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If you’re exploring the Cote d’Azur, don’t miss a day trip to Menton, one of the unexpected pleasures of the French Riviera. Here is a fun travel guide that tells you the best things to do in Menton, a lemon-scented town in the South of France.
If you have one day in Menton in the South of France, there are two obvious attractions: lemons and Jean Cocteau. A sleeper of a Riviera town, and a popular resort for genteel Brits in the 1800s, Menton doesn’t get nearly the same press as glitzy Cannes or larger Nice, but it has a softly enduring appeal.
Important update: The Musée Jean Cocteau is currently closed due to a devastating flood last October.
Where in France is Menton?
The town of Menton is the last rail stop on the glamorous Côte d’Azur before you get to Italy, and is well worth visiting, at least for a day. Driving distance from Nice to Menton is about 30 km (20 miles).
By public transportation from Nice to Menton, you can catch at train from Nice Ville Station. The fastest Nice Menton route is a direct train that takes 28 minutes, and there are numerous trains every day. Most direct trains take just under 40 minutes.
It’s also easy to get to from other popular South of France destinations such as Cannes and Antibes – and it’s just a quick skip from Monaco.
What to see in one day in Menton. Besides lemons and Jean Cocteau.
There are several things to do in Menton and places to stroll. You’ll find Belle Epoque villas, slightly faded in pale yellows and dusty pinks, as well as beaches; gardens; a steep twisty old town capped by an atmospheric cemetery, a scenic port and a couple of fine restaurants. And palm trees. We mustn’t forget the palm trees.
Let’s see. What else does Menton have to offer? Oh, yes. A cat who thinks he’s a rock star.
Is one day in Menton enough?
With some preplanning it’s possible to see Menton in one day. If you travel like I do, however, mismanaging your time and consistently getting lost, you may want to go twice. Or three times.
Or you can read this Menton blog post, learn from my mistakes and save some time. Then, and only then, and possibly not even then, will one day in Menton be enough.
Alternatively, you might want to stay a few days. Much quieter than many other seaside towns on the French Riviera, Menton was a favourite with Queen Victoria, who had a much publicized visit here in 1882, immediately putting it on the British travelers map.
A warm climate
Actually, Menton was already on the British ex pat map. People were drawn by its unique microclimate that makes it just slightly warmer than most French coastal towns, and allows lemon trees to flourish year round. In the mid 1800s it was widely touted as a health bestowing destination, and the moneyed British upper crust moved in.
Some of its illustrious guests included Sir Winston Churchill, Aubrey Beardsley and writer Katherine Mansfield. So you can see, that while Menton isn’t as well known as some of the other glitzy resorts on the French Riviera, it’s certainly not undiscovered.
If you do decide to stay in Menton overnight, the 4-star Napoleon Hotel has a modern artsy vibe, a pool, fitness room and landscaped gardens.
More traditional is the stately Royal Westminster, with a privileged seaside location.
An affordable option is the central 3-star Hotel de Londres.
Jean Cocteau in Menton
Today, however, Menton is more famous for its favourite French citizen, Jean Cocteau. (And no, he isn’t the same person as Jacques Cousteau, the undersea explorer who also liked the South of France, but yes, they do have the same initials.)
Who was Jean Cocteau?
Jean Cocteau is one of those famous people you assume you know, but perhaps, when you think about it, you’ve no idea whatsoever. If you are one of these people (and I’m not saying you are, you may have written his biography for all I know, in which case, please comment and leave some insightful Jean Cocteau in Menton tips), then let me enlighten you.
Jean Cocteau was an artist, a film director, a poet, a sometimes opium addict and a close friend of Picasso (and Marlene Dietrich and Coco Chanel). His most famous work is the novel, Les Enfants Terribles, which he wrote in 1929 while detoxing from an opium addiction.
Especially important is the fact that he liked Menton very much. There. Consider yourself enlightened. For true Jean Cocteau enlightenment, however, you need to visit Menton, because there are many Jean Cocteau sights and you will learn much about him.
Jean Cocteau sights in Menton
There are three Jean Cocteau sights here and even though there are a lot of other things to do in Menton, especially if you’re here on a day trip, it’s possible to see them all – if you time it right.
Important update: The Musée Jean Cocteau is currently closed due to a devastating flood last October.
The largest attraction in Menton is the Musée Jean Cocteau, collection Séverin Wunderman à Menton. You can’t miss it. Just walk alongside the oceanside promenade – the museum stands out like a half Surrealist, half Flintstones-ish building, a square of curved white pillars that look a bit like polished bones interspersed with dark glass.
In case you do manage to miss Musée Jean Cocteau, the Jean Cocteau Museum is located at 2, quai de Monléon. And if you should happen to stumble upon it by chance rather than design, you’re halfway to becoming a Jean Cocteau acolyte, because he once wrote, quite cryptically: “Find first, seek later.”
Find first, seek later
It’s a marvellous quote when you think about it, and comes in handy any time you are lost. Try it out for yourself.
What is there to see at the Jean Cocteau Museum?
Inside the Cocteau Museum, depending on the current exhibition, you’ll find drawings, paintings, ceramics and film clips of this multi-talented artist.
There are nearly 1,000 works of Jean Cocteau’s in the collection, which were donated by the fanatical fan/collector Sévérin Wunderman. You’ll also likely see some Picassos and perhaps a Modigliani or two.
Jean Cocteau sight #2: the Bastion
Right after I visited the Jean Cocteau Museum I hopped over to the Bastion. It’s a tiny little fortress built in the 1600s that overlooks the Mediterranean.
It’s not easy to miss the main entrance, but somehow I did, and possibly you’ll want to avoid going behind the wall and around to the secluded side of the Bastion like I did, as you might happen upon a group of local teenagers sitting around in a circle, and it will be just you and them and the lonely sea and then you’ll feel quite stupid and pretend to be taking photographs and not looking for the doorway that was right in front of you after all.
Don’t worry. If this happens just try to look cryptic and say, “Seek first, find later.” And then put on your sunglasses and stroll away. You see? I told you the phrase would come in handy.
What can you see at the Bastion?
The wonderful thing about the Bastion is that Jean Cocteau was given full range to decorate it. His stone mosaics outside in the walls are a delight, and its such a great contrast, the gloomy old fortress interior and his lively whimsical works.
The Bastion is also very small, so if you’re tired you can see it in just a few minutes then feel justified in having a drink because you have successfully engaged in something cultural.
Jean Cocteau sight #3 – The Wedding Chapel
Sadly, my new “find first, seek later” mantra didn’t work out so well when I went in search of the third Jean Cocteau site, the Wedding Chapel, because (and here’s where you should learn from my mistakes) the wedding chapel closes at 4 p.m., not at 6 p.m. like the other two Jean Cocteau sights.
And I really think the woman at the tourist office might have mentioned that to me when she told me the closing time for the museum was 6, so go to the Menton Wedding Chapel first. You also can’t view it if there is a wedding going on, so be prepared for disappointment.
About the Wedding Hall. In 1955, the town of Menton decided to update their unused former courtroom wedding hall, and gave Jean Cocteau free reign to decorate it. This he did, between 1957 and 1958, creating a fantastical room with frescoes of enamoured lovers, romance and marriage, and complete with guest appearances by Orpheus, Eurydice and the centaurs.
The style is linear and the theme of (awwwwww) eternal love is heart warming and Cocteau designed not just the murals but the doors, candelabras and carpets as well.
The Wedding Chapel, or Salle des Mariages, is located in the Menton City Hall at 17 rue de la Republique and if you happen to be eloping to the South of France, perhaps you can get married there.
A second Jean Cocteau quote to live by
Mindful of another Cocteau quote, “See your disappointments as good fortune,” I chose to see missing the Wedding Chapel as a good thing, because the other mistake I made, and continuously do so in France, is to want lunch at 3 p.m., and then the restaurants I really want to eat at, like the fabulous friendly Petit Port, has closed until dinnertime.
So, by having to go back to Menton a second time to see the Wedding Chapel and on my second trip to Menton I made sure to get hungry before 2 p.m., I got to eat lunch at Petit Port.
Restaurants in Menton
I love a restaurant where you can put yourself in the hands of the owner (not literally, obviously). Gabby, the owner of Petit Port, suggested one of the restaurant’s specialties, courgette flowers (sort of like a drumstick-shaped zucchini). Stuffed with red millet, fish and potato, they came lightly deep fried – lighter than any tempura – and were served with salad and edible flowers.
At least I assumed they were edible because I ate them and didn’t die.
The meal at Petit Port was exquisite and so far, it’s been my favourite meal of this South of France trip. Well, except maybe for the beef tartare at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. Petit Port is located at 4 rue du Jonquier. Tel: +33 4 93 35 82 62.
Mirazur – a 3-star Michelin Restaurant in Menton
Had I wanted to walk further, I would have opted for the 3-star Michelin restaurant, Mirazur, on 30 av. Aristide-Briand, Tel: 334918686. And now I’m kicking myself for not making the effort, because Mirazur continues to grow in fame and regularly makes the list of the top restaurants in the world. Yes. Seriously.
Helmed by Argentinian chef Mauro Colagreco, the restaurant combines chef Colagreco’s Argentinian and Italian heritage with French cuisine and local market produce from nearby Italy and France.
Yes, I missed out. But I had such a lovely meal at Petit Port, with its quiet shady terrace and friendly owner – at one point, he brought over a pot of basil for me just to smell – that I would have missed out had I not been so lazy.
If you stay overnight or have more than one day in Menton, however, I recommend trying both.
Menton Old Town
After you’ve eaten you’ll want to wander around (this means up) the medieval Old Town.
One of the most popular things to do in Menton is to visit the cemetery. Located at the very top of the Old Town, the Cemetery of the Old Chateau is famous, interestingly enough, for a Mr. William Webb Ellis, who invented rugby. It also offers wonderful views.
Menton is famous for citrus
In Menton, when life gives you lemons, you won’t be bothered making lemonade. You’ll be too busy making – or at least purchasing – lemon-infused olive oil, candied lemon peel, lemon vinegar, Lemoncello liqueur and/or lemon-scented soaps.
Menton’s love affair with lemons is due to its mild microclimate, which allows citrus trees to grow year round, and the shops do their best to lure you in with all their lemon-y ware And they do a fine job of it – see if you can go and not buy something. I dare you.
What to buy on a day trip to Menton
I bought a bottle of lemon olive oil at Au pays du citron de Menton at 22 rue Saint Michel. Yum. And now I’m eating waaay too baguettes many drenched in lemony olive oil, but when I look at my stomach in the mirror I blame the mirror not Menton (and certainly not my lack of willpower).
This is because Jean Cocteau said that “Mirrors would do well to reflect a little more before sending back images,” and I totally agree with him, so instead of getting depressed about it I try to laugh, because Jean Cocteau also said that we should, “Fight any instinct to be humorless, for humorlessness is the worst of all absurdities.”
And who wants to be humourless in Menton?
Travel tips for Menton, France
Okay, maybe I lied. Maybe you can’t see all of Menton in a day, although I stand by conviction that you can see a heck of a lot. If you have more time, below you’ll find a list of other things to do in Menton.
More things to see in Menton, France
Palais de Carnolès
This pale pink and carved stone former palace was once owned by the Grimaldi family and was their summer residence. Located on the Avenue de la Madone, Carnolès Palace now houses the Musee des Beaux Arts, the city’s art museum, and is set in a garden filled with Europe’s most extensive collection of citrus trees.
Val Rahmeh Botannical Garden
These beautiful gardens are the legacy of the British aristocrat, Lord Radcliffe, who used Menton’s mild microclimate to nurture a lavish garden of exotic tropical and subtropical plants including a profusion of fruits and the rare toromiro tree, now extinct in the wild.
Say what? And, um, when I read the City of Menton’s official website about the Val Rahmeh Botannical Garden, named for Lord Radcliffe’s wife, I learned that it also had another owner, who, and I quote was, “The last proprietor, a rich and eccentric British whore, who loves flowers to passion.”
All the more intriguing to visit, if you ask me. My gosh, I love researching trips to the South of France.
Address: Val Rahmeh Botannical Garden, Avenue Saint-Jacques 06500 Menton
Jardin de la Serre de la Madone
Menton is a garden city, and if you’re a garden fan, you’ll be spoiled for choice. One of the other botanical attractions in Menton, is the Jardin de la Serre de la Madone is filled with rare plants and was created by a botanist from America named Lawrence Johnson. Located on hilly terrain in the Gorbio Valley, inland from the coast, it fell to ruin for many years, but has been partially restored.
Here’s a helpful reader note about the Jardine Serre de la Madone, which you might find helpful. Thanks, Brenda!
She says: “We did visit the Jardins Serre de la Madone, which were quite lovely (though still pretty untamed). We stopped at the Menton tourist office to figure out the best way to get to the gardens as they are about 4 kilometers from town and it was late in the day. We took a taxi as the bus line was quite a walk from the tourist office. Cost one way was 20 euros!!! The tourist office either didn’t know that or think that it was important to tell us.
We took the bus (one euro fifty cents) from the gardens back to the train station. We had to wait almost an hour for the bus. The hike up to the cemetery was worth every step.”
Saint Michael the Archangel Basilica
Four centuries old, the Basilica of Saint Michel is an ornate Baroque church and is visited by some 100,000 people a year. Work on it began in 1619 but it wasn’t completed for more than two centuries. Its bell tower, 53 metres high, is striking, as is its forecourt with its black and white stone mosaic ground.
Beaches on the French Riviera are notoriously pebbly, but you can access some sandier beaches between old port and the Garavan Marina in Menton. Most charge a fee though there is a small free beach, and they offer good views of Menton’s old town.
There is also a beach in front of the Jean Cocteau Museum.
Probably the most popular Menton beaches are Les Sablettes, which is fairly sheltered, and the long curve of the Plage du Fossan.
More about getting to Menton
Menton is easy to get to by Regional TER Rail if you’re staying in the South of France. Perfect for a day trip if you’re staying in Cannes, Nice or Monaco. Get off at the stop past Monaco called Menton Gare (Menton Station). There are two train stations in Menton. The other, Menton Garavan, is further east.
If you prefer to do a tour there are many day trips that include Menton. Most leave from Nice. For a trip with a food twist, you can explore the nearby Italian town of St Remo and Menton with a San Remo Italian Markets and Menton Full-Day Tour from Nice. From US $101. Check prices and availability here.
A 5-hour Taste of Italy and Menton Tour from Nice starts at $73.32. Check availability and dates here.
More pricy, but good for a group of up to 8, is an all-day Italian Markets, Menton and Monaco van tour from $767. Check it out here.
Visit my travel blog post Things to do in the South of France for plenty of ideas on where to go, why to go and what to do there.