever they charge you (which is exactly why they priced it this way).
Bringing Your Dog
While dogs are banned from some French beaches, the animal charity ’30 Millions d’Amis’ has compiled a map of beaches and restaurants which welcome pets – at least for part of the day – as well as dog-friendly gîtes, campsites, and hotels (some 20,000 places in total). Here is another map of beaches that allow dogs.
There are, however, restrictions on taking a dog on a beach as they must be kept on a lead/leash or owners face an €11 fine. Some beaches are open for dogs only at certain times – generally early morning or later when it is quieter. Few beaches will allow dogs in the water alongside bathers, but you can ask the maîtrenageur in charge or check the signs.
On public beaches, there are lifeguards on duty daily from 9am to 6:30pm from mid-June through mid-September. Three public beaches also have lifeguards on weekends from mid-May to mid-June. All private beach-restaurants have lifeguards on duty daily from mid-May to September. You can tell that lifeguards are on duty on a public beach if there are flags flying.
Let the Flags Guide You
Pay attention to the flags that fly from the beaches between May and September. All beaches with lifeguards and first-aid stations fly flags. There are several flags you’ll need to know (bookmark this page for quick-reference):
- Green Flag: Sea conditions are safe, swimming is allowed, safe and watched.
- Blue Flag: Clean water, swimming is allowed but with caution as there may not be lifeguards.
- Orange Flag: Swimming is dangerous either because of an agitated sea, currents, swarms of jellyfish (more about that below) or other condition, but lifeguards are on duty, so you can go in the water, but use caution.
- Yellow or Purple Flag: Bad water quality makes swimming inadvisable (because of pollution – including of biotic origin, for instance the presence of jellyfish). No lifeguards are on duty.
- Red Flag: Swimming is strictly forbidden and no lifeguards are on duty.
- Red-White Striped Flag or Black Flag: Swimming and use of floating devices hazardous because of strong winds.
- Checkered Flag: Indicates an area where swimming is allowed but dangerous because of people practicing sports such as surfing, ski-do’s, etc.
You can also check this government map showing the swimming conditions at all the beaches.
Most sunscreens contain chemical-based SPF, because these ingredients are cheaper and easier to apply than the two physical-based SPF ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. However, chemical sunscreens not only disrupt your hormones, but they kill coral reef and make aquatic life (including dolphins and sea turtles) very sick. Learn more here.
So, toss your chemical sunscreen and head to a pharmacy to get a “bio” mineral sunscreen. A widely-sold safe and healthy sunscreen brand is Biarritz Alga Maris sunscreens, which are available online in France or at many French and Monaco pharmacies. You can also try organic (“bio”) shops like La Vie Claire and Naturalia . You’ll need to rub these in well, to get rid of the white tint, or you can buy tinted versions that match your skin color (or get a slightly darker shade to fake a tan).
Watch Out For Jellyfish!
While there are no sharks to worry about, the downside of the French Riviera beaches is the jellyfish (meduses). By far the most common variety is the pelagia noctiluca which arrive unpredictably, often in swarms (you can track the daily location of jellyfish swarms on this map). Many private beaches have nets to block them out, but it’s rare for a public beach to have such protection.
They drift close to the surface and their violet color makes them easy to spot if you wear a mask while swimming. Although not fatal except for rare allergic reactions, a jellyfish sting can be quite painful and the scars can last for months.
Stop at the pharmacy to pick up a small, inexpensive vial of antidote before heading to the beach. Keep it with you for peace of mind and you’ll be prepared in the unhappy event of a jellyfish infestation. If you’re really concerned, local pharmacies sell a product called Medusyl which has been found to prevent jellyfish stings by preventing the tentacle from binding. It also works as a sunscreen.
If you’re stung, it’s best to head to the nearest lifeguard/first-aid station as the lifeguards are equipped with an antidote. Even lifeguards on private beaches will give you a healing cream whether or not you are a client of the beach. Do NOT try to wash off the sting in freshwater which will only worsen it. A more effective on-the-spot treatment is to soak the area in saltwater and then rub with gravel to remove the stingers. Immersing the area in water as hot as you can stand is also effective. If you happen to have tweezers you can try removing the stingers with them. Contrary to myth, urinating on the sting is useless.
If you want to learn more about jellyfish, the Monaco Oceanographic Museum has a lot of interesting information about jellyfish on their website.
Timing Your Trip
Along most of the French Riviera, a day at the beach during June, July, and August means either wasting ages hunting for parking and an unclaimed spot on the public beaches or shelling out for access to a private resort. So if your schedule allows for it, we recommend planning your trip for May or September, when the weather is still perfect but kids are in school and the beaches are less crowded.
Remember that most of the private beaches shut their doors come October, packing up for the season. Thirty beaches across the Côte d’Azur, however, remain open year-round. This includes Plage Beau Rivage and Blue Beach along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, as well as L’Écrin and Plage Goëland on the Boulevard de la Croisette in Cannes.
Check out our guide to the climate, sea temperatures, and how to choose when to visit.