Can you imagine a more idyllic vacation than a seaside escape to southern Europe? We can’t either, especially if you’re torn between two of the continent’s most exciting destinations. Both the French Riviera and the Italian Riviera offer classic European thrills: delicious food and wine, alluring towns, beautiful coastlines, and seductive Mediterranean culture. And that’s why many of our tours of France and trips to Italy often include a little bit of both the French and Italian Rivieras. But there are telltale differences, too, and depending on where your interests lie, one might be a better fit than the other.
Before we dive into their specific charms, let’s go over the basics.
Where is the French Riviera?
While it’s not officially geographically defined, we’re typically talking about the eastern section of the South of France. Its westernmost edge is usually the glamorous village of St. Tropez, but others might move that 45 miles west to the town of Toulon. The easternmost village is Menton, right on the edge of the Italian border. Monaco, a sovereign city-state, is part of the French Riviera.
What is the Italian Riviera and where is the Italian Riviera?
It’s another name for the region of Liguria, Italy’s crescent-shaped Mediterranean coast. It stretches from the border with France to the provincial border of Tuscany, and includes the famous Cinque Terre as well as celebrity-approved Portofino.
Now that that’s settled, read on to find out which Riviera is right for you.
If you’re traveling to suit your lifestyle…
Head to the French Riviera for glitz and glamor
If you’re looking for a see-and-be-seen locale with plenty of fabulous resorts, exciting beach clubs, and elegant casinos, the French Riviera is the high-octane hotspot for you. Glitzy, celebrity-studded destinations like St. Tropez, Cannes, and Monaco have long defined the French Riviera’s Champagne-popping lifestyle. You may want to pack your finest fashions to show off, but if you’d prefer to travel light, the French Riviera is full of boutiques where you can pick up a designer souvenir or two.
On our 11-day French Riviera & Provence Adventure tour, you could spend a night exploring Monaco, including the iconic Monte Carlo Casino. Its gilded walls, dramatic chandeliers, and elaborate ceilings have provided the setting for countless Hollywood blockbusters. Fun fact: Monégasque citizens are not allowed to enter or gamble at the casino.
Pick the Italian Riviera if you’re more laid-back
Both locales offer charming places to relax, but in this edition of French Riviera vs. Italian Riviera, the latter has the upper hand. The Italian Riviera is much more laid-back—its villages are gorgeous and historic but are less glamorous than their French counterparts. You can take your time discovering more under-the-radar destinations (and there are plenty). Spend a couple of hours enjoying classic Italian meals in small fishing villages, or just soak in la dolce vita from a cozy cafe in a small piazza.
The Riviera dei Fiori, for example, is located right by Italy’s border with France, and it’s here that you can tell that the vibe is quite different on the Italian side. This stunning pocket of the Italian Riviera is much more relaxed. It combines hilltop villages, mountainous terrain, crystal-blue waters, and picturesque, sea-facing cycling paths. On our Florence, Tuscany & the Italian Riviera tour, you’ll get to experience this easygoing lifestyle for yourself during visits to other villages of the Italian Riviera. It starts in Sestri Levante, a bayside hamlet famous for a castle surrounded by tranquil gardens.
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If you’re choosing based on your hobbies…
Go to the French Riviera if you love art and museums
Across the Cote d’Azur, you’ll find countless world-class art institutions. Some are specifically dedicated to renowned European artists who lived in the area. If museum hopping is high on your bucket list, the French Riviera is the perfect place for you. After all, no trip to France is complete without art, right?
Our 12-day Provence, the Riviera & Tuscany tour includes a free day on the French Riviera, which you could spend exploring the region’s wealth of museums. In Antibes, there’s the fortress-like Musée Picasso, home to 245 pieces of the famous artist’s work. In Nice, there’s the Musée Matisse, which surveys long-time Nice resident Henri Matisse’s art, including 454 drawings. More whimsical still is the Butterfly Museum in the heart of St. Tropez. It’s tucked inside the former home of artist Dany Lartigue, and yes, it is indeed a museum dedicated to thousands of butterflies from all over the world.
Visit the Italian Riviera if you’re an outdoors enthusiast
If the French Riviera is better known for see-and-be-seen enclaves, the Italian Riviera stands out as a more active and outdoors-y vacation spot. Here, you’ll want to tackle lush hiking trails, take ferry rides to remote islands, and snorkel (or scuba dive) along the Mediterranean coast. You’ll get a taste of that on our 11-day Lake Como, the Italian Riviera & Venice tour when your Tour Director leads you on a visit to Cinque Terre. Explore these five legendary cliffside villages on foot (walking through a couple of them) and from the water while taking a scenic boat ride to Monterosso.
The same tour also includes a free day. You could stroll along Via dell’Amore, the pedestrian path between Riomaggiore and Manarola, two of the five villages of Cinque Terre. If you’re an avid hiker and want to see more of the Italian Riviera’s picturesque landscape, set off on a hike from Camogli to San Fruttuoso. It could take up to three hours to complete, but the trail connects two beautiful villages full of colorful houses butting up against the Mediterranean Sea. Often, the best of the Italian Riviera is something you must experience outside.
If you’re into food and wine…
Book the French Riviera for countless Michelin-starred restaurants
Trying to figure out what to do on the French Riviera? We hope you’re hungry, because this is where you’ll find some of the best meals of your life.
Because the French Riviera is defined by more of a lifestyle rather than a specifically designated region, it’s hard to know exactly how many of its restaurants have been awarded Michelin stars. But there are a lot, and many of them have won multiple stars, hinting at the expertise in the kitchen.
Many of our tours of the French Riviera give you space and time to seek out some of the crown jewels of the French restaurant scene. On our 15-day Grand Tour of France, for example, you can spend both of your nights in the Riviera savoring the finest French cuisine. The city of Nice has several Michelin-starred restaurants. Consider Le Chantecler, where delicately prepared lobster dishes and indulgent portions of caviar are served in an equally opulent dining room with views of the sea.
Really want to treat yourself? Head to La Vague d’Or in St. Tropez or Mirazur in Menton—both have been awarded three Michelin stars, a rare feat.
Choose the Italian Riviera if you love wine
As far as wine is concerned, it’s almost impossible to pick a side in the French Riviera vs. Italian Riviera debate. And when it comes to Italy’s most famous wine regions, the Italian Riviera isn’t typically the first to come to mind. But Liguria is home to some fabulous winemakers and grapes that are worth seeking out and sampling. The villages of Cinque Terre are partially cloaked in beautiful vineyards, too. The steep terrain is perfect for planting and growing wine grapes. On our 12-day Food & Wine: Northern Italy & the Italian Riviera tour, you can sign up for an excursion that takes you deep into these villages and their winemaking traditions. During your visit to Riomaggiore, a decadent lunch will include three different local wines, including a glass of Sciacchetrá, a sweet blend of three grapes: Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino.
If you’d rather take a DIY approach to a wine-fueled itinerary, there is a free day on many of our tours of the Italian Riviera. You could spend it discovering many more of the region’s top wineries. Manarola, for instance, is known for both winemaking and olive oil production. You could also check out Bisson, a winery in Sestri Levante, where they age some of their wines underwater.