At first glance, it really doesn't look all that impressive. There's a pretty port with cafés charging €5 for a coffee and a picturesque old town in sugared-almond hues, but there are many prettier in the hills nearby. There are sandy beaches, rare enough on the Riviera, and old-fashioned squares with plane trees and pétanque players, but these are a dime a dozen throughout Provence. So what made St-Tropez an internationally known locale? Two words: Brigitte Bardot. When this pulpeuse (voluptuous) teenager showed up in St-Tropez on the arm of Roger Vadim in 1956 to film And God Created Woman, the heads of the world snapped around. Neither the gentle descriptions of writer Guy de Maupassant (1850–93), nor the watercolor tones of Impressionist Paul Signac (1863–1935), nor the stream of painters who followed (including Matisse and Bonnard) could focus the world's attention on this seaside hamlet as did this one sensual woman in a scarf, Ray-Bans, and capris. Vanity Fair ran a big article, "Saint Tropez Babylon," detailing the over-the-top petrodollar parties, megayachts, and Beyoncé–d paparazzi. But don't be turned off: the next year, Stewart, Tabori & Chang released an elegant coffee-table book, Houses of St-Tropez, packed with photos of supremely tasteful and pretty residences, many occupied by fashion designers, artists, and writers. Once a hangout for Colette, Anaïs Nin, and Françoise Sagan, the town still earns its old moniker, the "Montparnasse of the Mediterranean." Yet you might be surprised to find that this byword for billionaires is so small and insulated. The lack of train service, casinos, and chain hotels keeps it that way. Yet fame, in a sense, came too fast for St-Trop. Unlike the chic resorts farther east, it didn't have the decades-old reputation of the sort that would attract visitors all year around. For a good reason: its location on the south side of the gulf puts it at the mercy of the terrible mistral winter winds. So, in summer the crowds descend and the prices rise into the stratosphere. In July and August, you must be carefree about the sordid matter of cash. After all, at the most Dionysian nightclub in town, a glass of tap water goes for $37 and when the mojo really gets going, billionaires think nothing of "champagne-spraying" the partying crowds—think World Series celebrations but with $1,000 bottles of Roederer Cristal instead of Gatorade. Complaining about summer crowds, overpricing, and lack of customer service has become a tourist sport and yet this is what makes St-Tropez—described by the French daily newspaper Le Figaro as the place you can see "the greatest number of faces per square meter"—as intriguing as it is seductive. It is, after all, the hajj for hedonists. Anything associated with the distant past seems almost absurd in St-Tropez. Still, the place has a history that predates the invention of the string bikini, and people have been finding reasons to come here since AD 68, when a Roman soldier from Pisa named Torpes was beheaded for professing his Christian faith in front of Emperor Nero, transforming this spot into a place of pilgrimage. Today, a different sort of celeb is worshipped. Take an early-morning stroll (before a 9 am pétit-dej at Dior des Lices) along the harbor or down the narrow streets—the rest of the town will still be sleeping off the Night Before—and you'll see just how charming St-Tropez is. There's a weekend's worth of boutiques to explore and many cute cafés where you can sit under colorful awnings and watch the spectacle that is St-Trop saunter by. Along medieval streets lined with walled gardens and little squares set with dripping fountains, you can discover historic delights like the Chapelle de la Misericorde, topped by its wrought-iron campanile, and Rue Allard, lined with picturesque houses such as the Maison du Maure. In the evening, everyone (well, at least those less flush) moves from the cafés on the quays to the cafés on the squares, particularly Place des Lices, where a seat at Le Café allows you to watch the boules players under the glow of hundreds of electric bulbs. In the end, it's not too hard to experience what the artists first found to love and what remain the village's real charms: its soft light, its warm pastels, and the scent of the sea wafting in from the afterfront.
There is something about St-Tropez that makes shopping simply irresistible—unlike Cannes, you’ll be welcomed into the stores no matter what you look like or what you're wearing. Rue Sibilli, behind the Quai Suffren, is lined with all kinds of trendy boutiques, many carrying those all-important sunglasses. Tuck in behind here to Place de la Garonne for some extra hip purchases.
La Table du Marché
This charming bistro, tearoom, and boutique from celebrity chef Christophe Leroy offers up a casual atmosphere, warm service, and a mouth-watering spread of regional specialties alongside a play on the classics: mini goat-cheese burgers, scrambled eggs à la sea urchin, and chocolate spring rolls with spicy caramel sauce. Lunchtime visitors can dive into a nicely balanced set menu or choose from a selection of goods seductively on display.
The busy terrace here often doubles as a stadium for different factions cheering on favorite local pétanque players in the Place des Lices. You, too, can play: just borrow some boules from the friendly bar staff and have your pastis bottle at the ready—you'll need it to properly appreciate the full experience. Hilarious "beginner" pétanque soirees are on tap Saturday nights in spring and summer. The food is not quite as good as the setting but varied (try the Provençal beef stew or traditional fish soup) and there's a well-priced lunch menu. Open daily from 8 am to 3 am, Le Café always seems packed, so reservations are strongly recommended.
Musée de l'Annonciade
The legacy of the artists who loved St-Tropez has been carefully preserved in this extraordinary museum, housed in a 14th-century chapel just inland from the southwest corner of the Vieux Port. Cutting-edge temporary exhibitions keep visitors on their toes while works stretching from Pointillists to Fauves to Cubists line the walls. Signac, Matisse, Braque, Dufy, Vuillard, and Rouault are all here, and their work traces the evolution of painting from Impressionism to Expressionism. Temporary exhibits feature local talent and up-and-coming international artists.
Head up Rue de la Citadelle to these 16th-century ramparts, which stand in a lovely hilltop park offering a fantastic view of the town and the sea. Amid today's bikini-clad sun worshippers it's hard to imagine St-Tropez as a military outpost, but inside the Citadelle's dungeon the modern Musée de l'histoire maritime tropézienne (St-Tropez Maritime Museum), which opened in 2013, proves otherwise with its stirring homage to those who served the nation.
Place des Lices
Enjoy a time-out in the the social center of the Old Town, also called the Place Carnot, just off the Montée G.-Ringrave as you descend from the Citadelle. A symmetrical forest of plane trees provides shade to rows of cafés and restaurants, skateboarders, children, and grandfatherly pétanque players. The square becomes a moveable feast (for both eyes and palate) on market days—Tuesday and Saturday—while at night a café seat is as coveted as a quayside seat during the day. Just as Deborah Kerr and David Niven once did in Bonjour Tristesse, watch the boule players under the glow of hundreds of electric bulbs. Heading back to the Vieux Port area, take in the boutiques lining Rues Sibilli, Clemenceau, or Gambetta to help accessorize your evening look—you never know when that photographer from Elle will be snapping away at the trendoisie.
Bordered by Quai de l'Épi, Quai Bouchard, Quai Peri, Quai Suffren, and Quai Jean-Jaurès, Vieux Port is a place for strolling and looking over the shoulders of artists painting their versions of the view on easels set up along the water's edge. Meanwhile, folding director's chairs at the famous port-side cafés Le Gorille (named for its late, exceptionally hirsute manager), Café de Paris, and Sénéquier are well placed for observing the cast of St-Tropez's living theater play out its colorful roles.