10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Avignon
An excellent starting point for exploring Provence, the historic city of Avignon awes visitors with its stunning papal palace. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palais de Papes was the residence of seven Popes from 1309 to 1377 and is a testimony to the wealth and power of Christendom during the Middle Ages. However there are many other important attractions in Avignon, including the Petit Palais where the episcopal bishops once lived, now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Avignon is known as a center of art and culture. The city hosts a wide variety of festivals and events throughout the year-from the popular International Jazz Festival and the Epicurean Festival in summer to a traditional Christmas market in December. Visitors can enjoy the relaxing Provençal atmosphere of this small town as they explore the quaint streets such as the Rue des Teinturiers and elegant squares like the Place des Corps Saints. At the heart of Avignon, the Place de l'Horloge is lined with shady plane trees and filled with cafés where patrons sit and watch the world go by.
See also: Where to Stay in Avignon
1 Palais des Papes
To visit the Palais des Papes is to witness the power of the Papacy during the Middle Ages. This imposing palace was the most important monument in Christendom during the 14th century and is the largest building of the Gothic period in Europe. In 1309, Pope Clement V (1305-14), moved the papal court from Rome to Avignon on the urging of King Philippe IV. His successor, John XXII (Pope 1314-1334), chose the palace of the Bishop of Avignon as his official seat. The mighty facade of this fortress-like complex of buildings was created later by Benedict XII (Pope 1334-1342). From a distance, the palace appears to be a giant fairy-tale castle. Visitors can take a tour of the interior to see the 25 rooms that are open to the public. Although most of the furnishings have disappeared, the interior offers a sense of the vastness of the space. The halls, stairways, bedrooms, and chapels were all built on a grand scale around a central courtyard.
On the Ground Floor, be sure to visit the Chapel of Saint John decorated with well-preserved frescoes created between 1346 and 1348 by the Italian painter Matteo Giovanetti. These beautiful works depict the life stories of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist. Another important room on the Ground Floor is the Great Audience Chamber, an enormous hall embellished with wall paintings. These lavish paintings depict the Prophets and Sybils in delicate drawings full of expression and lovely details. Next to the Great Audience Chamber is the Small Audience Chamber, also known as the "Audience des Contredites." This room is decorated with ornate grisaille paintings from the 17th century.
The First Floor includes other must-see rooms: the immense Consistory Hall and Banqueting Hall. These rooms allow visitors to imagine the grand events that once took place at the palace. In the Banqueting Hall, there are four huge 18th-century Gobelin tapestries. The opulent Papal Bedchamber features an intricately tiled floor and an ornamentally painted beamed ceiling; in the window niches are little birdcages. Near the staircase is the Grande Chapelle (Great Chapel), also called the "Chapelle Clementine," a huge single-aisled church now adorned with several Baroque paintings. From the Great Chapel, there is an entrance to the loggia where the large traceried Fenêtre de l'Indulgence (Window of Indulgence) offers a view of the Great Courtyard. From this window, the Pope used to give his blessings to the faithful.
Address: Place du Palais, Avignon
2 Musée du Petit Palais
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Petit Palais dates back to the 13th century and was the residence for Avignon's episcopal bishops before Pope Clement V created the Palais des Papes. The building was designed as a Gothic fort and has a beautiful arcaded courtyard. The Petit Palais is now an art museum with excellent collections, including masterpieces of Italian paintings from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The collection includes notable works from Italy by Botticelli, Carpaccio, and Bellini. The museum's most famous piece is Botticelli's Virgin and Child painting. The museum also displays Avignon sculptures and a collection of works by the Avignon School of Painters, established by Simone Martini and Matteo Giovanetti. At one time, Napoleon II had purchased the collection for the Louvre Museum. As a benefit for visitors in need of refreshment, the Petit Palais museum has a tea salon with a pleasant outdoor courtyard. The tea salon offers a selection of tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and pâtisseries.
Address: Place du Palais, Avignon
3 Pont Saint Bénézet
One of the iconic sites of Avignon, the Saint Bénézet Bridge is testament to the history of Avignon. There is also an interesting legend associated with it. As the story goes, in the year 1177 the shepherd Bénézet was instructed by angels to build a bridge over the Rhône River. The town's founders and citizens mocked the idea. However, Bénézet was endowed with the strength to raise a giant lump of rock, which the townspeople then recognized as being a sign from God, further evidenced by the fact that the bridge was built in only eight years. The Saint Bénézet Bridge is a graceful construction of 900 meters and 22 arches. It was an important route for transportation across the Rhône River until the 17th century. The bridge is now in partial ruins and no longer crosses the river. However, the site is open to the public as a tourist attraction.
Address: Boulevard de la Ligne, Avignon
4 Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Doms
Although this building pales in comparison to the nearby Palais des Papes, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame des Doms is still worth a visit. This beautiful 12th-century cathedral has a serene Romanesque interior. Upon entering through the main doorway, visitors will notice the remains of frescoes by Simone Martin. Inside the cathedral, there is an inspiring sense of space and intimacy. In the crossing to the left stands a 12th-century bishop's chair of white marble; in the first side chapel on the north is the former Romanesque main altar. The fourth chapel on the south side houses a Late Gothic monument to John XXII. In the Baptistry Chapel, early 15th-century frescoes adorn the walls. The frescoes portray the Baptism of Christ. A silver sculpture of the Scourging of Christ is found in the north aisle. On the cathedral's exterior, a splendid gilded statue of the Virgin crowns the tower with her hands outstretched to welcome the faithful.
Address: Place du Palais, Avignon
5 Avignon Festivals
Avignon is well known for its cultural events and festivals. The city hosts dozens of different festivals throughout the year, including a Blues Festival, Jazz Festival, Provence Traditions Festival, Circus Festival, and Gourmet Foods Festival. There are also special epicurean and culinary events, such as cooking demonstrations where Avignon chefs show off their talents. One of the most well-attended festivals is the Avignon Jazz Festival in August that takes place outdoors with a wonderful backdrop of the Palais des Papes. This event is known as a "launching pad" for up-and-coming jazz musicians from all over Europe. There are also popular events during the winter including the traditional Christmas market.
6 Eglise Saint-Didier
To the east of the Rue de la République, the main street of the Old Town of Avignon leading south from the Place de l'Horloge, stands the single-aisled Church of Saint-Didier. Built between 1356 and 1359, the Saint-Didier Church exemplifies Provençal Romanesque architecture with its thick stone walls and large nave that gives the impression of an exceptional spaciousness. This church contains one of France's earliest Renaissance works of art, the Way of the Cross, created between 1478 and 1481 by the Italian painter Francesco Laurana. There are also remarkable 14th-century paintings such as the depiction of Christ's Crucifixion. Another noteworthy feature of this church is the Late Gothic pulpit with a flamboyant decoration style.
Address: Place Saint-Didier, Avignon
7 Place de l'Horloge
The idyllic Place de l'Horloge is a pleasant place to relax at a street café under the shady plane trees. Near the Palais des Papes, this beautiful square is the very center of Avignon life. On the west side is the theater and the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). While the Hôtel de Ville was built in 1845, the building incorporates a charming 14th-century clock tower with life-sized figures on top, known as "jacquemarts," that strike the hours.
8 Rocher des Doms
A short walk away from the Palais des Papes, the Rocher des Doms is a rocky promontory that offers an exceptional panoramic view of Avignon. This location has a gorgeous park on its summit, which is a wonderful place for a leisurely stroll. From the gardens, visitors can take in the scenery of the Palais de Papes, the Pont Saint-Bénézet, the Rhône, and the islands of Barthelasse and Piot in the river, as well as the village of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon on the far bank.
9 Eglise Saint-Pierre
This site was dedicated to Saint Pierre of Luxemburg in the 7th century and the relics of the saint are kept here. Built in 1356, the Church of Saint-Pierre has a beautiful Gothic facade and carved Renaissance wooden doors dating from 1550. The side chapels are 15th-century additions. The church houses several impressive sculptures as well as paintings by Simon de Châlons, Parrocel, and Nicolas Mignard. There are also splendid Baroque choral scenes from the mid-17th century.
Address: 65 Rue Joseph Vernet, Avignon
10 Musée Calvet
The Musée Calvet has a wonderful collection of antique sculptures, medieval paintings by Provençal masters, and French paintings from the 16th to the 19th centuries. There is also an interesting display of coins and ceramics. The museum began as the private collection of the doctor, a native of Avignon, Francois Esprit Calvet. Since 1833, the museum has been housed in the 18th-century Hôtel Villeneuve-Martignan near the Place de l'Horloge.
Address: 65 Rue Joseph Vernet, Avignon
Where to Stay in Avignon for Sightseeing
In the relatively short walk between the rail station and the famous bridge of Saint Bénézet, you pass within a few steps of all the major attractions of Avignon. At the center of the old walled town is the beautiful, tree-shaded Place de l'Horloge, near the Palais des Papes, Petit Palais, Cathedral of Notre Dame, and the famous bridge. The Avignon Central rail station is just outside the walls, about a 10-minute walk from Place de l'Horloge. The TGV station is farther out, connected by a frequent seven-minute train service. Here are some highly-rated hotels in Avignon:
- Luxury Hotels: Along the medieval walls just outside the busiest area, elegant Hotel d'Europe is a short walk from all the major attractions. La Mirande Hotel has 26 individually decorated rooms in a gracious 16th-century mansion overlooking the Palais des Papes. Only a five-minute stroll away, Hotel de l'Horloge is on Place de l'Horloge, close to dozens of cafes and restaurants.
- Mid-Range Hotels: The accommodating hosts at the historic Hotel Garlande, towards the rail station from Place de l'Horloge, can help you choose from the nearby restaurants. Mercure Pont d'Avignon Centre is right by the Petit Palais and Rocher des Doms, between the Palais des Papes and Pont Saint Bénézet. Rooms at Kyriad Avignon - Palais Des Papes overlook Place de l'Horloge, amid restaurants and shops and only 10 minutes from the train station.
- Budget Hotels: Midway between the station and Place de l'Horloge, Hotel Central is close to the tourist office and restaurants. With a quiet courtyard and charming rooms but no elevator, Hotel Le Colbert is on a quiet street between the rail station and Place de l'Horloge. Right at the rail station but an easy walk to the attractions, Ibis Avignon Centre Gare has small bright rooms, just outside the old city walls.
Day Trips from Avignon
An easy ten-minute drive from Avignon, the village of Villeneuve-les-Avignon has a fascinating medieval fortress. Built in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Fort Saint-André sits atop Mont Andaon and offers a magnificent view of Villeneuve, Avignon, Mont Ventoux, and the Lubéron and Alpilles mountain ranges. Massive walls enclose the Saint-André fort, as well as a Benedictine monastery and the Romanesque Church of Notre-Dame-de-Belvézet. The village also has an outstanding museum, the Musée Municipal Pierre de Luxembourg on the Rue de la Republique. One famous piece is the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, painted by Enguerrand Quarton (or Charonton) in 1453, accompanied by works by Nicolas Mignard in the mid-17th century and a 14th-century Madonna of painted ivory carved from an elephant's tusk. Also worth visiting is the Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction chapel built in 1352. The Gothic tomb of Pope Innocent VI lies within the chapel and a beautiful cloister adjoins the church.
The little provincial town of Cavaillon is today a center of melon-growing. However the village has an interesting history and cultural heritage. The Cathedral of Saint-Véran, founded around the 12th century, exemplifies Romanesque Provençal architecture. Its exterior is rather less attractive, but inside are lovely decorative capitals in the apse and a fine cloister. Cavaillon also has a beautiful synagogue on the Place Castil-Blaze that is easily recognized by its arcades. Built in the Rococo style in 1772, the synagogue was later altered on many occasions. There is also an Archeological Museum on the Cours Gambetta. The museum exhibits artifacts mainly from the Gallo-Roman period, including an interesting Merovingian altar-table. One room contains some interesting items of equipment from the old hospital dating from the 17th and 18th century. As would be expected, Cavaillon has a wonderful melon festival during the summer.
This picturesque village in the Lower Rhône Valley is famous above all for its buildings from antiquity. The ancient Roman Theater of Orange is the best preserved and one of the finest theaters from the classical period. It was set up at the beginning of the Imperial era ( first century AD) but was probably renewed in the next century. The theater features a back wall composed of massive stone blocks, several stories high, towering over every other building to a height of 38 meters and a width of 103 meters, with some of the rich decorations still intact. With the circles and tiers of stepped seats supported against the hillside providing seating for 7,000 people, it gives a good idea of a Roman theatrical auditorium. During the summer months, festival performances still take place in the Roman Theater - the Chorégies d'Orange (concerts and operas) that are generally very well attended. The exceptional acoustics of the building contribute greatly to the success of this musical festival. Other exceptional sites are the ruins of a Roman temple adjoining the Roman theater and the interesting Musée Municipal (Town Museum), which contains antique fragments and offers information about the architecture and techniques of the Roman theater.
About 30 kilometers northeast of Orange, Vaison-la-Romaine is another important ancient Roman site. To the west and the east of the Place du 11 Novembre in Vaison-la-Romaine are two separate sites with Roman excavations. The eastern part corresponds to the Quartier de Puymin with remains of the House of the Messii, the Portico of Pompey (pillared hall), and the Nymphaeum. The western part is the Quartier de la Villasse with the great arch of the former basilica and a carefully paved Roman street featuring gutters. In some places mosaic floors can be seen under a protective covering. Vaison-la-Romaine also has an interesting cathedral. The Notre-Dame de Vaison-la-Romaine dates back to Merovingian times, but the present building was constructed between the 11th and 13th centuries. In July, the village has a lively dance festival featuring a wide variety of genres.
Saint-Rémy de Provence
One of the sites that inspired Vincent van Gogh, Saint-Rémy de Provence is a characteristic Provençal village with elegant buildings, pleasant squares, and charming pedestrian streets. About 20 kilometers south of Avignon in the northern foothills of the Alpilles, the village offers stunning views of the countryside. Saint-Rémy de Provence is also well known for the Glanum Excavation Site where ruins from the ancient Graeco-Roman town are found. This extensive archaeological site includes the Monumental Gate from the 1st century BC and a monument in memory of Julius Caesar. Another famous person associated with the village is Nostradamus, who was born in Saint-Rémy in 1503. Visitors can admire the peaceful fountain that features a bust of Nostradamus.