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An Art Lover’s Road Trip Through the South of France

Stefanie Waldek

It’s been said by critics and admirers alike that there’s something special about the light in the South of France, which has long been a draw for artists seeking to capture it in their work. As such, the region has become a haven for art lovers looking to visit the studios of their favorite painters as well as the museums dedicated to their oeuvres. And, given the scenic landscapes—from the lavender fields of Provence to the rocky coastline of the Côte d'Azur—it’s the perfect place for an art lover’s road trip.

Begin the journey in Paris at Gare de Lyon and hop aboard the high-speed TGV train to Nîmes, a comfortable ride that takes just three hours (and has free WiFi!). Pick up the rental car at the main station, but don’t rush out of town right away. Visit the Carre d’Art, a contemporary art museum housed in a striking building by Norman Foster, set across the street from a Roman temple from the 1st century B.C. If time allows, visit some of the other Roman works in town, like the Pont du Gard aqueduct and the well-preserved amphitheater.

Maison Carree and Carre d'Art

View of the Carre d’Art from Maison Carree at dusk.
Photo by Jon Hicks. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

From Nîmes, drive 40 minutes south to Arles, which was once the residence of Vincent van Gogh. Though the famous yellow house he painted no longer exists, you can visit another location that was the subject of one of his works: the sidewalk café from Café Terrace at Night. And for more context on the artist’s hyper-productive period in the city, visit the Fondation Vincent van Gogh Arles, which puts the work of the Dutch master in conversation with contemporary artists through its exhibitions. If you’re visiting in the second half of this year, visit the new Luma Arles, a contemporary art center designed by Frank Gehry that is scheduled to partially open in May.

Continue on to the nearby village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a 30-minute drive north. Here you’ll find Saint-Paul de Mausole, the asylum where van Gogh sought treatment after his breakdown in Arles. It’s now a museum dedicated to the artist, his works, and the psychiatric treatment he received.

LA PLACE DU FORUM A ARLES, BOUCHES-DU-RHONE, FRANCE

The café that van Gogh painted.
Photo by Patrick Bertrand. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

The next stop on your road trip should be Aix-en-Provence, the birthplace of Paul Cézanne, an hour east from Saint-Remy. Follow the Cézanne Trail—maps are available online—to visit the artist’s important sites, including his atelier, which can be toured. Cap the Cézanne tour with a stop at the Musée Granet, which has works by the artist and many others including Rembrandt, Alberto Giacometti, and Paul Klee in its collection. Contemporary art lovers will want to schedule a visit to Château La Coste, a winery, hotel, and architectural sculpture park with works by Tadao Ando, Louise Bourgeois, and Renzo Piano, among many others.

Saint Paul de Mausole Monastery in Provence

Saint-Paul de Mausole monastery.
Photo by Jose Nicolas. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Hop back in the car and drive 40 minutes south to Marseille, France’s second-largest city, to explore their art scene. Visit the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) to catch one of its rotating art exhibitions, and head to art gallery Marseille Modulor (MAMO). MAMO is set on the rooftop of Le Corbusier’s social housing project, Unité d’Habitation, also known as Cité Radieuse, which is a must-see for architecture buffs. Cap off your time in the city at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille.

In French Provence, in the steps of Paul Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence, France on January 13, 2006.

Paul Cezanne’s studio, which is open to the public for visits.
Photo by Alain Benainous. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Up next is the French Riviera. Though you might be tempted to sip cocktails all day long in Saint-Tropez after the two-hour drive from Marseille, don’t miss a visit to the Musée de l'Annonciade, a small museum in a 16th-century chapel dedicated to modern artists who frequented the city, like Paul Signac. Keeping heading about an hour and 20 minutes northwest toward Nice to visit the Musée National Picasso in Vallauris, which holds a collection of the artist’s ceramic works that he created in his studio in town, or the Musée Picasso in neighboring Antibes, housed in the former Château Grimaldi. Visitors can also drop by the Musée National Fernand Léger in Biot, the Museé Renoir in the artist’s home and studio in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a private collection of 20th-century art in a building by Spanish architect Josep Lluís Sert.

High Angle View Of Town By Sea

A view of Saint Tropez.
Photo by Vasil Nanev. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

The final stop on your South of France road trip is Nice, just 30 minutes from Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Though the city is perhaps best known as a gastronomical capital, it also has a flourishing museum scene. Visit monographic museums like the Musée Matisse and the Musée Marc Chagall, or encyclopedic ones like the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nice or the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (MAMAC).

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest