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Best things to do & places to stay:

Last updated: 10 November, 2022
Expert travel writer: Dana Facaros

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.

Orientation

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.

Avignon

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.

Aix-en-Provence

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

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.

The bucket list experiences our writer says you must do in this destination

Aix Cathedral

Aix-en-Provence, Provence, France

A remarkable, medieval cathedral packed with treasures’ home to a famous Renaissance masterpiece and a fascinating tapestry museum.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

Arles Amphitheatre

Arles, Provence, France

The biggest and one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in France, where 20,000 would come to watch gladiators fight to the death.

Best for ages: 18+ | £8

Avignon Festival

Avignon, Provence, France

Nearly a thousand shows and exhibitions over three weeks, showcasing world-class drama, music and dance. France’s answer to the UK’s Edinburgh Festival.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free | 3 weeks

Other worthwhile experiences in this destination if you have the time or the interest

External view of the beautiful golden stone building
Experience

Caumont Centre d’Art

Aix-en-Provence, Provence, France

This magnificent townhouse (1715), a beautifully restored hôtel particulier, features lavishly furnished period rooms, an exquisite garden, a film on Cezanne and temporary art exhibitions; a good stop for lunch, afternoon tea or dinner too.

Best for ages: 18+ | £12

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Overview >
Chocolate-making at the Puyricard Chocolaterie
Experience

Chocolate-making at the Puyricard Chocolaterie

Puyricard, Provence, France

Visit the most famous chocolate factory in Provence, just outside Aix in Puyricard, where you can go behind the scenes in their atelier or spend an afternoon at a hands-on chocolate-making workshop.

Best for ages: 6+ | £8

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Overview >

Granet Museum

Aix-en-Provence, Provence, France

A must for any art lover, this museum holds one of Provence’s top art collections, including works by Cézanne, Rubens, Rembrandt, and the Collection Planque.

Best for ages: 18+ | £5

View into a graveyard with old ruin walls around
Experience

Les Alyscamps

Arles, Provence, France

An evocative, romantic Roman burial ground – once the most famous cemetery in medieval Europe. It’s the burial site of the legendary St Trophime and the first bishops of Arles, and remains an important stop on the pilgrimage to Compostela.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

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Overview >

Our writer’s picks of the best places to stay in this destination

Auberge La Feniere

Cadenet, Provence, France

An old stone farm converted into an idyllic wellness retreat, immersed in some of the Luberon’s most beautiful landscapes. Renowned for outstanding food from two of France’s most famous female chefs.

Official star rating:

Grand Hotel Roi Rene

Aix-en-Provence, Provence, France

Stylish hotel with a swimming pool and gardens, in walking distance of lovely Aix-en-Provence. Great for those self-driving around Provence.

Official star rating:

Chateau des Alpilles

Saint-Remy, Provence, France

An elegant, historic 19th-century chateau hotel just outside historic Saint-Remy, set in glorious grounds.

Official star rating:

Hotel B Design & Spa

Paradou, Provence, France

An intimate retreat: ultra-contemporary, minimalist hotel secluded in the olive groves under the Alpilles. Expect high design luxury suites, a spa and a gourmet restaurant tucked under the Les Baux-en-Provence castle.

Official star rating:

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.

Getting around

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.

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