The popular French Riviera village of Saint-Tropez is famous for its beach clubs, nightlife, and glitzy ambiance that has long lured well-heeled jet setters. And, certainly, most people are familiar with Cannes, the resort city put on the map by the glamorous film festival that brings droves of celebrities strutting down the red carpet each year. Fans of luxury fragrance — the iconic Chanel No. 5., Dior, and Hermès to name a few — have likely heard of Grasse, aka the perfume capital of the world, where precious May roses and jasmine bloom. But what about Mougins? This enchanting hilltop village doesn’t have the same widespread international notoriety as the aforementioned tourist hubs — though, to be clear, I wouldn’t classify it as a secret because it’s quite beloved within France.
Before my visit in June, I didn’t know much about Mougins. Having had the pleasure of visiting, it’s definitely a place I would highly recommend adding to any Provence itinerary. “You go to Mougins for the art, the history, the architecture, the food, but also for your own inspiration. There is a certain magic in the air,” says Oliver Blacklay, head of leisure at luxury travel company Black Tomato. “It’s really unusual and singular in that part of France, in that it’s neatly tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the coast yet hugely accessible.” Located about 15 minutes inland from Cannes, Mougins is an easy day trip from most of the big-name Côte d'Azur destinations travelers typically hit. Though, it still retains an off-the-beaten-path appeal in many ways. It’s quiet — not bustling with giant tour buses that I doubt could even fit on the narrow streets leading to town — and that definitely preserves the hidden-gem sort of feel. At the same time, it’s very atmospheric and welcoming of tourists.
So what makes this town so special? “It has a deep historic background beginning in the Roman Empire and the village was fortified in the Middle Ages. These crumbling walls and ramparts still stand today, including the Porte Sarrazine.” The medieval ruins add to the picturesque scenery, which brought many notable artists to the area. Pablo Picasso spent over a decade of his life in Mougins and is credited with starting its artistic legacy. Edith Piaf and Christian Dior also fell for its charms.
Upon arrival, I was struck by the views, which are take-your-breath-away beautiful, and the subtle fragrance of pine, olive, and cypress trees that filled the air. Even from the parking lot, it’s an eyeful of these rolling hillsides and homes that appear to be floating. Next, a collection of larger-than-life fruit sculptures caught my attention. The giant works of art look even more magical set against a backdrop of greenery and stone facades.
It might be tempting to post up near an oversized, bronze-cast Picasso head by Gabriël Sterk and just soak in the stunning vistas and gawk at the sculptures, however, I implore you to venture further into the snail-shaped medieval center. It was built that way ages ago to defend against invaders. Today, the cobbled alleys of the vieux village house many boutique shops, galleries, and artists' workshops.
The Musée d'Art Classique de Mougins (MACM) boasts an exceptional permanent collection, from rooms filled with ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman treasures to the works of masters including Henri Matisse and Salvador Dalí. “Really, it’s the perfect kind of place to amble and ramble through at a relaxed pace. Deeply peaceful but with a palpable buzz.” On the contemporary side of things, the Centre de la Photographie de Mougins shows off the talents of many modern photographers from around the world. Since the exhibitions are temporary, there’s always something new to admire.
Hungry travelers don’t have to look far to find something delicious to devour. Mougins has major epicurean cred. Foodies know about it because of the world-class dining and the annual food festival Les Etoiles de Mougins (more on that below). For a town this small, it’s super impressive that there are three Michelin-rated restaurants.
Keen to taste the traditional flavors of Provence? Head to L'Amandier de Mougins, a culinary force that was founded in 1969 by legendary French chef Roger Vergé (who sadly died 17 years ago). I’d recommend reserving a table on the second-floor terrace so you can enjoy perfectly cooked fish and a crisp local rosé while staring at cinematic panoramas of the countryside. It also comes with the benefit of getting to ascend the grand spiral staircase and pass through the entirety of the elegant interiors.
Set on the lovely village square, La Place de Mougins gives guests a very elevated gourmet experience. Chef Denis Fétisson rolls out an ever-changing coursed menu of dishes that highlights seasonal ingredients. Depending on the time of year you visit, that might look like a fresh-shucked oyster topped with caviar, followed by langoustine carpaccio, and then smoked black Angus or asparagus with bottarga, a light yet decadent truffle creation, and crème brûlée for dessert. The wine pairing is a splendid accompaniment.
Helmed by a husband and wife duo, Le Clos St-Basile stands out as a place that you will also want to return to many times over. It’s warm and inviting with major gastronomic chops. It’s easy to fall in love with the classic pigeon pithiviers — and show me a person who doesn’t love grated truffles on pasta! I’m partial to the sunny patio, but the French country-chic indoor dining area certainly doesn’t disappoint either.
“Mougins has a rich identity with an international sensibility when it comes to the culinary offerings that go beyond just incredible French food. This gem of a town is home to one of my favorite Indian restaurants, Curry House,” remarks Blacklay. And, of course, the aforementioned annual gastronomic festival, Les Etoiles de Mougins, which began in 2006 as a way to honor Roger Vergé, draws superstar chefs and culinary giants from around the world. The two-day event includes demonstrations, workshops, and conferences that explore food from all angles.
If this all sounds so magical that you feel compelled to spend a few days in Mougins, rest assured that the beloved Le Mas Candille, which Blackalay described as “a beautiful place to stay with an incredible restaurant on its own grounds right outside of the center of Mougins,” will reopen upon completion of the renovation in July 2023 — just in time for a sun-splashed summer holiday. Can’t wait until next year? Two of the most beloved B&Bs, Le Mas de Mougins and Les Roseés, are currently open and welcoming guests with warm Provencale hospitality.
While the new year is still months away, it might b e time to start planning your travels for 2023, and Mougins definitely deserves a top spot on your bucket list.