Provence is one of the most popular regions in France, and it’s really not a surprise. The idyllic countryside dotted with purple fields of lavender, small towns with markets selling everything you could need, and, of course, Homer’s wine dark sea – the Mediterranean. Provence is filled with beautiful little towns, which all have their own appeal, and I was lucky enough to visit several of them during the four months of my study abroad. Though it would be possible to write full-length posts on each of these, I decided to just write some short blurbs about the trips I took around Provence. Though it’s amazing to stay in a little French town for more than a day, most of these places are visited on day trips, and they’re close enough together that you can really pick any one that you want to visit and hop between towns without issue.
To organize the post, I’ve grouped the towns by what region of Provence they’re in, as “Provence” actually refers to multiple departments (regions) in France. In total, Provence has seven departments: Bouches du Rhône, Vaucluse, Drôme Provençal, Hautes Alpes, Alpes de Haute Provence, Alpes Maritimes, and Var. I travelled to and will talk about four of these, though there are definitely places in the other regions I’d love to visit in the future. Also, as a side note, in referring to places in Provence, you may come across geographical regions such as the “Luberon,” the “Camargue,” the “Alpilles” or the “Verdon” regions, which are not departments in themselves but are contained inside the larger administrative regions. Though I visited all of these, I won’t refer to them here because it will probably just make the post more confusing.
Bouches du Rhône
The cosmopolitan center of southern France, Marseille is actually the oldest city in France. It was founded by the Greeks under the name Massalia around 600 BC. Basically, ever since then, Marseille has been an important costal port that connected France to other parts of the Mediterranean. Being an actual city, Marseille has lots of options for hotels and restaurants, as well as an abundance of museums and historical attractions that you can choose from. In visiting Provence, you’ll probably at least go through the bus/train station here to get between destinations.
Aix was my home during my semester in France, and I really loved living in this city because, despite having over 100,000 residents, it feels like a small town. While Marseille was the first Greek city in France; Aix was one of the first Roman ones (and parts of the Roman road still exist near the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur). In Roman times, Aix was known as a spa, and water is still a part of its attraction as there are 138 fountains in the city! Like most French towns, Aix has a few amazing markets that happen on different days of the week, which are great to walk through. Other big sites include the Pavillon Vendôme and Cezanne’s studio. Cezanne is probably the most famous artist from Aix, and you can easily visit the park from which he painted scenes of Mont Sainte-Victoire.
When you’re in the south of France, you have to go to the beach at some point, and La Ciotat was one of the closest options from Aix (Cassis is also a popular spot). It’s really just a fun little beach town where you can grab lunch at the market or a café and spend the day by the water. Though Marseille also has a beach, I preferred La Ciotat by a huge margin because it had a lot less people, and I generally prefer smaller towns. La Ciotat is also notable because it was a location used in some of the earliest motion pictures. The Lumière brothers, who are famous for their pioneering work in creating film equipment (including the “cinématographe” camera/projector which is the origin for the word “cinema”), filmed L’Arrivé d’un train en gare de La Ciotat here and the Eden Theater is one of the oldest movie theaters in the world!
This is probably one of the best known towns in Provence because of its most famous historical resident – Vincent Van Gogh. Though Van Gogh only lived in Arles for just over a year, he produced over 300 paintings and drawings in that time! One of my favorite parts of my day in Arles was searching for sites from Van Gogh’s paintings, but there’s a lot more to do. Arles has a Roman theater and amphitheater, both of which are still in use today, and the city is also famous for the poet Frédéric Mistral and the literary/cultural Félibrige movement in the 19th century. I also actually remember where I had lunch in Arles – La Bodeguita, the oldest tapas restaurant in town with an amazing Mediterranean menu.
Les Baux de Provence
Close to Arles, Les Baux de Provence is easily added on to a day trip in the region. It’s really just a collection of of houses on top of a mountain, but it’s unbelievably picturesque and has been called France’s most beautiful village. And if you’re into art, you can’t skip the Carrières de Lumières – an immersive art exhibit that is frankly indescribable. During my visit, the shows were focused on “Flower Power” (art and music of the 1960s) and Picasso and the Spanish Masters, which highlighted some of Picasso’s work alongside older pieces from the Spanish canon. If you visit Arles, just add Les Baux to your itinerary – it’s worth it!
I loved my time in Avignon! I actually went twice during the semester, once on my own and once with my Art History class. Avignon is another big-name Provence town that everyone wants to visit, but for good reason. The Palais des Papes (Papal Palace) is incredible, and there’s something really appealing about the Pont d’Avignon (the bridge) that ends partway into the river. For context, the arches of the bridge tended to collapse every time the Rhône flooded, and eventually people just gave up on continuing to repair it. The bridge is stable now, of course, and you can walk out to the edge.
The Papal Palace is also a site for history nerds as this is where the popes lived in the 14th century. At first Pope Clement V didn’t want to deal with the violence in Rome, but, more famously, the return of the papacy to Rome coincided with the Schism of 1378 in which multiple men claimed to be the “true pope.” The “antipopes” Clement VII and Benedict XIII made the Avignon palace their home for a while, but by 1433, the building was returned to Roman papal authority. A few centuries later, the palace was used by Napoleon’s forces as a combination military barracks and prison, but today it is a museum and one of the most visited landmarks in France.
I spent a good portion of my time in Avignon in the Rocher des Doms park, which has beautiful views overlooking the city as well as places to eat or just sit and enjoy the quiet. Also, if you want to add on to a day in Avignon, you can visit nearby Nîmes, which is not technically in Provence but is famous for being the most Roman city outside of Italy and boasts an especially well-preserved amphitheater.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was one of the first places I visited in Provence outside of the Aix-Marseille area. This little town is famous for antiques and has lots of shops as well as an antiques market on weekends. If you can visit in the morning on market day (Sunday), you absolutely should as it’s wonderful to just walk through the bustling little town and take in the river that cuts through town. The current Sunday market has been happening since 1596, so if you have to choose which town’s market to visit, this is a good choice!
Known for its red rocks, Roussillon almost looks like it should be in the American southwest instead of Provence. These ochre deposits in the clay actually range in color from red to yellow, and the pigments made from them were central to Roussillon’s economy in the 19th century. Today, like many other towns, Roussillon depends on tourism, and you can get an amazing lunch here with views of the red cliffs. You can also take some pretty cool pictures on the rocks.
A hill town with amazing views of the surrounding area, Gordes is a beautiful town to spend an afternoon. It’s one of the most well-known and most beautiful towns in the region and has lots to offer, especially in the summer when it hosts popular evening concerts. Of course, there’s lots of history here as well, and my favorite place was the Romanesque Saint-Firmin church. On a trip through the Vaucluse, Gordes is absolutely worth a visit, even if only for a few hours!
Gorges du Verdon
The Gorges du Verdon and nearby Lac Sainte-Croix were a highlight of my time in France. I’m always a fan of mountains, so this was amazing! The Gorge is immensely popular due to the activities offered there. You can kayak on the river and lake or go hiking and rock-climbing in the gorge. One adventure that is also worthwhile (but a little terrifying in a bus) is driving the rim of the gorge and taking in the beautiful views of this river canyon. The name “Verdon” refers to the beautiful turquoise of the water, which is just incredible. I really loved spending a day here and would absolutely put it on my itinerary on a return trip!
Nearby the Gorges du Verdon is the mountain town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, which is most known for the golden star that hangs above the city and a chapel that requires a somewhat strenuous walk up a hill. According to legend, the star was originally hung between the cliffs at Mousiers-Sainte-Marie by a crusader who was taken captive and vowed to hang the star if he was able to return home. (This story was actually popularized by Frédéric Mistral, whom I mentioned in talking about Arles.) The current star is, of course, not the same as the original, and it’s been replaced numerous times over the centuries, but it’s still a fun thing to see! The town is also beautiful (like all the others on this list), and I really enjoyed spending an afternoon eating sorbet and exploring this little town.
Nice is one of the most famous cities in southern France, and was popularized as a beach destination for the élite of Europe. Queen Victoria loved visiting Nice and spent winters here to escape the English chill. Since then, the tourism has only grown, and Nice is basically synonymous with the French Riviera. Though I was supposed to go to Nice during my time in France, that trip was cancelled twice, first due to weather and second due to the Gilets Jaunes protests that happened near the end of my study abroad. However, Nice is such a popular destination in Provence, that I couldn’t really write this without mentioning it! It’s definitely a place I want to go in the future, especially due to its history in literature and art. Nice also has one of the big airports in the region, and on a flight into Provence, you’ll probably end up here if you don’t fly into Marseille.
A much smaller coastal town, Antibes is famous (to me, at least) for being the town Picasso moved to after World War II. In actuality though, Antibes has been a coastal trading town since it was founded by the Greeks in the 5th century BC. It became a vacation destination in the mid-19th century and still attracts a lot of wealthy tourists. For art lovers, Picasso’s home for the 6 months he lived here is now a museum showcasing some of his works, including one of the most famous from this period, Joie de Vivre (1946). In a more morbid aspect of art history, Antibes is also where Nicolas de Staël lived at the end of his life and where he ultimately committed suicide in 1955. Despite that, Antibes is a relaxing little beach town where you can take it easy and watch sailboats and pétanque players enjoying the beautiful weather.
The legacy of Picasso is strong in the south of France, and Vallauris is another town that has a connection to the famous artist. Because it’s so close Vallauris is basically an extension of Antibes as development and urban spread have made them into one metropolitan area. While in Antibes, Picasso worked extensively with pottery and statue work and is actually a big reason why Vallauris’s dying pottery industry made a come-back. Like Antibes, Vallauris has a Picasso museum, though because Picasso experimented with so many types of media, the art in the two museums is very different. It’s definitely a great stop if you’re interested in Picasso and/or pottery – or if you just want to add on to a day in Antibes.
Provence has so much to offer, from the Mediterranean to the Alps with small villages and a few big cities and fields of lavender in between. Whether you like history and architecture or sailing and wine-tasting, Provence has it. Though it definitely experiences a lot of tourists in the summer, there is a reason for that – it’s beautiful. I really loved being here for the fall semester because it meant that I was able to miss the throngs of tourists during the height of summer and enjoy places without the crowds. I cannot recommend visiting Provence enough, though I would also stress that it’s best to visit in late spring or early fall to avoid peak tourist season. Ultimately though, it would be very difficult to go to Provence and not enjoy the trip!