Antibes strikes the perfect balance between a busy resort town and an under-the-radar seaside retreat. While glitterati flock to the Cap's legendary Hotel Eden-Rock and the world's largest yachts drop anchor in the harbor, scene seeking doesn't dictate the overall vibe. Rather, opting out in favor of secluded relaxation in a laid-back atmosphere is more its speed. Antibes' small size and strong link to its past—as seen in the ramparts and medieval towers that are fixtures in the landscape—make it feel more grounded than larger cities along the French Riviera. And the natural environment, characterized by a rugged, rocky coast with a thick forest of deep green pines blanketing the peninsula, creates an air of dramatic romanticism.
Antibes was once the ancient Greek city of Antipolis, but in 43 BC, following the Empire's collapse, it was annexed by the Romans and renamed Antiboul. The city prospered for roughly the next 500 years, but when Rome fell in 476, it passed through the hands of various rulers until Louis XI took the throne in the late 15th century, and it landed in France's possession. Over the next couple of centuries, it improved its military position, adding a fort and strengthening its ramparts. It wasn't until the beginning of the 19th century that Antibes became a fashionable destination, when wealthy Europeans began building villas on the Mediterranean coast and Juan-les-Pins was created as a resort area. Soon after, famous artists and literary figures came here to live and work, and their legacies continue to influence the city's culture.
The most visited areas of Antibes—the Old City, Juan-les-Pins, and Cap d’Antibes—aren't within walking distance of each other, so if you don't want to spend a fortune on taxis, renting a car is essential. Antibes is a French commune city, and includes the lesser visited Port Vauban, Golfe Juan, and Sophia Antipolis.
Stroll though the narrow streets of the Old City any day of the week except Monday to shop at the Cours Massena Market, where stalls overflow with fruits and vegetables and the scent of freshly baked bread and pungent French cheeses fills the air. In the afternoon, it becomes a crafts market where local artisans sell handmade items.
Before diving in to explore the rest of the area, visit the Musée d'Archaeologie, where artifacts and other relics reveal details of Antibes' past. The museum occupies space inside Bastion St. Andre, a 17th-century fortress, located at the top of the Promenade Amiral de Grasse, a coastal path with panoramic Mediterranean views. Make reservations in advance to learn more about Antibes' history at the Musée de la Tour, housed inside the city's ramparts walls, to see everyday objects used here during the Middle Ages. About halfway down the promenade facing the sea, Notre-Dame de l'Immaculée Conception Cathedral is a pretty, 12th century church with a bell tower, and a fading, burnt orange façade dating back to the 18th century. One highlight is the transept chapel, created in the 16th century by Louis Bréa, a prolific Provencal artist whose work appears in many churches throughout the region.
Next to the church is the Château Grimaldi Musée Picasso, a must-see for die-hard fans and casual viewers alike. Originally a Roman castle, it underwent major renovations in the 1920s, around the time that Picasso first came to Antibes. Several years later, one of the chateau's benefactors invited Picasso to keep a studio here, and the artist spent six months in residence working on masterpieces, including "La Joie de Vivre" which has become the hallmark of his time in Antibes. After Picasso donated a significant amount of his art to the chateau in the mid-1960s, it became a museum and was named after him.
No doubt Picasso imbibed more than his share of absinthe while in Antibes. Those interested in experiencing the electric green, hallucination-inducing liquid wildly popular in his day can visit the Absinthe Museum, right in the heart of the Old City. At this interactive museum (read: bar), found deep in a basement on Rue Sade, patrons can sample all 35 varieties for free and check out assorted paraphernalia and cool vintage absinthe that cover the walls.
Walk a few blocks west of the museum and you'll stumble upon the city's main square, Place Nationale. Rue de la Republic, called the "Grand Rue," is a major shopping street anchoring the square, with a variety of upscale boutiques similar to those found in Juan-les-Pins. On a narrow side street, squeezed in between buildings with an unassuming façade, sits La Chapelle Saint-Bernardin, a jewel box of a church. This tiny 16th century neo-gothic treasure features a bright cobalt blue ceiling dotted with a multitude of white stars, and highly detailed frescoes.
Right on the square, a small museum showcases the whimsical drawings of the beloved French cartoonist, Raymond Peynet. The artist was deeply connected to Antibes, and on display at the Musée Peynet et du Dessin Humoristique are images of his well known characters, including “Les petits amoureux” (The little lovers) created during his prolific career that began around 1930.
Late afternoon is a great time to head down to the Plage de La Gravette, also called Old Antibes Beach, when crowds of families and sunbathers start to thin out. To get there, take a leisurely walk down Boulevard d’Aguillon, a lively street lined with a variety of eateries, which leads right to the water. The beach is small but atmospheric, hugged on both sides by rocky jetties with views of the Old City and mountains in the distance. North of the beach is Port Vauban, named after Louis XIV's brilliant military engineer, Marquis de Vauban, who helped build and perfect Antibes' ramparts. For more than 20 years, this marina, said to be Europe's biggest, has harbored the world's largest yachts according to weight.
Further afield north of the port is Fort Carre, a short-time prison for Napoleon in the late 18th century. The fort, which has four, arrow-shaped points extending from its center, was built in the 16th century. You can't get inside, but take a walk around it to admire its design. It's a good 20-minute jaunt from the port, but there are free shuttle busses about every 15 minutes leaving from Place Nationale.
You won't see ancient ruins, old churches, or any museums in Juan-les-Pins. This area attracts well dressed 20-somethings who descend upon the casino and nightclubs after dark, while by day everyone hits the beach, strolls on the boardwalk, or shops the concentrated crop of high-end boutiques. The Casino de Juan-les-Pins is on Boulevard Edouard Baudouin, and a few famous hotspots are the Whisky a GoGo, which opened in 1956, Le Pam Pam, Le Village, and Le Ten's Bar. Juan-les-Pins is also the location of the widely popular Jazz à Juan, a yearly jazz festival held in July that draws the biggest names in the biz.
The two main public beaches here are the Plage La Salis, often crowded because of its soft sand and gentle waves, and the Plage du Ponteil, which isn't the best for sunbathing but offers lots of options for water sport rentals. If you want a break from the beach, hop in the car and head to the exquisite Exflora Park, a short drive west about halfway to Golfe Juan. The gardens, spread over twelve acres, are designed in a range of styles from Mediterranean counties such as Italy, Spain, Greece, and Morocco. Bordering the gardens are lovely fountains, ponds, and a gazebo that looks out on a panoramic view of the sea.
Cap d' Antibes, or, "The Cap," as it's called, is a peninsula between Old Antibes and Juan-Les-Pins, with elegant villas nestled in wooded hills, expansive parks and gardens, and a coastal trail cut through a nature conservancy. Also here is Plage de La Garoupe, the most well known of all Antibes' 48 beaches.
Just as glamorous now as when it opened in 1870, the storied Hôtel du Cap-Eden Roc, at the tip of the peninsula, is an absolute gem. It was designed as a luxurious 19th century chateau, and became the inspiration for the hotel in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night. These days, it's where all of Hollywood's A-listers flock to stay.
In the way of private residences, Villa Eilenroc, designed by Charles Garnier, is a sprawling estate with elaborately landscaped gardens, and was the home of the wealthy American entrepreneur Louis Dudley Beaumont and his wife, Helene, in the late 1920s.
You can see the Villa Eilenroc—as well as other extravagant residences—while walking the Sentier du Littoral, a coastal path that winds along the cape. And if you can tear your eyes away from the villas and mansions, there's an incredible view of the Mediterranean to look at, too.