Winter on the French Riviera is an absolute delight, as the summer crowds thin out, the snow gathers on the Alps behind the coast, and the landscape is covered in a vivid yellow carpet of mimosa flowers.
Whether it’s a crisp blue sky day with endless views of sparkling sea, or a blustery afternoon where the palm trees bend and wave along the seafront at Cannes, there’s nothing quite as lovely as warming up after a walk with a steaming cup of vin chaud, a mug of rich hot chocolate, or a paper cone full of roasted chestnuts.
And with the Cote d’Azur lighting up with Christmas markets, and the ski resorts within easy reach of the coast, the French Riviera offers a winter experience with just the right amount of joie de vivre.
Here are some delicious wintry drinks and treats to enjoy in France, as well as a few select places to enjoy them.
Whether you want to call it vin chaud, mulled wine, or gluhwein, the fact remains: the first sip of this warm red wine spiced with cloves and cinnamon is pure Christmas in a glass.
And on the French Riviera, there are so many places to enjoy this wintery beverage!
Is there anything more festive than wandering around a brightly-lit Christmas market on a dark winter’s night, cold air on your face and a warm cup of mulled wine in your hand? We think not. Wonderful Christmas markets spring up all along the French Riviera in the wintertime, as well as in the pretty hill villages behind the coast. The Christmas markets at Nice and Antibes even have a giant Ferris wheel on site, giving dizzying views across the city, sea and mountains.
All of these Christmas markets have pretty little Christmas stalls with pitched rooves dusted in fake snow, their stallholders wrapped up tight in scarves dishing out steaming cups of vin chaud—as well as other warming treats like roasted chestnuts wrapped in paper, gooey Nutella crepes, and unbelievably moreish slices of socca sprinkled with pepper and wrapped in tinfoil.
The Christmas markets (and the yummy food and drink to be found at them) is one of the best things about a winter holiday in the South of France. Every time you drink mulled wine in future, you’ll be instantly transported back to that holiday feeling of winter on the French Riviera.
Local Cafés and Bars
If you’re looking for vin chaud outside the Christmas market experience, our best tip is to go local. Find a café or bar displaying the sign ‘maison vin chaud’, which means they make the drink in house. Perhaps even more importantly, look for a bustling café full of locals, because you want a busy place where the vin chaud isn’t allowed to get old, as it becomes bitter when it’s reheated.
Besides, the experience of walking into a warm, noisy French café on a cold winter’s day and taking a table to watch the comings and goings is so utterly French that you really can’t miss it when on holiday! Avoid the sophisticated bars aimed at tourists and go somewhere with a bit of local heart and colour if you can.
In Antibes, try one of the cheap and cheerful local bars up near the market, or Le Vieil Antibes café by the fountain on Rue Republique. In Cannes, you might like to enjoy the cosy atmosphere of 72 Croisette, sipping vin chaud as you look out across the boulevard to the superyachts in the port. In Nice, Bistrot Chaud Vin really ought to be a winner for mulled wine given the name, and in Monaco, try the unpretentious Monte Carlo Bar in La Condamine, any time of day or night.
One of the most incredible aspects of a winter holiday on the French Riviera is the proximity to the ski-fields, with the closest ski resorts only an hour away. And vin chaud is an unmissable part of the French ski field experience!
You might like to stop at one of the mountain terraces for a steaming cup of the mulled wine between ski runs, or get into the spirit of things with an après ski session, with hot mugs of vin chaud, spiked hot chocolate, or shots of schnapps warming up the chill in your bones.
Of the ski resorts within 2 hours of Nice airport, Isola 2000 has the most bars and nightlife if you want to get into the après ski spirit after a brisk day on the slopes, but you’ll find that all the ski fields in the area offer vin chaud and a welcoming buzz in the evenings.
Again, the key is to look for a busy place that won’t let the vin chaud sit around for long enough to get bitter!
The first question you must decide on: what is your perfect hot chocolate? Is it the powdered stuff you have at home, laden with marshmallows? Or is it French hot chocolate, with its dark and silken combination of real bitter chocolate and milk? Or perhaps your idea of perfect hot chocolate is Italian, which is so thick and gooey you can almost stand your spoon up in it?
You can find all three kinds of hot chocolate on the French Riviera, all coming under the title of ‘chocolat chaud’. You’ll generally find the powdered cocoa version at your cheaper cafes, but we urge you towards the decadent drinking chocolate experience to be found at the finer establishments of the Riviera.
Famous Luxury Hotels
Drinking top quality hot chocolate in one of the world’s most opulent hotels is not a bad way to spend a leisurely hour or two. A hot chocolate at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco is a memorable, refined affair, as is the hot chocolate served during high tea at the glamorous Hotel Carlton Intercontinental.
Perhaps the very best hot chocolate, however, is to visit one the French chocolatiers along the Riviera, whose thick delicious concoctions are pure bliss on the tastebuds. Jean Luc Pele’ has flagship stores in both Cannes and Antibes, where you can sit in the little nook overlooking the street and drink your hot chocolate and feast on their heavenly pastries and artisan chocolates.
As mentioned, many cafés now use cocoa powder in the American or British style, which results in a fairly thin, not particularly chocolatey drink. If you’re looking for thick, Italian style chocolate while on holiday, one very good option is Caffe Lalu in Cannes, which incidentally, also does very good coffee (not an easy thing to find in France!)
If you’re visiting the coast in February, you’re guaranteed to get a superb hot chocolate at the Antibes Chocolate Festival, ‘Bread, Love, and Chocolate’, which begins, rather fittingly, on Valentine’s Day. Warm your hands with a hot chocolate and take a wander through the port, where you’ll see crew on deck of the beautiful yachts, beginning to ready them for the spring yacht charters.
Make your own spiked hot chocolate
If your accommodation is self-catering, you can experiment by buying top quality chocolate and milk, with pouring cream to add if you like.
If you’re looking to really get in the spirit, add a glug of alcohol into the mix for a spiked hot chocolate. Boozy hot chocolate is utterly, utterly Christmassy and very warming on a cold night. A splash of dark rum adds a wicked depth, while liquors like Kahlua, Baileys and Amaretto are huge crowd pleasers.
People are getting ever more creative with their spiked hot chocolate creations, whether it’s the recent trend for red wine in hot chocolate, a dash of Guinness, or the magical combination of Nutella and Frangelico for the perfect hazelnut hot choccy.
Other Wintery Drinks to Enjoy in France
A glass of Armagnac, cognac, or calvados will light the fire in your belly, and are perfect tipples for a cold winter’s evening. Whatever your favourite liquor is, we suggest that you head to a bar with an atmosphere of French Riviera glamour, and preferably some classy live music. Think Bar Americain in Monaco, where live jazz and soft armchairs will put you in the mood, the historic bar at Nice’s stunning Hotel Negresco, or the piano bar at Bar l’Amiral at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes.
If you fancy something a bit more lively and a good sight less salubrious, it’s hard to go past the famous Absinthe Bar in Antibes, where you head downstairs into a vaulted cellar bar festooned with art deco posters and silly hats. Once you take a seat, you’ll choose off a vast absinthe menu, and a glass absinthe fountain is delivered to your table, along with ornate spoons and cubes of sugar. The absinthe is beautifully warming…and very alcoholic. Be warned!
On some nights there’s a musician playing piano, and this often leads to rowdy sing a-longs and much hat swapping. It’s a fabulous night out, but check before heading there, as winter hours can be wildly undependable.
Of course, there’s also the option of heading to a local café and enjoying a laid back glass of pastis, diluted with just the right amount of water. This is best drunk in a café with a nice warming fug and lots of activity for people watching.
With these decadent warming drinks on the menu, winter on the French Riviera will warm the cockles of your heart. Happy indulging!