Six Places To Visit In The South Of France (That Aren’t St Tropez)

Sidestep St Tropez and Nice this summer with our pick of the best south of France destinations – sans the crowds

Mention the south of France and likely a scene springs to mind: the glittering coastline, magnums of blush-pink rosé and tanned legs under a blazing sun in some of the country's most glamorous enclaves. Yet, while the likes of Nice and St Tropez have held a starry appeal since the French Riviera was made popular by writers, artists and belle époque socialites, there's so much more to explore along the 500km of palm-fringed Mediterranean coastline bordering France's southern edge.

Venture beyond the jet set-approved hangouts and an alternative south of France is revealed. Less pristine than the world of glaring superyacht keels and perfectly parallel sun loungers, these quieter locales offer a spirit of summer that's hard to match elsewhere in Europe. From Marseille's creative enclaves to the wildlife-filled wetlands of the Camargue, here are six less-visited corners to explore.

Six alternative south of France destinations

Marseille, France


When Parisians pack up and move somewhere, it's worth investigation. So it is with Marseille, where a creative renaissance has enticed new inhabitants from as far afield as the French capital. There's a reason we picked this city as a destination to watch in 2023. Ever-rebellious, Marseille's glow-up rejects the glitzy peacocking of Cannes or St Tropez; instead, expect a refresh more akin to Lisbon's regeneration. The sun-scorched city - France's second largest - has found its port roots reshaped by a flourishing art scene and a slew of new restaurant openings. Top on your list to explore should be the city's diverse food scene, which prefers to lift up independent hospitality and champion inclusivity and affordability over chasing stars. For a taste, try the sunshine-filled vegetarian plates at Limmat, the Congolese street food at Libala or creative seafood dishes at Caterine.

Where to stay: Les Bords de Mer

Menton, France


With Italy's picturesque offering on one side and Nice's beach-fringed beauty on the other, it's easy to see why Menton gets overlooked, but Britain's Victorians were onto something when they flooded to this former fishing town in the 19th century in search of health-boosting continental air. With all those sea breeze-kissed, red-roofed townhouses and tomato-filled local dishes, Menton feels a touch Italian, as you would expect from a town that didn't become part of France until 1860. You'll want to make the most of the old-world health benefits on offer, so start with a gentle promenade through one of the town's many formal gardens - the centrally located Val Rahmeh Garden or the just-out-of-town Serre de la Madone are two of the best - then head down to the waterfront to soak up the sea airs and and enjoy the town's salubrious cuisine of fresh fish and good wine.

Where to stay: Le Pavillon Impérial

Cassis, France


South of Marseille lie some of France's highest sea cliffs: towering white walls of rock cut through by a series of fjord-like, intensely blue inlets, the Calanques de Cassis. Stunning examples of nature's beauty, they rise from sparkling, turquoise seawater and stretch for 16km, from vast Marseille to little Cassis, a gorgeous port town that makes the perfect base from which to explore the limestone landscapes. Here, overlooked by a 13th-century chateau and pretty-as-you-like little pastel houses, Virginia Woolf once claimed to find "perfect happiness". We're inclined to agree. After a day spent hiking breathtaking rocky edifices and exploring the dramatic local topography, there are few better pleasures than taking a seat on the waterfront for a Pastis de Marseille.

Where to stay: Le Coumé Vai


It's a 10-minute boat ride from Hyères to this tiny, crescent-shaped island off the French coast that measures just 7km long. Don't expect any glitz and glam on Porquerolles; the vibe is much more fisherman's jumpers than Bardot dresses. With 80 per cent of the island declared a national park, visits here revolve around hiking, biking and boating. Scramble over medieval ruins, dive into the waves with a snorkel to spot painted groupers and cherry-red starfish, and clamber aboard diminutive boats, binoculars in hand, in search of whale sightings. Once you've run wild exploring secluded creeks, high cliffs and hidden sandy stretches, make tracks to the other Golden Isles nearby, such as Port-Cros or Île du Levant, to continue the Cousteau-worthy adventure.

Where to stay: Le Mas du Langoustier

Flamingos, Camargue, France


The coast-hugging nature reserve of Camargue, west of historic Aix-en-Provence, is as crowded as it is beautiful, but it's not holidaymakers thronging its expansive wilderness. Wild horses, pink flamingos and thousands of migratory birds have all made the area's lush salt marshes and dramatic beaches their home. Ergo, you'll want to wind your way through this diverse landscape on foot or by bike, or join the animal parade with a tour on horseback - try the saddles-for-hire at Le Palomino Le Boumian. Make your base the former fishing village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, a seaside retreat with an impressive artistic legacy that includes various visits by Vincent van Gogh, who was enticed to the water-encircled town to capture on canvas the fishing fleets at sea.

Where to stay: Mas de la Fouque

Montpellier, France


Sun-drenched Montpellier is the Languedoc Roussillon's sparkling jewel - a laid-back hodgepodge of Haussmannian architecture and leaning, honey-hued townhouses populated by a thriving student crowd and a creative international set. This is a destination where it pays to explore the flea markets and antique stores under the golden summer sun - being a port city, the offering is often eclectic, with curios sourced from far beyond French shores. For guaranteed finds, head to the once-a-week Marché du Lez. Elsewhere around the city, you'll find medieval architecture, expansive surfing beaches and, if you're in the mood for exploring, the miniscule, old-school village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, a bike ride away. Don't forget the locals' preferred afternoon activity, either. Montpellier enjoys 300 days of sunshine per year, so sun-worship is de rigueur: the route back from St Guilhem passes the best place in the city to cool off. Pack your swimmers for a dip beneath the lofty Pont du Diable.

Where to stay: Mas de Lafeuillade

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