On the scent trail in France
Pick up a car and follow your nose to the country’s sweet spots
With its picturesque towns and villages, hillsides striped with grapevines and famously beautiful people, France is pretty hot stuff in the looks department. So it’s maybe no surprise that it smells great, too, with French perfume being among the best in the world.
The birthplace of Coco Chanel and home to Grasse – where a fragrance museum traces how it became the world’s perfume capital – this is a country with heady scents at every turn. And there’s no need to sniff out the most fragrant spots, because we’ve done the work for you. From lavender gardens to elegant perfumeries, here are the best spots to stop and smell the tuberoses.
Perfumeries in Paris
The chic capital has dozens of posh perfumeries dotted about its broad boulevards and steep cobbled lanes. Find a niche, handcrafted fragrance (likely to be one that none of your friends wear) at French perfumer Nicolaï, whose selection plays on the country’s natural scents with layers of lavender, fig, bergamot and lemon.
Or visit Liquides, a tucked-away perfume bar tended by a sensory expert. Rather than mixing an Old Fashioned cocktail, they use their skills to craft the perfect perfume based on your tastes and personality. Le Studio des Parfums takes the personalisation a step further, helping guests craft a unique fragrance by selecting and blending from hundreds of notes.
The House of Creed, born in London before moving to its Parisian home in the 8th Arrondissement in 1854, blends perfumes beloved by royalty. Creed was the official supplier to Queen Victoria’s household, and crafted a fragrance to mark Prince Rainier of Monaco’s marriage to Grace Kelly.
Make time for a stop at Chanel’s flagship store, opened in 1918 on Rue Cambon. Tour the gleamingly stylish interior, browsing racks of designer gear and, of course, perfumes. If you truly want to follow in the designer’s slingback-heeled steps, head around the corner to the Ritz Paris. Coco lived on the enormous second-floor suite for 34 years.
A 45-minute drive outside of Paris is Versailles’ Osmothèque, a museum dedicated to the memory of scents. See and sniff perfumes of the past, present and future in this incredible archive.
Capital of fragrance
Tucked in the hills north of Cannes, you can smell this French Riviera town from miles off. In a good way, because Grasse is considered the birthplace of modern fragrance. Some of the most iconic and timeless scents were curated right here by Coco Chanel and François Coty.
Terraces and gardens overspill with blooms around the city. Look out for the entrance pavilion of Hugues-Aîné, a 19th-century French perfume house built into the old town walls.
Many still-operating perfumeries offer free guided tours. A behind-the-scenes lab tour in Galimard, which also has a tiny museum and vintage production equipment, is a lovely place to start. You can also book a perfume-making class and take home a bespoke, signature scent. Or just potter about and follow your nose – there are tiny fragrance shops and labs everywhere.
The town isn’t shy about wafting its evocative scent around. Grasse’s International Perfume Museum traces the history of perfume, reaching back to ancient Egypt with exhibits of bottle designs and how manufacturing has evolved. Its gardens are the true treasure, though, with plants arranged in scent profiles including citrus, floral, wood and musk.
You’ll want the heady mix of jasmine, lavender, tuberose and orange blossom to linger in your nostrils forever. And you’ll never dab your wrists in the same way again.
How to get there: Grasse is a 35-minute drive from Nice Airport, or if you’re arriving by train, collect your car at Cannes Train Station before heading up into the hills above the city via the D6185.
Landscapes don’t come much more evocative than Provence’s lavender fields, which lay out thick-pile purple carpets and scent the air from June to August. The best spots are the Luberon, Mont Ventoux and Sault regions, where you’ll also find shops and farm stalls selling lavender soap, oils and honey.
Nearby Menton – which wonderfully describes itself as the ‘city of lemons’ – has become a hothouse of botanical gardens thanks to its sub-tropical microclimate. Wander among rare plants and poolside blooms at La Serre de la Madone, and admire Monet-esque ponds dotted with giant lily-pads at Val Rahmeh.
On a smaller scale, but still bursting with scents, Fontana Rosa is the garden of famous Spanish writer, Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. The eclectic grounds are a charming mélange of bold ceramics, intricate mosaics and memorials to other authors.
To really immerse yourself in perfume, stay at Clos du Peyronnet, a Belle Époque villa built in 1897. The serene gardens, with leafy archways, bright blooms and hidden nooks, are a feast for eyes and noses. Its wrought-iron gates occasionally open to the public, too.
How to get there: If you’re arriving by air, Marseille Provence Airport is the most convenient pick up point if you’re heading for the lavender fields. For Menton, arrive at Nice Airport, and enjoy a scenic 40-minute drive via the A8, or you could pick up a rental car at Menton Train station.