Villefranche, France – A Cruise Port Guide

Villefranche Cruise Port Guide

There is a huge amount to see Villefranche, the port for Nice – I’ll cover as much as I can in this Villefranche Cruise Port Guide, for more on Nice itself click here

Eight Hours in Villefranche – Cruise Port Guide

The Mediterranean seaside town of Nice is a popular cruise destination that hides under a variety of names – you may find it offered as Nice, Villefranche-sur-mer, Côte d’Azur or even Lympia.  Nice is the capital of the Alpes-Maritimes Département and the principal town of the French Riviera – that stretch of Mediterranean coastline stretching from Toulon in the west to Italy in the east, including Saint Tropez, Cannes  and Monte Carlo in the principality of Monaco. 

Nice Bay backed by the Promenade des Anglais
Nice Bay backed by the Promenade des Anglais
Old Port, Nice. Not Villefranche!
Old Port, Nice. Not Villefranche!

The iconic image of Nice is the Promenade des Anglais, a wide sweeping bay, backed by palm trees and imposing hotels, but cruise ships actually dock to the east of the town. The smallest ships (under 190 metres) may dock in the old port Lympia where there is a tiny cruise terminal, within walking distance of the old town and seafront.  However most ships anchor in the next bay, Villefranche-sur-Mer, where passengers come ashore by tender at Porte de la Sante.  Most cruise excursions from here will see you onto a bus and out of town to Monaco, Cannes, or Grasse but, because there are so many things to see and do in the immediate area, I think that Nice is a perfect port for an independently planned day ashore. Although there are normally no more than two ships in port it can get quite busy, so it is worth doing a bit of planning before you arrive to get ahead of the crowd.

Villefranche – Port for: Nice, France.

Language: French. 

Currency: Euro. 

Museums closed: Tuesday.

Cruise Season: late March to December 

Rue Obscure - Villefranche
Rue Obscure – Villefranche

One option is to spend the day in Villefranche itself, which climbs up the steep hill behind the bay. It is a warren of shops, art galleries, museums, bars and restaurants, so there is plenty to see and do without losing sight of the ship! Look for the Rue Obscure, an atmospheric passage behind the seafront, originally a cobbled lane for troops defending the town to move supplies and ammunition, but now covered in and hidden by subsequent buildings!



Also the tiny La Chapelle St Pierre which is close to the tender dock – decorated with seashells by French filmmaker Jean Cocteau in 1957 and dedicated to the fishermen of the port, it depicts the life of St Peter. La Chapelle Saint Elizabeth, a lovely 16th chapel now houses various art exhibitions.

The best views of the bay are from the bell tower of the 18th Century Baroque L’Eglise St Michel  at the top of the hill and from the enormous Citadel. This is the most obvious building as you come ashore, towering above the bay, it is free to enter but closes at noon (for 2 hours in winter and 3 in summer – also on Sunday mornings) so you would need to plan a visit at either end of your day. Built in 1557 the Citadel contains art galleries and museums, lovely gardens, a coffee shop and the first outdoor cinema in France! It is slightly bonkers but fun nonetheless and you will get some lovely shots of your ship from the ramparts. It is within easy (uphill) walking distance from the tender dock – there is a HOHO stop here and a second outside the Office de Tourisme at the top of the town. They run excellent guided tours of Villefranche that you can join for just a few Euro, local buses stop outside. The HOHO bus stops here first and then goes down to the Citadel, so you will find a smaller queue at the higher stop! The entire route takes about 60/90 minutes depending on traffic – I would advise booking online for the best price – at about £20 per head it is not the quickest, easiest or cheapest way to get to Nice but is pleasant and useful if you want to visit the Russian Cathedral or the Chagall or Matisse museums. 

The Citadel gates leading down to the gardens
The Citadel gates leading down to the gardens

As you will have realised much of Villefranche is quite steep and stepped – if you prefer more level walking you can head away from the Citadel along the port where a short walk will bring you to a small public beach Plage des Marinières and the railway station Villefranche-sur-Mer (follow signs for Gare SNCF). There are frequent trains which take 8 minutes from here to Nice-Ville station which is slightly out of town – take the short tram connection down to Place Massena for the park, old town and Nice seafront.

Cap Ferrat is  on the opposite side of the bay to Villefranche
Cap Ferrat is on the opposite side of the bay to Villefranche

Another option for the day is to head out onto Cap Ferrat. Its a great place to spend the day, especially if its very hot, you can get there by following the path at the far end of Plage des Marinières or by catching Bus #15 from the railway station. The headland has 7 public beaches for swimming and 14km of pine shaded paths to wander – you will find great spots for a camera shot back across the bay to your ship! Cap Ferrat is home to the rich and famous with massive mansions belonging to royalty and film stars, the pink and white Villa Ephrussi  is open to the public. This huge mansion, containing the treasures of the Rothschild family, and its lovely gardens are about half an hours mainly level walk from the port, entrance costs €12.50.  From there you could walk on down to the opposite coast – look for the Place David Niven a memorial park outside La Fleur du Cap, the house that he bought from Charlie Chaplin in 1960 – this is NOT open to the public. Further out onto the cape a twenty minute walk will bring you to the little fishing port of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat where there are plenty of shops bars and cafes and Paloma Beach beyond. Bus #15 heading west towards Nice or a taxi from Saint Jean will get you back to Villefranche. 

If you want to get out onto the water then headfurther east to Beaulieu-sur-Mer, (on from Cap Ferrat on bus #15 or one stop from Villefranche on the train), this small port is particularly worth considering because it is the base for seaZen boats. These environmentally friendly solar powered boats take up to 8 people and can be either skippered or self drive. You can glide silently around the coastline of Cap Ferrat and get a brilliant view of wildlife and birds – great for photographers and you can swim and snorkel from the boat. The SeaZen costs from €22 a head or from €120 an hour for a group – book in advance through their website. 

For serious hiking opportunities head to the west of Villefranche to the Parc du Mont Boron. A botanical garden and forest with over seven miles of hiking trails ranging from an easy hour-long excursion to more strenuous paths that take almost an entire day to complete – the summit of Mont Boron offers spectacular views or you can even climb Mont Alban for the opportunity to explore the ruins of a military fort  but you need to be well prepared for the hike and really fit!

Castle Hill, Nice
Castle Hill, Nice

If you want less nature and more culture and history then head into Nice town itself with its museum and art galleries. Options to reach the town from Villefranche are the train, local bus #15 and the HOHO bus as we covered above. Local bus #15 costs 1.50€ for a 10 minute trip to Vielle Port, Nice and from there it is a short level walk to Old Town, Place Massena and the Promenade des Anglais beyond. Otherwise a taxi for four would be about 50€ each way or you could take a water taxi – enquire at the port about the price but remember this is the most expensive stretch of coast in the world!!  Nice is a large town with plenty to see and do, the town and port are mainly flat but any further afield will involve some very steep hills and you may want to use some transport – options around town include the tram system and local buses both of which are cheap and efficient, there is also a more expensive Petit train which does a short circuit along the sea front and up Castle Hill. Nice is keen on encouraging environmentally friendly transport,  you can hire a bike for the whole day for €1 through the Velo Bleu scheme – download the app and register a credit card before you leave home. Less energetic but great fun is to hire a Nice-Car. These cool little open-top, three-wheelers seat two and have an iPad-style screen which guides you on a pre-planned itinerary varying from a €35 blast around the top sights of town, to a €90 full day drive along the coast to Monaco – book online before arriving. 

Mirror d’Eau
Mirror d’Eau

Nice is a beautiful city and easy to walk around – Place Massena is a good starting point, it is the terminus for the new tram system and also famous for its Statue of Apollo. This caused quite a stir at its unveiling in 1956 and a little too ‘virile’ for the town – so the sculptor was called back to ‘reduce’ things a little!  To one side of the square is Massena park with picnic areas, fountains and the clever photogenic Mirror d’Eau water feature. On the other head for the beach (Plage) through Jardin Albert, a shady fountained park overlooking the sea front. Turn right to the beach and the smart hotels lining the Promenade des Anglais – maybe even stop for high tea at the famous Negresco Hotel  – head left towards the Old town and the Cours Saleya. This is where you will find shops, restaurants and the market area. The market is quite mixed with flowers, fish, vegetables on most days and antiques on a Monday.  This is a good place to buy souvenirs, the freshest stock and lowest prices seem to be in the the market. Lavender is grown commercially in the area so I like to buy little lavender bags and essential oils… both are small, light and easily packed but you will also find lavender soaps, bath salts pillows, eau de toilette and perfume for sale everywhere locally. Other ideas for souvenirs include local olive oils, Herbes de Provence in pretty bags, local honey, ceramics and table linens in Provencal colours, embroidered bed linens & towels and olive wood bowls. Look out for the local but internationally famous perfume company Fragonard – they have a shop in Cours Saleya – they seem to have found a way to capture the Cotes D’azure in a bottle!

A montage from Cours Saleya Market because I couldn’t choose just one!
A montage from Cours Saleya Market because I couldn’t choose just one!

Up above the market is Castle Hill, a peaceful forested area peppered with ancient ruins and stunning views, a cannon is fired from the Chateau every day at noon. There is a free lift up through the cliffs – the entrance is just across from the ‘# Love Nice’ sign (look for the neon Ascenseur de la Chateau sign). The shady walk back down again takes you past a waterfall, old cemeteries, ancient greek mosaics, ruins of an old Cathedral as well as play and picnic areas before reaching the Place Garibaldi. From there a walk down Rue Cassini would take you to the old harbour area, with its cafes and bars, where there is a tiny free ferry from one side to the other which can save a long walk round! The small motorised boat takes six passengers and runs every day between10.00 – 19.00, from late May until November – look for signs to the Lou Passagin to find the crossing point. There are also boat trips out from the here to Villefranche and Cap Ferrat but oddly only as a round trip… a little ferry back and forward between the two ports would be very useful!

Nice was a great favourite with Queen Victoria - look out for this lovely old stationery shop.
Nice was a great favourite with Queen Victoria – look out for this lovely old stationery shop.

The HOHO bus doesn’t go up Castle Hill but otherwise covers everywhere mentioned as well as the museums and galleries in the hills above town. Nice was popular with artists such as Chagall, Picasso & Mattisse in the early 20th century due to its temperate climate and soft clear light. The museums and galleries associated with their work are mainly situated up in the hills above town so if you plan to visit them it is probably worth buying a HOHO ticket and using it as your main mode of transport for the day .

Food in the South of France and particularly in Nice has a strong local tradition with what we would consider to be Italian and Arabic influences. Villefranche, has some lovely restaurants tucked away in shady courtyards or down on the seafront. In Nice the picturesque  Cours Saleya market is surrounded by restaurants or you will find good fish restaurants in the Old Port area. 

Local Specialities include: 

Salade Nicoise – literally a Nice Salad with tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, olives and anchovies or Tuna. 

Socca – a chickpea crepe – filling and cheap! 

Tapenade – a paste of olives, capers, fish and herbs served on bread croutons.

 Pissaladière, a small flat pizza-like onion tart. 

Bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew, originally from Marseilles but popular among the Cote d’Azure, served with a rouille (garlic & saffron sauce) and large bread croutons.

I hope you enjoyed reading about how to spend your cruise stop in Villefranche and that it will be useful on your cruise. Nice features on many Mediterranean Itineraries – if you are looking for inspiration you should start here

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Thanks for reading!

Cathy & Emma

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