How to Plan the Best Beach Holiday in the South of France

Marseille is right on the Calanques, the French national park
Marseille is right on the Calanques, the French national park | © Matthieu Da Cruz / Unsplash
Photo of Alex Ledsom
13 August 2018

The South of France is a popular holiday destination, whatever your style of beach – Pampelonne in Saint-Tropez, where Brigitte Bardot made her debut, is for the fashionable jet set, the beaches near Martigues are family-driven and relaxed, while Hyères offers rugged, camping adventures.

Over 80 million people arrive in France each year to practise their French language skills, sample the food and photograph the landscape. After Paris, which is the number one destination, they head to the south, and particularly, the coast. It can get crazy, packed, expensive and hot – that’s what makes it fun – but there are a few planning pointers for a beach holiday in the South of France that will make it less stressful.

What time of year is best for a French beach holiday?

Summer is the obvious option for a beach holiday, but it actually isn’t the only answer for the South of France. Many French companies require employees to take their holidays in July or August so it’s a peak period for French holidaymakers travelling to the region. Additionally, and ironically, it is also a time when some must-see tourist venues, such as restaurants, markets and shops, close for a two or three-week break. The sea is also most crowded in summer because it gets warm enough for the locals to swim in the Mediterranean by about June, but many wait until July and August, after which they think it’s too cold. For hardier travellers coming from cooler climates than the Med, you’ll probably find you can swim as early as April/May and the last swim might be November if the weather holds. That means if you like colder water, visit in May/June or September.

The archipelago of Frioul just off the coast of Marseille |  © Paul Hermann / Unsplash

Where is the best place to go for a beach holiday in the South of France?

Each region in France seems to retain its distinct identity and the same is true for the coastal regions. Marseille is as different from upper-class Saint-Tropez as you’d expect, but there are plenty of lesser-known towns that offer a distinctly different vibe. The coastline near Montpellier and the Camargue is flat as a pancake and people come to see the wild Camargue horses and local traditions, such as water jousting. Martigues has canals that wind through the harbour to the sea. The villages on either side of Marseille offer rocky beaches before the cliffs get higher and higher as they form the Calanques. These are sea inlets carved into the cliffs over thousands of years. Use Marseille as a base and head to these small villages on either side for locals beaches, seafood festivals and waterside restaurants celebrating Provençal cooking, such as bouillabaisse, the fish soup from Marseille.

The coastline along Hyères |  © Antoine de Decker / Unsplash

If you want to go camping, the coastline around Hyères is sandy, rugged and wild and it continues in the same way until you get to Saint-Tropez. Saint-Tropez has a very undeveloped coastline in terms of built structures and the small village is known for its expensive boutiques and five-star restaurants and clubs. Towards Cannes and Nice, the coastline becomes very built up with hotels and restaurants packed along boulevards like the Promenade des Anglais. Queen Victoria brought the crowds to holiday in Nice and they never left. Many of the beaches in Cannes and Nice are private and will charge an entry fee, although, amazing public beaches exist, which are completely free to use – they won’t have waiter service and loungers though. Nice’s beaches are pebbly and free of sand, but they are central to the town and close to the bars, restaurants and culture.

Antibes, France |  © Michael Shannon / Unsplash

What will everyone be wearing?

Marseille is one of the more relaxed places to go out in the evening in terms of dress code in the South of France. However, the same is true here as everywhere else in that it can be difficult to get into busy places if you’re wearing anything that looks like beach clothes. The further east you travel towards Italy, you’ll find people are much more fashion-conscious on and off the beach. If you’re going to Saint-Tropez or Cannes, and you want to get into places that are a little more exclusive, make sure you pack a blazer or a jacket for men and don’t wear trainers or sneakers. In both these small towns, it helps if you look like you have money to spend at some of the beachside bars or clubs in order to reserve a table. Nice is a much bigger city so there is much more choice, from wine bars and jazz clubs that won’t require formal wear to elegant restaurants with views, which may require blazers.

St Tropez, France |  © Fabrice Villard / Unsplash

What should I pack?

Feel free to wear a little more colour as brightly coloured trousers and shoes are a common look on both men and women. Remember to wear suncream to face the harsh summer midday sun as well as a hat. You may want to pack a cover-up for when you leave the beach, particularly to eat in restaurants, even if it’s only for an ice cream.

How best to avoid crowds in restaurants

You might not want to avoid the people – in part, it’s what makes summer in the South of France just so French – the streets are busy with people having fun. But, in order to enjoy a quieter stay, there are some basic pointers that might help. Firstly, everyone goes out at 8 pm for an apéritif (a pre-dinner drink). Many restaurants in France close after lunch (at about 3 pm at the latest) and won’t reopen again until dinner time (about 7 pm). To avoid the possibility of having to wait in line to get a table or for service at busier times, get to the restaurants as soon as they open and you might be able to get served and be out before the real rush begins. Secondly, some restaurants serve non-stop so you can avoid the rush if you eat even earlier, although the food might not be as high in quality. Thirdly, take picnics during the day to avoid the restaurant crowds at lunch. Finally, the key thing to remember is that if you have your heart set on somewhere, book well in advance. As well as restaurants, this includes sun loungers and bars for a drink. For restaurants that are attached to clubs, sometimes the entry ticket to the club is waived if you eat at the restaurant first – it can be a stress-free way to guarantee yourselves a way to enter the club without queuing or paying more.

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