Côte d’Azur (French Riviera)

The Côte d’Azur is France’s most popular coastal area and one of the most famous worldwide, and has served as a model for many foreign coastal areas under the name French Riviera. It has also been responsible for creating new geographical designations that correspond to the emergence of new territorial identities in the form of brands on a national level. The Côte d’Azur has been attracting tourists for more than two and a half centuries, demonstrating its great capacity to adapt and react to the profound transformations of the tourism system.

The Côte d’Azur before the Côte d’Azur

The origins of the Côte d’Azur date back to 1763, when the Scottish doctor Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) settled in Nice, followed by Swiss philosopher and mathematician Johann Georg Sulzer (1720-1779) a few years later. They both published books in which they praised the temperate climate. The mild winter weather in Nice, combined with the picturesque countryside and views of hills and mountains, attracted the first winter visitors. By 1787, there were about a hundred foreign families travelling to holiday in Nice each year.

Towards the end of the 18th century, a new suburb called “Newborough” was developed on the other side of the Paillon River. Local notables built houses with gardens there, and offered them for rent. At the same time, new hotels were constructed, increasing from two in 1808 to 13 in 1858. Nice became a “seasonal town”. Hyères also attracted winter visitors starting in the late 18th century, alongside Nice. For more than half a century, tourism on this Mediterranean coast was limited to these two towns located about 150 km apart. It wasn’t until 1834 that Cannes was discovered by Lord Brougham, (1778-1868), leading to a third tourist destination (ill. 1). This was followed by Menton, thanks to Dr Bennett, (1816-1891), and later Monaco and Golfe-Juan. Other winter tourist resort towns, such as Beaulieu-sur-Mer, Cap-d’Ail, and Mandelieu, soon followed.Ill. 1. Statue of Lord Brougham in the centre of Cannes © J.-Ch. Gay, 2013

Ill. 1. Statue of Lord Brougham in the centre of Cannes © J.-Ch. Gay, 2013

The invention of the Côte d’Azur

When the lawyer, man of letters, senior civil servant, and dandy Stéphen Liégeard (1830-1925) named a thin coastal strip stretching from Cassis to San Remo the “Côte d’Azur” in 1887, he initiated a process that highlighted the intense tourism development along the most popular French coastal areas. This led to the creation of the “Côte d’Émeraude” in 1894, the “Côte Fleurie” in 1903, the “Côte d’Argent” in 1905, the “Côte d’Opale” in 1911 and the “Côte Vermeille” the following year.

The name Côte d’Azur was adopted in 1902 by the Nice tourist office, calling itself the Côte d’Azur tourist office. However, the actual boundaries of the area were the subject of much debate. In the mind of its creator, the borders of the Côte d’Azur were vague, but the evocative name generated strategies of appropriation. For example, the regional tourism committee of the Alpes-Maritimes, created in 1942, sought to monopolise the name in the late 1940s. In the 1960s, the French General Tourism Commission confirmed the name “Riviera-Côte d’Azur” for the coastline from Théoule-sur-Mer to Menton but called the coastal region from Marseilles to Saint-Raphaël “Provence-Côte d’Azur” (Callais, 2016). In 2009, the Riviera Côte d’Azur Regional Tourism Committee registered this name with the French National Industrial Property Institute. Côte d’Azur became a brand. Today, however, the term Côte d’Azur extends to the Var region in the east, with the Estérel-Côte d’Azur tourist area, which includes Fréjus, Saint-Raphaël, and the Pays de Fayence. Further west, the Saint-Tropez tourism office claims to be “both in Provence and on the Côte d’Azur”.

From winter to summer

Despite the Côte d’Azur’s reputation as a winter resort town, it began attracting summer visitors starting in the 1920s, influenced by the United States and the advent of summer beach-going holidays. The Murphys, a wealthy American couple, were the first to spend the summer of 1923 in Antibes. John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, and Zelda came to visit them, as did Picasso, Cocteau, Stravinsky, and Fernand Léger. At the very beginning of his novel Tender is the Night (1934) F. Scott Fitzgerald writes: “On the pleasant shore of the Côte d’Azur, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border, stands a large, proud, rose-coloured hotel. […] Lately it has become a summer resort of notable and fashionable people; a decade ago it was almost deserted after its English clientèle went north in April. Now, many bungalows cluster near it.”

The Société des Bains de Mer Juan-les-Pins was formed, developing a new resort town that was all about the sun and the sea. Businessman Frank Jay Gould (1877-1956) was the primary promoter of Juan-les-Pins. The Californian influence was evident: the casino was called “Hollywood.” The atmosphere was more relaxed than in Nice, and the women strolled around in beach cover-ups.

The architecture opened up to the outside and the sun. The villa E1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin was built in 1929 by Irish architect and designer Eileen Gray and architect and art critic Jean Badovici. Its large windows, balcony, and solarium showcase its unique design (ill. 2). That same year, in the same town and just one kilometre away, the Monte-Carlo Beach Hotel opened in response to the trend of summer seaside bathing. Its architecture is reminiscent of some Florida hotels. The Principality called upon Elsa Maxwell (1883-1963) to launch the new Monte Carlo Beach. Maxwell could be described as an “influencer” today, as she had just made the Lido in Venice wildly popular.

In 1931, the Monte-Carlo d’Eté and its “Cité de la Mer” offered numerous facilities for beach activities and water sports. In Saint-Tropez, the Latitude 43 tourist group opened in 1932. In addition to the 110-room hotel, the development included a restaurant, pools and tennis courts, a casino, and shops for summer clientèle. The winter tourists no longer had a monopoly on the Côte d’Azur. In French, the present participle “estivant” began being used as a noun in the 1920s, giving rise to the term “estivant” meaning summer tourist (Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, Le Robert, 1998).

Ill. 2. The villa E 1027 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin © J.-Ch. Gay, 2021

Forgotten uses

However, the Americans were not actually the first to enjoy the beaches during the warm summer months. In Nice, the summer season became popular as soon as the city became part of France. Elsewhere, this practice existed, but it was more popular among a less wealthy and less famous population than those frequenting the Côte d’Azur.

A good example of this ignored trend is La Seyne-sur-Mer on the western Var coast. In the 1880s, the winter resort town of Tamaris was built by Marius Michel, nicknamed Michel Pacha because of his success in modernising lighthouses and beacons for the Ottoman Empire. A seaside promenade was constructed to connect Tamaris to the beach at Les Sablettes, which became its summer coastal extension at the end of the 19th century Bertrand, 2003). Doctor de Lignières, in his book “L’Eté sur le littoral méditerranéen” (1888), sought to prove “the superiority of the Mediterranean summer climate […] Sea bathing in the Mediterranean offers valuable benefits that have not yet been fully documented. […] Is anything more needed to explain the new popularity of the seaside?” Clearly, summer sea bathing became more popular in the 1880s, especially among local or regional holidaymakers, but also among visitors to Tamaris-Les Sablettes from all over France, thanks to the railway.

The second Côte d’Azur

A second Côte d’Azur emerged starting in the 1950s, after the transitional period between the two World Wars. In just a few decades, the entire tourist system was transformed by changes in players and practices, including a reversal of the seasonality of tourism, the decline of the aristocracy, the democratisation of holidays, and increased global competition from other destinations. One-third of the hotel industry disappeared, including 500 establishments and more than 10,000 rooms in the Alpes-Maritimes. Many hotels were destroyed during the war.

After the war, the hotel supply was inadequate to meet the new tourist demand, and campsite accommodations became popular before receding under the pressure of urbanisation.  Despite these setbacks, the Côte d’Azur remained a prized tourist destination, and its popularity continued to grow, from 320,000 tourists in 1925 to 1 million in 1956, 8 million in 1985, and 11 million by the late 2010s.

The primary reason for its resilience is the Côte d’Azur’s ability to adapt to changes in the world and tourism practices. Additionally, it has been fortunate to avoid significant geopolitical turbulence. The Côte d’Azur has remained a popular destination because it has managed to capture several new tourism trends over time. Its ongoing success is also due to its location in one of the world’s wealthiest countries and in the area with the highest concentration of wealth in the world: Northwestern Europe.

Economic diversification

The residential economy grew up alongside the tourism industry as the second pillar of the hospitality function. In the 1920s in France, the wealthy classes began moving to spa towns (Vichy, Pau) and seaside resort towns, such as Biarritz and Nice. Decolonisation between 1954 and 1962 played a fundamental role in the development of the Côte d’Azur, as colonials and officials from Indochina, Black Africa, and North Africa returned. Alongside the first influx of wealthy people joining the local bourgeoisie, a second much larger and more socially diverse influx arrived, corresponding to the Algerian Pieds-Noirs in 1962. There were 48,000 Pieds-Noirs in the Alpes-Maritimes department at the end of the 1960s, representing more than 6% of the population.

This arrival triggered a construction and commerce boom. Between 1946 and 1975, the population of Alpes-Maritimes increased from 453,000 to 809,000 inhabitants, one of the sharpest increases in France. This coastal residential economy is the main factor of the demographic growth of the Côte d’Azur and is closely linked to tourism through tourist amenities (climate, entertainment, infrastructure) greatly appreciated by seniors.

Tourism has also driven the emergence of high-tech industries, through the infrastructure and the brand image it has given to this region. The quality of the living environment and the amenities make the place attractive to high-level professionals. Although tourism was the activity that originated this trend, it is gradually being overtaken by other industries such as high-tech, construction, retail, and services for the resident population. Today, tourism accounts for just 16% of total employment and, with indirect jobs, it represents about one-third of the workforce in the Alpes-Maritimes region.

From coastal tourist area to megalopolis

The Côte d’Azur has become one of the world’s few tourist megalopolises with over a million inhabitants in its French and Monégasque regions. It also includes part of the Riviera du Ponant, up to San Remo, adding another 100,000 or so inhabitants. The rapid urbanisation has filled in the gaps between the initial tourist resort towns and has extended further inland.

However, this development has led to significant disparities. Tourism is still concentrated on the seaside, and Cap d’Antibes, Cap Martin, and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat have remained elite neighbourhoods, with prestigious homes on large lots that are occupied by their wealthy owners only a few weeks a year (ill. 3). The hills overlooking the sea have been covered with high-end residential complexes consisting of second homes or occupied year-round by wealthy professionals and retirees. The working classes are relegated to the valleys and large housing estates surrounded by industrial and commercial zones and highways, etc.

Today the Côte d’Azur features a spectacular and thriving coastline, but the inland area is faced with the same problems of residential segregation, unemployment, job insecurity, and delinquency as many European cities. Finding affordable housing has become a significant problem for workers, as the strong international demand for properties has resulted in an increase in prices and a shortage of available real estate. This has caused people to move to areas farther from the coast.

Ill. 3. Aerial view of Cap Ferrat © J.-Ch. Gay, 2019

Along the shore, boating was booming, evidenced by the appearance of the word “nautisme” in 1966 (Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, Le Robert, 1998), the same year that the Port-Grimaud license was issued, and the year following the inauguration of Port-Canto (ill. 4) in Cannes, the first European port financed by private funds established on the public domain. A 1965 law facilitated this type of infrastructure, as the Central Government gave up part of the maritime public domain, granting “concessions with embankment obligations” to private investors. As a result, in 1975, there were 26 marinas in the Alpes-Maritimes and 63 in the Var.

Ill. 4. The Croisette and the Canto port in Cannes © J.-Ch. Gay, 2015

The Côte d’Azur assassinated

Criticism of the Côte d’Azur dates back to the 19th century, but it has been amplified by rapid and massive urbanisation since the post-war period. Many intellectuals of various backgrounds disparage the area, and nostalgia for the Côte d’Azur of the Belle Époque has become a common refrain. For example, to explain the evolution of the meaning of the word “myth,” the Nathan dictionary of Greco-Roman mythology cites the Côte d’Azur, contrasting “the ‘myth’ of the Côte d’Azur, featuring coves with crystal clear water lined with pine trees where cicadas sing, to its concrete and polluted reality” (p. 258).

In a book published in 1971 entitled “La Côte d’Azur Assassinée?” (Roudil Editions), René Richard and Camille Bartoli lambasted Marina-Baie-des-Anges (ill. 5) as “a wall of concrete standing in front of the sea” (p. 60). Fifty years later, this project by architect André Minangoy (1905-1985) received the label “Patrimoine du XXe siècle” (20th Century Heritage), and the Villeneuve-Loubet tourist office organises guided tours of it!

Ill. 5. Marina-Baie-des-Anges © J.-Ch. Gay, 2016

Jean-Christophe Gay


  • Bertrand Nathalie, 2003, Tamaris, entre Orient et Occident. Arles, Actes Sud, 240 p.
  • Bottaro Alain et al. 2013, Trois siècles de tourisme dans les Alpes-Maritimes. Milan, Conseil général des Alpes-Maritimes et Silvana Editoriale, 213 p.
  • Boyer Marc, 2002, L’Invention de la Côte d’Azur. L’hiver dans le Midi. La Tour d’Aigues, Éditions de l’Aube, 379 p.
  • Callais Alain, 2016, «La Côte d’Azur: une expression à histoire et géographie variables», Recherches régionales. n° 210, p. 6-19, en ligne [pdf].
  • Liégeard Stéphen, 1887, La Côte d’Azur. Paris, Maison Quantin, 430 p.
  • Recherches régionales, 2017, n° 212, n° spécial consacré à la Côte d’Azur des Trente Glorieuses, 165 p., en ligne [pdf].
  • Toulier Bernard (dir.), 2010, Villégiature des bords de mer. Architecture et urbanisme XVIIIe-XXe siècle. Paris, Éditions du patrimoine, 400 p.
  • Violier Philippe, Duhamel Philippe, Gay Jean-Christophe et Mondou Véronique, 2021, Le Tourisme en France 2, approche régionale. Londres, ISTE, 221 p.
  • Ring Jim, Riviera: The Rise and Rise of the Côte d’Azur, Londres, John Murray, 272 p.