Not Just a Summer Haunt: St-Tropez in Low Season

Not Just a Summer Haunt: St-Tropez in Low Season

Behind the glamour and glitz, St-Tropez is still a fishing village at heart and you can catch a glimpse of its true self by visiting outside the high of the summer season.

It’s easy to overlook the hues of St-Tropez’s history because you’re being blinded by the neon lights of its present day. But if you visit in spring or autumn you’ll catch more than a glimpse of the fishing village of old and the character and traditions that make it so special.

The 15th century is the first bookmark I’ll stick in the pages of St-Tropez’s history book. At the time, the place was deserted. People had been scared off by the pirate-infested seas and in a bid to repopulate the area, the Earl of Provence and Italian nobleman Rafael de Garezzio signed a treaty which said that a group of families would come from Genoa in Italy to settle in St-Tropez, and would live free of taxes and duties to the French Kingdom.

St-Tropez stayed independent in this way for 200 years until 1672, when Louis XIV noticed how strong the tropezian army was and wanted the land and its people in his control.  

Painters on the port of St Trop’ © Saint Tropez Tourisme

Fast forward to the end of the 19th century and picture the scene. St-Tropez is a hard-to-reach fishing harbour minding its own business and enjoying the quiet life when suddenly, a genre-bursting artist thrusts it fully into the spotlight – from which it has never retreated. Pointillist painter Paul Signac came into town and fell in love with the light and colours that fell on the harbour in the late afternoon, and soon he was beckoning his gang of artist friends to join him and see for themselves. 

Finally, there’s the era in St Tropez’s history that you may be more familiar with: the Bardot years. The town – and the actress – exploded into international consciousness with the 1956s movie Et Dieu… créa la femme which was filmed in St-Tropez’s old town. At a similar time, poet Boris Vian and singer Juliette Gréco endorsed the town to the Parisian elite by opening a jazz club by the sea, and the wider French population also started to take notice thanks to iconic homegrown movies like Le Gendarme de St Tropez in 1964.

Recent decades have seen the town’s attraction increase exponentially and St-Tropez is known as a resort for the world’s rich and famous, a tiny port bursting with outsized oligarch-owned superyachts, luxury hotels and private beach clubs, and a restaurant-lined harbour crammed with sun-tanned people-watching daytrippers.

At heart, though, it’s still a fishing village. If you visit out of season, you’ll find a place full of Provençal character and traditions. Here’s our top 10 things to do in St Tropez this spring and autumn.

1. Walk the coast path 

St-Tropez doesn’t promote its coastal path much, especially in high season. The 12.5km trail leaves the centre of town and winds around the coast to the famous Pampelonne party beach, through narrow shaded trails, along beaches and through peaceful lanes.  

2. Take some vitamin sea 

Take the one-hour Brigantin II boat trip along the coast. The boats are run by a French guy who married a Yorkshirewoman and there’s a great English language commentary that focusses on the celebs who live in St-Tropez and the million-dollar villas that dot the waterside. The light is best in the late afternoon or early evening. 

Brigitte Bardot’s golden statue © Saint-Tropez Tourisme

3. Indulge yourself in a Tarte Tropézienne 

It all started when a Polish guy called Micka came to St-Tropez after the war with his grandmother’s cake recipe tucked in his pocket. He started making the fresh cream cakes and selling them at the market and then, one day, during the breaks in filming And God Created Woman, Bardot came to buy cakes for her and the crew. She became a regular customer of Micka and has kept strong links with the owners over the decades since. Sit on the terrace overlooking Place des Lices and savour the surprisingly light brioche and creamy treat. The raspberry version is highly recommended. 

4. Scratch your retail itch 

It’s true that all the main designer stores have big presences in St-Tropez, but there is way more to shopping in the town. You’ll find tropezian sandalmakers like Rondini (18 Rue Georges Clemenceau), a fixture in town since 1927, and the streets of La Ponche are dotted with perfumiers, concept stores, tiny galleries and pâtisseries 

Artistic bench in La Ponche © Saint-Tropez Tourisme

5. Pick your own 

Market days are Tuesdays and Saturdays – when the quiet sandy square of Place des Lices becomes a hotbed of gastronomic and sartorial activity. Even in April, the market bustles because it’s authentic, used and loved by locals, as well as visitors. Expect to find lots of fresh produce, locally-made jewellery and candles, Bardot inspired Vichy blouses, upcycled clothes, art and pétanque sets.  

6. A look back in time 

St-Tropez star attraction is the Musée de l’Annonciade (18 Rue Georges Clemenceau), a chapel on the portside which is chock full of fantastic art that is linked to St-Tropez. Expect a good selection of Pointillist and Fauvist works from the likes of Signac, Vuillard, Bonnard and Cross. The Gendarmerie Nationale (Place Blanqui) building is now a museum called Musée de la Gendarmerie et du Cinéma which explores the Bardot effect on one of its levels and the French comedy-copper Louis de Funès on the other. Finally, the museum at the Citadelle is worth a look for maritime history, its numerous peacocks and its view of the bay. 

Musée de l’Annonciade © L’Annonciade Saint-Tropez

7. Sand and sea 

St-Tropez is blessed with sandy beaches but my top picks are the Plage les Graniers with its chi-chi beachside restaurant as well as the larger Plage des Canoubiers further out of town along the coast path (Le Sentier Graniers). In April, all the beaches are peaceful but as the season heats up you need to walk a bit further for a good space in the sand. 

8. It’s boules-o’-clock! 

Something that hasn’t changed in St Tropez over the decades of fame is the  popularity of pétanque. If you wander past the Place des Lices at 6pm, any day of the week, there will doubtless be a group or two of men chucking metal balls around like their lives depend on it. It may be a cliché but there’s nothing like sitting in the dappled evening watching the boules with a glass of rosé in hand. 

© shutterstock

9. Simple pleasures 

St Tropez has something to suit everyone when it comes to food and wine. From bread and fresh goat cheese (courtesy of stallholders like Loic de Saleneuve at the market) with a glass of rosé, to three-michelin-star munchies at Le Cheval Blanc, there’s a focus on seafood, local produce and quality. Thanks to the town’s historical links to Genoa, there’s also a definite Italian flavour to food in St Tropez. There are also lots of wineries in the vicinity from tiny indie-run plots to bigger domaines; book a tour with Beyond the Wine to discover the oenology of the area. 

10. Make the most of a mooch 

A stroll on a sunny spring day through the old town of St-Tropez and La Ponche involves chats with local vendors as you wind through the maze of streets and alleyways, and stops at indie cafes to admire blooming wisteria and abundant fig trees. The streets aren’t chockablock but you’ll have to dodge the hotel valets as they zip tourists through the streets in smart tuk-tuks, suitcases piled up at the back.  

Wintery sun over Saint Tropez © shutterstock


Where to stay? 

  • Luxury – Hotel La Ponche. This historic hotel has charming sea views from its exquisitely tasteful rooms. These are views that oodles of stars have admired before you – including Sagan, Picasso, Sartre, Bordot and Schneider. Highly recommended 
  • Budget – You don’t have to be rich to go to St Tropez. A top-floor studio Airbnb in Place Aux Herbes is £80 per night for two at the start of May.   

 Where to eat? 

  • Luxury – Le Pationata restaurant. A small and elegant restaurant which is part of the Hotel de Paris St-Tropez focuses on fresh local food, particularly seafood.  
  • Budget – Pizzeria Bruno (Rue de l’Eglise). Well-priced pasta and wood-fired pizza in the old town. 

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Lead photo credit : © Guillaume Voiturier / Ville de Saint-Tropez

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