Villefranche-sur-Mer Travel Guide
The magical environment of the Villefranche-sur-Mer will inspire you, as it has done for many famous artists and writers: turquoise waters, a labyrinth of courtyards and gardens, an old fishermen’s village in peach, yellow and apricot tones, a port with its small wooden boats that are equally colorful, sandy beaches, a breathtakingly beautiful bay and an ancient Citadel…
This harbor town is usually overshadowed by its iconic neighbors, but it’s the perfect spot for a relaxing evening and dinner along the marina. The beach here is also a good alternative to busy Nice, and the pastel buildings will definitely make their way onto your Instagram feed.
With its colorful buildings, seaside restaurants, and excellent location between Nice and Monaco, Villefranche-Sur-Mer is unmissable to in-the-know tourists. It is close to everything, yet quiet and charming. Perhaps that’s why rock-and-roll royalty such as Keith Richards and Tina Turner own villas here.
The locals call themselves Villefranchoise, and they are mostly of Italian origin. It has around 5000 residents and the solidarity of its local residents makes it more of a genuine community compared to several other famous towns (ahem, Eze and St. Paul de Vence) on the French Riviera.
Rather than Gucci and Hermès, the boutiques that open out onto Villefranche’s narrow streets behind the restaurant-lined quay are packed high with fabrics, in all the colors of sunshine, that mirror the warm yellows and dusty oranges of the centuries-old buildings. There are no blingy nightclubs, only cozy wine bars in candle-lit squares.
Superyachts jostle for space out in the bay each summer. But here on the docks, you’ll also find one of the last families of fishermen selling freshly caught bream and red mullet in the mornings, their painted wooden pointus (fishing boats) bobbing in the gentle tide below them.
This small fishing village has a delightfully authentic local atmosphere. Unlike towns like St Paul de Vence and Eze, this is primarily a town that people live in, and is only secondarily a tourist destination. Despite that, this easy-to-tour resort town in the French Riviera has a total package for every tourist and traveler.
Location & Weather
A corniche (cliffside) road connects Villefranche-sur-Mer to the other resort towns. Just around the bend to the west is Nice, and it takes just 10 minutes to reach Villefranche-sur-Mer by train, 20 minutes by car, or take your time with a scenic walk or bike ride (public bicycles are readily available for rent in Nice). Luxurious Monaco is to the east, but not before you pass the towns of Éze and Beaulieu-sur-Mer.
The hills serve as the limits of the town inward the French Riviera, with a height of 1 893 ft (577 m). Mount Boron dominates the large part of Villefranche-sur-Mer, and the classic stucco houses in the hills beautify the town with their colors and offer a picturesque view.
What to See in Villefranche-sur-Mer
From dreamy scenery, exquisite dining places, heritage sites, and even local village peculiarities, this idyllic town retains an authentic Mediterranean feel typical of the Riviera — but it is more of an Italian vibe than French to many.
The off-season, when the streets empty of tourists and the village lights dance across the bay in the twilight, only serves to heighten the magic of this low-key Côte d’Azur community.
Here are the can’t-miss sights in Villefranche:
The Seaside Old Town
A little history: the town was a ville franche sur mer or “customs free-port in the sea” established by Charles II d’Anjou, Count of Provence and King of Naples (reigned 1285-1309).
Most of its buildings date back to the 12th and 13th centuries, and the houses are painted with bright Provençal colors. Flowers beautify the balconies and facades that cascade down the hill to the sea into the waterfront quay.
Many of the houses are of Italian design, with beautiful trompe l’oeil wall paintings, mainly around windows. Most have large arched loggias on the ground floor and have been filled in. Narrow cobblestone and brick streets slope steeply down, some passages have vaults beneath the houses.
Rue du Pollu is the main street of the town and leads to Place du Conseil. The square has a good view of the harbor and the Cap Ferrat peninsula. From this point starts rue Obscure , which has covered passageways. Built to make soldiers of old times shuffle quick, it resembles more of a tunnel than a street. Some businesses use the space there as makeshift wine cellars or places for donkeys.
It goes parallel to the quayside and leads down to the sea. On the western end of rue de Obscure lies rue de l’Église, where the 18th-century Église St-Michel is and where you can see a craving of the Dead Christ made of a single block of fig wood. The church also has a fine baroque organ inside, which is rare and is a national monument. The church’s tall campanile dominates the scene.
The pride of the picturesque old quarters is the Obscure Street (translated from french, it means Dark), famous for its vaults overlapping. This street, 130 meters long, stretches along the walls of the citadel. The name should be understood literally: it is a tunnel cut into the rock. During storms and enemy attacks, local residents took refuge here, during the Second World War it was used as a bomb shelter.
The Lovely Quay & Port
The walk along the seaside is the main highlight of the town. Terraced cafés and restaurants line the harbor-front. Lovely pastel-colored village houses beautify the place. The villagers pointus, small fishing boats, line the dock .
The port serves as the base for fisherfolks and tourists. Numerous cruise boats anchor just offshore throughout the summer. Along the fishing wharves, you can wander and have refreshments at many dining spots.
Place Pollonais has a flea market on Sundays, a craft market on Mondays, and a pleasant brasserie.
This port is steeped in fascinating history. Pirates and other criminals frequented this naturally harbored coast during the Barbaric invasions of Europe. The deep harbor served as a safe haven for large ships who want to escape the easterly winds.
In February, there is a celebration of the fishermen called Bataille des Fleurs (Battle of the Flowers) that takes place on the Quay. They decorate their pointus with flowers on which they later use to “attack” other boats. There is also a parade of boats with music and costumes for the enjoyment of the locals and spectators.
Port la Darse was once an important defensive port built by the Duke of Savoie in the 1550s. In 1770, it was a fortified structure to improve the counter-invasion from the Mediterranean. It is now a marina and a place for yacht dockyard activities.
The Observatoire Oceanologique de Villefranche is here, as well as the French National Center for Scientific Research, which has three laboratories: Oceanology, marine geo-science, and cell biology. It also has a lighthouse, a single surviving tower, and there was once a rope factory.
Because of its naturally deep harbor, the port attracts many cruise ships, which drop anchor in the bay. Between Nice and Cap Ferrat, the sea reaches a depth of 320 feet (95 meters).
The Duke of Savoie, Philibert, built this massive waterfront Citadel (fortress) in 1557 after the Turkish fleet’s attack of the port in 1543. Now called Citadelle de St-Elme, it serves as the town hall and a congress center. It also houses the police station, a summer outdoor live dinner theater, an open-air cinema, and four small art museums.
One of those museums is dedicated to the sculptures of Antoniucci Volti. It has the carvings of four voluptuous females. Some of the carvings decorate the fountain outside of the citadel. A collection of modern paintings can be found in Museé Goetz-Boumeester. Medieval-life enthusiasts will find it pleasant to see the model scenes and ceramic figurines of the Roux Collection. Another room is dedicated to the regiment Chasseur-Alpins, the elite mountain infantry of the French Army.
Chapelle de St-Pierre
This ecclesiastical building was decorated by artist Jean Cocteau in 1957, hence the name Cocteau Chapel . Inside, the whimsical paintings of French poet and artist Jean Cocteau illuminate the village’s fishing traditions across every surface except the floor. The decoration has a “ghost of colors” theme and shades, as the illustrations have ghostly colors, strong contours, and simple lines.
No wonder the guide written by Cocteau invites the visitors to observe without any artistic prejudice. The art decor shows the biblical life of St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. It is also dedicated to Villefranche women and gypsies. On the space above the altar, St Peter walks the sea while angels guide him. There are ceramic eyes on the side of the doors that portrays the flames of Armageddon.
Check out our guide to the chapel and Jean Cocteau’s time on the French Riviera.
And Finally, the Beach
The beach in Villefranche has a sand and pebble mix. You can have an ice cream from a stall nearby, or take a cup of coffee while sitting out staring at the glittery waters in the bays. It may have a small beach, but the calmness that the other French Riviera places don’t have is what gives it a different vibe.
Plage des Marinières is the main beach. It is in the north end of the bay. Plage de la Darse is the one with pebbles. It is behind the jetty of the harbor La Darse.
Video Tour of Villefranche-sur-Mer
How to Get There
By bicycle: Public bicycles are readily available for rent in Nice.
By car: You can access the town by from Nice by the corniche road (Lower Corniche or Corniche Inférieure), which takes 20 minutes. It goes along the coastline and encircles Mount Boron.
By bus: Take the #100 Nice-Menton bus and the local #81 bus from Nice.
By train: The railway station is in the Nice-Ventimiglia TER line with regular service. Villefranche’s gare SNCF is a short distance from the port and right above the beach. It takes 10 mintest to reach Villefranche-sur-Mer by train from Nice.
By air: The Nice Airport is only 12 kilometers from Villefranche sur-Mer.