West of Nice, Cagnes-sur-Mer is a seaside resort that seduces tourists with its 3.5-kilometre beach and chic new shopping mall, the Polygone Riviera.
But there’s also a venerable side to the city, huddled around a medieval château built for the Grimaldis of Monaco.
This arty neighbourhood was the haunt of many Impressionists, and one of the greatest, Auguste Renoir settled in the town later in his life.
The other feather in Cagnes’ cap is how quickly you can reach other great Riviera locations like the precious hilltop village, Saint-Paul-de-Vence, and the incomparable city of Nice.
Lets explore the best things to do in Cagnes-sur-Mer:
1. Musée Renoir
The Impressionist master Auguste Renoir spent the final 12 years of his life in Cagnes-sur-Mer, a time known as his “Cagnoise” period.
This beautiful Neo-Provençal house was built for the ailing artist and his family in 1908, and has panoramas reaching down to the Cap d’Antibes.
The home is furnished with two art studios and is still couched in the olive and citrus groves that attracted him to this spot.
There are 14 of the artist’s paintings to see inside, as well as sculptures and touching personal effects, like Renoir’s wheelchair placed in front of his easel.
2. Polygone Riviera
A €350m investment, the Polygone Riviera shopping centre opened in 2015 and takes up 70,000 square metres to the northwest of Cagnes.
With its palm boulevards, arcades and landscaped gardens, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the mall for some futuristic suburb of the town.
There are 150 shops, placing an accent on fashion, which is the way it should be on the French Riviera.
For entertainment you can see what’s playing at the 10-screen cinema, choose from almost 30 cafes and restaurants or roll the dice at the casino that is open ’til 04:00 every day.
3. Château Musée Grimaldi
Crowning Haut-de-Cagnes is a 14th century castle, which as the name will tell you, was a residence for Monaco’s royal family.
A long line of Grimaldis lived here from 1309 up to the Revolution when they were forced out of the town.
From the top of the crenellated tower you can bask in views of the Mediterranean, Nice and the Alps, while the interior of the keep has a monumental double staircase and lavish baroque ceremonial rooms.
There’s a modern art and ethnography museum inside, with a small but strong collection of works by Foujita, Jean Cocteau and Kees van Dongen.
The ethnographic galleries are all about the olive tree, an ancient source of many livelihoods in Cagne.
Around the Château is the town’s medieval centre, which has been designated a French historical site since 1948. The secret squares, maze of little alleys and distance from the congested town at the foot of the hill lend Haut-de-Cagnes a refreshing village-like feel.
Over the last 100 years or so a long list of artists like Modigliani, Renoir and Soutine have fallen in love with this quarter, and the many ateliers up here point to an abiding creative community.
The cabaret singer, actor and “most painted woman in the world” Suzy Solidor founded a nightspot in Haut-de-Cagnes in 1960, and the venue is now l’Espace Solidor, putting on exhibitions of contemporary jewellery.
5. Le Cros-de-Cagnes
Early in the 19th century, Italian fishing families settled by the water at what had been a marshy cove sheltered from the easterly winds.
It’s a little hamlet of narrow streets with low houses, not far from the port but easy to miss because of all the modern development that has sprung up around it.
In 1866 the fishers built the Chapelle de Saint-Pierre, St Peter being the patron saint of fishermen.
The chapel, which goes by ” l’église jaune” was designed to stand out and survives as the quarter’s main seamark.
6. Hippodrome de la Côte d’Azur
The premier racing track in the region (and second largest in France) has both a winter and summer season.
But the most prestigious and valuable races are run in the winter.
The venue has advantage over tracks in northern France as the “fibre sand” surface stays firm throughout the cooler season, which allows for first-class racing on the flat.
The big event of year though is the Grand Critérium de Vitesse de la Côte d’Azur, a trotting race held in March to bring the curtain down on the winter season.
Reserved for horses aged between four and ten, the race is categorised as an international Group I event and the winner in 2016 received €90,000.
7. Cagnes Beach
The resort has 3.5 kilometres of beach along its coastline, much of which is free to the public.
The full length of the beachfront is bordered by a newly regenerated promenade, pushing cars back from the waterfront and letting you wander beneath the palms fronds instead.
As with Nice’s Baie des Anges the sea has an irresistible whitish glow when the sun catches it on windless days.
If you’re in need of additional luxuries then Cagnes six private beaches offer parasols, sunbed hire, restaurants and even waiter service.
8. Parc Phœnix
Make for L’Arénas from Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Route des Vespins and in a few minutes you’ll see signs for this extraordinary park.
Entrance for visitors from outside the Nice area is just €5, while kids under 12 can enter for free.
This is great because the park is a real family attraction centred on an enormous 25-metre-high greenhouse, one of the largest in the world.
There are six zones inside with mostly tropical foliage, where flamingos, Mandarin ducks and iguanas roam free.
Outside are Mediterranean and cactus gardens, a bamboo grove and animal enclosures for otters, wallabies and prairie dogs.
9. OGC Nice
The city of Nice is further off around the Baie des Anges, but the home of the Nice’s football team is only ten minutes from Cagnes-sur-Mer.
And there hasn’t been a better time to see “Les Aiglons” play since their glory days in the 1950s.
The plush Allianz Riviera was built for Euro 2016 and can seat 35,000. The team has shot up from the second tier of French football to contest the Champions League places in Ligue 1.At the time of writing in 2017 they’ve been guided to the top of the league by coach Lucien Favrre and star player, Italian international striker Mario Balotelli.
See if you can catch them while they’re still hot.
The seafront at Cros-de-Cagnes has nautical centres that can hook you up with equipment and tuition for a choice of activities on the waves.
From March to December the sailing centre provides individual and group lessons, will let you hire your own vessel if you’re qualified but also rents out a range of other craft like paddle-boards, windsurfing equipment and dinghies.
You won’t need a licence to go on jet-ski adventures to Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat or the Lerins Islands, and there’s also a wake-boarding school where kids as young as three can have a go.
You won’t need more than a few minutes to get up to the breathtaking perched village of Saint-Paul-de-France.
If you’re determined you could see the central street and passages darting off it in seconds, but there’s a magic to this stone village that will keep you for a lot longer.
The vistas from the terraces are astonishing, and just heavenly at sunset from the west side behind the Chapelle des Penitents Blancs.
That chapel was redecorated by the Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon, who created eight luminous murals and three stained glass windows.
Also worth noting about the village is the large number of famous people who have lived here: Artists Marc Chagall and Jacques Raverat, writer James Baldwin and actor Donald Pleasence to name a few.
12. Fondation Maeght
Ensconced in pine forest on the Colline des Gardettes hill above Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the Fondation Maeght is a modern art museum of a calibre that you won’t come across very often.
It’s the brainchild of Marguerite and Aimé Maeght, 20th century art collectors and patrons who planned the attraction as a memorial to their son who died at just 11. The reason it’s so special is because masters of modern art came to help with the design and decoration: Marc Chagall created mosaics, Giacometti devised a courtyard and Joan Miró conceived a labyrinth with 250 sculptures.
If you have luck with the traffic the capital of the Côte d’Azur is around 15 minutes by car, or you can just take the TER train, which takes the same amount of time.
How you spend your day in the city depends totally on your taste as there are many sides to Nice’s charm.
The seafront Promenade des Anglais remains a Nice institution despite the attack in 2016 and is bordered by palatial hotels like the resplendent Negresco.
The Vielle Ville couldn’t be more different, but is equally beautiful for its chaotic alleys, sequestered squares and flower market on Cours Saleya.
You have to scale the Colline du Château for the ultimate photo of the city and bay, and see the wonderful Chagall Museum but after that it’s up to you.
This theme park is one of only four attractions in Europe that puts on shows with killer whales.
And despite the controversy surrounding orcas in captivity it remains the most visited single attraction in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.
There are also live demonstrations with sea lions and dolphins and a multitude of zoological exhibits.
Among these is the 30-metre-long shark tunnel, which you can wander surrounded by nurse sharks and manta rays.
There are five penguin species at the park, and these frolic in the Antarctica Zone laid out with rocks and pools.
15. Food and Drink
As you journey east along the French Riviera, Italian influences from Liguria start to creep in.
Take socca, which is the local name for farinata, a delicious chickpea pancake sold on the streets of Nice and perfect with nothing more than crushed pepper.
A delicacy that is more of an acquired taste is poutine, which is small fry fished with fine nets.
These go into omelettes or soups, but are better eaten raw and drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.
Ratatouille, the vegetable stew with courgette, aubergine, onions and tomatoes hardly needs introduction, and the same applies to salade niçoise, which in its purest state is hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes and anchovies dressed with olive oil.