Top Festivals to Visit on the French Riviera

It’s difficult not to find a reason to spend time in the south of France. The Côte d’Azur boasts a glorious 300 days of sunshine a year and the region offers 115 km of coastline including some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Throw in outstanding wines, the superb Mediterranean cuisine, resort living, designer shopping, gambling in Monaco… but, if you’re still in need of temptation, consider the allure of some of the region’s best festivals.

Cannes Film Festival

The Cannes Film Festival, held each May, is the signature event of the entire French Riviera. Spanning twelve days, the event draws more than 30,000 stars and their entourages, as well as producers, distributors, and directors. A glittering, red-carpet event replete with celebrity-spotting opportunities, the focus is on the 20 major films placed in competition that will, at the end of the festival, receive designations for best director and best actor and actress (among others) with one film taking the coveted Palme d’Or.

Although it is impossible to get in to see a competition film, there are many showings the public can attend, including those movies screened during the Directors Fortnight. In recent years, there have also been nightly screenings of festival classics on the beach, a lovely, refreshing venue that has proven to be highly popular.

Carnival in Nice

Carnival, the jewel of the winter season in Nice, starts in February, before Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). Unlike Mardi Gras in New Orleans, spectators do not participate with masks and costumes, but that does not diminish the fun of the revelry marked by parades, flowers, neighbourhood events, and all manner of free activities.

The modern celebration of Carnival dates to 1873. There are parades three or four afternoons during the week, most free, as well as a “Bataille des Fleurs” with floats gorgeously decorated in flowers. The final weekend includes the “Bartenders Race” and the last night the Carnival King is set afire and put out to sea against a backdrop of fireworks.

Jazz a Juan Jazz Festival

Held each year in mid-July in Juan-les-Pins, Jazz a Juan holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously running jazz festival in all of Europe and has been home to performances by greats like Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sonny Rollins. Staged against an ocean backdrop and framed by the local pines, the festival consistently draws top artists and also features ancillary concerts by local performers.

Tickets (which can be purchased online) may or may not be for specified seating. The venue is, however, quite small and the acoustics are superior, so all seats afford an excellent musical experience. Juan-les-Pins is easily accessible from other parts of the Côte d’Azur by train and bus.

Nice Jazz Festival

The Nice Jazz Festival is held in July in the Jardins de Cimiez (Roman era ruins.) Running since 1948, the festival has consistently drawn talent of the calibre of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Herbie Hancock. Music is played on two venues, Le Jardin and Scene Matisse, with the price of admission granting free access to both.

Guests routinely wander back and forth, adding to the easy, informal atmosphere of the event. Many people picnic on the wide lawns and stalls on the ground sells limited snacks, beer, and wine. The easiest way to get to the festival grounds is via public transportation, with frequent, free shuttles running from the Place Massena.