I love the French Coastline and love driving and exploring the little hidden treasures this incredible place has to offer. I stay at Villa Hippocampo in Villefranche-sur-Mer, in close proximity to Nice, Menton, Eze, Monaco, and other lovely spots that provide excellent vistas.
But in my explorations of the beautiful vistas, I’ve rarely taken the time before to really appreciate the winding roads of the French Riviera, which is why today I’ll share my experiences and favorite spots on the world-famous Corniche Roads of the Azure Coast.
While several prominent roads are named or nicknamed Corniche Roads in the south of France, I’m talking about La Route des Trois Corniches de la Riviera – the Three Corniche Roads of the Riviera: the Basse Corniche, Moyenne Corniche, and the Grande Corniche.
You have probably seen these roads featured in timeless movie classics like To Catch a Thief and the James Bond installment Golden Eye. But, let me tell you, there is nothing like driving on the winding roads and bends, with the gorgeous Mediterranean sparkling on one side and the Maritime Alps rising on the other side.
The word Corniche road literally means a balcony road, and these are indeed balcony roads carved in the cliffs of the Maritime Alps. These Three Corniches are considered as some of the most spectacular coastal roads in the world. If you decide to visit the Cote d’Azur, then you’ll see for yourself that this is indeed true, as there is nothing like driving on these roads.
A short lesson: the Three Corniche Roads are a set of three roads at different levels, spanning about 36 kilometers between Nice and Monaco and between Menton and the Italian border. The roads start at the Port of Lympia in Nice and wind through perched villages, passing elegant villas, exotic gardens, Roman ruins, and much more, all the way to the Italian border to the east.
The Grande or Great Corniche Road (D2564) was built by Napoleon, following the old Roman road Via Julia Augusta. This is the highest coastal road of the three, 512 meters above the Mediterranean, and it passes from Nice along the cliff side through La Turbie and Roquebrune, joining the Corniche Inferiore just before Menton.
The Grande Corniche offers the most scenic views of the sea because of the elevation. It is impressive because some of the passages of the road are actually original Roman sections. You can see more natural scenery and incredible roadside attractions here.
One that comes to mind is the Cote d’Azur Observatory, an observatory and planetarium set in a beautiful scientific and historical building. It was designed and built by Charles Garnier and Gustave Eiffel, who designed the mobile dome. Also, while here, don’t miss the Astrorama, an incredible site for observing and understanding the universe.
The Moyenne Corniche (D6007) also starts at the Port of Lympia in Nice but follows a lower route and was built between 1910 and 1928, with a top elevation of about 472 meters above the sea. This is the middle road and is the fastest of the three. It cuts through the rock and passes from Nice, past the Col de Villefranche, Eze, and Beausoleil, joining the Inferiore Corniche just past Monaco.
Driving along the Moyenne Corniche provides an entirely different experience than the Grande Corniche: you can more easily observe the coastal towns, and you get access to some incredible lookout points. One must-see place along the Moyenne Corniche is Eze and the Jardins Exotique d’Eze (The Exotic Gardens of Eze). Also, don’t miss the old perfume factories in the village, the Fragonard and Galimard perfume laboratories.
The Basse Corniche, or Inferiore Corniche (D6098), is the lowest of the three and, by far, the most elegant route. It was laid out in the 1860s by the then Prince of Monaco, and it winds from sea level to about 100 meters above the sea. It is primarily flat, with only a few steep elevations, and it is favored by cyclists and tourists.
Starting from Port of Lympia in Nice, the Basse Corniche traverses almost along the coast, winding through Villefranche-sur-Mer, through Monte Carlo and Cap-Martin, where it is joined by the Grande and Moyenne Corniche roads, continuing to Menton, from where it goes to Italy.
Driving along the Basse Corniche has been, at least for me, by far the most scenic route I’ve driven on. The road winds almost constantly through urban areas, accompanied by the train line and the sea sparkling on the side. It is also called the Route du Bord de Mer, or Seaside Road, and it drives through Villefranche-sur-Mer, St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Èze-sur-Mer and Cap d’Ail. There are so many picturesque vistas I can’t describe them all here.
However, I must start with the lovely view of the Bay of Angels in Nice; from there, it is a constant view of Belle Epoque villas that give you a glimpse of the glamour of times gone. As you drive along the coast, you’ll get an incredible view of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and then drive through Villefranche-sur-Mer. I love Villefranche-sur-Mer, and I’ve stayed here several times in Villa Hippocampo, as there are so many incredible things you can find here, especially the world-famous Villefranche Bay.
If you continue driving east, you will reach Beauileu-sur-Mer and admire the ragged cliffs that fall to the sea. Soon, you’ll pass the Eze coastline and see Cap d’Ail in the distance. I can’t describe the feeling of passing by the lovely Belle Epoque vistas, as the next in line along the Basse Corniche is the Principality of Monaco.
The road will take you down to Monte Carlo. I suggest you plan a whole day or two to visit and explore Monaco and to continue driving the Basse Corniche, ascending the road, and then wind down to Cap Martin. The other two Corniche roads join the Basse Corniche right about here and then continue driving along the coast toward Menton.
I recommend the roads to anyone looking to drive along an exciting route. Still, if you wish to drive faster and really get in the excitement the Riviera Corniche Roads have to offer, then I suggest you pick a time during the shoulder season; November and early December are perfect. During this time, there are fewer tourists which means fewer cyclists along the roads for a safer experience. Except for swimming in the sea, the Cote d’Azur weather is perfect for exploring the area and marveling at the terrific natural and manmade beauty.