The Art of Travel
The Insider’s Guide to Art in the South of France
From Nice to Arles and everything in between
Imported palm trees. Whispers about Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Hepburn. Buttery croissants. If you’re visiting the South of France, you’re already prepared to swirl crisp, bright rosés after relaxing on a rocky beach, but the Mediterranean is known for more than wanderlust. Home to many Impressionist artists in the 19th century, the small towns and dreamy villages served as both inspiration and refuge. Our recommendation? Rent a car (ideally a convertible, à la Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief) and explore everything the idyllic region has to offer.
Nice is a treasure trove of art, with more than 15 museums ranging from palaces to galleries. After you land and enjoy a hearty serving of gelato at Fenocchio, make your way toward one of Nice’s most beloved cultural institutions. Marc Chagall National Museum features the largest public collection of Chagall’s work, including 12 large-size paintings illustrating the first two books of the Old Testament, Genesis and Exodus. If you’re still itching for more, check out Musée Matisse for a closer look at one of the largest collections of Matisse’s work. From there, we recommend spending another day on the beach, just for good measure, followed by a leisurely stroll down Promenade des Anglais, a street named for the 18th-century English aristocrats who vacationed in Nice, toward the old town. If you’re lucky, you might just spot the miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty before you sit down for dinner (might we suggest ordering a Salad Niçoise?).
Artists who lived here: Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Clément Roassal, Jules Defer, Joseph Fricero, François Bensa, Ercole (Hercule) Trachel, Alexis Mossa
As you make your way to Arles the next morning, make a pit stop at the hilltop village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. A village filled with art galleries and art history relics, make sure to have lunch at The Hotel Colombe D’Or. What began as a restaurant and inn in the small village soon became a go-to for Fernand Léger, Georges Braque, and an aging Matisse. Owner Paul Roux would exchange lodging and meals for art, amassing a collection that would give any museum a run for its money, including works from Picasso.
From there, take a 10-minute drive up the mountain toward Vence to visit the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, which Matisse regarded as his masterpiece. Photos don’t do it justice, but Matisse oversaw every detail from the design to the stained glass, murals, furnishings, and vestments.
A little over two hours west of Nice, Arles is a town that seamlessly blends the old (meaning ancient) with the new. While the Arènes d’Arles is a must-visit, you’d be remiss to skip LUMA Arles, an innovative cultural center that features studios and exhibition space in a former rail depot (the main building is set to open in 2020). If you have time, Musée de l’Arles Antique provides a glimpse of what life was like when Arles was run by the Roman Empire.
A commune located 30 minutes north of Arles, Les Baux-de-Provence offers stunning vistas, wineries, and more (it doesn’t hurt that the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine region is nearby). After you explore the 12th-century castle and ruins nearby, make your way to Carrières de Lumières. Pitch black, with paintings projected onto the walls, classical opera and orchestra music surround you in this sprawling cave. The artwork moves and flows with the music, almost like a dance, covering the wall from floor to ceiling, blending into one another, and bleeding off the edges. Once you’ve had your fill, get a good night’s sleep in Arles and make your way back to Nice in the morning, taking D113 south for an even more scenic view.
Featuring a medieval old town, a 12th-century cloister, and stunning architecture, Aix-en-Provence is the perfect midpoint between Arles and Saint-Tropez. Aside from being the home of Ernest Hemingway when he wrote The Garden of Eden, Aix is most famous for being the birthplace of the “father of Impressionism” Paul Cézanne. Take a deep dive into his life and visit his studio-turned-museum for a look at his furniture, still-life model, and work tools. From there, see more of his work (plus pieces from Rembrandt and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres) at Musée Granet.
Artists who lived here: Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso
As you near the end of your Mediterranean getaway, spend a day wandering the streets of Saint-Tropez. While it used to be a sleepy fishing village, the French New Wave film movement in the ’50s and ’60s made it a destination. You might feel a sudden urge to jump off the pier into the cerulean sea, but before you do, it’s worth exploring Musée de l’Annonciade and the many galleries that line the city streets, including Mason Noirez and Sasha de Saint-Tropez. After a day of art and fresh seafood (and don’t forget to get a taste of Tarte tropézienne!), we won’t blame you if you never leave and become a local instead.
It wouldn’t be the French Riviera if you didn’t spend at least a day in Antibes. While strolling the grounds of the famed Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc is encouraged (tennis courts and all), if you’re a Picasso fan, seeing his former studio is a must. Now the home of Musée Picasso, he moved into the Château Grimaldi in 1946, creating dozens of works there, including La Joie de Vivre, Faune et Centaure au Trident, and La Femme aux Oursins. Artists who lived here: Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Nicolas de Staël
At this point in your trip, the appeal of the South of France has probably only increased. As you pack your bags and prepare for your return flight home from Nice, remember that you can always come back and explore what else this stretch of the Mediterranean has to offer.