A weekend in the south of France may conjure up thoughts of Cannes or St-Tropez, but if you’re looking to escape the hordes, Hyères is a unique hideaway.
Located between Marseille and Nice, Hyères is considered the original French Riviera, with the aristocracy regularly retreating to its winter warmth in the 18th century, followed by the artistic (Leo Tolstoy, Rudyard Kipling, DH Lawrence) not to mention royalty (Queen Victoria). Today the French (comprising 70% of Hyères’ tourism industry) have been largely keeping it to themselves. Not surprising, given the picturesque panoramas, award-winning beaches, exquisite food, gardens and maritime national park. Sorry France, the secret’s out: here’s our guide to the perfect weekend in Hyères.
Amble up to Hyères’ medieval Vieille Ville (Old Town) in the afternoon to get your bearings. Admire the architectural grandeur of the Knights Templar Tower and the three concentric city walls. Weave your way in and out of the narrow streets, stopping for sustenance at delis, biscuiteries – try Délices Lamarque (deliceslamarque.com) – and wine bars. A good spot for local Provençal produce, particularly the addictive lemon-artichoke compote with truffle oil, is Cave Massillon (cave-massillon.com). It would be wrong not to indulge in a cheeky glass of the palest pink rosé, after all Hyères boasts 17 wineries. But don’t get too carried away: there’s a ferry to catch.
Catch a taxi to La Tour Fondue and jump on one of the regularly departing TLV-TVM services. Tonight you have a date with a romantic sunset on the most visited of Hyères’ three Îles d'Or (golden islands): Île de Porquerolles, just 10 minutes across the Mediterranean Sea. Stroll around the island inhaling the pine and eucalyptus-scented air and indulge in an ice cream/sorbet from Cocofrio. As the sunset hour approaches, the best place to watch is from a cosy bungalow at L’Escale (facebook.com/lescale.porquerolles) by the marina. Follow this up by dining on the freshest seafood at Le Pelagos and you’ll be wishing you’d booked more than a weekend here.
Start your day with either a bike ride around Porquerolles (cycles for hire at Le Cycle Porquerollais), windsurfing, a swim or a bit of stand-up paddleboarding – seek out friendly Alex at Iléo Nautisme Porquerolles (ileo-porquerolles.fr).
Grab a coffee and a croissant from harbourside l’Orangeraie then jump on the ferry back to Hyères. Now’s a good time to pick up your hire car. Apart from Hyères’ many attractions lying atop steep inclines, they’re also relatively widespread. First stop: the bustling Saturday morning farmers market on Ave Gambetta. Mingle with locals picking up the best seasonal produce from the region, whether that be pretty pink peonies (Hyères is France’s capital of cut flowers), the best cherries you’ll ever taste, honey, succulent ‘petit violet’ artichokes or peaches.
Take your market supplies to picnic among the palm trees in Olbius Riquier Park, one of Hyères’ four ‘Remarkable Gardens’; this one features 7 hectares of landscaped gardens. There’s also lots of activities for children, such as pony and train rides.
Art and architecture lovers will adore Villa Noailles, located in Parc St-Bernard. This modernist house of palatial proportions (15 bedrooms, an indoor swimming pool, squash court) was built in the 1920s for Charles de Noailles and his wife Marie-Laure, art patrons and friends/supporters of Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray and Salvador Dalí, to name a few. It’s now a gallery telling the story of the Noailles, and also hosts international fashion, photography, music, architecture and art events.
Whether you head beach-side or stay in the atmospheric Old Town, there are plenty of happening bars and excellent dinner options. For contemporary Provençal food with a healthy emphasis, try Michelin-guide-listed Joy in the centre of town: don’t miss the Pissaldiere or the lavender crème brûlée if they’re on the menu. Further down the peninsula, the locals’ not-so-well-kept secret, Le Pradeau Plage (pradeauplage.com), hidden down a dusty, bumpy, bamboo-lined road off Ave des Arbanais, offers superb seafood by the sea. The salad of scallops, prawn, tuna tataki, crab and langoustines with citrus salsa could well be the perfect finish to your day.
Antique lovers and vintage enthusiasts might want to check out the Sunday morning flea market, starting at 6am at La Capte. But if the weather’s fine, what better way to see how Hyères’ three ‘golden isles’ got their names than with a boat cruise around Porquerolles, Port-Cros and Île du Levant. Departing from both St-Pierre and Port du Niel marinas, Beachtours (beach-tours.fr) can customise your trip, depending on whether you want to stop to dive around shipwrecks, swim, watch whales/dolphins or simply float along taking photos and enjoying the sun.
A stop at the smallest, most mountainous island, Port-Cros, is a must for hikers: this is home to the first maritime national park in Europe. It's a car-free island and the perfect place to do brunch, people-watch and listen to the cicadas. Pull up a chair at one of the harbourside restaurants and watch the boats coming in.
And naturists? You’re well catered for over at Île du Levant, where nudism has been a way of life since 1931, with naked walking allowed everywhere, bar a few public spaces.
For your remaining hours back on mainland Hyères, drive around the Presqu’île de Giens, stopping to wander the village of Giens’ pretty main square and enjoy its panoramic views. Seafood fans should head for a late lunch at Le Niel down on Le Port du Niel where only fresh fish from its harbour is served. Indulge in a classic soup de poisson (fish soup): rub your bread with the accompanying raw garlic, top with rouille (saffron and chilli sauce), cheese, then dunk in the fish soup. Finish with scoops of lavender sorbet, violet figs and calissons d’Aix (traditional French candy). So Provençal!
For a view to remember, head up the hill to Hotel Provençal. While guests get the privilege of its two-hectare park with stunning views over the Mediterranean, diners at its restaurant can also enjoy use of its scenic swimming pool: a strong contender for the most idyllic swim of your trip.
Where to stay
Hyères: The Mercure has a very central, though not terribly attractive location, next to a highway and a chain supermarket. We also found the wifi and elevator service patchy, but, just 10 minutes from the airport and a stroll from the Old Town, it’s ideal if you won’t be hiring a car. If views are your thing, opt for a stay at Hôtel Provençal in Giens.
Porquerolles: Just 400m from the beach and a six-minute walk from the ferry port, Hôtel Résidence Les Medes is perfectly located. Buffet breakfasts are delicious.
How to get there
Toulon-Hyères Airport (a 10-minute drive from the city centre) has direct international flights from Brussels, Rotterdam, London and Bournemouth during the summer season. Aéroport Marseille-Provence and Nice-Côte d'Azur airports have international flights year-round; both are 1 ½ hours’ drive from Hyères.
Karyn travelled to Hyères with support from the Office de Tourisme Hyères les Palmiers (hyeres-tourisme.com) and Atout France (rendezvousenfrance.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.