A lively medieval town bursting with art and creativity, and centrally located for sightseeing in Provence. Host of the superb Avignon Festival.
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Destination guide for Provence
Provence is France’s Mediterranean dreamland, where it’s almost impossible to avoid magnificent landscapes of sunflowers, lavender, vines, cypresses and olive groves – scenes that are dreamily familiar thanks to once-local artists such as Van Gogh or Cezanne.
Beyond its beauty and artistic heritage, the region also excels in outstanding Roman and medieval monuments; cool cities full of hip boutiques, superb restaurants and cafés; and a world-class summer festival scene. It’s a place to go wine tasting, to cycle or hike through some of France’s loveliest countryside, or to gallop on horseback through flocks of pink flamingos.
Many of Provence’s stellar sights are concentrated near the River Rhone.
In the north, there’s the ancient Roman theatre in the town of Orange, and the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
In the far south, you’ll find the Camargue, a wildlife-rich natural park delta. The lavender fields seen in photos are concentrated around the Luberon and Verdon plateaus, close to Marseille in the southeast.
In the centre, forming a triangle, are Provence’s three beating hearts – the three ‘art’ cities: Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Arles.
This medieval town is bursting with palaces and townhouses, many now converted into museums, hotels and restaurants.
It’s famously the former home of the Roman popes, who built the vast Palais des Papes palace that dominates the town. Avignon is also world-famous for its annual festival, a feast of culture, art and creativity.
Known as the ‘Florence of France’, Aix was the capital of Provence for centuries – a heritage reflected in the richness of its art, churches and golden-stone towns built between the Renaissance and 18th century.
It’s famous among musical circles for its prestigious classical music festival and the European Music Academy. Romantics and art lovers come here in search of Cézanne, who immortalised the surrounding landscapes.
Arles, the city where both Van Gogh and Gaugin fell in love with colour, is also ‘the Little Rome of Gaul’, and has stunning ancient and early medieval monuments to prove it. A shabby-chic city of character, with a dash of Spanish flare, there’s a vibrant café life, great restaurants, and lively festivals.
The location is also ideal for jaunts into Provence’s wild south: most of the Rhone’s delta, the Camargue Natural Park, is within municipal limits. The extraordinary cluster of craggy mountains, Les Alpilles, are close too, along with St-Remy, the other town associated with Van Gogh.
When to go
Provence is at its seductive best in June and the first half of July, when the lavender and sunflowers bloom and festivals are in full swing. It’s hot, but even hotter in August, when French families take their holidays and everything is packed.
April, May, September and October are delightful, uncrowded and mild. Many sights are closed down by mid-November until Easter; in winter it’s also far more likely to rain and stay overcast until the fierce mistral wind blows, often for several days in a row, gusting up to 100km per hour, but sweeping the sky crystal clear.
Getting there and away
Marseille has Provence’s main airport, which has a shuttle to Marseilles’ train station; from here there are frequent links to Aix (35-45 minutes). Aix also has a TGV terminal, with trains from Paris arriving in only 3.5 hours.
Avignon and Arles can be reached directly via trains from Vitrolles Marseille Airport station, avoiding Marseille. Avignon’s own airport is served by low-cost carriers and linked to the city by bus. In summer, Eurostar trains go directly from London to Avignon (six hours); other times you’ll need to change.
The cities are well served by trains, and as they aren’t very car-friendly (parking is an expensive hassle), so it can work best to start in one or more of them, and then hire a car to visit the countryside, where public transport is sketchy.
Aix’s historic centre is compact, beautiful and walkable. The old walled city of Avignon is compact and easy to get around on foot. There are bike schemes by the hour.
Tour operators offer the easiest way to tour Provence’s landscapes at a slower pace – by foot, horseback or bicycle, arranging luggage transfers and hotels along the way.
Where to stay
First-time visitors will find it easiest to stay in one (or more) of Provence’s three art cities: Aix-en-Provence, Avignon & Arles). All are easy to walk around and filled with charming restaurants, bars and shops, and all make perfect bases for day trips or to each other. Avignon and Aix-en-Provence are handy bases for exploring the beautiful landscapes and villages of the Lubéron.
Alternatively, opt to escape the hubbub and relax in a country hotel amid gorgeous landscapes – some of the most beautiful are around Les Baux-de-Provence, St-Rémy, the Lúberon, or amid the vineyards under the Dentelles de Montmirail.
Where to eat or drink
Many of the best restaurants are located in smart hotels or in fairly exclusive areas: Les Baux and the Alpilles, Saint-Remy, Aix, Avignon, and the villages of the Lubéron.
Wine lovers head to the Rhône’s banks for Gigondas, Châteauneuf du Pape, Vacqueyras and Beaumes-de-Venise, but you’ll find superb dry rosés everywhere.
Traditional local dishes include tapenade (olive and caper spread), bouillabaisse, beef stews (daube à la Provençale or taureau à la gardiane, served on Camargue rice). In winter, try the truffles.
Where to shop
Although the outskirts of Provence’s towns and cities are ringed with supermarkets, malls, and chain shops, the centres still have independent boutiques of all kinds, especially in chic destinations such as Aix and Saint-Remy.
Outdoor markets, while specialising in fresh food, are also good places to look for goodies to take home. Keep an eye peeled for craft fairs and weekend vide greniers (communal ‘attic emptiers’); for serious antiques, visit L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
Olive oil, herbs, lavender products and wines are classic buys. Nineteenth-century Provence was famous for its colourful block print fabrics (indiennes), revived by Provence-based Souleiado in its many boutiques.
Other guides relevant to this destination
Fascinating Roman, and medieval monuments and memories of Van Gogh, plus a winsome shabby-chic charm.
Cezanne’s elegant hometown, filled with fountains and beautiful mansions, works of art and excellent restaurants. The ‘Florence of France’.
Money, glamour and bombshell looks: this beach-trimmed stretch of French coast offers decadent hotels, lounging in beach clubs, fine restaurants and world-class art.