A perched village on the French Riviera, Saint-Paul-de-Vence is a little place with a big name. Just look at the personalities seduced by the atmosphere, landscapes and clear light: Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, James Baldwin, the list goes on.
Being here means following a path beaten by the leading lights of 20th-century culture, as you’ll tell at the Fondation Maeght, an art museum like you’ve never seen. Saint-Paul-de-Vence is as adorable as it is tiny, but there’s no end of places to visit in the car, none of which take more than half an hour to get to. This could be a day at the beach at Cagnes, an excursion inland to an epic gorge or an afternoon of culture and sightseeing in Nice.
Lets explore the best things to do in in Saint-Paul-de-Vence:
1. The Village
The walls that raise the village on its roost are from the mid-15th century, and have not been changed since they were built. Above them, Saint-Paul-de-Vence isn’t much more than one street, Rue Grande, with enticing crevasse-like alleys and stairways branching off it.
The art connection remains strong, and you’ll pass restaurants, galleries and cute shops selling materials for budding artists.
On the southernmost edge is a terrace with stirring views of a trademark Provence landscape: Look north and you’ll make out the limestone bulk of the Baou de Saint-Jeannet . Directly beneath you here is the cemetery where Marc Chagall is buried.
2. Fondation Maeght
The Parisian art collector Aimé Maeght was a close friend of some of 20th-century art’s leading lights.
In the 1960s he called in Catalan architect José Luis Sert to collaborate with artists like Chagall, Braque and Joan Miró and fashion a space that integrated modern art into the building design, all in a secluded natural location.
The walk to the museum from Saint-Paul is something too, as you ramble through pine forest with rosemary and thyme on the Chemin Sainte-Claire.
On this one-kilometre route you’ll go by three chapels and a Dominican convent.
3. La Chapelle Folon
Towards the end of his life the Belgian artist Jean-Michel Foulon transformed the interior of the 17th-century Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs at the top of the village.
On the street it’s an unassuming old church, but the decoration inside is almost luminescent.
Folon worked with artisans to create the stained glass windows, and decorated the chapel with paintings, sculptures and vibrant mosaics.
The chapel is an extraordinary gateway into Folon’s world, communicating his fascination with light and the spiritual.
You’ll also see just how many disciplines Folon mastered, from painting and sculpture to ceramics, tapestries and glasswork.
4. Chapelle du Rosaire
On a hillside north of Vence is a small chapel designed and decorated in the late-1940s by none other than Henri Matisse.
He started the project in his 70s at the request of a nun who had looked after him while he was recovering from an illness earlier that decade.
Matisse considered the building his masterwork, and everything you see was done by his hand (the stone altarpiece, crucifixes, candle holders and even the priests’ vestments). The exhibition inside shows how the chapel was designed and built, and you can behold Matisse’s three large murals, portraying the Virgin and Child, Stations of the Cross and St. Dominic.
5. Old Vence
Just up the road is another achingly pretty town, completely encased by its stone ramparts.
Chagall, Matisse and DH Lawrence are just three of the cultural personalities drawn to this beautiful place.
At Porte du Peyra, the main, western gateway to the warren of alleys and passageways is a mighty ash tree, said to have been planted after a visit to Vence by Francis I in the 16th century.
Near the ash is Vence’s tourist office, but in a town like this it’s sometimes more fun not to know where you’re going, and let yourself be surprised by what you come across.
On Tuesdays there’s a market on the main square
6. Musée Renoir
The impressionist Auguste Renoir moved to these sumptuous three hectares in 1903 as his health was deteriorating due to rheumatoid arthritis.
He and his wife first lived in the farmhouse that now holds the museum shop, and later built the elegant neo- provençal villa.
Here he received friends like Rodin, Picasso and Monet.
Renoir’s house is an intimate and moving peek into his family and artistic life, where his wheelchair and easel are set up in his studio.
The grounds are inspiring, with ancient, gnarled olive trees, citrus groves and views that roll out to Cap d’Antibes.
The medieval quarter in Cagnes-sur-Mer has the unhurried ambience of a rural village, despite being directly on the Riviera.
Beguiled by the light, artists like Renoir, Modigliani, Ziem and Soutine descended on this village in the early-20th century and before long it had earned the nickname, “Montmartre de la Côte d’Azur”. The battlements at the top of the Château Grimaldi will give you spellbinding vistas of the coast, and on the same square is the Espace Solidor, an exhibition space where the incomparable Suzy Solidor’s club used to be.
8. Château Grimaldi
The castle crowning Haut-de -Cagnes was raised at the start of the 14th century by Rainier Grimaldi an ancestor of Monaco’s royal family.
Château Grimaldi started out with a purely defensive purpose but was spruced up in the 1600s and turned into a palace.
On the ceiling of the great hall is a baroque fresco of the Fall of Phaeton by the 17th-century Genovese painter Giuio Benso, held as one of the finest on the French Riviera.
Galleries in the castle reveal the history of Cagnes and there’s an absorbing exhibition on the city’s ancient relationship with the olive tree.
There’s also an exhibition of modern art with works by Foujita and Jean Cocteau, and 40 portraits of Suzy Solidor “the most painted woman in the world”, created by eminent 20th-century artists.
9. Baou de Saint-Jeannet
The awesome limestone wall you can see from the belvedere at Saint-Paul-de Vence is the south face of the Baou de Saint-Jennet and is minutes away in the car.
You can park up in Saint-Jennet where there’s a tourist information post supplying the information you need for an ascent.
There are a number of routes to the top, some short and steep and others longer and less taxing.
On sunny, dry days the scent of the wild thyme and rosemary tracing the path is intoxicating, and herds of goats will come with you on your walk.
When you make it to the summit at 802 metres, you’ll have a view that sometimes reaches out to Corsica.
10. Gorges du Loup
The Loup river flows down to the Mediterranean just to the west of Saint-Paul, and if you track it back to Gourdon you’ll enter dramatic limestone gorges.
This fantasy-like scenery with ravines and emerald waterfalls is 20 kilometres away and ripe for serene nature hikes but also pulsating adventures: In Vence there are a couple of outdoorsy companies kitting you out and taking you on canyoning trips: Canyoning is a mix of climbing, abseiling and swimming, and is child-friendly after the age of nine or ten.
You’ll go in a group and follow a set course that can entail jumps into the water from platforms as high as nine metres , if you’re up for it!
On the list of France’s “plus beaux villages”, Gourdon is a short but very scenic drive to the northwest of Saint-Paulde-Vence.
This tiny settlement around a castle is stranded on an escarpment at 760 metres, earning it the nickname “Nid d’Aigle”, Eagle’s Nest.
The castle is closed to the public, but their beautiful terraced apothecary gardens are open for a stroll.
The remainder of your time will be spent on Rue Principal where practically all of Gourdon’s shops and restaurants are found.
The street ends with a viewpoint over the valley that will just blow you away.
If you’re sure-footed and have nerves of steel, Le Chemin du Paradis, an old mule track will lead you down 500 metres to Bar-sur-Loup.
12. Parc Phoenix
In 15 minutes on the road to Nice, Parc Phoenix is a nice change from the region’s perched villages and cultural attractions.
The park’s animal attractions make it one for the kids, in case they’ve seen enough culture! Parc Phoenix has one of Europe’s largest greenhouses, covering 7,000 square metres and 25 metres high.
What’s cool is how iguanas, flamingos and ducks go as they please inside this massive space, made up of seven different zones with plants from Africa, Asia and the Americas.
Thankfully the tropical spiders are kept inside terrariums here.
Outside are more gardens and animal enclosures with wallabies, otters, porcupines, macaws and cranes.
The seafront at Cagnes-sur-Mer is only moments away in the car and has four kilometres of beaches divided by breakwaters.
Like nearly all of the beaches between Antibes and Nice, Plage de Galets has pebbles, but is carefully looked after and the Promenade de la Plage is provides you with enough shops, bars and restaurants for your afternoon in the sun.
If you’d like a bit more comfort there are private sections renting sun loungers and parasols.
14. Cascade de Gairaut
After Nice was annexed by France in the mid-19th century one of the first matters to take care of was the water supply, as the city often suffered droughts in the summer.
The answer was the Canal de la Vésubie a thirty-kilometre aqueduct coursing through difficult terrain from near the village of Utelle, needing 30 years to complete.
When it was finally done, this artificial waterfall ,Cascade de Gairaut, was created by way of commemoration.
The waterfall isn’t just ornamental, as it serves to oxygenate the waters, and rising proud above the falls is an alpine-style chalet, which was in fashion during the Belle Époque.
The capital of Alpes-Maritimes, and France’s fifth largest city is close enough that you can come and go at your leisure.
It all depends on what you want to see: You could negotiate the Promenade des Anglais, bordered by the pale blue sea on the Baie des Anges and the white palatial hotels like Negresco on the other side.
But as we’re on the French Riviera there’s art in abundance, at the Chagall Museum, the Museum of Contemporary art and at smaller but no less riveting attractions like Palais Massena.
See the Italian-style old town and Cours Saleya flower market, and then get a bird’s eye view of this captivating city from the Colline du Château.