The hot sunshine, sparkling water and warm nights of the French Riviera trap tourists by the thousands. Vacationers eat moules frites or crêpes on terrasses late into the warm evenings, happy and bronzed from days at the beach. This stretch of Mediterranean coastline, the Côte d’Azur, is truly the paradise you expect, but it comes with a catch: The starlit seaside removes the contents of your wallet just as quickly as it takes your breath away.
Maybe that’s fine for some of you. With a third glass of rosé in your hand as the sun sets over the sea, you think, “Money? Who worries about that?”
But in a year of trial-and-error living on the Southern French coast, I learned that a rich experience can also be budget-friendly. It comes down to three factors: choice of town, time of year and developing your gut feeling about rip-offs.
Location, location, location
Toulon, where I lived, is in the centre of Provence, yet remains unknown except as the home of Jean Valjean’s prison in Les Misérables (Look Down isn’t the best tourist jingle).
Wedged between mountain and sea, the city forms a semicircle along a sheltered bay (called a “rade”) that serves as home port to France’s Mediterranean navy. Toulon’s strategic geography and military value unfortunately put it at the centre of conflict and it sustained significant damage during the Second World War. It was rebuilt with little planning and the jarring architectural landscape sours the views on first glance. But a second look reveals waterfront shops, restaurants and beaches, free of the overpricing and seasonal insanity of Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez. The cluster of communities from Bandol to Hyères, with Toulon at the centre, is the best bet on the Riviera for saving money while profiting from the sun. The chill vibe contrasts well with the gaudy glitz of further east.
When it doesn’t sizzle
The high-season for tourists is July and August. This is when school is out, the weather is scorching and the beaches are crowded. All of France, it seems, goes on vacation in August and prices escalate everywhere.
May and June, by contrast, are warm enough for a winter-hardened Canadian to sunbathe and swim, and finding a spot on the beach in the Toulon area is still easy. September and October can also be nice and the produce in the markets is tantalizing, especially the ripe figs. But the autumn prices haven’t always dropped enough to appeal to the penny-pinchers.
You can find good deals on hotels during these shoulder seasons, but you should also consider Airbnb apartments, or a campground chalet before the summer surge. These establishments are quiet and inexpensive, and it’s easier to make your own meals.
Go with your gut
Wherever you go in the South of France, rip-offs abound. To come out the winner, you need to develop instincts about bad deals on food, souvenirs and transportation.
Food is simple: Cooking some of your own meals will save you a ton of money. The advice you will likely hear is to buy your produce at the outdoor markets if you want the best price. This folk wisdom is repeated even by French people who never shop at markets themselves and is often wrong. In Toulon, however, it’s true that fruits and vegetables are cheaper at the daily outdoor market on Cours Lafayette – and it’s a lot more interesting than supermarkets. But meat and dairy products are almost always cheaper at the major grocery chains, such as Lidl, Intermarché, Monoprix and Carrefour.
At markets, it pays to scout. In Toulon’s, a generic bar of lavender soap can triple in price if you buy it from the wrong stall. Walk around and slow your pace to peer at produce prices: The busy stalls usually have the best deals. But don’t stop too long or the pedestrian mob behind will pile up grumpily behind you and sellers will ask what you’re buying.
When you want to eat out skip TripAdvisor and wander the neighbourhood scanning menus. Look for a short menu with only a few options – it ensures fresh ingredients rather than frozen. Establishments in less-than-obvious locations (e.g. a couple of streets in from the waterfront) often provide the best value, especially if they only take cash. Wood-fired pizza places are cheap, delicious and ubiquitous.
Tourist-specific transportation should be eyed with skepticism. In Toulon, for example, boats give tours of the bay for €10 ($15) or €20 ($30) a head. Just a bit further down the quay, the public bateau-bus is only a euro per trip if you’ve bought a punch pass and you’ll get many of the same vistas over the water.
Still, don’t despair if you realize you have been taken for a few extra euros in the South of France. Just see it as part of the experience.
Where to go
Toulon is the hub for exploring the western half of the French Riviera. Hiking the Sentier Littoral is a great option for the outdoorsy, but ask at the tourist office before heading out; the coastal trails are often closed because of erosion or fire risk. For a hike with a panorama, take the “téléphérique” cable car up Mont Faron. The round trip costs about €8 ($12) and includes an all-day city transit pass (available at the tourist office). At the top of Mont Faron are several cafés, a war memorial, a grotto, a zoo and, of course, an excellent view over the city and the open sea beyond. Not to be missed is the outdoor market on Cours Lafayette in the old city centre. This massive pedestrian-only street hosts endless stalls of fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, seafood and crafts.
Saint-Mandrier, La Seyne and Six-Fours are communities that ring the “rade." Don’t miss Sablettes beach in La Seyne, or the family-run gem Calypso restaurant in Saint-Mandrier. Both are accessible on the bateau-bus, part of the city’s Réseau Mistral transit network.
Bandol is a laid-back town that lends its name to the world’s best appellation of rosé wine, perfect for sipping on the waterfront in town.
Hyères is a twin city to Toulon, hosting the airport and a salt marsh full of flamingos. It’s an ideal launching point for a day trip to the dazzling island of Porquerolles.
Whenever possible, figure out public transit and take buses rather than trains on short trips between cities. FlixBus and isilines both provide cheap bus service between major centres; Varlib is a bit slower but serves many smaller towns within the Var area. For longer treks, try Ouigo for cheap high-speed trains. If you rent a car, set your GPS to avoid tolls – an hour’s drive along the autoroutes in Provence can cost you €20 ($30) in tolls alone, and fuel prices are nearly double those in Canada. The secondary roads are often prettier anyway – just be prepared for a lot of roundabouts.