There is no doubt that travelling to the SoF (South of France) can be expensive. However, there are ways that you can ensure you make the most of your trip without breaking the bank. Besides, the most beautiful things in life are free – the views, the sun, friends, smiles, memories and so much more!
Airbnb has great villas if you are coming with a big family. There are some amazing estates in the wine region of Provence and villas with incredible ocean views on the coast. There are also authentic French-style apartments in the city centers of Nice, Antibes and Cannes. City apartments are also great if you don’t have a car because getting around within and between cities is possible with public transportation. Another advantage of staying in a serviced apartment is that most of them come with a kitchen. Save money by walking to the local boulangerie (bakery) or boucherie (butcher) and cook an authentic French meal at home.
There are also guest houses and youth hostels, which in French are called ‘auberges de jeunesse,’ for those who like to meet the locals or other travelers. I personally have never stayed in one of these, but I have seen them and some are in super convenient locations and have beautiful sea views.
The great thing about staying at a guest house is that you’ll get to regularly interact with a friendly host who is typically happy to give recommendations.
Eat at the Boulangerie
Boulangeries are french bakeries. They open very early and run non-stop. You will find that most restaurants here are open only for a few hours. There is no continued service because of the labour rates being so high, so if you are hungry at 11am or at 16h then you are out of luck because you will not find anything open…except the boulangeries.
Boulangeries have baguettes (incredibly delicious in France) for 1 euro, croissants, pains au chocolat, pains aux raisins and other typical pastries and sandwiches like the popular ‘pan bagnat,’ which is a local specialty that you will find for less than 5 euros in most places.
Skip the expensive hotel breakfasts (which down here range from 15-25 euros per person!) and eat a local french bakery breakfast. Trust me – you will enjoy it more than the overpriced and boring ‘continental breakfast.’
Lunch Specials / Plats du jour
Most restaurants have lunch specials for around 12-16 euros. The difference in price between lunch and dinner at the same restaurant can be almost double! Dinners are very pricey, but you can enjoy the same quality of food, views and service from any restaurant at lunch. Some places don’t advertise the ‘plat du jour’ on the menu – it is usually written on a chalkboard or narrated by the waiter (if you ask), so make sure to always ask. The lunch usually includes an appetizer, main dish, dessert and a glass of wine.
Carafe d’eau s’il vous plaît!
By law in France no one can deny you water. When you go to a restaurant you can ask for a water pitcher for free. Normal water bottles range from 5-8 euros, so you can really save a lot by asking for a water pitcher. When you simply ask for water, most places will immediately bring you an expensive San Pellegrino or Evian (I paid 25 euros for water once!), so make sure to ask specifically for the water pitcher beforehand.
Wine grapes are grown locally here, so enjoy the Rose as much as you want without breaking your budget. Usually the most expensive part of the restaurant bill is the wine. However, most restaurants have ‘house wine’ or wine pitchers that are usually not advertised on the menu. Always ask for the house wine ‘carafe’ specials. At some places you can have a glass of wine for 3 euros (cheaper than a bottle of water!)
You can also skip the restaurant and just go to a supermarket, where you will find good local wine at very low prices. Buy a bottle of wine and have a picnic by the beach, complete with goodies you bought at the local market. Doesn’t that sound like a dream? Well, it is!
Since we are in the area of Provence that produces rose wine, you can find amazing wines for a really good price. There are a lot of wineries around where you can buy wine directly. They also sell it in a canister.
Food markets down here are amazing! They are an experience on their own as you can sample the local smells and flavors. One of my favorite things to do is to buy a baguette at a boulangerie, then go to a local market and buy fresh tomatoes, local cheese and olives and then savor the natural flavors. Not only is this the most economical meal you will find, it is also a beautiful experience. There are also many ‘Halles’ food markets, and they are open early so you can skip the expensive hotel breakfast and go local!
Monaco – there is an indoor food market in Place d’Armes in La Condamine that most people don’t know about, but it has delicious food stands with local food – you’ll find socca (a local dish from Nice), a kiosk that serves everything with truffles, fresh italian pasta, and one of the best sushi places in Monaco (the owners are japanese and have won many awards!) One of my favorite stands is the fresh seafood stand with local fishermen selling oysters, shrimp, etc and serving it to you in a cute way. We usually buy a bottle of wine from the supermarket next door and sit by the market to eat our fresh oysters.
Outside in that same area of Place d’Armes, there is also a daily fruit and flower market from 6am to 2pm.
Nice – Located in Cours Saleya in the old town (vieux Nice), there is a really nice flower market called ‘Marché des Fleurs.’ It is open from 6am to 1pm every day. In the summer months they also have the ‘Marché d’Artisanat Festival Nocturne.’ The market is open at night and sells local handcrafts.
Antibes – In the center of Antibes is one of my favorite markets. It sells delicious olives, cheese, lavender, and unique local specialties. I love grabbing a few goodies and having a picnic by a hidden beach called ‘Plage de la Gravette.’
San Remo: This is an Italian market that sells clothes, leather goods, bags, shoes and so on, at a very decent price for authentic Italian quality. They also have an indoor market where we usually buy our olive oil, parmigiano cheese, san daniele ham and other italian delicacies. It is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8am to 1pm.
You can get to most places by train while enjoying breathtaking views (make sure you sit next to the window!)
Renting a car gives you great flexibility to go wherever you want. I would recommend you book it at Nice Airport as the local rental cars tend to have higher prices. Simply driving around the SoF is an attraction in and of itself. Always opt to take the ‘bord de mer’ road, which is the one that goes along the coast so you can enjoy the amazing views. Driving in the South of France always makes me feel like I am in a movie.
My advice would be to stay away from the city centers altogether because there are so many charming medieval places away from the touristic cities. If you have a car, you can typically save a lot by staying at least ten kilometers away from large cities in cute little villages.
For example, instead of staying in the center of St Tropez, you can stay in Ramatuelle or in Cogolin. Instead of staying in Cannes or Antibes, you can stay in Mougins, Grasse, or St Paul de Vence. And instead of staying in Nice or Monaco, you can stay in Eze, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, or Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Avoid peak season (June-August), when hotel prices skyrocket (and even some restaurants have more expensive ‘summer menus’) Visiting in March would be much cheaper than visiting in August for example. The winter down here is beautiful, usually sunny and mild. In the spring it rains a lot. My favorite month is definitely September because the weather is still like summer, but the summer season (and prices) are over.
It’s important to note that August is the main French vacation month, so it’s best to avoid traveling during this time as many restaurants and shops will be closed. This is also still peak season, so accommodation prices will be higher and you’ll be competing with French tourists for the best places to go!
THINGS TO DO FOR FREE
The biggest advantage of the SoF is that there are a lot of things to do for free! The weather is fantastic for most of the year, so you can simply stroll through ancient towns, go to the beach, or go sightseeing without having to spend anything on local attractions.
My favorite place to go for a walk is the Sentier de Cap D’ail, you can walk from Plage Marquet to Plage Mala. Another favorite one is the stroll in Cap Ferrat which has breathtaking views and amazing villas. Of course the famous Promenade des Anglais in Nice is a beautiful path to enjoy before the sun goes down.
Visit my other blog posts on the best beaches in the Cote d’Azur, my Cote d’Azur travel guide, and a Monaco travel guide.
If you’re under 26 and a student, I highly recommend bringing your student identification with you as you will get into many French museums for free or at a reduced rate. Similarly, those under 18 typically get into museums for free. Seniors (65+) often get a discount on tickets to attractions. Be sure to bring identification with you as it might help!