Grasse, on the French Riviera, is the fragrance capital of France and can be an olfactory odyssey if you have a passion for perfumes.
The town has an international museum for perfume-making, three perfumeries to tour and if that’s not enough you go to the farms where sweet-smelling flowers are harvested for fragrances.
When you’re not concocting your own signature scent in labs or stocking up on luxuriant soaps, you could tinker around the town’s art and costume museums or set off on a large choice of days out.
In no time at all you could be on a Riviera beach, deep underground in a cave or hundreds of metres up in a perched village.
Lets explore the best things to do in Grasse:
1. Musée International de la Parfumerie
As we said, Grasse is the cradle of French perfume. A lot of the raw material for these fragrances is grown in flower farms nourished by Grasse’s microclimate and its rare abundance of water for the region. Jasmine, tuberose, may rose, violet and orange blossom are all cultivated locally.
Grasse’s perfume museum demonstrates the savoir-faire, honed over centuries, that goes into the town’s perfumes. Track the origins of the industry in Grasse, and how it was tied to historic trade and projects like the Siagne Canal. Then then get a nose for different scents and ingredients at the museum’s aromatic sensing points.
You can also peruse an assortment of antique perfume bottles, designed by the likes of master glassmaker René Lalique.
2. Parfumerie Fragonard
Follow your nose to the free tour of the Fragonard perfumery and outlet, which has a major presence in Grasse.
You’ll take a tour of the facility, building on what you found out at Grasse’s perfume museum, seeing where the fragrances are distilled and how they’re bottled.
You’ll end up in a huge emporium, and we defy you to leave without buying something! Now, if that still doesn’t satisfy your curiosity about fragrances, you could sign up in advance for a “Perfumer’s Apprentice” workshop at Fragonard.
The course lasts 90 minutes, during which, with the direction of a qualified perfumer, you’ll learn about the structure of perfume (base, head and heart) and go to the lab to compose your own scent.
3. Domaine de la Royrie
Grasse also has just the right environment for olive cultivation, and ancient cultures are as plentiful as flower farms on the plateaux and hillsides hemming the town.
The hillside Domaine de Royrie is an olive grove planted in the 1400s by the monks of Lérins Abbey, and on a visit you’ll uncover the history of these venerated trees, how the soil is maintained and how the olives are picked and pressed.
The estate also has a vegetable garden and small houses where the plantation’s peasants lived in the 1700s.
At the end of the tour the owner, Lionel Brault conducts a tasting session, in which you detect the scents and complex flavours of their award-winning oils as you would a fine wine.
4. Jean-Honoré Fragonard Villa-Museum
Not to be confused with the Frangonard Perfumerie, the Villa-Museum is a refined 17th-century country house where the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a son of Grasse, lived during the French revolution in the early-1790s.
Fragonard was known for his lyrical and occasionally cheeky late-rococo paintings about love.
The estate is gorgeous, with an elegant house decorated with 13 of Fragonard’s paintings and a garden sheltered by tall palms.
There are many original drawings by the artist here, and replicas of the Games of Love, four paintings made for Madame du Barry, Maîtresse-en-Titre to Louis XV.
5. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Provence
On Rue Mirabeau is an ochre-walled mansion made for the Marquis of Cabris, Jean-Paul de Clapiers, who was related by marriage to the Count Mirabeau, one of the key players in the French Revolution.
It’s now the handsome venue for a regional museum with art, ceramics and archaeology galleries.
The highpoint is the lovely Provençal faience from the workshops of Marseille, Moustiers, Varages and La Tour d’Aigues, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the fine arts galleries are paintings by Charles Nègre who made his name as a pioneer of photography in the mid-1800s.
6. Musée Provençal du Costume et du Bijou
In the salons of a neoclassical house next to the Fragonard Perfumerie are beautifully-staged displays of regional costume from the 18th century.
Mannequins with dresses, skirts, bonnets and shawls are a testament to the skill and opulence of textiles, lace and needlework in Provence during this time.
These dresses are exhibited in individual bell-jars in the middle of the rooms, letting you walk around to see the back as well as the front.
They’re also arranged in context; you can see the richness of the salon, while the house’s kitchen has clothing that the staff would have worn.
Displayed in cabinets is a trove of jewellery and other ornamental pieces like belt buckles.
7. La Domaine de Manon
In the capital of perfume, one of the main flower plantations welcomes you for tours.
In a Provence landscape of cypresses, olive trees and far off limestone mountains, the Domaine de Manon supplies lavender, May roses, jasmine and tuberose for Dior’s fragrances.
The farm also makes its own rosewater and jams that you can purchase from the shop.
And it hardly needs saying that the Domaine de Manon’s produce is seasonal, so the jasmine harvest is from August to October, while the start of May to mid-June is the time to cultivate May rose, which is the signature aroma in Grasse’s fragrances.
8. More Perfumeries
You can stay on the scent of Grasse’s distinguished perfume-makers with two more visits and tours.
Galimard, Grasse’s oldest perfume-maker, has been going since 1747 and in that century supplied the French royal court with ointments and perfumes.
There you’ll see the laboratories where you’ll be given a clear breakdown of how extraction works, and then visit the shop full of colognes, eau de toilettes, perfumes and soaps.
The second-oldest is Molinard, established in 1849, and its headquarters were designed by Gustave Eiffel.
You can also fashion your own fragrance at a workshop here, and appreciate their array of antique labels and bottles especially designed by Baccarat and Lalique.
9. Gorges du Loup
Go 15 minutes of north and the scenery gets wild, with titanic walls of sheer limestone rock and a canyon blessed with three waterfalls.
How you tackle the Gorges du Loup is entirely your choice: For a magnificent whirlwind tour you don’t even have to leave your car, driving the serpentine D6 and D3, tracking the route of the Loup river from opposite sides.
There’s a visitor centre too, with turnstiles and access to a metallic walkway for views of one of the waterfalls and the captivating turquoise waters that gather in pools.
And then, if you can’t resist the lure of the river you can plump for a full-on “canyoning” exploration: You’ll don a wetsuit and hardhat and traipsing along the valley floor, scrambling up rocks, sliding down cascades and leaping into crystalline pools.
Driving towards Gourdon from the south it almost seems impossible that a village could be squeezed so high up on such a small perch, and the nickname “Nid d’Aigle” (Eagle’s Nest) couldn’t be more apt.
The cute stone village is not much more than a couple of streets, but the views 700 metres above the Loup Valley will leave you lost for words.
The château is from the 1100s, and although you can’t go inside at the moment you can pass a refined few minutes in the parterre, designed by André Le Nôtre of Versailles fame.
Gourdon is an excursion for early birds as its wild popularity leaves this tiny settlement heaving with tourists on summer afternoons.
11. Les Grottes de Saint-Cézaire
A 20-minute winding drive west of Grasse and you’ll be at a 5-kilometre network of underground chambers discovered by a Vintner in 1888. Only around 300 metres is visitable, but that’s more than enough to be amazed by the stalactites, soda straws and aragonite.
Plus, when Provence is baking in the summer heat, it’s a relief to be able to burrow 40 metres beneath the surface to where temperatures are a steady 15° C! On the 200-metre path there’s a lot of cool stuff to see, like a stalactite 1.5 metres in length, formed over 150,000 years, and a seemingly bottomless chasm at the deepest part of the caves.
Your fun guide will also treat you to a tune played on musical stalactites.
12. Fondation Maeght
In the early-60s the art dealer Aimé Maeght garthered some leading lights of modern art to conceive an immersive exhibition space on a wooded hill near Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
The museum was designed Josep Lluís Sert, a Catalan architect and artists contributed bits and pieces: You can wander a labyrinth designed by Joan Miró, see mural mosaics by Chagall and Pierre Tal Coat, gaze at stained glass windows created by Georges Braque and admire a fountain crafted by Pol Bury.
And that’s without talking about the artworks by Calder, Kandinsky, Fernand Léger and Miró, totting up to more than 12,000 pieces.
13. Fête du Jasmin
Grasse owes a lot to the jasmine flower and expresses its thanks in ebullient style at the annual Jasmine Festival, held on the first weekend of August.
The weekend opens with fireworks on the Friday night and builds to the flower parade on the Saturday evening when “Miss Grasse” and her “princesses”, throw flowers and spray jasmine water onto the crowds from one of 12 garishly-decorated floats.
Street artists, brass bands and folk dancing enliven the festivities.
Only 15 kilometres south of Grasse is a city that almost glows with the magic of cinema and Côte d’Azur glamour.
Go there to strut down La Croisette, where on one side you’ll have a string of high-end fashion houses and on the other the golden sands of one of the Riviera’s most exclusive beaches.
A long way off you’ll spot the flagpoles and glass of the Palais des Arts, home of the Cannes Film Festival.
Sashay down the red carpet that has graced so many photo ops and then lose the paparazzi by disappearing into the steep tangle of streets of Le Suquet, Cannes’ historic quarter.
The hillsides behind Cannes are flecked with lavish villas where legendary parties have gone down, like Villa Domergue, now where the Film Festival jury retires to deliberate.
15. Local Gastronomy
Grasse is only a small town but the surrounding countryside has granted it some delicacies unique to this corner of Provence.
Fougassette is one, a delicious brioche flavoured with local orange blossom and wonderful with coffee or hot chocolate.
A main course offered by Grasse’s best restaurants is Fassum, cabbage leaves stuffed with bacon, pork and green vegetables.
Then there’s the classic peasant recipe artichauts à la barigoule, a slow-cooked casserole with artichoke hearts, shallots, lemons and bacon.
Both are divine with a rosé from Côtes de Provence.
In Grasse pumpkin pie is a Christmas speciality, enriched with vanilla essence and orange blossom water and decorated with latticed pastry.