Think long, lazy summers, fields of lavender and hilltop villages and chances are you’ll be thinking about Provence in the south of France. It’s been a hot destination amongst travellers for many years but what are the best places to visit in a region that offers so much?
After my 2015 visit to Provence, I wrote about my week exploring the villages of the Luberon but to get another perspective, I asked Alissa from South France Villas to share her favourite Provencal towns and villages.
Best places to visit in Provence according to South France Villas (in no particular order)
Once home to the Papacy, this lovely city sits on the banks of the river Rhone.
At the heart of the Old Town is the Pope’s Palace from where the heads of the Catholic Church ruled during the 14th century. This imposing building was built in less than twenty years and is said to be the biggest Gothic palace in the world.
Other highlights of the Old Town include the Ramparts and the Pont d’Avignon, and the large squares that are perfect for a relaxing drink on a hot summer’s day.
Ancient cobbled streets and alleys wind their way amongst the historic centre of Avignon, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
Avignon is the perfect base for day trips to the Luberon villages.
Often referred to as the City of Fountains, you’ll find many fountains amongst Aix’s beautiful avenues and medieval streets.
Take a stroll along Cours Mirabeau, one of the busiest and liveliest places in the city, and visit the nearby Granet Museum, considered one of the finest museums in France.
Art lovers will enjoy walking in the footsteps of Paul Cézanne. A pedestrian route leads you from the house where he was born to his final resting place in the St Jean cemetery, with many other points of interest along the way.
Aix is a haven for market lovers and the squares around the city are filled with stall holders selling the region’s fresh local produce.
Be sure to taste the city’s speciality, Calissons, a mix of almonds and candied melon with orange blossom fragrance.
Despite a population of more than 160,000, Toulon has retained lots of Provencal character and over the last 20 years there has been huge investment, according to Alissa.
Traditional squares and fountains have been given a facelift, and designer boutiques and swanky restaurants have opened.
Toulon’s harbour is one of the largest in Europe and has had a strong connection to the French navy since 1599. The French naval connection continues to this day.
Popular sights in Toulon include the Old Town and the many grand buildings in the Upper Town which include the Toulon Opera, the Grand Hotel, the Palais de Justice, and the Place de la Liberte.
Often referred to as the antiques capital of Provence, Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a pretty town not far from Avignon.
Built around numerous canals, the town is dotted with antique shops, boutiques, cafes, and souvenir shops and has a real vibrancy to it.
Once a centre for Provence’s textile industry, water from the river Sorgue was used to power the many waterwheels that you can still see around the town today.
Every Sunday, the weekly antique market attracts thousands.
“Cassis is a beautiful coastal town at the end of Le Calanques (Mediterranean fjords),” says Alissa. With spectacular cliffs that start at the coast of Marseille and stretch for about 20 kilometres, this is a great area if you love hiking.
“There are lots of tiny inlets with beautiful beaches that make the perfect place to stop for a picnic or a swim,” she added.
Cassis itself is a charming, ancient fishing port, unlike many other nearby villages that have become quite modernised.
Here the local fishing boats still mingle with the luxury yachts, all under the watchful eye of the private 12th century Chateau de Cassis which dominates the port.
6. Salon de Provence
Home to both a thriving soap making industry and France’s version of the Red Arrows, the French Acrobatic Patrol, Salon de Provence offers something for everyone.
Château de l'Emperi, one of Provence’s largest castles, dominates the old town whilst nearby is the 16th century home of the town’s most famous resident, Nostradamus, now a museum.
Numerous other medieval buildings dot the town and the weekly Wednesday market is one not to miss.
For years Marseille has worn the tag of one of France’s roughest cities, but the city has recently tackled its bad reputation and come up trumps.
As France’s second largest city (with a population of around 900,000), and the country’s largest port, there’s plenty to offer the tourist.
Marseille is home to many museums and some lovely architecture, including the 11th century Abbaye de St-Victor and the 19th century Cathedrale de la Major, which is France’s largest church built in the 1800s.
It’s a vibrant, cosmopolitan city and was named as the European Capital of Culture in 2013.
Just two kilometres from the port is a tiny island that is home to Chateau d’If, a former prison. The fictional character Alexandre Dumas, from the novel “Count of Monte Christo” was supposedly imprisoned here.
Today visitors can visit a cell to see what life as a prisoner resembled in years gone by.
A typically Provencal town, Uzes is dominated by a number of medieval towers that you’ll see well before you reach the town.
Alissa’s tip is to visit on a Saturday, if possible, and head straight for the weekly market which is held in the arcaded Place aux Herbes.
If you can’t visit on a Saturday, don’t despair as there’s still plenty to see. The narrow, pedestrian-only streets are home to numerous cafes and boutiques, a medieval garden, and many impressive 17th and 18th century buildings.
Close to Uzes is the famous Roman aqueduct, the Pont du Gard.
Alissa loves the small coastal town of Saintes Maries de la Mer and in particular its Gypsy Pilgrimage festival.
Held in May and October, the festival, which dates back to the middle ages, is staged to honour three Saints, Saint Sara, the patron Saint of the Gypsies, Saint Mary Jacobe and Saint Mary Salome.
Saintes Maries is the capital of the Camargue region, famous for its white horses, black bulls and pink flamingoes. It is also home to a magnificent church, dating back to the 9th century, and sandy beaches.
10. Lavender fields
No doubt you’ve seen photos of Provence’s lavender fields awash with colour and the best place to see them is in the Luberon region made famous by Peter Mayle’s “A year in Provence”.
Many tourists head straight for Abbaye de Senanque near Gordes, where, come late June (usually) through to August, the Abbey is surrounded by gorgeous lavender.
July is the peak flowering season when the fields will also be dotted with workers cutting the blooms which are used to make the many lavender products including oils and soaps.
Heading to Provence? South France Villas offer a wide range of holiday accommodation to choose from.
What do you think - are there any other towns or villages you'd include in the list of best places to visit in Provence?