As a hothouse of luxury perfumery, Grasse in Provence is an incredible destination for any perfume lover. And even if you are not into perfume, this little town in the South of France, with its pastel buildings and colorful shops will undoubtedly charm you.
The town itself is quite charming and typical of Provence. Grasse has won 3 flowers in the “Concours des villes et villages fleuris” (Competition of flowery towns and villages) and was deemed a “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire” (town of art and history).
But of course, the reason most people visit is the perfume. As you probably know, Grasse is the capital of perfume, where the art of perfumery was born. Every year millions of visitors come to the town to enjoy a tour in one of the perfume factories, take part in a workshop or simply to buy the best perfumes in town.
There are a number of perfume museums and workshops where you can learn about the history of this beautiful industry. In order to become an expert perfumer, you have to have:
Expert perfumers who have “the nose” are trained to distinguish over 2,000 kinds of scent. Grasse produces over two-thirds of France’s natural aromas, for perfume and for food flavourings. The town’s particular microclimate encouraged the flower farming industry. It is warm and sufficiently inland to be sheltered from the sea air.
But it didn’t actually start out that way. In the Middle ages, the big industry in the area was leather and tanning. At the peak of its leather trade, the manufacturers in the area was attempting to attract French Queen Catherine de Medici and her entourage, who were originally from Florence, Italy, which itself had a booming leather trade.
As such, Grasse began producing gloves, handbags and belts made of leather. The stench of tanning leather was so strong however, they started looking into producing scents and perfumes to cover the smell.
These days, every year million bottles of perfume are manufactured in Grasse, thanks to the region’s unique climate and location. Since the 18th century it has been the perfume capital of the France.
The French perfume industry is among the world’s oldest and most influential, especially in the luxury market.
If you are passionate about perfumes, Grasse is the city to visit. The city has several perfumeries where you can visit one of them and make your own perfume by blending different ingredients such as rose petals, lavender oil, pine tree oil, resins, and so on. It is quite an interesting experience to create your own perfume with the help of the perfumer.
And if you are coming from nearby Nice or Cannes, it makes for a scenic change from the glitz of French Riviera, passing through picturesque villages and stopping at gorgeous beaches on your way to the Old town of Grasse.
There is an annual international exhibition of roses (“Expo Rose“) held in May each year. In addition, every August, is the Fête du Jasmin or La Jasminade. Decorated floats drive through the town, with people throwing flowers into the crowd. Garlands of jasmine decorate the town center, and there are also fireworks, parties, and street performers.
Even if you don’t happen to be in town at the same time as one the festivals, there is plenty to enjoy on a visit to Grasse. So let’s get to what exactly there is to see in the town, shall we? Allons-y!
Things to see and do
1. Old Town
When you arrive at Grasse, you will notice that much of it looks quite new and ordinary. With large perfume factories in the town outskirts, the charm of the city is actually driving up to the Old Town of Grasse that is on a hill.
The Old town is mostly pedestrianized to leave your car behind and wander around the village’s narrow streets. With beautiful medieval buildings in various shades of pastels, there are a lot of shops, cafés, and restaurants offering local specialties. You can wander through for hours and just enjoy the sights and sounds on offer.
Each of the perfume factories have shops in the town center as well as factories in the outskirts. As you can imagine there are plenty of provençale souvenirs to be had.
Note, it does get very warm in the summer in this part of France, and not every place has air-conditioning. So wear a hat, and drink lots of water. You can read more about other souvenirs from France here.
2. Perfume ateliers
In Grasse, most of the perfume factories have a workshop where you can learn the art of perfumery and see how your favorite perfumes are made.
There are many perfumery companies in Grasse, most of which offer a tour of the factory. The three biggest perfumeries in Grasse are:
- Galimard Perfumery, established in 1747 by Jean de Galimard provided the French Royal Court with ointments and perfumes, before the Revolution. After the revolution, the Galimard Perfumery managed to pivot their business to promote their perfumes to the burgeoning bourgeoisie.
- Molinard Perfumery, established in 1849 with perfume bottles were made of Baccarat crystal and Lalique glass. The perfume house is still owned by the Molinard family.
- Fragonard Perfumery, established in 1926 by an entrepreneur named Eugène Fuchs, and named after local French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, who was born in the area. (The perfumery is not related to the artist.)
However, there are many other perfumerie houses in the area as well. Some of these companies make white-label perfumes, which are then sold under big luxury brand names, as well as their own perfume brand.
So if you have a particular Chanel perfume that you enjoy, you can ask the vendors in at the perfume ateliers showcase if they have something similar, and you just might get your “Chanel” perfume at a much lower price.
In fact, the great Coco Chanel met Ernest Beaux of the Perfume house of Chiris (now closed) in Grasse in 1921, and asked for “a woman’s perfume that smells like a woman”. When presented with several samples, she set her heart on sample number 5. She then decided to launch her collection “on the 5th of May, the 5th month of the year.” And she left the name as is: Chanel No 5.
For more interesting stories, you can also visit the International Perfume Museum, tracing the 5,000 year history of perfumery and its impact on the town of Grasse.
3. Make your own perfume
Along with learning about the art of perfumery, you can also make your own perfume. Many of the perfume factories have also offer (paid) appointments where you can try your hand at making your own perfume and see where the process of scent starts.
Pick your favorite scents with expert advice, the combinations that work well together, and tones that complement. And in an hour or two, you too walk away with a bottle of your own unique creation.
The appointment slots fill up quickly, especially in the summer months so if you are interested, you should book in advance.
4. Notre-Dame du Puy Grasse Cathedral
If you have some time, you may want to head to the 13th century cathedral known as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Puy de Grasse.
A towering building, it has a beautiful organ built in 1855, with 3 keyboards and numerous pipes. Under the church, is a small gallery exhibiting various local artists from Grasse and the region of Provence.
How to get to Grasse?
Grasse has a local train station, and is easily accessible from nearby cities like Cannes and Nice by TER train. If you are driving, the town is around 3 hours from Provençale cities like Marseille, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence.
How easy is it getting around?
The small Old Town of Grasse on top of a hill is quite walkable, and stroller and handicap-friendly. This is where the perfume brands have their “showcase factories” where you can see the perfume-making process.
The large-scale production of perfume, however, takes place in the factories in the outer part of the town at the bottom of the hill. If you park your car in this area, it is a bit of hike to get to the Old Town.
How many days should you spend?
One day is likely enough in Grasse, unless you are a perfume connoisseur. If you would like to make your own perfume, I recommend spending the night in town, as it can take a couple of hours.
Where should you stay?
There are not many hotels in Grasse, Les Passiflores B&B is a great value for the location right outside the Old Town.
- €€€ – Les Passiflores
In Nice around Old Town:
So if you enjoy perfumes, you will not want to miss visiting Grasse, on your trip to the south of France. If you enjoyed that post, you may want to read more about traveling around Provence and the French Riviera. A bientôt!