Provence is certainly one of the most evocative regions of France, far from the confusion of cosmopolitan Paris, a region capable of giving unique emotions. Located on the southern coast of the country, between Spain and Italy, bathed by the calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea, Provence is not only synonymous with worldliness and luxury, but also with nature, small villages and the incomparable beauty of the Provencal landscape. Here are the best places to visit in Provence, a journey of discovery of one of the most popular regions in Europe.
What to see in Provence
Provence is a region rich in historic towns, archaeological sites, medieval villages, breathtaking natural landscapes and fascinating coastal areas, ideal for a relaxing and cultural holiday. Among the main places in the province are the cities of Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, but there are also small towns like Orange, Arles and the Luberon, surrounded by the endless expanses of lavender in Provence.
One of the most famous cities in Provence is Marseille, a multi-ethnic place where people from all over the world live together, a city rich in history and natural beauty. The creeks, the coves that open onto the rock along the coast, with the famous turquoise water that creates an idyllic landscape, are typical of this region. One of the districts that you should definitely visit is the Old Port of Marseille, an area unfortunately also frequented by pickpockets, but which is certainly worth a few hours of your time.
Particularly picturesque is the Panier district, one of the oldest in the city, with its narrow streets and lively nightlife, based on live music and bars with lively outdoor tables. Don’t miss a visit to the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde Cathedral, accessible by train from the Old Port. The same goes for the Church of the Old Charity, a baroque style structure located in the Old Town, or the Cathedral of the Major, which can be reached on foot from the Old Port.
The icon of Marseille linked to literature is the Château d’If, a fortress located on a rock off the coast in the archipelago of the Friuli Islands, the setting for the famous novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Marseille’s fish market is also worth a visit, while to enjoy real culinary delights, just go to the Avenue du Prado, where there are many famous restaurants. Finally, a stop at the MAC, the museum of contemporary art, located in a building designed by the famous French architect Le Corbusier.
One of the cities to discover during a trip to Provence is Avignon, one of the most fascinating and historic places in the region, which experienced a period of great prestige during the 14th century, thanks to the presence of some of the seats of the Catholic Church. The symbol of the city is the Palais des Papes, a Gothic style building dating from 1252, used as a papal residence since the 14th century.
To take a picture, you can instead head towards the Pont d’Avignon, built in 1200, of which only a part remains today, after the structure collapsed in the 17th century. On the side of the bridge is the chapel of Saint Nicolas, inside which the body of Saint Bénézet is preserved. Another place to visit in Avignon is the Place du Palais, a large square surrounded by historical buildings, always very busy with tourists, renovated in 1619 in a typical baroque style.
After the tour of the city, you will pass by the Place de l’Horloge, the main square of Avignon, where you will find the Opera and the City Hall, as well as games and rides for children, and a market during Christmas and public holidays. Nearby is the Basilica of Saint Peter in Avignon, a magnificent church full of decorations and inlays, built in the 7th century and used as a residence by Pope Innocent IV.
Before leaving Avignon, you should take the time to visit some of the city’s museums, including the Petit Palais museum, which houses over 300 paintings and 600 sculptures, the Calvet museum, which contains papal relics, works of art and other ancient objects collected by the founder from all over the world, and the Angladon museum, where you can admire some paintings by painters such as Degas, Cézanne, Manet and Picasso. Finally, you can’t miss a walk in the Rue des Teinturiers, the former shopping centre of Avignon.
Former capital of Provence, Aix-en-Provence is today a lively French city with a vibrant nightlife thanks to the presence of many young people attending the region’s important universities. With its elegant style and refined architecture, which has enchanted artists such as Paul Cézanne, the city is a tourist destination of choice. In every street and alleyway still live the baroque and rococo style, present in the historic districts such as Mazarin and Cours Mirabeau.
Among the most important buildings to visit is the Cathedral of Aix, with its beautiful sculptures and Romanesque facade of 1100. An obligatory stop is the Atelier Cézanne, the painter’s personal studio, today a real museum with the relics of the French genius. The same goes for the Musée Granet, where you can admire a collection of over 12,000 works of art including paintings, sculptures and objets d’art, with an entire section devoted to Paul Cézanne.
The symbolic places of Aix-en-Provence are the Hôtel Particuliers, in the Mazarine district, in front of which is the famous fountain of the four dolphins, the Aix market on the Place des Prêcheurs, where you can find fresh and quality products, and the Cours Mirabeau, one of the main streets of the city, a tree-lined avenue with souvenir and craft stalls and bars, where you can enjoy a coffee accompanied by the inevitable croissant. Also not to be missed is one of the most beautiful libraries in the world.
One of the most evocative stops in Provence is Arles, with its wonderful historic centre and a vast archaeological area, where you can admire the remains of ancient Roman and medieval buildings, an indelible sign of the city’s past. Among the most important monuments to see is the Roman Amphitheatre, a structure similar to the Colosseum of Rome, which for more than 400 years hosted gladiatorial games and fights, built on the inspiration of the Flavian Amphitheatre.
Moving not far away, you can visit the Roman Theatre, dating back about 2000 years ago, which during the period of activity could host up to 2000 people, the centre of cultural life at the time. Other historical buildings are the Church of St. Trophime, a UNESCO protected site dating back to 1100 with a splendid cloister inside, the Monastery of Montmajuor and the Baths of Constantine. The focal point of current life in Arles is the Place de la République, restored in the 17th century with a 15-metre high central monument.
The Museum of Antiquities of Arles and Provence is also worth a visit, where objects and decorations are on display that bear witness to the city’s glorious past. In addition to the old town, with its historic sites and buildings from Roman and medieval times, you can also visit the more modern part, starting from the Van Gogh Heritage, a complex where the artist lived his last years, which houses the Van Gogh Foundation, which organizes exhibitions and guided tours in the places frequented by the painter.
Luberon is the ideal destination to admire the typical landscapes of Provence, with the infinite expanses of lavender that give the whole region its characteristic colours and scents. A surreal landscape for its beauty, where time seems to have stopped, dotted with medieval villages and castles. An exceptional destination is the Abbey of Senanque, entirely surrounded by immense expanses of lavender and a church dating back to 1148, a kingdom of peace and prayer.
Among the most picturesque villages in the area is Gordes, built on top of a hill from where it offers a splendid view of the surrounding valleys, an ancient bastion which is now the setting for many films and television series. Positioned in a similar manner, Bonnieux is somewhat reminiscent of the Tuscan landscape, with its brick houses and the intense colours of the Provencal countryside. The Roman-era Julian Bridge, the charming Cedar Forest and the church of the Vieille du Haut are worth seeing in the town.
Two other must-see places in the Luberon are Rustrel, where the geological formation and the numerous quarries create a unique and rare visual spectacle, with several footpaths for hiking enthusiasts, and Roussillon. In this region too, the landscape is really incredible, due to the peculiarity of the rocks that hide desert-like areas. In the town, however, you can visit the historic village with its narrow streets and craft shops, while outside the urban perimeter you can take the Chemin de l’Ocre.
Declared World Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO for the presence of ancient ruins from Roman times, Orange is a city of Provence of great historical and architectural value. Situated in the Rhone valley, the town still has a Roman theatre restored in 1969, entirely open to visitors, 37 metres high and with impeccable acoustics, a sign of the genius of the architects of the time. The same goes for the Arc de Triomphe, a 22-metre high monument, the starting point of the Via Agrippa.
Orange is also home to important buildings, such as the Municipal Museum in Rue Roche, with many objects that tell the story of the French city’s past, including artefacts from the Neolithic period. In the central area is the 4th century Cathedral of Our Lady of Nazareth, with decorations made by Italian artists of the time, while the historic centre of Orange is worth a visit, characterised by old buildings, narrow streets and a unique atmosphere of peace and tranquillity.
A somewhat bohemian chic area of Provence, Saint-Remy-de-Provence is also one of the most charming destinations in the region, situated on the hills around Avignon. The city is renowned for its natural landscapes, its lively historic centre and its intense cultural life, with a large number of festivals and exhibitions of modern and contemporary artists, including Van Gogh, who spent a few years of his life in the monastery of St Paul de Mausole.
The tourist attractions of the city are numerous, from the church of St. Martin, built in 1821 in a neoclassical style, to the archaeological site of Glanum, where there are the remains of ancient ruins dating back to the 2nd century AD and several historical monuments from the Roman period. However, Saint-Remy-de-Provence is famous for its nightlife, in fact it hosts several musical and cultural events, a rich theatrical season and gastronomic and wine events, where you can taste the typical products of the Provencal countryside.
Also called the French Venice, for its system of canals that make it similar to the Venetian lagoon, Martigues is a fishing town and a beautiful village in Provence, a region frequented in the past by artists, intellectuals and nobles. Here you can enjoy delicious dishes of French Mediterranean cuisine, especially fresh fish caught during the day, with a wide choice of restaurants, bistros and cafés.
Some of the most charming neighbourhoods in Martigues include the L’Île neighbourhood, a true painting especially at sunset, the Sainte-Madeleine-de-l’Île church, built in 1694, the Côte Bleue, a neighbourhood nestled in the rock, with a vaulted bridge as a backdrop and the fishermen’s boats that create a unique atmosphere, and the Parc de Figuerolles, with its 131 hectares of land to have fun with the children and spend a day in the open air.
A place of pilgrimage, Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer are located in the Camargue National Park, near Arles, a valuable naturalist area in Provence, with buildings and structures dating back to medieval times. The town was built between the 11th and 12th centuries to defend Christian relics from attacks by barbarians. For this reason, the fortresses and churches were built more as fortresses than as places of prayer, where many Christians took refuge in the following centuries. Not to be missed: excursions around the city, where you can admire the beauty of nature, the charming flamingos, always very present in this area, the ponds and sand dunes, ideal for a bike ride.
Only 20 km from Avignon is Les-Baux-de-provence, a small town in Provence dating from 1632, with several medieval buildings still standing and can be visited today. It is one of the most beautiful villages in France, a real surprise for those who decide to join this wonderful place, where peace and quiet reign all year round. In the village there is the Museum of the Santons, which houses ancient works of art from the 17th century coming from Naples, an example of the importance of the Neapolitan city at that time. The village is entirely carved into the rock, with ruins scattered all around to be admired on long walks. Among the most popular places are Piazza Francesco, Via dell’Iglesia and Via della Calade, where you can admire the 12th century church of St. Vincent.
In an almost infinite expanse of olive groves, lost in the hills of Provence, Salon-de-Provence is the place where the famous Savon de Marseille is created, made from the olive oil produced on these lands. A town between ancient and modern, Salon-de-Provence enjoys excellent hospitality. This is why many tourists decide to spend a day discovering this wonderful Provencal village.
Places to visit: the Château de l’Empéri, a medieval castle that was the residence of the Archbishop of Arles and now houses a museum dedicated to the French soldiers who fought in the First World War, the Fontaine Moussue, a special mushroom-shaped fountain around which there are many cafés and restaurants, or the Tour de l’Horloge, a baroque style tower dating from 1630. The Porte du Bourg Neuf, the entrance to the old town and the former soap factory of Rampal Latour are also characteristic.
Set in a marshy landscape, hence the name Eau Morte, Aigues Mortes is a medieval town surrounded by a still intact wall, a charming destination for couples seeking intimacy and relaxation. The town develops within the walls, where you can find many shops selling handicrafts and typical local products, restaurants, bars and souvenir vendors. To visit Aigues Mortes, you have to go to the towers of Constance, from where you can enjoy a spectacular view of the surrounding plain, the old town and the salt works, where sea salt is still extracted using ancient working techniques. It is a popular tourist destination for travellers, where you can find a peaceful environment and taste typical French cuisine.
Provence by motorbike: a unique experience
One of the best ways to visit Provence is by motorbike, riding through the hills along the scenic and coastal roads of the region. It is certainly an evocative experience that attracts thousands of motorcyclists every year, enchanted by the Provencal landscapes, historic villages and endless expanses of lavender in bloom, creating an incredible setting for an unforgettable trip.
The itineraries you can use are different, depending on the time available for your trip in Provence, however, some roads are certainly worth including. Among these is for example the Route of Crete, a breathtaking panoramic stretch characterised by hairpin bends, curves and unique landscapes, including the Gorges du Verdon. For the more adventurous, it is possible to go through the Mont Ventoux, not far from Avignon, on the D934.
An almost unmissable stopover is the Parc de Camargue, to spot flamingos in flight and ponds rich in wildlife. Another fascinating itinerary for centaurs is the Col de la Gineste, to visit the region between the Côte d’Azur and Provence, or the Col de Restefond, where you can enjoy the almost absolute silence of the mountainous reliefs of Haute Provence. Another itinerary to discover Provence by motorbike is the one that goes from Avignon to Aix-en-Provence, passing through Arles and the Camargue.