Going to Provence is like being swept up in a romance. It will wine you, dine you, take you exciting places and give you flowers, but it will also offer you quiet contemplative moments where you can just appreciate the beauty of the world around you. While everything in the region is lovely, we’d like to share our list of the 7 best things to do in Provence, France – things we think you’ll agree are really unforgettable.
The best months to go are from March to May and from September to November. The crowds are less intense and the weather is usually mild.
Enjoy the Lavender Fields of Abbaye de Sénanque
Founded in the 12th century, the abbey is an iconic example of romanesque architecture. It houses a small community of Cistercian monks but is open to the public on most days (see the Abbey website for specifics). You can tour the abbey and admire the lavender fields tended by the monks as a way to financially support themselves. Late June to mid-August are generally the best time to visit the abbey if you want to see the lavender fields in full bloom but be aware that growing conditions might delay or shorten the season.
The abbey is located just outside the medieval village of Gordes, which is itself often described as one of France’s most beautiful towns. Visitors can enjoy views and art exhibits at the 11th-century fortress-turned-museum, the Château de Gordes. The other favoured activity is simply to savour the country scenery and narrow cobblestone streets of the town itself.
Picnic at Les Calanques
Les Calanques are a marvel of nature. Just outside Marseilles, the coast forms a stretch of white limestone cliffs and small, turquoise bays and inlets. The area has its own unique ecosystem and is home to a variety of threatened plant species as well as animals like foxes, boars and ocellated lizards – Europe’s largest lizard species. Now a national park, the area is a wonderland for hikers, swimmers, divers, boaters and those who just appreciate marvelling at beautiful seascapes.
Land and boat tours leave from Marseilles and nearby Cassis, but visitors can also explore the region on their own. It’s possible to kayak into the region from Marseilles or to hike in from Marseilles or Cassis. Be aware that because of the risk of fire, many parts of the Calanques are closed during the summer months. There are restrictions on driving during certain periods – be sure to check ahead.
Count the Fountains in Aix en Provence
Aix en Provence deserves its moniker, the “City of a Thousand Fountains.” They vary in size, age, location and even purpose but all have a story to tell. You probably won’t be able to see them all, but the 1860 Fontaine de la Rotonde and the Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins, which dates from 1667, really shouldn’t be missed.
Fans of Paul Cézanne can visit his last studio here, restored and looking very much like Cézanne might stop in again. None of his works are in the studio but you can find some at the Musée Granet. Art lovers with an interest in medieval painting should visit St. Saveur Cathedral to get a glimpse of Nicolas Froment’s Burning Bush triptych. If you have the good fortune to be there on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday mornings, you can enjoy what’s said to be Provence’s best market.
Walk Through History in Nîmes
Nîmes is a history lover’s dream. The city features remarkably well-preserved monuments including a 1st-century CE Roman amphitheatre, Les Arènes, reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome itself. The amphitheatre still hosts sporting and cultural events and is open for tours on non-event days. Maison Carrée, a fully intact Roman temple from the same period, is a stunning example of the harmony and balance of Roman architecture.
Don’t miss the beautiful Jardins de la Fontaine, which opened in 1745 to become one of France’s first public parks. While you’re there, check out the ruins of the Temple of Diana. North of the gardens you’ll find the Tour Magne, a pre-Roman Celtic tower built up by the Emperor Augustus to fortify the city. Today visitors can climb to the top and enjoy brilliant views of the city and surrounding countryside. Your trip through history can take a more contemporary turn at the modernist Carrée d’Art, which houses the Musée d’Art Contemporain.
Lie on the Beach in St. Tropez
The sandy beaches of St. Tropez are famous all over the world. If private, empty beaches are more your cup of tea, head out to Les Calanques and search out your own secluded spot instead. Here, the draws are the people and the culture as much as the waters. You have many beaches to choose from in St. Tropez. The most iconic (and the busiest) is Pampelonne, with its almost 5 kilometre-long stretch of white sand and its crowds of sun worshippers.
There are a few tiny beaches in the old fishing village of St. Tropez and a few relatively more secluded ones like the Plage des Graniers. Most beaches feature their own restaurants or beach clubs, which range from the highly exclusive to the more casual and family-friendly. You won’t find any food or drink on the cheap here, but that’s not really what St. Tropez is for.
Admire the Architecture at Avignon
Avignon is home to many architectural wonders. The famous Pont d’Avignon has largely been destroyed, but you can still venture out on the section that remains. Place de l’Horloge, the opera house and the famous 19th-century carousel, are big draws. The true highlight of Avignon, though, is the 14th-century Palais de Papes, Europe’s largest Gothic palace. Tours of the palace include the luxurious private apartments used by the popes and the justly famed frescoes by Matteo Giovannetti.
Be sure to head to the Ile de la Barthelasse and up to the Rocher des Doms. Both are splendid parks but the Rocher des Doms is especially remarkable for the views. Both Avignon and Nîmes are convenient places from which to visit the famous Pont du Gard, the towering aqueduct the Romans built to supply Nîmes with water. It’s a staggering engineering feat and makes for a wonderful day trip.
Explore the Gorges du Verdon
The Verdon river runs through a spectacular valley in the Alpine foothills and has drawn visitors to its beauty for centuries. Hikers will find extensive trails around the gorge. From easily accessible footpaths to vigorous treks down the gorge and up again, there’s a route for every level of hiker. Drivers and cyclists who like a challenging trip can complete the circuit around the edge of the gorge – expect hairpin turns, dramatic vistas and very white knuckles.
The most popular way to experience the gorge is by water. Kayaks and paddle-boats can be rented at different locations around the gorge. Verdon leads to an artificial lake, Lac Sainte-Croix – from there, you can hire a watercraft and explore its azure waters and the gorge beyond, or make Sainte-Croix your turnaround point. Any way you go, watch for vultures, eagles and other birds of prey – the gorge is a well-known nesting area.