American author Timothy Jay Smith lives in Nice, France, where he’s discovered a slew of small museums. Here are his Top 10 +1 small museums on the Cote D’Azur that will interest parents and kids.
1. Archeological Crypte Museum (Nice)
When starting on any list, why not start from the ground up? Or in this case, underground up. This museum covers a site of 2,000 sq. meters (22,000 sq. feet) roughly under Place Garibaldi. As you walk along hanging pathways, you discover the remains of medieval Nice along the shores of an ancient river. Unfortunately, the tours are in French only, but it won’t matter. The guide or someone always manages some English. You need to make a special effort to see this museum by making a reservation at the Centre du Patrimoine at 14 rue Jules Gilly in the Old Town.
Will kids like it? Are you kidding? It’s underground!
Hint: Whether or not you go to the Crypte Museum, visit the Centre du Patrimoine (Heritage Center) to get information on an assortment of walking tours, some in English.
2. International Museum of Naïve Art (Nice)
Naïve art is often misperceived as primitive or untrained, though it could just as easily be called playfully non-representational. That’s to say, it’s fun, and it’s found all over the world. This exceptional small museum includes works dating from the 18th century to the present. While naïve painters aren’t as well-known as, say, the Impressionists, this collection includes pieces by such iconic greats as Grandma Moses and Henri Rousseau.
As for kids? They will love the cartoonish quality of some of the paintings and sculptures. It’s accessible art that might even tempt them to try their hand at it. They’ll certainly love the family statues (with a purple dog) on the museum’s lush grounds.
3. Villa Ephrussi (St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat)
Though in fact a museum, it’s equally an outdoor experience. Often referred to as the Rothchilds’ Villa because of an important marriage connection dating to the 1880s, it’s an opulent villa that’s a history of its era. What’s especially interesting are its eight gardens: Japanese, exotic (cactus), rose, Provençal, and more.
As for kids? Most kids don’t think in terms of different types or styles of gardens—they only think about the weeds they’re tasked to pull—so it’s a new perspective for them. Also, it’s special to see an all-cactus garden.
Hint: Have lunch in the villa’s restaurant and walk to the next museum: Villa Kérylos.
4. Villa Kérylos (Beaulieu-sur-Mer)
Situated on a rocky promontory jutting into the sea with monumental cliffs rising behind it, this replica of an ancient Greek villa is an aesthetic masterpiece. Conceived by a French archeologist, everything in it is a detailed copy of artifacts from the ancient world: furniture, flooring, and sculptures. It’s stepping back in time much like visiting the Roman villas in Pompeii, except at Kérylos you aren’t looking at ruins but a complete house.
As for kids? Kids will especially like to learn things like the ancient Greeks didn’t sit at a table to eat their meals but stretched out on elevated couches! They’ve probably never seen stand-up desks, either.
Hint: Definitely use the audio guide to fully appreciate what you’re seeing.
5. Saint Pierre Chapelle, or Cocteau’s Chapel (Villefranche)
In the mid-1900s, the art scene of the Côte d’Azur was defined by three artists: Cocteau, Picasso, and Matisse. In charming Villefranche, Jean Cocteau decorated this small chapel dedicated to local fishermen, completely filling it with his swirling, whimsical figures evoking religious themes, while also, curiously, paying homage to gypsies! It’s a wonderful example of how art transforms a space. It’s so playful that it becomes a game to spot (and try to explain) his many symbols. Candelabra become eyes staring at you, and larger-than-life figures stretch up the walls all around you.
As for kids? They’ll love the sense that they have stepped into a cartoon!
Hint: If you like Cocteau, then also visit Musée du Bastion in Menton.
6. Photography Museum Charles Nègre (Nice)
If a picture says a thousand words, then a photography museum must have a lot to say, and this small gem always does. Photography is an art loved by the French. (The annual Paris Photo at the Grand Palais in Paris is the world’s largest photography show.) That devotion to the art of light and colors is shared in Nice. Located in the heart of the Nice’s Old Town, the temporary exhibits change every two or three months and most often feature a photographer or show with some connection to France.
As for kids? Lots of great photos, abstract or realistic always stimulate the imagination.
7. Chagall Museum (Nice)
Picasso once remarked, “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter who understands what color is.” This collection of Marc Chagall’s work—the largest in the world—suggests he could have been right. His magical figures float in seas of color with apparently zero gravity. While his recognizable mythical animals are in many of the works, his themes are far less playful. In this collection, he’s interpreted the Old Testament, so despite the vivid color, his subjects can be somber.
As for kids? It’s a chance to “see” stories that they’ve heard about, like Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, and so many other stories that come with Western civilization.
Hint: What a great teaching opportunity for parents!
8. Renoir’s House (Cagnes-sur-Mer)
Pierre-Auguste Renoir was a leading painter of the Impressionist style, which became prominent in the late 1800s (when he was in his thirties and forties). Some of his paintings, such as Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette and The Beach Party, are icons of Impressionism. His paintings are also renowned for their celebration of feminine beauty. Around the age of 50, he developed arthritis and moved to warm Cagnes-sur-Mer. His house is modest, comfortable, and inviting. Unfortunately, none of his great works are on display.
As for kids? It’s not a stuffy museum but a peek at family life in a bygone era. You can almost hear Renoir’s grandchildren laughing and playing in the sun-filled rooms. As a plus: it’s located in an expansive and beautiful garden that also invites you to stop and smell the flowers—and play!
9. Musée Chateau Grimaldi (Cagnes-sur-Mer)
This chateau-cum-fortress at the top of a medieval village is so atmospheric that you expect knights in armor to appear at any moment. Its temporary exhibitions usually change two or three times a year, though 2019 was entirely devoted to the Year of Renoir, commemorating the centenary of the painter’s death. At the core of its permanent exhibit are 40 portraits of Suzy Solidor, a popular French cabaret singer of the 1930s and 1940s, painted by some of the most prominent artists of her time. It’s incredibly interesting to see how painters can have such different takes on the same model plus convey the cabaret life.
As for kids? They’ll be asking “Where are the knights?” and probably think the Sally Solidor portraits are cool.
10. The National Picasso Museum (Vallauris)
Almost everybody has heard of Pablo Picasso and has some notion of his paintings—their bold colors and abstract images that stretched the boundaries of art. Repeatedly, he returned to the theme of peace, starting in 1937 with one of his best-known works, Guernica. It was in this 16th-century chapel in Vallauris where he installed his monumental War and Peace, depicting the horrors of war and the benefits of peace. The wooden panels curve up with the vaulted ceiling until the images loom overhead. It’s in Vallauris that Picasso discovered ceramics and would go on to ultimately create some 4,000 pieces in clay.
As for kids? They’ll love the looming images as well as experience art having a deeper meaning than only decorative. It would be hard not to understand what Picasso intended when he juxtaposed imagery of war (a tank) with that of peace (a tightrope walker).
Hint: Walk around the small town and visit the many ceramic shops.
11. The Rosary Chapel, or Matisse Chapel (Vence)
Like his peers, Matisse brought playfulness to his work and wasn’t afraid of using bright colors. He entirely conceived and decorated the Rosary Chapel. It’s remarkable for its simplicity and minimalist furnishings, but especially for its use of sunlight streaming through stained glass to reflect on the marble floors to create a sense of walking through color. Indeed you are! Matisse considered the chapel his masterpiece and there’s little doubt why.
As for kids? They’ll be enchanted by walking through shafts of colored light.
Hint: Check opening times. It has limited hours.
When Timothy Jay Smith quit an intriguing international career to become a full-time writer, he had already traveled the world and collected real-life characters, places, and events to inspire his stories. His latest novel, The Fourth Courier, set in Poland in 1992, continues his style of page-turning thrillers set in foreign locations. Tim, too, has set himself in a foreign location. He lives in Nice, France, where he’s discovered a slew of small museums. Here are his Top 10 +1 small museums on the Cote D’Azur that will interest parents and kids.
Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. En route, he’s found the characters that people his work. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that saw him maneuver through Occupied Territories, smuggle a banned play from behind the Iron Curtain, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a “devil’s barge” for a three-day crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.
Tim has won top honors for his novels, screenplays and stage plays in numerous prestigious competitions. The Fourth Courier (Arcade Publishing) has received wide acclaim. His novels Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel and A Vision of Angels won the Paris Prize for Fiction. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012.
Tim was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. His stage play, How High the Moon, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award, and his screenplays have won competitions sponsored by the American Screenwriters Association, WriteMovies, Houston WorldFest, Rhode Island International Film Festival, Fresh Voices, StoryPros, and the Hollywood Screenwriting Institute. He is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater.