Saint-Tropez started life as a sleepy fishing village – and then the superb quality of light here was discovered by neo-impressionist artist Paul Signac who built a house here and invited his friends to stay, with Matisse and Dufy being among those who accepted his invitation.
Word of the wonderful location around Saint-Tropez quickly spread and in the 1930s Cocteau, Colette and others arrived on the scene then in the 1950s and 1960s Saint-Tropez was discovered by Hollywood and has been a fashionable holiday location ever since.
When you arrive in Saint-Tropez you will be pleased to find that you can still see many aspects of the sleepy fishing village that Saint-Tropez once was, although there is also quite a lot of newer development and rather more people here now.
Start your visit by the Tourist Office – with a walk along the harbour where you can see the fishermen’s houses on one side and the large, expensive yachts on the other. Many of the waterfront houses are now restaurants – there are at least 20 restaurants around the port. The view of this part of the harbour is much better at sunset when the sun is on the houses than in the morning when they are in the shade.
From here you can walk along the Mole Jean Reveille, a quay that allows you to look back and get splendid views of Saint-Tropez harbour. As you approach the lighthouse at the end of the quay you will notice that the superyachts in the main harbour have here given way to modest fishing boats: it is nice that the two different worlds can exist side by side.
After walking around the harbour you can wander into the old town where the streets of colourful houses have a unique charm. These streets lead back from the coast and towards the citadel, with the houses in the simple style of fisherman’s houses and painted in pale pastels ranging from pale cream to deep terracotta.
From the old town you can walk up to the Citadelle – no matter how hot it is and if you’d rather stay on the beach you have to do it! The views across the Mediterranean and Saint-Tropez town from up here are superb.
With moats and counterscarps on a hexagonal plan, the Citadelle was established after the French Wars of Religion as a key defence between Toulon and Antibes, guarding what was then a frontier.
The fortress was called into action pretty quickly, withstanding an attack by 21 Spanish galleons in 1637. The maze-like interiors are the evocative setting for a Maritime Museum, which has been refurbished in the last few years and has antique globes, model ships, maps, canons and firsthand accounts from 17th-century officers and sailors.
The Museum of Maritime History is located in the former dungeon, featuring exhibits that illustrate 500 years of history of Saint-Tropez and its strong links to the sea. Exhibits illustrate various voyages of Saint-Tropez seamen across many different world seas, fishing trips along the coast of Provence, long voyages around the Cape Horn on large sailing boats, or expeditions to India on large steamship liners belonging to the famous Far East Company. The museum celebrates the lives of town heroes such as Bailli de Suffren, Hippolyte Bouchard, and General Allard, but also those of the many anonymous sailors who served aboard the navy’s vessels or fought stormy seas while working on merchant ships. Through the town’s maritime history, the museum also shows daily life over centuries.
From behind the citadel you can see a small bay with a beach and a few houses: it is remarkable that this quiet bay is less than 500 metres from Saint-Tropez town centre!
on the Place Garezzo you can see the Chateau Suffren, built in the late 15th century.
Another chateau-like building, completed in 1618, Chapelle Saint-Anne hides in a conifer grove on Mont Pécoulet, a hill behind Saint-Tropez. In the 19th century long-distance sailors would ride up to this spot to seek protection from St. Anne before departing. The chapel is in a very pretty spot, blessed with vistas of the resort and the azure sea, but also appears in the annals of pop culture. Mick and Bianca Jagger were married here in 1971, and guests included Paul and Linda McCartney, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr.
The quirky La Maison des Papillons – dedicated to, of all things, butterflies—isn’t what you’d necessarily expect to find in a luxurious beach resort town, but it’s here, and absolutely worth a visit. (During peak season, it’s popular with local families during the hours when the sun’s at its strongest.) Founded two decades ago by local painter Dany Lartigue, it showcases a unique collection of approximately 4,500 curated species of these beautiful creatures.
Everyone who has seen the famous movies about the gendarmes of Saint-Tropez with the hilarious Luis de Funes will instantly recognize the building that today hosts the Gendarmerie and Cinema Museum of Saint-Tropez. The building that was made famous by movies stopped operating as a real gendarmerie in 1934 and since then has been used by the city of Saint-Tropez as a museum. The museum’s permanent exhibition has two main themes: The history of the gendarmerie corps and their building and the myth and reality of the famed the town through movies that portrayed it. It starts with the interest caused by the international popularity of the hilarious movies. The city also attempts, through the exhibits in the museum, to highlight the rich and diverse history of cinema in Saint-Tropez, not only about the town itself. Many movies are still being created there, and its beautiful surrounds. The museum also hold occasional temporary exhibits on different themes linked to the town.
The Musee de l’Annonciade, back in the port and quite near the tourist office was originally a chapel and is now a permanent art gallery with works by Matisse and Signac and many of the other artists who worked here. This is one of the best galleries in France to see paintings from the neo-Impressionist era. One of the longest-established modern art galleries in France, this 16th-century former chapel in Place Grammont contains some dross but also cracking stuff from artists connected with Provence in general and St Tropez in particular. Look out for Matisse, Utrillo, Seurat and Dufy. You should also have a look at the pointillist works of Signac, the first artist into St Tropez in the late 19th century. But be warned: all those dots gave me a headache. There’s currently an intriguing exhibition dedicated to painter Georges Braque and sculptor Henri Laurens – two friends and giants of 20th-century art.
/I didn’t take a photo of this museum, I’m so so sorryyyy/
In the old town you can go on a shopping spree in one of the many chic boutiques. Saint-Tropez has a good reputation for its many quality shops and you will find these throughout the old town, for example along Rue Général Allard, Rue Georges Clemenceau, Rue Gambetta and Place de la Garonne. So many visitors come here for the shopping that the already twice mentioned Tourist Office can even give you a map showing where to find your favourites…
Of course, there are the usual big names such as Louis Vuitton and Hèrmes. However, if you want a small village shopping experience (typical of the South of France) head to the morning market on Place des Lices. Possibly the most chic farmers market – if there’s such a thing – it was immortalized by Matisse in his 1904 oil painting before it started being frequented by celebrities such as Kate Moss. Open every Tuesday and Saturday from 8am to 1pm, this open-air market sells everything from fresh produce to antiques.
Rondini, sandal maker since 1927, is a must-visit shop, too. So called “gladiator sandals” are the most ubiquitous items in today’s summer holiday suitcase but this original maker of “sandales Tropeziennes” favored by Brigitte Bardot and Jacqueline Kennedy still produces the simple footwear using traditional artisanal techniques and patience. It’s worth visiting this small shop with workshop on 18 Rue Georges Clemenceau for a handmade pair or two.
And where to eat now?
It’s possible to dine on Michelin three-starred cuisine (but that’s waaay too expensive for a student with a side-job like me), refuel at a casual café, or retreat to a quiet farm for a traditional Provençal meal. The spectrum pleases both serious food pilgrims and those diet-conscious diners who prefer a healthy side of people-watching. Let’s not forget the seasonal pop-ups; Pamela Anderson even opened a vegan pop-up restaurant for 50 fleeting days in summer 2017.
Fish fiends can order up fresh seafood at Les Viviers du Pilon, while landlubbers will appreciate the countryside ambience at La Ferme Ladouceur. On the road to the local airport, Auberge de la Môle is a destination for rustic traditional fare.
For goûter, or the French 4 pm snack, try the artisanal ice cream at Barbarac, or sink your teeth into a slice of the legendary tarte tropezienne, a unique piece of pastry created by a Polish baker Alexandre Micka in 1955 when he opened a bakery in the centre of town. It was based on the French brioche – but cut into two and filled with cream, using his grandmother’s recipe. He was asked to cater for Brigitte Bardot’s film crew working on Pampelonne beach. She loved his cake, named it and both became immensely popular.
Note that you can also find versions of the tart at Aux Deux Frères boulangerie and the épicerie outpost of the cinema-red Café Sénéquier.
And if you’re discouraged by the prices you see in the menus of all the restaurants around, a couple of streets in from the water are unpretentious joints selling crêpes and soft drinks, which definitely beats 10€ for a pastis on the quay! Take a stroll along the Jean Réveille jetty that keeps the Mediterranean out, look back awestruck at the yachts and bask in the light and ochre hues that wowed the early-modern painters more than a century ago. The quayside is also full of painters trying to capture this beauty, and you might like to browse their work for a souvenir.
In case you don’t own a beautiful boat parked on some of the piers of Saint Tropez (but wish to have one just looking at them like me), no worries, you can actually rent one for a day! Though it is quite pricy, if you are a huge fan of yachts, Saint-Tropez is the place to do it. Or you can take a boat excursion around the area that will show you all the tourist sites around the area: the Maritime museum, the Citadelle, the Bay of Canebiers and some celebrities’ villas. Well, not as good as renting the yacht, but surely better than just admiring them from a pier!
But even better than admiring yachts from the pier is bathing in the water underneath. Well, not certainly underneath in a port, but in the sea lined by one of the amazing beaches on Côte d’Azur.
There is really a wide choice of beaches close to Saint-Tropez, although finding a quiet corner to yourself might be a challenge. There are several very small beaches close to the town centre, and slightly larger beaches not too far including the Plage des Salins and the Plage de la Moutte to the west and the Plage des Canoubiers on the north coast.
It’s reassuring how, despite what must have been a great temptation to allow a free-for-all, so much of the coastline around Saint-Tropez remains undeveloped. You can see it for yourself on the Sentier du Littoral, a trail granting you access to more than 40 kilometres of coastline all the way from Saint Tropez to Cap Taillat.
As you push on next to the sea, you’ll journey over high cliffs and climb pine and juniper-flecked limestone outcrops with steps grooved into the rock. And if you remember to bring your swim stuff you won’t be short of opportunities for dips in transparent rock pools.
Although most people head to the most famous of the beaches close to Saint-Tropez – long sandy Baie de Pampelonne to the south of the town centre. As St. Tropez’s main beach, this massively long stretch of sand gets packed in the summertime, and it is truly beautiful. This beach is easy to spend the whole day at – with beach chairs for rental, and plenty of beachfront cafes – but locals avoid the tourists and come either early in the morning or in the late afternoon, ideally staying long enough to watch the sunset. Along the edge of the beach are beach-side boutiques, cafes and clubs including Club 55 where visiting celebrities may head for a dance and a drink in the evening. Out to sea there are always yachts bobbing in the bay.
(the beach we visited didn’t even get a name)
Nikki Beach is another trendy beach club not far away. More modern and groovy than Club 55, there’s cool music played by DJs and it’s popular among the young and stylish jetsetters. Food is light Mediterranean and sushi is served there as well.
If this is too much bling, some quiet time can be found on the remote Plage de l’Escalet, apx seven kilometres from the fabulous town. Tucked in between Cap Camarat and Cap Taillat, it’s one of the best kept secrets in Saint-Tropez. It’s worth a trip to this half-sand, half-pebble beach for its coves, rocky coastline and turquoise water.
Even if you’ve never been to Cannes, chances are you’ve seen the Tahiti Beach: it was a key setting in And God Created Woman. It’s a lovely spot for a day in the sun, with a beachfront hotel with a couple restaurants for a lunchtime break, just a few kilometres of the Saint-Tropez’s city centre.
Last but not least, the accommodation…
The population of Saint Tropez swells from 5000 in the winter months to 60 000 in the summer. Needless to say, in a town dependent on tourism, the hotel offerings are expansive. And also very expensive. So if you don’t have a couple of hundreds within, I recommend you to stay outside the town. In small villages nearby are rooms way cheaper.
So, have I enthused you enough to give this lil city a chance, even though it’s stated as “overrated” in many travel pages? I hope so, because at first I thought that too, but I rapidly changed my mind and totally fell in love with it 🙂
the famous terracotta roofs we saw while trying to take a short cut to Citadelle (didn’t end well, don’t try it 😀 )
Have a great day!