Villefranche-sur-Mer adjoins the city of Nice to the east along Mont Boron, Mont Alban and Mont Vinaigrier, and 10 km (6.2 mi) south west of Monaco. The bay (rade) of Villefranche is one of the deepest natural harbours of any port in the Mediterranean Sea and provides safe anchorage for large ships, reaching depths of 95 m (320 ft) between the Cape of Nice and Cap Ferrat; it extends to the south to form a 500 m (1700 ft) abyss known as the undersea Canyon of Villefranche at about one nautical mile off the coastline.
The town limits extend to the hills surrounding the bay climbing from sea level to an altitude of 520 m (1750 ft) at Mont-Leuze, reflecting on land the features found offshore. The three "Corniches" or main roads linking Nice to Italy pass through Villefranche.
The site of what is now Villefranche and surrounding Beaulieu-sur-Mer and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat has been settled since prehistoric times. Celto-ligurian tribes roamed the area and established farming communities on the surrounding hills. The Greeks and later the Romans used the natural harbour as a stop-over en route to the Greek settlements around the Western Mediterranean. After the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar, the Romans built an extension of the Via Aurelia (Aurelian Way), which passed through the settlement of Montolivo.
By the fall of the Carolingian Empire, the area was part of Lotharingia and later part of the County of Provence. In 1295, Charles II, Duke of Anjou, then Count of Provence, enticed the inhabitants of Montolivo and surroundings to settle closer to the coastline in order to secure the area from pirates. By charter, he established Villefranche as a "free port", thus the name, granting tax privileges and port fee rights that lasted well into the 18th century.
By 1388, East Provence became part of the Duchy of Savoy as a result of the disputed succession to the heirless Queen Joan I of Naples. For the next 400 years, the area known as the County of Nice was hotly disputed between the Holy Roman Empire to which Savoy was an ally and the French.
In 1543, the Franco-Turkish armies sacked and occupied the city after the siege of Nice, prompting Duke Emmanuel Philibert to secure the site by building an impressive citadel and a fort on nearby Mont Alban. In the late 17th century, the area fell to the French but was returned to Savoy after the Peace of Utrecht.
During the 18th century, the city lost some of its maritime importance to the new harbour being built in Nice but remained a military and naval base. In 1744, a Franco-Spanish army under the Prince of Conti overran the Piedmontese regiments of Charles Emmanuel III of Sardinia at the Fort of Mont Alban in the heights above the town.
In 1793, the French returned to re-occupy Villefranche and the county of Nice remained part of the Napoleonic Empire until 1814. It was returned to the Kingdom of Sardinia by the Congress of Vienna.
In 1860, as a consequence of the Risorgimento, it was given to France by treaty following a plebiscite.
By the late 19th century, it had become an important Russian Navy base and the Russians established an oceanographic laboratory in the old lazaret.
The site was also the winter residence for royalties and wealthy visitors.
Villefranche's bay is notable for reaching a significant depth only a short distance from shore. As a result, it has become an important port over the years. Since World War I, the United States Navy has called on a regular basis, making Villefranche the home port of the U.S. 6th Fleet from 1948 to February 1966, when French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO and required U.S. forces to leave. Just prior to 1966, the flagship of the Commander Sixth Fleet rotated between the USS Springfield (CLG 7) and the USS Little Rock (CLG 4). Since the 1980s Villefranche has been used by cruise ships. It is the most visited cruise ship port of call in France.
Villefranche is now part of the Urban community of Nice Côte d'Azur and so can be considered a suburb of the Nice metropolitan area. The decrease in population in recent years and especially in the 1990s can be attributed to the cost of real estate and an increase of part-time residents, who typically are not counted in the census. But Villefranche's aging population, like elsewhere in the eastern part of the Alpes-Maritimes, is not being replaced by younger people at the same rate as in the rest of the département.
The main activity remains tourism, with hotels and restaurants employing a sizeable portion of the population. Traditional activities, like fishing, have now given way to sea-related activities, such as sailing and deep sea diving. Some dockyard activity remains at the harbour of “la Darse” but most of it has now been moved to Antibes. Residential construction and maintenance, which provided a lot of employment in the mid 20th century, has now subsided considerably.
The old town and the bay have offered for years a natural set for movie makers. Among many productions to name just a few:
Villefranche-sur-Mer is also a harbour for visiting naval forces and particularly US Navy ships. (for example the USS Barry (DD-933) and the USS Volador (SS-490))and the AEGIS Cruiser USS Yorktown CG-48 in the mid to late 80s.
The façades of the buildings in the harbour were the inspiration for the film set in the Moteurs... Action! Stunt Show Spectacular at the Walt Disney Studios Park in Disneyland Paris and Disney's Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, Florida.
It was also at Villefranche-Sur-Mer that The Rolling Stones recorded their 1972 album Exile on Main St., at the Belle Epoque-era mansion Nellcôte.
Some scenes in Amy Plum's "Revenants" trilogy take place in Villefranche-sur-Mer.