Of all the places I wanted to visit in France, Avignon was near the top of the list. This little Provençal town (also mentioned in my post about day trips in Provence) is, of course, beautiful to walk though, but it’s also home to the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) and the famous Pont d’Avignon (Bridge of Avignon). I was actually fortunate enough to visit Avignon twice during my semester in France – once by myself and once with my art history class on a day trip to Nîmes and Avignon. Having loved it both times, I can say with certainty that Avignon is definitely one of my favorite places in southern France, and I’m excited to share some of the town’s history and some information on what to do while spending a day there!
Like many other towns in France, Avignon was originally settled by the Romans, and you can see some of this heritage at the nearby Pont du Gard aqueduct, which is actually the most visited monument in southern France. However, unlike other towns like Nîmes or Aix, Avignon itself is known more for its medieval relics than its ancient ones.
The Papal Palace
The Palais des Papes is one of the main reasons I came to Avignon, and it’s well worth a visit (especially with a student discount). The current structure is actually two combined palaces, which makes it the largest gothic structure in the world, so it’s an impressive architectural work in addition to being the former home of the Catholic Church. And if you’re a bit behind on the details of Catholic history and are wondering why the papacy moved to France for a couple centuries, you’re in luck because this is one of my favorite history stories!
The first pope to live in Avignon was Clement V who moved here in 1309 to escape the violence in Rome (as to why there was violence, it’s complicated, but basically the French and Italian cardinals had problems getting along – more on that later). Under Clement V and the following seven popes, the Palais des Papes grew into a grander structure, as befitted the papacy. The story gets really interesting in 1378, however, which began the era of the “antipopes.”
One year before that, in 1377, Pope Gregory XI decided to bring the papacy back to Rome, and this was going well until he died a few months later, and a new pope had to be chosen. So, as is the custom, the College of Cardinals convened to choose a new pope, but the French/Italian division was still strong, and each faction elected a pope: Urban VI became pope in Rome, and Clement VII became pope in Avignon. This set off the Western Schism in the Catholic Church, and though there were various attempts to resolve the crisis, in 1409, the Council of Pisa decided to just start over by declaring that both the Roman and Avignon popes were illegitimate and that a third pope (Alexander V) was the real new pope.
It was at this point, with three popes all claiming to be the legitimate pope, that all three of them excommunicated each other. It took a few more years to actually resolve the schism, but eventually Martin V became pope, and things settled down. The Papal Palace in Avignon deteriorated over the following centuries and was further damaged in the French Revolution. Under Napoleon, the building was used by the military as a barracks/prison, and it continued to deteriorate until it was declared a museum in 1906. Restoration has continued throughout the last century, and today, it’s a fantastic place to visit for anyone interested in history or architecture. The palace and its courtyard are also used for various shows and conventions, including the annual Festival d’Avignon in July.
Probably the next-most popular historic site in Avignon is the bridge that famously stops halfway into the river. The bridge is most famous as now as the central image in the children’s song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon,” which describes a traditional dance (though technically the dance took place under – sous – the bridge not on – sur – it).
The Pont Saint-Bénézet as it is officially called is what remains of a project started in 1234. The original wooden bridge was destroyed long ago, but the fierce Rhone river remained something people had to cross. So, a plan was made to construct a stone bridge with 22 arches across the river. Unfortunately, this was very difficult to do and the sections tended to collapse each time the river flooded. After numerous attempts to complete the project and keep it from falling apart, the project was abanadoned in the 1600s. Today, the gatehouse and first four arches are all that remain on the Avignon side, and the Tour Phillipe-le-Bel stands on the other side of the Rhône. Since 1995, the remains of the bridge were classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Palais des Papes and Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms.
Also, if you’re wondering how people crossed the river once they gave up on the bridge, the answer is that a ferry was used until the early 1800s. At this point, wooden bridges were built at a different point on the Rhône where the current was less destructive, and, eventually, a suspension bridge was built across the Avignon part of the river. After a few more bridges were destroyed (for varying reasons, including World War II and bombing), the concrete Pont du Royaume was built in 1972. So, in conclusion, bridges are hard, and we take them for granted today.
One Day Itinerary
I’ll discuss these all in more detail in this section, but as a general guide to a day in Avignon, I would suggest the following:
- Arrive no later than 10 am
- Papal Palace – spend up to 2 hours here
- Lunch and some down time in Rocher des Doms park
- Walk on the Pont d’Avignon
- Visit an art museum – Collection Lambert and/or Musée Angladon
- Shopping (for souvenirs or just generally)
- Get an afternoon pastry and coffee
- Leave around 4 pm
As Avignon is an easy town to explore in one day, it’s simplest to just take a train in from another town. Actually, my trip to Avignon was my first experience taking the TGV (high-speed train), which was exciting and also meant that it took me only about an hour to get there from where I was staying in Aix. Of course, driving is also an option, but you’ll need to plan ahead to find parking.
Once in Avignon, my first stop was the Tourism Office. This isn’t always something I do, but I would recommend it in Avignon as you can pick up a map of the town and buy tickets to enter the Papal Palace (and some other places), which will save you time later since you won’t have to stand in lines. Also, you never know who you’re going to meet! While at the Tourism Office, I met a group of American tourists, all retired and traveling France on the off season. As I was a 19 year-old traveling by myself, these wonderful older women basically adopted me for the morning, and we went together to the Palais des Papes. You can, of course, book tickets for admission, tours, and excursions online, but the Tourism Office is a good place to stop if you’re not 100% sure what you want to do or if there are any ways you can get a discount on fees
I definitely recommend starting a day in Avignon at the Papal Palace because the earlier you visit, the easier it will be to avoid big crowds. This will give you time to explore the palace at your leisure and to see the artwork with smaller crowds. By the time I left the palace, it was about noon, and I was ready to eat. Though Avignon has several restaurants, I really enjoyed eating lunch at the café in the Rocher des Doms park.
Rocher des Doms is right next to the Papal Palace and is impossible to miss. Originally used as a vantage point and later for grazing sheep, Rocher des Doms evolved into its present form in the 18th century when it became popular for the aristocracy to stroll outside. After the Revolution, the park was completely landscaped and made public. In the pond’s center, there is a statue of Venus with Swallows by Félix Charpentier which was moved here from the Chapel Sant-Pierre after clerics objected to her immodesty. It completes the scene though, as I spent a good portion of my afternoon watching the ducks swim around the pond and the pigeons rest on Venus’s outstretched hand. The Buvette du Rocher des Doms (the café in the park) has varying reviews online, but, personally, I really liked it just for the relaxed atmosphere. While the sandwich I had doesn’t stand out in my memory as one of the best I’ve ever had, it was good and cheap and filled me up for the afternoon!
After lunch, you can take a winding route down from Rocher des Doms to the Pont d’Avignon. It does cost 5€ to visit and walk on the bridge, though it’s possible to get a combination ticket to visit the bridge along with the Palais des Papes. Though maybe not the most exciting tourist attraction, it is a nice walk, and you get a different view looking back at Avignon. For me, it was definitely worth it to walk on the bridge from the song, and I really don’t think you can visit Avignon without walking on the bridge!
For the next part of the day, I recommend an art museum. The two that I’ve visited in Avignon are the Collection Lambert and the Musée Angladon, though there are a few others as well. Both of these are about a ten-minute walk from the Pont d’Avignon and only four minutes from each other. The Collection Lambert, conceptualized by collector Yvon Lambert, shows contemporary art from the 20th and 21st centuries. In addition to a rotating exhibition of pieces in the permanent collection, there are also temporary exhibitions, and I really enjoyed the installations on display while I was there. By contrast, the Musée Angladon has a small but impressive collection of 18th century works as well as some modernist pieces and decorative objects. The core collection is that of fashion designer Jacques Doucet, and the museum has an intimate feel, like you’re in someone’s home, that I really enjoyed. Either museum is a great choice, depending on which type of art you prefer, and spending an hour or two in the museum is a great way to escape some of the larger afternoon crowds in town and to get out of the heat in the warmer months.
Finally, before leaving Avignon, take some time to stroll through downtown and the Rue de la Repiblique, where you’ll be able to find kitschy souvenirs as well as actual stores, including lovely (but expensive) boutiques. If you’re like me and can never have enough French pastries, you can have an afternoon snack and people watch. Being France, there are numerous cafés and patisseries to choose from, any of which is probably a decent choice, since I can’t remember the place I stopped at. But wherever you stop, a coffee and pastry is a perfect end to a day in Avignon!
Avignon was one of my favorite places in France, and I cannot recommend a visit enough! I hope this post has provided some fun information and some useful tips in planning a visit. If you’re looking to add on to a trip to Avignon, you have only to go to Nîmes or the Pont du Gard for a trip back to Roman history! If you don’t have a car, the Pont du Gard can be a bit difficult to get to (hence, why I didn’t go), but there are several options on sites like Viator to arrange a tour (like this Pont du Gard/Wine Tasting one) leaving from Avignon or Nîmes, which is a great option if you’re spending more than a day here.
In conclusion, Avignon is great! On a trip to Provence, Avignon has to be on your itinerary! I’m so glad I visited this wonderful town, and I would absolutely return, given the opportunity!