History of the French Riviera

Monaco fortress, The rock

Old fortified walls on 'the Rock'

Port Hercules, Monaco

Port Hercules

Prince's palace, Monaco

Royal Guard and old cannons in front of the Prince's Palace

Monaco's history dates back to the Stone Age, when its first settlers arrived and whose remains are shown at the Museum of Prehistoric Anthropology. Monaco later became populated by the Ligures and maintained relations with the Phoenicians and the Greeks. It then came under Roman control. Nevertheless, it wasn't until the arrival of the Republic of Genoa that Monaco gained significance. In 1215, the Genovese built a fortress on what is now known as 'The Rock' and began a campaign to attract settlers to the territory.

In a power struggle between rival families in 1297, the Grimaldi family took the fortress by force. Disguised as monks, they entered the fortress unnoticed and overpowered their rivals. Locals believe that the saying "the habit does not make the monk" was born from the legend.

Since then, minus a few exceptions, Monaco has been ruled by the Grimaldi family. For a century it was also a Spanish protectorate due to the need for protection against France. When the French Revolution took place, the Monaco family was dispossessed of their royal titles and the Royal Palace was made a hospital and then a hospice for the poor. When Napoleon was defeated, the King of France gave Monaco back its independence. It then became a protectorate of the Kingdom of Sardinia until 1860, when it became part of France. A year later, due to political tension and violence, Roquebrune and Menton (both part of Monaco since the 14th century) were also relinquished to France in exchange for four millions francs.

In 1856, Monaco began planning the construction of a casino, but the plan wouldn't officially become the famous Casino of Monte-Carlo until 1863. The casino's appeal as a major tourist destination increased when Monaco was connected with the rest of Europe by railroad.

Following the surrender of France in World War II, in 1943 Mussolini invaded Monaco. When Mussolini's government fell, the Nazis invaded Monaco and began to persecute the local Jews. The city-state was freed by the Americans on September 3, 1944.

In recent history, Monaco has perhaps gained most of its fame thanks to its professional sports competitions, including the Grand Prix, the Formula 1, and the professional tennis tournament Masters 1000 of Monte-Carlo. But Monaco has also enjoyed the limelight as it's monarchy drew the world's attention when Prince Rainier III married the Hollywood star and award-winning actress Grace Kelly.

Cannes’ history is strongly tied to the history of the Lerins Islands. The Ligures tribes settled on St. Honorat and St. Marguerite around 200 B.C. These tribes were displaced with the arrival of the Romans, who built a fortress on Le Suquet to watch over the port. In the 4th century, two monks, Honorat and Caprais, arrived on the Lérins Islands, founded a chapel and encouraged local settlements. The two monks later built an abbey that would become one of the most important religious centers in Europe. The abbey was visited by numerous priests, one of whom, supposedly, was Saint Patrick, the Irish evangelist who inspired Saint Patrick's Day.

​During the Middle Ages, the islands were targeted in Saracen attacks, forcing local inhabitants to build fortified monasteries, and, towards the end of the 11th century, the tower on Le Suquet. During this time, the monks abandoned the islands due to lack of security, and began inhabiting the fortified hill in Cannes.

In the 16th century, Cannes’ population was dramatically reduced due to the war between France and the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the plague epidemic that wiped out half the local population. The Spanish invaded St. Marguerite island in 1635 and threw out the monks, who until then had governed Cannes and the islands. Nevertheless, the monks returned two years later when the French regained control of the islands. Between 1687 and 1698, St. Marguerite island held a famous prisoner: the enigmatic Man with the Iron Mask, whose identity remains a mystery. The following century saw the islands attacked yet again, this time by the British and the Austrians, although they were quickly expelled by the French.

The port of Cannes was completed in 1898, and the city casino opened. It was an era of modernization for the city, with the arrival of the rail road and the construction of main avenues and luxury stores. Cannes quickly became a popular destination for wealthy British and German tourists before WWI, and after the war Americans also began to flock to the area.

The first Cannes Film Festival was celebrated on September 20, 1946 in the city casino. The festival continued to be carried out in the Croisette Palace until 1982 before being moved to the Palais des Festivals, where it is currently held. Over the years, the Cannes Film Festival has become a leader in recognizing and awarding the quality and artistic value of films, directors and actors.

Boulevard la Croisette, plage la Croisette, Cannes

Boulevard la Croisette

Le Suquet, Cannes

Historical hill Le Suquet

Around 500 B.C., the Greeks founded the town Antipolis as a commercial hub, which reached its trade peak with the arrival of the Romans, who built two aqueducts, fortified walls, amphitheaters and other constructions. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the town of Antipolis (later called Antiboul) fell into disarray with constant attacks by various tribes, so the Pope decided to transfer the episcopal see (the bishop's jurisdiction) to Grasse. It wasn't until the 10th century that Antibes found more stability under the leadership of Seigneur Rodoart, who extended fortified walls around the town.

Throughout its history, Antibes went through several stages of fortification. One of the most important was the construction of the Vauban Port, built by French Marshall and military engineer Vauban in the 18th century. Towards the end of the century, Antibes was home to young Napoleon Bonaparte, who would later on be imprisoned for several days in Fort Carré. Despite Napoleon’s history with Antibes, its inhabitants did not support him or his cause when he returned after his exile on Elba island, so he took his men to Golfe-Juan to disembark and plan his return to power.


During the 19th century, Antibes became a popular summer destination among wealthy English and Russian families. Besides drawing the elite, the region also became popular among artists of all kinds. When the already famous artist Picasso came to Antibes in 1946, he was invited to stay at the Grimaldi castle, which the municipality had purchased two decades earlier. During his six-month stay, Picasso painted and made ceramic and tapestry pieces, which he later donated to the town. The Grimaldi castle was eventually converted into the Picasso Museum, which currently exhibits his artwork.

Port Vauban, Fort Carré, Antibes

Port Vauban seen from Fort Carré

Like many towns on the Côte d'Azur, Nice was founded by the Ligures and frequented by the Phoenicians and Greeks. When the Romans arrived in Nice, they occupied the main settlement (where the medieval castle would be built) and founded a fortress that in the coming centuries would become the town center. The town was called Cemenelum, the area which is now known as Cimiez. Among the remains of ancient Cemenelum are a Roman bath complex and amphitheater, which can be visited at the Cimiez archaeological site. Visitors can thoroughly experience the Roman Cimiez at the Archaeology Museum of Nice, located just in front of the amphitheater.

Cimiez archaeological site, Nice

Archaeological site, in Cimiez, Nice.

Massena square, Nice, France

Place Massena

In the Middle Ages, Nice was regularly attacked by the Ottomans and Saracens. The county of Nice changed hands over the years, and was under Italian control for centuries as part of the Kingdom of Savoy. In 1860, Nice became French territory following a referendum that approved the decision. Nice soon began to attract English and Russian aristocracy, as well as members of European Royal families such as Queen Victoria of Great Britain, Tsar Alexander III of Russia, and King Leopold of Belgium, among others. Some of these visitors founded churches and cathedrals and helped to develop the region. The Promenade des Anglais was named in honor of the contributions made by the English. 

The splendor of the region has come to draw visitors from around the world in the last few centuries, eventually cementing the French Riviera as a major tourist destination. Nowadays, Nice remains the heart of the Riviera’s tourism industry.

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