Backed by gentle hills and flanked to the south by the heights of the Estérel, warmed by dependable sun but kept bearable in summer by the cool breeze that blows in from the Mediterranean, Cannes is pampered with the luxurious climate that has made it one of the most popular and glamorous resorts in Europe. Its graceful curve of wave-washed sand peppered with chic restaurants and prestigious private beaches, its renowned waterfront promenade strewn with palm trees and poseurs, its status-symbol grand hotels vying for the custom of the Louis Vuitton set—this legend is, to many, the heart and soul of the Côte d'Azur. A tasteful and expensive breeding ground for the upper-upscale, Cannes has long been a sybaritic heaven further glamorized by the ongoing success of its film festival, as famous as (and, in the trade, more respected than) Hollywood's Academy Awards. About the closest many of us will get to feeling like a film star is a stroll here along the famous La Croisette promenade, lined with fancy boutiques and lorded over by the Carlton hotel, the legendary backdrop to Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. Nearly 60 years later with life imitating art, a whopping $53 million worth of jewels was stolen from this same hotel, one of many high-profile heists to hit Cannes during the summer of 2013. Settled first by the Ligurians and then dubbed Cannoïs by the Romans (after the cane that waved in its marshes), Cannes was an important sentinel site for the monks who established themselves on Île St-Honorat in the Middle Ages. Its bay served as nothing more than a fishing port until in 1834 an English aristocrat, Lord Brougham, fell in love with the site during an emergency stopover with a sick daughter. He had a home built here and returned every winter for a sun cure—a ritual quickly picked up by his peers. Between the popularity of Le Train Blue transporting wealthy passengers from Calais, and the introduction in 1936 of France's first paid holidays, Cannes became the destination. La Croisette, which starts at the western end by the Palais des Festivals and leads over to the Jardin Alexandre III, is precisely the sort of place for which the French invented the verb flâner (to dawdle, saunter): from the broad expanse of mostly private beaches to the glamorous shops and luxurious hotels, which these days are filled with the not-so jet set and conventioneers.
Palais des Festivals
Pick up a map at the office in the Palais des Festivals, the scene of the famous Festival International du Film, otherwise known as the Cannes Film Festival. As you leave the information center, follow the Palais to your right to see the red-carpeted stairs that movie A-listers ascend every year. Set into the surrounding pavement, the Allée des Étoiles (Stars' Walk) enshrines some 300 autographed hand imprints—including those of Depardieu, Streep, and Stallone.
This is precisely the sort of place for which the verb flâner (to dawdle, saunter) was invented. Head to this famous waterfront promenade—which runs for 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) from its western terminus by the Palais des Festivals—and allow the esprit de Cannes to take over. Stroll among the palm trees and flowers and crowds of poseurs (fur coats in tropical weather, cell phones on rollerblades, and sunglasses at night). Continue east past the broad expanse of private beaches, glamorous shops, and luxurious hotels (among them the wedding-cake Carlton, famed for its see-and-be-seen terrace-level brasserie). The beaches along here are almost all private, but it's worth forking out the money to get the total Cannes experience.
Climb up Rue St-Antoine into the picturesque vieille ville neighborhood known as Le Suquet, on the site of the original Roman castrum. Shops proffer Provençal goods, and the atmospheric cafés provide a place to catch your breath; the pretty pastel shutters, Gothic stonework, and narrow passageways are lovely distractions.
From the Vieux Port it's a 15-minute round-trip to Île Ste-Marguerite. Its Fort Royal, built by Richelieu and improved by Vauban, offers views over the ramparts to the rocky island coast and the open sea. There are two restaurants on the island, L'Éscale and La Guérite.
From the Vieux Port (at the end of the parking Laubeuf), Île St-Honorat can be reached in 20 minutes. Smaller and wilder than Ste-Marguerite, it's home to an active monastery and the ruins of its 11th-century predecessor. The monks are more famous in the region for their nonreligious activity: manufacturing and selling a rather strong liqueur called Lérina.
Musée de la Castre
The hill is topped by an 11th-century château, housing the Musée de la Castre, with its mismatched collection of weaponry, ethnic artifacts, and ceramics amassed by a 19th century aristocrat. The imposing four-sided Tour du Suquet (Suquet Tower) was built in 1385 as a lookout against Saracen-led invasions.
Musée de la Mer
This complex is famous for reputedly being the prison of the Man in the Iron Mask. Inside you can see his cell and hear his story; the truth of his captivity is not certain, however, it is true that many Huguenots were confined here during Louis XIV's religious scourges. Also here is a Roman boat dating from the 1st century BC and a collection of amphorae and pottery recovered from ancient shipwrecks.