Climate, Weather & When To Visit
The French Riviera, also known as the Côte d’Azur, is a dreamy French region that extends east along the coast from Menton and Monaco to Théoule sur Mer and up into the Southern Alps. The Riviera contains several cities (Nice and Cannes among them), 14 natural parks, Roman ruins, medieval villages and whale watching just off shore.
Don’t think of the Côte d’Azur as just a summer locale, either. Sure, these cities heat up come July as the masses parade down boulevards and beaches, but winter is one of the Riviera’s best-kept secrets with snow falling just two hours north of the shore.
Here’s what you need to know to plan your trip to the South of France:
The climate of the French Riviera (Côte d’Azur), the French coastline that goes from Marseille to Menton (near the border with Italy), is ‘Mediterranean’, with mild, relatively rainy winters and warm, sunny summers. Atlantic frontal systems pass quite often throughout the year, but especially from October to April, while in summer, especially in July and August, they become rare.
In winter, the weather is generally mild and while some visitors still wear their furs (which is, of course, perceived as distasteful nowadays), it’s rare to actually need anything more than a light jacket. Typically, the summer temperatures are acceptable, although there can sometimes be hot periods, with highs about 35°C (95°F), but fortunately, sea breezes blow along the coast to cool you down.
The eastern part of the French Riviera, the one oriented to the south-east and bordering the Ligurian Riviera in Italy, which according to some is the real Côte d’Azur (in cities like Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo and Menton), is the mildest one. Here, snowfalls and frosts almost never happen. The summer heat is less intense than in Marseille as well.
Cannes / Mediterranean Weather Averages
We will use Cannes as an example, as it’s roughly in the middle of the French Riviera. For exact averages by town, see the links at the bottom of this guide.
In Cannes, it rains about 700 mm (27.5 in) per year, and increases the farther east you go, reaching 800 mm (31.5 in) in Monte Carlo (in the Principality of Monaco). From late October to December (some years more than others) there can be a lot of rain.
The sunshine duration on the French Riviera is great from April to September. The rest of the year (in autumn and winter) there is a moderate amount of sunny days, but they alternate with cloudy and rainy days.
On the western part of the French Riviera (St-Tropez, Cannes) the sea is never very warm because it is cooled for several months per year by the Mistral (which blows in the western part, but owing to sea currents, cold waters reach a larger area). The farther east you go along the coast (Nice, Monaco, Menton), the warmer the water gets. It is the warmest in Menton.
More Weather Information
Here are very detailed monthly weather averages for:
Best Time to Visit
The best time for swimming and sun bathing on the French Riviera is the summer, from mid-June to August. That’s also, not surprisingly, when the beaches are very crowded.
The Côte d’Azur is protected by hills in the west and the Mercantour Alps in the northwest, meaning a mild Mediterranean climate year-round. Expect almost 300 days of sunshine, with stretches of rain around the shoulder months of March and April, as well as October and November. June and September are some of the best months to visit the region, while July and August are the height of season. Tourists cram the beaches in the summer months, making it harder to snag beach beds and dinner reservations.
Winter is far from beach weather, but temperatures rarely hit freezing. Large towns and some of the smaller villages host traditional Christmas markets selling local specialties and mulled wine (or vin chaud). The region’s 15 ski resorts open for the season in December, with the closest (Auron, Isola 2000, and Valberg) a little over two hours away by bus from the Nice train station or airport.
If you plan to visit cities, you may want to avoid the hottest months, so you can choose the months of May, June and the first half of September, bearing in mind that sometimes, but rarely, it can rain in the form of afternoon thunderstorm.
Trip Timing: When will it be crowded & expensive?
There’s no two ways about it: Summers on the French Riviera are crowded and expensive. The beaches are packed and finding parking can be a memorably frustrating endeavor. The average price of a glass of wine shoots up from €7 to €17.
As Charles Glass so eloquently put it: “The summertime mob rules the French Riviera seaside. Hungry visitors queue for beach tables amid the horse flies at Saint-Tropez’s Club 55 to admire one another’s jewelry. They then dive into water so laden with Ambre Solaire it looks like the Exxon Valdez crashed into another reef. Holidaymakers leave the south to its peaceful winter and reassemble there each summer, like defeated regiments needing one more go at enemy lines to prove that, this time, they will succeed. Of course, they never do. And so they return home wearier than when they arrived.”
As soon as temperatures rise, in-the-know residents head for the hills, to walk through cool forests of truffle oaks, swim in waterfalls, and sip rosé en piscine (with ice cubes) on a shady village square. They jump on a ferry to Ile Saint-Honorat for a lunch of fresh, grilled scallops, or go to Théoule-sur-Mer for a swim at one of the tiny inlets along the craggy coastline. The real French Riviera is still here, even in peak season. You will find it if you look beyond the glare of the bright lights; it just takes a little prompting to find it.
In the winter, the weather is still pleasant and prices are lower, but many of the best hotels and restaurants close, including all the charming seaside bistros. They usually start opening up again in April and close again in early October. So the best time to visit is April, May, June and September. Avoid July and August, if possible.
Take note of when big events are happening, because hotels and restaurants could get booked up. For example, during Monaco’s Grand Prix, and for the six weeks before it and a month after, many streets in Monaco are blocked off, it’s noisy because of all the construction, and it’s very confusingly tough to get around, making it much less pleasant to visit (unless, of course, you’re coming to see the races).
In February, Nice hosts one of the Riviera’s main winter events, the annual 15-day carnival, with 16 floats parading through Place Massena. It’s fun to attend, if you don’t mind crowds, but Nice becomes a different beast during this time. In Menton, the city throws the three-week La Fête du Citron, or Lemon Festival, featuring floats filled with over 140 tons of local oranges and lemons. Over 200,000 tourists pack into the town during this time.
Check each town’s travel guide to learn the best and worst months to visit, and more tips like these.