What is the history of Cannes?

by Barbara

Cannes, a small city located on the French Riviera, is synonymous with glamour, luxury, and cinematic prestige. Its name conjures images of celebrities walking the red carpet, grand hotels, and the shimmering Mediterranean. However, beneath this modern sheen lies a rich and varied history that has shaped Cannes into the world-renowned destination it is today. This article delves into the transformation of Cannes from a humble fishing village to a glittering epicenter of film and high society.

Early Beginnings and Ancient Influences

The origins of Cannes can be traced back to the ancient Ligurian tribes, who were the first known inhabitants of the area. The Ligurians, a pre-Roman people, lived in the region during the Iron Age. They were primarily engaged in fishing and small-scale agriculture, utilizing the Mediterranean’s resources to sustain their communities. Evidence of their presence is still found in various archaeological sites around the region, hinting at the early human activity in what would become Cannes.


With the advent of the Roman Empire, the Ligurian settlements were incorporated into the expanding territories of Rome. The area became part of the Roman province of Alpes Maritimae. The Romans brought infrastructure, including roads and aqueducts, which facilitated trade and communication. Despite these developments, Cannes remained a relatively small and inconspicuous settlement during this period.


The Middle Ages: Strategic Significance

The Middle Ages marked a period of turmoil and transformation for Cannes. In the 5th century, the fall of the Western Roman Empire led to a series of invasions by barbarian tribes, including the Visigoths and the Lombards. During this chaotic period, Cannes’ coastal location made it vulnerable to attacks and raids by pirates and other marauders.


In response to these threats, the local population began to fortify their settlements. One significant development was the construction of the Abbey of Lérins on the Île Saint-Honorat, one of the Lérins Islands just off the coast of Cannes. Founded in the 5th century by Saint Honoratus, the abbey became an important religious and cultural center. It also played a defensive role, with its monks often having to fend off pirate attacks.

By the 11th century, Cannes had come under the influence of the Counts of Provence. The town’s strategic coastal position and proximity to the Lérins Islands meant it was of considerable military importance. Fortifications were strengthened, and the town began to develop as a small but significant trading post. Despite these developments, Cannes remained a modest settlement compared to other more prominent towns in the region.

Renaissance and the Rise of Cannes

The Renaissance era brought renewed growth and stability to Cannes. In the 15th century, the region saw an increase in maritime trade, with Cannes benefiting from its coastal location. The town began to expand, with new buildings and infrastructure reflecting the prosperity of the period. It was during this time that the Château de la Castre was constructed, overlooking the old port. This castle, built by the monks of Lérins, served as a fortress and a residence for local nobility.

The political landscape of Cannes changed dramatically in the 16th century when the region became part of the Kingdom of France. The annexation brought stability and integration into the broader French economic and political systems. Cannes began to grow steadily, although it was still a relatively small and quiet town compared to the bustling ports of Marseille and Nice.

The 19th Century: Birth of a Resort Town

The real transformation of Cannes began in the 19th century, driven by an influx of wealthy visitors from across Europe. The catalyst for this change was Lord Henry Peter Brougham, a British aristocrat and former Lord Chancellor. In 1834, Brougham was traveling to Italy when a cholera outbreak forced him to stop in Cannes. Enchanted by its beauty and mild climate, he decided to build a villa there. His enthusiasm for Cannes soon attracted other members of the British aristocracy, who followed suit and established their own winter residences in the town.

The arrival of these wealthy visitors marked the beginning of Cannes’ evolution into a resort town. Luxurious villas, grand hotels, and casinos sprang up to cater to the needs of the affluent tourists. The construction of the Promenade de la Croisette, a scenic boulevard along the seafront, became the symbol of Cannes’ newfound status. The town’s population grew, and its economy flourished, driven by the burgeoning tourism industry.

Cannes’ appeal was not limited to the British. It soon attracted visitors from all over Europe, including Russian nobility, who sought refuge from the harsh winters of their homeland. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of Cannes was further enriched by the arrival of artists, writers, and musicians, who found inspiration in its scenic beauty and vibrant social scene.

The 20th Century: The Birth of the Cannes Film Festival

The 20th century saw Cannes solidify its reputation as a playground for the rich and famous. However, its most significant contribution to global culture came in the form of the Cannes Film Festival. The idea for the festival was conceived in the late 1930s as a response to the growing influence of the Venice Film Festival, which was increasingly under the sway of fascist regimes in Europe.

In 1939, Jean Zay, the French Minister of National Education, proposed the creation of an international film festival in France to showcase artistic freedom and creativity. Cannes was chosen as the ideal location due to its glamorous reputation and picturesque setting. Although the inaugural festival was scheduled for September 1939, it was canceled due to the outbreak of World War II.

The Cannes Film Festival finally debuted in 1946, in the aftermath of the war. The first edition featured films from 18 countries, celebrating the resurgence of international cinema. The festival was an immediate success, and it quickly established itself as one of the most prestigious events in the film industry. Over the years, the festival’s Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) award has become one of the most coveted prizes in the world of cinema.

The festival played a crucial role in transforming Cannes into a global cultural hub. Each year, the town hosts thousands of filmmakers, actors, critics, and journalists, turning it into a vibrant center of artistic exchange and innovation. The red carpet at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, where the screenings take place, has become an iconic symbol of cinematic glamour.

Modern Cannes: A Blend of Tradition and Luxury

Today, Cannes is a city that seamlessly blends its rich historical heritage with modern luxury. The old town, known as Le Suquet, retains its medieval charm with narrow winding streets, historic buildings, and stunning views of the bay. The Marché Forville, a bustling market in the heart of Le Suquet, offers a taste of Provençal life with its array of fresh produce, cheeses, and local delicacies.

In contrast, the Promenade de la Croisette epitomizes the modern allure of Cannes. Lined with luxury hotels, high-end boutiques, and chic restaurants, the Croisette is the place to see and be seen. The InterContinental Carlton Cannes, the Hôtel Martinez, and the Majestic Barrière are just a few of the grand hotels that have hosted countless celebrities and dignitaries over the years.

Cannes’ beaches, both public and private, attract sun-seekers from around the world. The pristine sands and azure waters of the Mediterranean provide the perfect backdrop for relaxation and recreation. The town also boasts a vibrant nightlife, with a plethora of bars, nightclubs, and casinos offering entertainment well into the early hours.

The Economic Impact of Tourism and Events

Tourism remains the lifeblood of Cannes’ economy, contributing significantly to its prosperity. The Cannes Film Festival alone generates substantial revenue, with visitors spending lavishly on accommodation, dining, and shopping. The festival’s impact extends beyond the immediate economic benefits, as it enhances Cannes’ global profile and attracts further investment in the tourism sector.

In addition to the film festival, Cannes hosts a variety of other major events throughout the year. The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, an advertising and communications event, brings together industry professionals from around the world. The MIPCOM and MIPTV markets are pivotal events for the television and entertainment industries, while the Cannes Yachting Festival showcases the latest in luxury yachts and maritime innovations.

These events, along with numerous conventions and trade shows, ensure that Cannes remains a year-round destination for business and leisure travelers alike. The city’s infrastructure, including the modernized Palais des Festivals, extensive conference facilities, and excellent transport links, supports its role as a premier event location.

Preservation and Challenges

While Cannes thrives on its glamorous image, the city also faces challenges related to preservation and sustainability. The influx of tourists and the demands of hosting major events put pressure on local infrastructure and the environment. Balancing economic growth with the need to protect the natural and historical heritage of Cannes is a delicate task.

Efforts are underway to address these challenges through sustainable tourism practices and conservation initiatives. The local government and various organizations are working to preserve the historical sites, maintain the quality of the beaches, and promote environmentally friendly practices among businesses and visitors.


Cannes’ journey from a quiet fishing village to a global icon of luxury and culture is a testament to its enduring appeal and adaptability. Its rich history, from ancient Ligurian settlements and medieval fortifications to Renaissance growth and 19th-century glamour, has laid the foundation for its modern success. Today, Cannes continues to captivate the world with its blend of tradition, innovation, and unrivaled charm.

As Cannes looks to the future, it remains committed to preserving its unique heritage while embracing the opportunities of the 21st century. Whether through the magic of the Cannes Film Festival, the elegance of the Croisette, or the historical allure of Le Suquet, Cannes continues to enchant and inspire, solidifying its place as one of the world’s most celebrated destinations.


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