Just west of Nice, Cagnes-sur-Mer is a seaside resort that attracts tourists with its 3.5 km long beach and its chic new shopping centre, the Polygone Riviera.
But the city also has a respectable side, huddled around a medieval castle built for Monaco’s Grimaldis.
This artsy neighborhood was home to many Impressionist painters, the greatest of whom, Auguste Renoir, settled in the town in his later years.
Another highlight of Cagnes is how quickly you can reach other great Riviera regions such as the cherished hilltop villages, Saint Paul de Vence and the incomparable city of Nice.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cagnes-sur-Mer:
1. Renoir Museum
The Impressionist master Auguste Renoir spent the last 12 years of his life in Cannes-sur-Mer, a period known as his “Caggnos” period.
Built in 1908 for the ailing artist and his family, this beautiful New Provence house offers panoramic views of Cape Antibes.
The house, complete with two art studios, is still nestled among the olive and citrus groves that drew him to the site.
Inside are 14 paintings by the artist, as well as sculptures and touching personal items, such as Renoir’s wheelchair in front of his easel.
2. Polygon Riviera
The Polygone Riviera shopping centre, opened in 2015 with an investment of 350 million euros, occupies an area of 70,000 square meters in the north-west of Cagnes.
With its palm-lined boulevards, arcades and landscaped gardens, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the mall for some of the town’s futuristic suburbs.
With 150 stores, the emphasis is on fashion, which is how it should be on the French Riviera.
For entertainment, you can catch a show at the 10-screen cinema, choose from nearly 30 cafés and restaurants, or roll the dice at the casino, which is open until 04:00 every day.
3. Grimaldi Castle Museum
Crowning Haut-de-Cagnes is a 14th-century castle that, as its name suggests, was the residence of the Monaco royal family.
A long line of Grimaldis lived here from 1309 until the Revolution, when they were forced to leave the town.
From the top of the jagged tower you can enjoy views of the Mediterranean Sea, Nice and the Alps, while the interior of the fortress has a huge double staircase and lavish Baroque ceremonial rooms.
Inside is a museum of modern art and ethnography with a small but rich collection of works by Fujita, Jean Cocteau and Keith van Dongen.
The ethnographic galleries are all about the olive tree, the ancient source of many of Cagnes’ livelihoods.
4. Haute Decagne
Surrounding the castle is the medieval center of the town, which has been designated a French Historic Site since 1948. Secret squares, labyrinthine alleys and distance from the crowded town at the foot of the hill give Haut-de-Cagnes a refreshing village-like feel.
Over the past 100 years or so, a long list of artists including Modigliani, Renoir and Soutine have fallen in love with the season, and many studios here point to a lasting creative community.
Cabaret singer, actress and “the most painted woman in the world” Suzy Solidor founded a nightclub in Haut-de-Cagnes in 1960, now l’Espace Solidor, which hosts contemporary jewellery exhibitions.
5. Le Cros-de-Cagnes
As early as the 19th century, Italian fishermen’s families settled on the water’s edge in what was once a swampy bay sheltered from easterly winds.
It’s a small village with narrow streets, low houses, not far from the port, but easy to miss with all the modern developments popping up around it.
In 1866, the fishermen built the church of St. Pierre, the patron saint of fishermen.
The chapel, named “l’église jaune”, was designed to stand out and survive as the main seamark of the quarter.
6. Cote d’Azur Arena
The premier circuit in the region (and the second largest in France) has a winter and summer season.
But the most prestigious and valuable races are played in the winter.
The venue has an advantage compared to circuits in northern France, as the “fiber sand” surface remains firm throughout the cool season, allowing for top-notch racing on the flats.
The most important event of the year is the Vitesse Grand Standard on the Côte d’Azur, a trot race held in March to kick off the winter season.
Reserved for horses aged 4 to 10, the race is classified as an International Group I event, and the 2016 winner will receive €90,000.
7. Cannes Beach
The resort has 3.5 kilometers of beaches along the coastline, most of which are free to the public.
The entire length of the waterfront is bordered by a newly regenerated promenade that pushes cars back from the waterfront and lets you stroll under palm fronds.
Like the Baie des Anges in Nice, the sea glows irresistibly white when the sun catches it on a windless day.
If you need extra luxury, Cagnes’ six private beaches offer parasols, sunbed rentals, restaurants and even waiter service.
8. Phoenix Park
Follow the Route des Vespins from Cagnes-sur-Mer to L’Arénas and in a few minutes you will see the sign of this extraordinary park.
Admission for visitors outside the Nice area is only 5 euros, while children under 12 can enter for free.
This is great because the park is a real family attraction, centred around a huge 25m tall greenhouse, one of the largest in the world.
There are six areas inside, mainly tropical plants, where flamingos, mandarin ducks and iguanas roam freely.
Outside are Mediterranean and cactus gardens, bamboo forests and animal enclosures for otters, wallabies and marmots.
9. OGC Nice
The city of Nice is further afield near the Baie des Anges, but the home of the Nice football team is just 10 minutes away from Cagnes-sur-Mer.
Since the glory days of the 1950s, now is the perfect time to see a performance of “Les Aiglons”.
The luxurious Allianz Riviera was built for Euro 2016 and has a capacity of 35,000 people. The team has jumped from the second tier of French football to a Champions League spot in Ligue 1. At the time of this writing in 2017, they had reached the league’s top striker Mario Balotelli under coach Lucien Favrre and star player, the Italy international.
See if you can catch them while they’re still hot.
10. Water sports
The seafront of Cros-de-Cagnes has a nautical center that can provide you with equipment and tuition to choose activities on the waves.
From March to December, the Sailing Centre offers individual and group lessons and you can rent your own boat if you qualify, but also a range of other boats such as paddle boards, windsurfing equipment and dinghies.
No license is required for jet ski adventures in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat or the Lérin Islands, and there is a wake boarding school for children as young as 3 years old.
11. St Paul de Vence
You can reach the breathtaking village of Saint-Paul-de-France in just a few minutes.
If you’re sure you can see the central streets and passages in seconds, there’s a magic in this stone village that will keep you lingering longer.
The view from the terrace is amazing, and at sunset there is a heavenly view from the west side behind the Chapelle des Penitents Blancs.
That chapel was redecorated by Belgian artist Jean-Michel Furlong, who created eight glowing frescoes and three stained glass windows.
Also worth mentioning is that it is home to a plethora of famous people: artists Marc Chagall and Jacques La Villette, writer James Baldwin and actor Donald Pleasence, to name a few.
12. Foundation Maeght
Nestled in a pine forest on the Colline des Gardettes above Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the Maeght Foundation is a modern art museum you don’t see often.
It was 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 the age of 11. What makes it so special is because the masters of modern art came to help design and decorate: Marc Chagall created the mosaic, Giacometti designed a courtyard, and Joan Miró A labyrinth with 250 sculptures was conceived.
13. Not bad
The capital of the Côte d’Azur is about a 15-minute drive away if you have good transport, or you can take the TER train for the same time.
How you spend your day in the city is entirely up to your taste, as the charm of Nice has many facets.
Despite the 2016 attack, the promenade is still a nice institution, next to palatial hotels like the resplendent Negresco.
Vielle Ville is different, but equally beautiful with its chaotic alleys, isolated squares and flower market on Cours Saleya.
You have to climb the Colline du Château to get the ultimate photo of the city and bay, and visit the wonderful Chagall museum, but after that it’s up to you.
14. Ocean Paradise
This theme park is one of only four attractions in Europe to display killer whales.
Despite the controversy over captive orcas, it remains the single most-visited attraction in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.
There are also live shows with sea lions and dolphins and plenty of animal exhibits.
These include the 30-meter shark tunnel, where you can wander surrounded by nurse sharks and manta rays.
There are five species of penguins in the park, and these penguins frolicking in the Antarctic region are spread across rocks and pools.
15. Food and drink
Italian influences from Liguria begin to spread as you drive east along the French Riviera.
Take socca, the local name for farinata, a delicious chickpea pancake sold on the streets of Nice, perfectly served with crushed pepper.
Poutine, an acquired delicacy, is a small fry caught with a fine net.
These are used in omelettes or soups, but are best eaten raw and drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice.
Ratatouille, a zucchini, eggplant, onion, and tomato stew needs little introduction, and the same goes for salad dressings, which in its purest form are hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, and anchovies seasoned with olive oil.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France
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