In an area filled with glamorous seaside towns, the South of France is a beach lover’s—and food lover’s—paradise. Although big-name favorites like Cannes, Nice, and Antibes remain top picks for a tour of the French Riviera, I’ve come to appreciate more off-the-beaten-track places, popular with locals. Many are less than a 20-minute drive from our home near Toulon in southeastern France.
These are famously less-crowded spots with room to spread out your beach towel and enjoy the slow rhythms of Provençal life. Where flip-flops are just as welcome as Chanel slingbacks, and where locals are just as comfortable with Michelin-star dining as sharing crusty baguettes and thick slabs of Camembert while watching the sun dip below the Mediterranean, with a cool glass of rosé on hand.
Whatever your budget, or foodie ambitions, nothing tops a visit to Sanary-sur-Mer… one of the prettiest seaside towns in all the region, and an increasingly popular retirement destination.
Sanary, as the locals call it, has an incredible farmer’s market along the port, which was crowned the most beautiful market in all of France in 2018. Almost the entire city is pedestrian-friendly, and between the market, world-class bakeries, French delis, and wine shops, spending your vacation (or scouting trip) entirely on foot is one of the simple pleasures of French life.
Here is a beginner’s guide to some of the top things to do in charming Sanary, which could fill out a weekend or simply add to a day-time itinerary.
1. Shop the Beautiful Provençal Market
This market is undeniably one of the top attractions of the town. If you’re in Sanary on market day (Wednesday) you’re in for a real treat. The market takes up about two city blocks and you’ll find everything from seasonal produce to rosé wine-tasting to Provençal tablecloths, to locally-sourced oil olives and hand cut raviolis. The daily market is just as lovely, only it’s about a fourth of the size and mainly focused on local foodstuffs. At any rate, don’t forget to bring your camera… It's an amazing visual feast.
2. Promenade Along the Charming Port
The French sure enjoy their promenades, or strolls, and with good reason. When the sun is shining on the colorful port of Sanary, there’s nothing like a nice walk (after your market stop) to soak up the South-of-France atmosphere.
We usually stop at Bar du Sport for a café au lait and croissant break… and when the spring and summer months arrive, there are several artisanal gelato shops that serve “exotic” flavors like orange blossom, lavender, and passion fruit.
3. Picnic Along the Seaside
A picnic is not only a good way to watch the sailboats skirt in and of Sanary’s bay, but also a nice way to save some euro. You can easily pick up what you need at the market or at local bakeries near the port. We’ve spent many weekends enjoying cheese and ham quiches bought at Patisserie Avy bakery with a selection of French pastries to cap off our seaside lunch.
If you’d like to move away from the port, the beach adjacent to Sanary is called Bonnegrace and is a well-known spot for spring and summer picnics. If the wind picks up, you’ll get to witness the south’s answer to surfing… at about two feet high, the waves aren’t a lot to write home about, but it’s fun to see the French surfers, and kite surfers, skimming across the sea.
4. Enjoy a Long Lunch at Crêperie Le Galion
A nice alternative to a picnic is eating at one of the crêperies along the port. I tend to go traditional and order a savory crêpe myself, but a great “southern” experience is ordering a big bucket of moules-frites (mussels and fries) washed down with a few crisp glasses of rosé.
Domaine Paternal, Ray Jane, L’Olivette, Tempier, and La Suffrene are a few of our favorite local wineries. Many like the pesto sauce, but my favorite moules-frites combo is white wine in a seasoned cream sauce.
5. Browse Sanary’s Many Boutiques and Specialty Shops
Sanary is full of adorable, and sometimes very chic, shops and boutiques. You’ll discover everything from kitchen tools and gourmet goodies to handcrafted silver jewelry and designer handbags. Whatever you fancy, a walk through the multi-colored streets just behind the port is a relaxing way to discover the city.
6. Take a Boat Ride to the Local Paul Ricard Islands
There are a lot of jumping off points to visit the well-known islands off of Sanary’s coast: Embiez island and Bendor island. Known as the Paul Ricard islands from the famous Pastis (anise liquor) maker who purchased the pair, which span from Sanary to the resort town of Bandol.
There are numerous tour operators along the port, and you can check with the tourist office for more information. Among the islands’ restaurants, cafés, and art galleries, there lies a boutique hotel complex if you’d like to turn your visit into an overnight affair.
7. Visit a Local Festival
Ahh, festivals… I really love these events as it’s a great way to rub elbows with the locals and also learn more about Provençal traditions. The Chocolate & Wine festival and History and Traditions weekend (both in autumn) and the Fête des Voiles, celebrating the traditional pointus boats—colorful wooden sailboats that give the port its classic French Riviera look—are just a few of the selections.
Of course, the real showstopper is the annual rosé wine festival, Just Rosé. In May of every year, you’ll find around 70 different wineries set up along the port and around the historic center of town.
A €15 ($16) ticket gets you access to all of the stands—with a commemorative tasting wine glass—over a three-day period. Activities for the kids are offered as well as the presentation of a “gourmet village” for further tastings.
Aside from the festivals, you’ll likely to find an impromptu antique-fair taking place many weekends near the market—another great place to pick up some French souvenirs from your travels.