The train from Nice into neighboring Italy speeds through Menton and I notice huge lemons trees and a postcard-perfect Old Town stretching toward the sea. So, after quite a few trips speeding right through Menton en route to Italy, one cold winter day I decide to make Menton my final destination and am pleasantly surprised. This small village is the last city along the Cote d’Azur before reaching the Italian border and is now a favorite day trip from Nice!
First, a little history of this colorful photogenic city. Ruled by the Grimaldi Family of neighboring Monaco from 1346, Menton broke away and declared their freedom in 1848 when the Monaco rulers tried to tax lemon exports. The people rebelled and broke away from Monaco, going under the protection of the King of Sardinia. Due to Menton’s prime location between Italy and France, the city became a pawn between the governments in Genoa and Provence and finally became a part of France in 1860 (Nice followed shortly after, ceding from Italy and becoming part of France in 1861.) Both Nice and Menton retain a very Italian feel, with architecture similar to that found along the Cinque Terre area of coastal Italy.
In the late 1800’s, Menton became popular as a British winter retreat after Dr. Henry Bennet claimed the climate in Menton had cured his tuberculosis. Other TB victims followed him to Menton, also hoping for a cure. Very soon, Queen Victoria discovered the area and the British aristocracy followed. As a result, deluxe hotels and winter palaces were built to house the rich and famous Brits, and the sleepy seaside town of Menton was discovered.
What’s there to do on a day trip from Nice to this quaint, French city?
There are two train stations in Menton. The main station is Menton Gare (Menton) which is about a 10-minute walk to the center of town. The other, Menton Garavan, is located on the eastern edge of town and very near the port. Start your Menton tour by arriving at Menton Gare, wander through the sites, and depart from Menton Garavan. This will allow you to see the sites with minimal backtracking.
Menton’s weather is warmer than other areas of the Riviera and this unique microclimate makes it ideal for growing citrus trees, like the giant lemon trees I spotted from the passing train. In honor of the lemon, Menton holds the Lemon Festival every February during Carnival as a tribute to the citrus economy of the area. Dating back to 1934, the festival spans 3 weeks and offers parades and giant fruit sculptures made of lemons and oranges.
Jean Cocteau Museums
Along with lemons, Menton is famous for a guy named Jean Cocteau (sounds kind of like Jacques Cousteau, but very different). I didn’t know who he was so I did some Googling. He was an artist, a film director, a poet, and a close friend of Picasso, Marlene Dietrich, and Coco Chanel. In 1929 he wrote his most famous work, Les Enfants Terribles, while reportedly detoxing from an opium addiction. He was so connected to Menton there are now three museums displaying his works. (You may need longer than a day trip from Nice to really absorb all of Jean Cocteau!)
Promenade du Soleil
The Menton Promenade is a beautiful area for a nice long walk along the Mediterranean. Dotted with cafes and restaurants lining the water’s edge, it’s a nice place for a stroll or people-watching over a cup of coffee. At the eastern end of the Promenade, just before The Bastion Museum, is a small park with gardens and benches with a perfect sea view. From here, head inland toward the pastel-colored buildings of Old Town.
Reportedly founded by pirates, the medieval Old Town area is a wonderful place to wander and get lost in time. The streets are much narrower than my neighborhood in Nice’s Old Town and are incredibly picturesque with pastel-colored buildings, colorful doorways, hidden alleys and ancient brick archways. The area is a photographer’s dream! On a beautiful Sunday afternoon day trip from Nice, I wander slowly through the narrow streets and see very few other tourists. Basilica St. Michel makes a great starting point, wandering uphill from there to the Old Chateau Cemetery on top of the hill.
Basilica St. Michel
This beautiful, old cathedral is located on the hill in the midst of Old Town and is visible from almost everywhere in the city. Construction began in 1619 at the request of Prince Honoré II of Monaco and took several centuries to complete, with the finishing touches on the facade completed in 1819.
Hours: Open daily 10am – 12 / 3pm – 5pm (closed Saturday and Sunday mornings)
Old Chateau Cemetery
The Old Chateau Cemetery is built on the site of the original castle of Menton, which is no longer standing. The narrow alleys of Old Town all lead uphill and end in a scenic overlook of the beautiful, haunting old cemetery. From here, the view stretches past the port to the nearby Italian border. For some reason, I’m fascinated by old cemeteries and spend time reading the names, ages, and inscriptions carved on the ornate headstones.
East of the Old Town area, and visible from Old Chateau Cemetery, the picturesque port is a nice place to wander around for a while and dream of jumping on a yacht sailing off to Italy. The Menton Garavan train station is located near the port. Here you can hop the train back to Nice …. or continue on to Italy. Next stop – Ventimiglia.
Shopping and Dining
If you need to buy anything lemony, Menton is the place for you! The main shopping area is located at the base of the hill leading up to Old Town. Here you’ll find all things lemon: lemon olive oil, lemon-scented soaps, lemon vinegar, and my personal favorite Lemoncello! This area is also packed with all quaint cafes and restaurants. If you’ve got the time (and the budget) check out Menton’s 2-star Michelin restaurant, Mirazor. Located at 30 Avenue Aristide Briand, this restaurant was named 35th best in the world!
Getting there on a day trip from Nice:
Bus: Bus 100 departs Nice from the bus stop located across the street from Nice Port. Travel time 40-45 minutes. Fare 1.50 EUR each way.
Train: Trains depart regularly from Nice Ville or Nice Riquier train stations. Travel time 35-40 minutes. Fare approximately 6 EUR each way.