Our first spring in France, my husband and I made our way up the coast, taking in the sites and dipping our toes into the world-renowned charm and elegance.
From Nice to Cannes, these world-famous Côte d'Azur destinations are simply amazing. But we found that they were missing a bit of the calm South-of-France lifestyle that we'd dreamed of finding. We wanted nothing more than to sit outside a portside bistro, enjoy a long gourmet lunch, and perhaps finish off the day with a siesta on the beach. Or, as the French like to call it, a bit of far niente—the art of doing nothing at all.
It turned out that we had to look no further than our own backyard. After living nearly 10 years in the Provence/Côte d'Azur region, the beach town of Sanary-sur-Mer remains our hands-down favorite place to visit and is arguably the best beach town on the French Riviera.
This picture-perfect town lies between the busy maritime city of Toulon and the resort community of Bandol—famous for its rosé wines, which are exported worldwide. A short 10-minute drive off the main A50 autoroute (freeway), which winds its way down the coast to Marseille, Sanary-sur-Mer, is tucked away along a quiet port lined with sailboats and small fishing trawlers. Although you feel miles away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, you have quick access to local amenities like shops, rail stops, bus routes, outdoor markets, and a lively arts scene in Toulon.
The real draw of Sanary, apart from its natural beauty, is its gourmet lifestyle and community spirit.
The town is one of the top retirement destinations in the area, and for good reason. The port is dotted with cafés, bistros, and superb restaurants. You can opt for anything from a savory crêpe and a chilled glass of rosé, to an unforgettable three-course meal. One of our favorite restaurants, in all the south, can be found in Sanary. For €30 to €45, La P'tite Cour delivers exquisite gourmet dinners that we still talk about weeks later. Our last visit included eggplant stuffed with brousse (Corsican cheese), ham, and honey-balsamic vinegar, and was topped off by an equally fantastic dessert: crème brûlée flavored with lavender, roasted apricots, and homemade apricot ice cream. It is indeed some of the best food the region has to offer.
On Wednesdays, you'll find locals getting an early start at the outdoor market. Sanary's weekly Provençal market was designated Le Plus Beau Marché de France (The Most Beautiful Market in France) in 2018. This was a televised competition put on by the TF1 channel in France—the equivalent of ABC or NBC television networks in the USA. Needless to say, it was a pretty big deal and speaks to the amazing quality of the products on display. Aside from locally sourced fruits and vegetables, you'll find goat cheeses, specialty charcuterie(salami, parma ham, etc), and the freshest catch-of-the-day from Sanary's fisherman. If the mood strikes you, you can also pick up Provençal textiles, tablecloths, or hand-woven shopping baskets.
Part of the success of the market is due to the community spirit of residents and the town mayor. Since Sanary is highly-focused on quality of life, everyone tends to get involved in local initiatives. It's almost impossible to count the events and activities taking place during the year. Sanary has its own art scene with several small galleries and the Théatre Galli which hosts plays, musicals, and comedians/actors. There are multiple music festivals throughout the year, and arguably the town's best-known event is the Just Rosé wine festival which takes place every May. If you happen to visit on any given weekend, you might also be treated to an open-air flea market (brocante), artist exhibition, or Provençal festival. Grape harvest celebrations are big in the fall months.
Residents join in the myriad clubs and associations on offer: book clubs, walking groups, language-learners, and, of course, French cuisine. The local library offers lecture series, movie screenings, and even an English-language book club. Different arts and crafts workshops are offered as well.
Whether a casual visitor or a permanent resident, Sanary-sur-Mer provides the best of Southern France living in one of the most picturesque settings on the Côte d'Azur.