Villefranche-sur-Mer is an easy and delightful day trip from Nice at any time of year. In the summer visitors usually take the train directly to the Plage des Marinières, a luscious curve of sandy beach.
But this hilly, verdant town is even better off-season when the sunbathers and cruise ships leave. Stop by the local market Wednesday and Saturday mornings for fresh, local produce. Explore the medieval citadel, peek at St Pierre Church decorated by Chagall, wander the unusual covered streets, gape at the stunning bay, have lunch at the port.
Bus or Train?
Buses 607, 15 and 80 run from Nice to Villefranche-sur-Mer. The trains from Nice to Monaco stop at Villefranche-sur-Mer.
The bus is €2.50 whereas the train from Nice Gare Thiers to Villefranche-sur-Mer train station costs around €1.90. Not much difference there!
The train only takes 15 minutes to arrive at the train station which is near the Plage des Marinieres. The buses take about the same length of time to arrive in the town center.
Whether you opt for bus 15 from the Promenade des Arts or bus 607 (formerly line 100) from Port Lympia or the (much less frequent) bus 80 from Vauban bus station it's a scenic ride to Villefranche sur Mer. All buses take the Basse Corniche over a hill to afford great views of the sea and the bay. Sit on the right!
The train is less scenic as it passes through tunnels.
Generally a bus is more convenient from the area around Port Lympia or the Old Town while a train is more convenient from central Nice. A train is best for starting at the beach. A bus is best for starting at the town center, taking in the twice-weekly market and then walking downhill to other sights.
Both the trains and the buses 607 and 15 run about every 20 minutes from Monday to Saturday but are slightly less frequent on Sunday. The last bus leaves the Octroi stop in Villefranche-sur-Mer to Nice at 9:31pm except for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday when the last departure is at 11:53. The last train departs Villefranche-sur-Mer train station for Nice at 9.44pm.
I recommend taking a bus to Villefranche-sur-Mer and the train back to Nice rather than the other way around. The town is hilly and it's more comfortable to walk downhill from the bus stop Octroi, visiting the sights on the way to the port.
Take tram line 2 to Port Lympia. Pick up bus 607 from behind the church (corner of rue Fodere and rue Pacho) or bus 15 from rue Arson next to the church or from the Promenade des Arts. Note that if you bought a ticket Azur for €2.50 from the ticketing machine, your ticket is valid for the tram and the bus ride to Villefranche. Otherwise buy a separate ticket for €2.50 (€2.10 if purchased in advance) from the driver.
Get off the bus at the Octroi stop in Villefranche. Here's where the Wednesday and Saturday morning food market takes place with stalls of local products. Just ahead of the bus stop is a sign pointing right to the "Centre Ville". Following the road downhill takes you to the Citadelle.
Constructed in 1557 by the Savoy Dukes, this imposing fortress was restored in 1981 to house the town hall (Hotel de Ville), a convention center, a small auditorium, gardins, and several free museums. Saint Elmo's Chapel has been deconsecrated and now houses temporary art exhibitions. The Citadelle is free to enter.
Don't miss the rare Islamic Tablet displayed outside the town hall.
This rare tablet is carved in Arabic with an Islamic prayer. Why here? The Citadelle and other medieval buildings were built by galeriens, men captured in foreign lands and forced to work. This tablet, dating from 1794, probably was intended to soothe or inspire galeriens who came from North Africa. Although displayed here, the tablet is thought to be from ancient barracks that lay further west.
From the Citadelle head west past the Jardin des Chasseurs to the Chapelle Saint Pierre.
This ancient church once belonged to the local fisherman's guild and had long been deconsecrated when artist-director-designer Jean Cocteau applied his considerable talents to refurbishing it in 1957. Within the colorful facade are events from the life of St Peter the Apostle (closed Monday, Tuesday and mid-November to mid-December).
From the chapel go past Hotel Welcome where Cocteau stayed, turn left and go uphill to the Rue Obscure.
This ancient 130m-long street was built in 1260 as a path for soldiers to traverse the town. At that time it was uncovered. It lost its military function in the 14th century and in the 16th century residents began building houses over the street. Illuminated by lamps, the street has a magical appeal that attracted Jean Cocteau who filmed Le Testament d'Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus) there in 1959.
Continue strolling the Port.
Just before the entrance to the Plage des Marinieres a sign directs you to the Gare SNCF. Go up the flight of stairs to the train station. Or, take a swim!
The Plage des Marinieres is one of the best public beaches within reach of Nice. The wide bay has a narrow but long beach with a shallow drop-off making it great for kids. Plus, it's sandy! The beach can get crowded in the summer but if you walk all the way to the end you come to the Plage de l'Ange Gardien (Gardian Angel beach) which is far enough away from the parking area to deliver a more tranquil experience. Pick up a snack at one of the stalls that line the Plage des Marinieres.