25 Top-Rated Attractions & Scenic Drives in Provence
Provence is one of nature's most vibrant works of art. Everything is brighter here than elsewhere in France. The sunshine, the red poppies, yellow sunflowers, and deep purple lavender fields. Even the traditional Provençal fabrics feature prints of intense colors. From verdant rolling hills and quaint fishing ports to picturesque villages perched on rocky outcrops, each detail of the landscape seems designed to delight. It's no wonder the region charmed many famous painters, including Cézanne, Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Vasarély, and Léger.
The art de vivre ("art of living") is a way of life in Provence, similar to the dolce vita in neighboring Italy. A sunny climate, slow-paced lifestyle, and rustic earthiness encourage relaxation. In Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, tourists and locals alike bask on the terraces of outdoor cafés, shop at open-air markets, and admire amazing art at top-notch museums. Outside of the cities are off-the-beaten-path destinations and attractions in the Haut-Vaucluse and Luberon areas: ancient Roman outposts, walled medieval towns, and fortified castles. Throughout the region, visitors can enjoy delicious Mediterranean cuisine based on olive oil, vegetables, and aromatic herbs. Fresh local ingredients are transformed into specialties such as pistou, a basil and garlic sauce; bouillabaisse, a flavorful fish stew; fougasse, soft braided bread; and pissaladière, a pizza-like tart of caramelized onions, anchovies, and black olives.
1 Aix-en-Provence: Quintessential Provence
Aix-en-Provence has the elegance of Paris combined with the warmth of Southern France. This traditional Provençal town is distinguished by its shady tree-lined streets, historic squares, and ornate fountains. A legacy of the ancient Roman heritage, one thousand flowing monuments are found throughout the city. The hub of Aix-en-Provence is the Cours Mirabeau, a broad boulevard with outdoor cafés that are bustling on sunny days and balmy evenings. Other places that are top on tourists' sightseeing lists are the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur, with its flamboyant mix of architectural styles, and the Musée Granet, an exceptional fine arts museum with masterpieces by Ingres, Rembrandt, Rubens, Cézanne, Monet, and Picasso, among others. Lovers of Post-Impressionist art should tour the Atelier Cézanne (studio), on the Colline des Lauves, where Cézanne painted his "still life" pieces. Near the studio is a spot on the Chemin de la Marguerite overlooking Mont Sainte-Victoire, the landscape Cézanne cherished and that inspired him to create many paintings.
Many travelers visit Aix-en-Provence to experience the traditional outdoor Provençal markets, held at the town's spacious squares. At the Place de la Mairie is a popular flower market that's pictured in many tourist brochures, while fruit and vegetable markets are found at the Place des Prêcheurs and Place de la Madeleine. Aix-en-Provence's most traditional farmer's market is held daily at the Place Richelme; this market is considered one of the best fruit, vegetable, and gourmet food markets in Provence. Aix-en-Provence is also renowned for its local cuisine, artisanal culinary products, and specialty items such as Calissons d'Aix, sweet almond candies. For fine dining, L'Esprit de la Violette (10 Avenue de la Violette) is a Michelin-starred restaurant that prepares modern Provençal cuisine from the finest local ingredients. The legendary Brasserie Les Deux Garçons (53 Cours Mirabeau) has a sidewalk terrace where patrons can watch the world go by. Cézanne was once a regular habitué, and Picasso, Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Edith Piaf were also counted among the celebrity patrons.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Provence
2 Avignon: Medieval City of the Popes
When describing Avignon, it's impossible to begin anywhere else than the Palais de Papes. This glorious UNESCO-listed palace was built in the early 14th century when the Catholic church moved the papal court from Rome to Avignon. The fortress-like building is the largest Gothic structure in the world, with an imposing exterior of crenelated fortifications and massive defense towers. Extravagant interior spaces hint at the lavish lifestyles of the nine Popes who lived here between 1309 and 1403. The Grand Tinel banqueting hall was once the scene of enormous feasts, and the opulently decorated private apartments suggest a luxurious approach to daily living. The private chapels of the Palais de Papes give visitors an insight into the spirituality of the Popes, expressed in the biblical-themed frescoes created by the Italian painter Matteo Giovannetti.
Beyond the Palais de Papes, the town of Avignon has plenty for tourists to explore. For those who appreciate the fine arts, the Musée du Petit Palais is an obligatory stop. This museum displays works by the great masters from Italy: Giovanni Bellini, Sandro Botticelli, and Vittore Carpaccio, among others. The most acclaimed piece is Botticelli's La Vierge et l'Enfant (Madonna and Child) painting. Avignon has two important churches: the 12th-century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Doms and the Provençal Romanesque Eglise Saint-Didier. Another famous sight is the Saint Bénézet Bridge (Pont d'Avignon), a graceful half-intact structure that partially spans the river.
Farther afield, four kilometers across the river, is Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, renowned for the Val de Benediction Carthusian Monastery built by Pope Innocent VI. In the countryside of rolling hills (20 kilometers from Avignon) is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a medieval village where the Popes of Avignon built their summer palaces.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Avignon
3 Ancient Ruins and Provençal Traditions in Arles
Steeped in history and drenched in sunshine, Arles has a fascinating heritage that dates back to the Classical era. The town was an ancient Greek settlement and then became an important Roman colony in 46 BC. Visitors are impressed by the well-preserved ancient buildings, including the Roman Amphitheater, the Alyscamps (a Gallo-Roman-era necropolis), the Roman Theater, the Forum, and the Baths of Constantine. Art lovers can trace the steps of Vincent van Gogh through the city of Arles to find the scenes that van Gogh painted, such as the Café de la Gare and the Café du Forum. History buffs will be wonderstruck by the Eglise Saint-Trophime, a UNESCO-listed 12th-century Romanesque church where pilgrims once stopped on the medieval "Way of Saint James" route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
A wonderful place to discover the culture of Provence, Arles exudes traditional Provençal ambience, seen in its graceful public squares, tree-lined streets, and terraced outdoor cafés. During spring and summer, several festivals bring out townspeople dressed up in historic costumes. The Fête des Gardians, on May 1st, includes authentic dancing, a horseback parade, and bullfighting at the Amphitheater, and the Fête du Costume in July combines a costume parade and a presentation to select the "Reine d'Arles" ("Queen of Arles") among the participating young women.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Arles
4 Saint-Tropez's Seaside Glamour
Saint-Tropez has a reputation for glitz and glamour, so many tourists will be surprised to discover its origins as a humble fishing village. The mesmerizing turquoise waters of the harbor are graced by luxury yachts, and the town's well-groomed streets are lined with designer boutiques. But this small Provençal village has retained much of its authentic character. La Ponche, the Old Town, is a maze of quaint pedestrian alleys and cobblestone streets lined with little shops, cafés, and restaurants. At the town's main square, the Place des Lices, locals socialize at shaded outdoor cafés. Elderly men play pétanque, and on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, a traditional Provençal market is held here. The colorful Place aux Herbes outdoor marketplace and Halle aux Poissons fish market also give visitors a taste of everyday life in Saint-Tropez.
A beach lover's paradise, Saint-Tropez is one of the sunniest places on the French Riviera and has an extensive, palm-fringed sandy shoreline. Some beaches are private, but many are open to the public. Hikers will appreciate the Sentier du Littoral, a seaside path with unspoiled scenery. Although the resort vibe predominates in Saint-Tropez, cultural attractions abound. The Musée de l'Annonciade, has a superb collection of Impressionist art displayed in a 16th-century chapel. The old Citadel built in the 1600s houses the Musée d'Histoire Maritime illustrating Saint-Tropez's maritime past. Visible from a distance, the 18th-century Eglise Notre-Dame de l'Assomption has an iconic Italian Baroque bell tower and a sanctuary filled with fine art works.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Saint-Tropez
5 Les Baux-de-Provence: A Historic Town in a Dramatic Setting
Perched on a rocky plateau overlooking a peaceful valley in the Alpilles natural regional park, Les Baux-de-Provence takes its name from the Provençal word "Li Baus," which means "The Rocks." The ruins of the Château des Baux and its citadel seem to form part of the steep limestone crag. Visitors must park in the lower part of the town and walk up to the historic village, which gives the impression of stepping back in time to the Middle Ages. Tourists can try to imagine the medieval troubadour culture of chivalry and love poetry that flourished here in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Listed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France), Les Baux-de-Provence is distinguished by its delightful old stone buildings, shaded squares, and terraces full of fragrant flowers. Wandering the old cobblestone streets, tourists will find charming cafés, small boutiques, and inviting art galleries. A great place to begin a tour is at the Château des Baux and the Place Saint-Vincent, with its striking panoramas of the landscape, then continue to the Eglise Saint-Vincent, a 12th-century Romanesque church with modern stained-glass windows created by Max Ingrand. Other noteworthy attractions include the Musée des Santons with a collection of antique Christmas nativity figures; the Musée Yves Brayer (in the 16th-century Hôtel des Porcelets) featuring the artist's finest paintings; and the Hôtel de Manville, a Renaissance mansion that is now used as the village's Town Hall.
Les Baux-de-Provence is in the heart of the Alpilles Mountains, 20 kilometers north of Arles and 11 kilometers south of Saint-Rémy de Provence. The best view of the village is from the Plâteau des Bringasses. From here, the view extends to Mont Ventoux and the Luberon in Haut-Vaucluse, the Rhône Valley, Aix-en-Provence, and Arles. Travelers staying overnight can choose from several luxury hotel options. The five-star hotel Baumanière Les Baux de Provence is nestled at the foot of Les Baux-de-Provence village in the Vallon de la Fontaine. This Relais & Châteaux property is renowned for its restaurant with two Michelin stars, L'Oustau de Baumanière, and also has a more casual restaurant, La Cabro d'Or, that serves innovative Provençal cuisine based on fresh local ingredients.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Les Baux-de-Provence
6 Marseilles: Cosmopolitan Seaport
Marseilles is an authentic Mediterranean port town, complete with a bustling harbor, multiethnic ambience, and urban grit. This big cosmopolitan city is the oldest in France and the second largest after Paris. It's not a picture-postcard scene, but Marseilles does offer a real slice of life. Tourists can wander the historic district of Le Panier to find traditional Arab souks and atmospheric Algerian restaurants or stop at a waterfront restaurant in the Vieux Port (Old Port) to sample delicious bouillabaisse (seafood stew)-a Marseilles specialty. The sea is central to Marseille's existence, and the Mediterranean setting gives the city a special beauty and refreshing atmosphere. Many landmarks in Marseille offer views of the bay's deep blue waters. The city's most iconic church, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde stands on a hillside overlooking the bay, and the terrace offers sensational coastal panoramas. The Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée illustrates the history of Mediterranean civilization. In the museum's lush Mediterranean gardens, visitors are awed by sweeping views of the coastline from the bridge pier above the sea. A short ferry ride from the Marseilles port, the Château d'If on the Frioul Islands lures tourists to a serene seaside destination where turquoise waters lap on pristine beaches. Another nearby nature escape is in the Calanques, magnificent fjord-like coves filled with pools of saltwater connected to the sea.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Marseille
7 Saint-Paul de Vence: A Picture-Perfect Hilltop Village
This dreamy medieval village is perched high on a hilltop and surrounded by well-preserved ramparts. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Provence, Saint-Paul de Vence is often crowded with tourists taking a detour from all the attractions of the Côte d'Azur. The distance from favorite French Riviera beach resorts, Nice and Antibes, is less than 20 kilometers, but the village feels much farther away in spirit. Upon entering the ancient town gates, visitors are transported to a magical place of labyrinthine cobblestone streets, tiny alleyways, staircases, and small squares adorned with gurgling fountains. Historically, a central gathering place in Saint-Paul de Vence was the Place de la Grande Fontaine, where the weekly market was held during the 17th century. Villagers drew water from the square's well and washed laundry in the washhouse area.
The spiritual center of Saint-Paul de Vence is represented by the Collegiate Church, built between the 14th and 17th centuries. The sanctuary has a Romanesque choir, original pillars in the nave, and a Baroque Chapel containing precious relics from catacombs in Rome. The Folon Chapel is a 17th-century chapel that was used by the Pénitents-Blancs (White Penitents), a Catholic brotherhood that provided charity to the sick and needy. The entire interior is adorned with modern art works by artist Jean-Michel Folon. The artist's dazzling mosaics, sculptures, paintings, and stained-glass windows give the sanctuary a special ambience.
Since the 1920s, many artists have been drawn to Saint-Paul de Vence. Marc Chagall lived in Saint-Paul de Vence for nearly 20 years. Visitors can take a guided tour to walk in the footsteps of Chagall and see the scenes that he painted. More of the village's artistic heritage is on display at the Fondation Maeght, about one kilometer outside of the village ramparts on the Chemin des Gardettes. The museum displays mosaics by Chagall; stained-glass windows by Georges Braque; paintings by Bonnard, Chagall, Kandinsky, and Léger; sculptures by Giacometti, and ceramics by Miró. The Fondation Maeght also has a bookshop, library, cafeteria, and free parking. Throughout the year, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions and cultural events.
Besides history, culture, and art, Saint-Paul de Vence boasts several fine dining options. On a quiet street near the village ramparts, the restaurant at Le Saint-Paul hotel serves superb Mediterranean cuisine in a refined dining room or on the bougainvillea-draped garden terrace. The legendary La Colombe d'Or is a quaint hotel with a gourmet restaurant that offers traditional Provençal dishes and has outdoor seating where guests may dine al fresco on warm days.
8 Ancient Roman Ruins in Orange
Renowned for its Roman ruins, Orange lies in Provence's Haut-Vaucluse region, an area that flourished during classical antiquity. The 1st-century AD Théâtre Antique (Roman theater) is testimony to the ancient heritage. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Théâtre Antique is extremely well preserved with the back wall and decorations still intact. During the Roman era, a crowd of more than 7,000 spectators would pile into the theater to watch comedies, tragedies, dance performances, acrobatics, and juggling acts. Today, the Théâtre Antique is used as the venue for cultural events such as the summertime music festival called the Chorégies d'Orange. Other interesting archaeological sights are the Arc de Triomphe, the triumphal arch dedicated to ancient Rome's Emperor Tiberius, and the Hémicycle, ruins of a Roman temple adjoining the Roman theater. For a deeper understanding of the town's ancient history and cultural heritage, visit the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire. This museum has an excellent collection of artifacts, antiquities, and art works from prehistory to the 18th century. Be sure to see the Mosaïque des Centaures, an impressive mosaic that was discovered in the Théâtre Antique.
9 Gordes: A Beautiful Village in a Natural Park
This characteristic village perché (perched village) is beautifully situated in the UNESCO-listed Luberon Natural Regional Park, a wild and rugged mountainous area. Because of its dramatic hilltop setting and splendid architecture, Gordes has been named one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. Many artists, including Victor Vasarély and Marc Chagall, have been seduced by the allure of Gordes and have found inspiration for their paintings here.
Gordes abounds with all the charm of a Provençal medieval village. The 16th-century Château de Gordes is a fortified castle complete with gigantic towers and an enormous entrance doorway. Visitors can tour the château's interior to admire the monumental fireplace (classified as a historic monument) in the Salle d'Honneur (Hall of Honor). The château also houses the Pol Mara Museum, which displays masterpieces by the Flemish painter. After visiting the château, tourists will be tempted to stop at one of the nearby cafés or restaurants.
Gordes is a 40-kilometer drive from Avignon and 17 kilometers from Cavaillon. A worthwhile detour from Gordes is the Abbaye de Sénanque, five kilometers away in a valley blanketed by fields of lavender. This 12th-century Romanesque building is considered one of the most interesting abbeys in France. The harmonious architecture reflects the Cistercian concepts of seclusion, simplicity, and spirituality. Tourists may visit the abbey by taking a self-guided tour (silence is required) or by joining a group tour led by a French-speaking guide (reservations recommended), but should keep in mind that the Abbaye de Sénanque is a working monastery. The religious services of the Eglise Abbatiale (Abbey Church) or the Chapelle de la Communauté (Community Chapel) are also open to the public; visitors must respect the abbey rules and participate in the meditation of prayer.
10 Archaeological Sites in Vaison-la-Romaine
At the foot of Mont Ventoux between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea, Vaison-la-Romaine (30 kilometers from Orange) is an excellent stop on an itinerary through Provence. The picturesque village is known as "one of the most beautiful detours in France." Begin exploring Vaison-la-Romaine in the Quartier de Puymin archaeological site, which reveals evidence of the ancient Roman town that thrived from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD. On a hillside shaded with oak and cypress trees, the Quartier de Puymin is a fascinating site where ruins of ancient Roman houses, the House of the Messii and the Portico of Pompey, were uncovered. Also on this site are the remains of an ancient Temple and Roman theater (now used as an outdoor venue during the summer). Amid the archaeological ruins, tourists will find the Musée Théo Desplans. This archaeological museum displays the original statues that were found on the site (copies appear on the site) along with other antiquities discovered in Vaison-la-Romaine. In the Quartier de la Villasse, tourists can see ancient paved streets with gutters and original mosaic floors from Roman houses.
In this slow-paced town, time seems to stand still. Narrow cobblestone streets and an abundance of fountains and leafy plane trees lend a distinctive old-world character. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Vaison-la-Romaine is considered "modern" but the building was constructed around the 11th-13th century. A tradition since 1483, Vaison-la-Romaine's weekly market is held on Tuesday mornings throughout the main streets and squares of the town. This traditional Provençal market includes more than 400 stalls selling fresh fruits; vegetables; flowers; regional specialties like tapenade, fougasse, olives, and truffles; as well as linens and handcrafted ceramics. A farmer's market offering organic produce and food products takes place at the Place Burrus on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Summer is an especially enjoyable time to visit Vaison-la-Romaine, when the markets are at their busiest and lively cultural events such as the Vaison Dance Festival and Ancient Theater Week (held at the ancient theater in July) bring the town to life.
About 31 kilometers away from Vaison-la-Romaine is a stunning nature sight, Mont Ventoux, a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve. According to local legend, the poet Francesco Petrarch climbed the mountain in 1336. Today, the area has many hiking and biking trails. It's worth making the trek to the Col des Tempêtes viewpoint for sensational panoramas.
11 Vence: A Picturesque Artists' Village
Like its neighbor Saint-Paul de Vence (five kilometers away), Vence is an enchanting medieval hilltop town and thriving artistic community. Visitors enter the historic center of Vence through Porte du Peyra (close to the bus stop and tourist information office), a gateway in the ramparts surrounding the Cité Historique (Old Town). Inside the walls is an enchanting world of narrow cobblestone lanes, historic sights, delightful boutiques, art galleries, and peaceful squares. The Place du Peyra is a pleasant fountain-adorned square and the Place Godeau is a shaded square often painted by artists.
In the heart of the Old Town stands the 11th-12th-century Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Nativité built on the site of an ancient Roman temple. The Romanesque Cathedral has an exquisite interior with precious Carolingian-era sculptural details on the pillars of the nave and remarkable 17th-century carved wood choir stalls. The cathedral's Saint-Véran Chapel contains a Gallo-Roman sarcophagus, which serves as an altar. A highlight of the cathedral is the Baptism Chapel featuring a mosaic by Marc Chagall, which depicts Moses' rescue from the Nile River in Egypt. Another attraction in the Cité Historique is the 17th-century Château de Villeneuve, now a museum that displays an excellent collection of contemporary art-including pieces by Matisse, Chagall, Dubuffet, and Dufy.
A must-see sight on the outskirts of Vence is the Chapelle du Rosaire (Matisse Chapel) on the Avenue Henri Matisse. Once part of a Dominican convent, the chapel was elaborately decorated by Matisse in a project that he completed from 1948 to 1951. Matisse designed the entire interior, including the stained-glass window, choir stalls, ceramics, and objects of worship, using bold graphics to represent biblical stories, such as the birth of Christ and the Passion of Christ (Way of the Cross). The simple and somber sanctuary is illuminated only through a stained-glass window, creating an ethereal ambience. For those who would like to spend more time in Provence's artistic heartland, the Château Saint-Martin & Spa is a wonderful choice. Nestled in a secluded estate (just two kilometers outside of historic Vence), this five-star hotel overlooks a striking Provençal landscape of olive groves and rolling hills with the French Riviera coastline in the background.
12 Saint-Rémy-de-Provence: Van Gogh's Artistic Inspiration
Saint-Rémy de Provence is a pretty village in the northern foothills of the Alpilles Mountains. The tranquility of Saint-Rémy de Provence provided solace and inspiration to Vincent van Gogh, who spent a year in the village at an asylum. Saint-Paul de Mausole is the hospital (located in an old Romanesque monastery) where Van Gogh stayed from 1889 to 1890 under the care of kind nurses. Tourists can visit the artist's room and see copies of the paintings he created here. Other reproductions of Van Gogh's paintings are on display at the Musée Estrine (8 Rue Lucien Estrine) along with an interpretive film that discusses the artist's life and works. The Vincent van Gogh Trail indicates sites throughout the town that were painted by Van Gogh, although some imagination is required as the scenery has changed since the artist's time.
At heart a traditional Provençal town, Saint-Rémy de Provence is well known for its open-air markets. On Wednesday mornings, the Grand Marché Provençal (large market) spills out onto the main squares of the old town; on Saturday mornings a smaller farmer's market is held at the Place de la République. Tourists will enjoy blending in with the locals, wandering the cobblestone streets, and getting lost while admiring the stately old buildings. Tourists will also find many other worthwhile things to do, such as attending a mass or organ concert at the Eglise Saint-Martin, rebuilt in the 19th century in Neoclassical style, or exploring the archaeological ruins at the Glanum Excavation Site, which has a Triumphal Arch from the 1st century BC dedicated to Julius Caesar.
Gastronomic delights abound in Saint-Rémy de Provence, and tourists will enjoy sampling the regional specialties. La Roma (33 Boulevard Marceau) is an Italian restaurant and salon de thé (tea salon) known for its crêpes, ice cream, and macaroons. Chocolate lovers are advised to visit the Chocolaterie Joël Durand (3 Boulevard Victor Hugo), an upscale chocolate shop that offers tantalizing chocolate candies in delicate flavors. Le Petit Duc is a tempting shop that sells typical Provençal confections such as nougat (candy made with almonds and honey), crystallized violets, and calissons (sweet almond candies). In the nearby village of Paradou, Le Bistro du Paradou is renowned for its delicious cuisine.
Saint-Rémy de Provence is about 25 kilometers north of Arles and 20 kilometers south of Avignon, which makes the town an excellent base in the heart of Provence. Families seeking a countryside retreat near the village of Saint-Rémy will appreciate the Le Mas de l'Ange. This beautifully renovated 17th-century stone farmhouse features typical Provençal pastel-painted shutters and cozy decor. The entire property is available for rent including eight bedrooms, a swimming pool, and private tennis court.
13 Salon-de-Provence: Historic Landmarks and Artisan Soaps
On the Plaine de la Crau northwest of Marseilles, Salon-de-Provence is a town steeped in history. In ancient times, the Romans created salt marshes on the Hill of Valdemech, and the town also has origins from the time of Charlemagne. During the medieval era, the Archbishops of Arles built the fortress-like Château de l'Empéri ("Emperor's Castle"), which dominates the townscape. This 12th-15th century château has some of the best-preserved fortifications in Provence and a lovely Romanesque church, the Chapel of Saint-Cathérine. The Maison de Nostradamus is a historic landmark where Nostradamus spent the last 20 years of his life and is now a museum that displays original editions of Nostradamus' prophecies and a reproduction of his study.
Salon-de-Provence is well known for its artisanal olive oil and fragrant soap products that are sold throughout Provence and other cities in France. To learn more about the history of soap production in Salon-de-Provence, tourists can visit the Marius Fabre Soap Factory and Savon de Marseille Museum. For those who want to commune with nature in the nearby Luberon Natural Regional Park, the Hostellerie à Salon de Provence is a romantic place to spend a few nights. The hotel occupies a converted 12th-century Abbaye de Sainte Croix, a marvelous example of Romanesque architecture, surrounded by 20 hectares of wild scrubland, lavender fields, and olive groves.
14 Grasse: Perfumes, Gardens, and Art
Perched on a hilltop in an idyllic landscape, this quintessential Provençal village delights all the senses. The old town of Grasse is only accessible to pedestrians because the streets are too narrow for cars. Typical of medieval villages, Grasse is brimming with atmospheric streets and babbling fountains found in hidden squares. The green rolling hills and plains around Grasse flourish with orange blossoms, roses, mimosa, jasmine, lavender, and violets, which provide the essential oils to make delicate fragrances. At the Musée International de la Parfumerie (2 Boulevard du Jjeu de Ballon), visitors learn about the history of perfumes, soaps, and cosmetics and then can stop to smell the roses (or have a picnic) in the museum's gardens. Visitors can also tour the famous perfume factories, including Fragonard, Molinard, and Galimard. Other must-see attractions are the Villa-Musée Jean-Honoré Fragonard (23 Boulevard Fragonard) that displays a collection of Fragonard's Rococo art works and Princess Pauline's Garden a verdant oasis that boasts panoramic views.
15 Sunbathing and Sightseeing in Fréjus
Fréjus is an attractive port town (about 39 kilometers from Cannes) with a sunny marina and sandy beaches that are packed with tourists during summertime. Beside resort ambience, Fréjus has plenty of culture. The Romanesque Cathedral of Fréjus was built in the 11th-12th centuries. While the cathedral's exterior is now hidden by more modern surrounding buildings, its spire soars high above the cityscape as a beacon of faith. Next to the cathedral's cloisters, the Archaeology Museum displays an extensive collection of Greek and Roman artifacts. Like many towns in Provence, Fréjus has an ancient history dating back to the Roman era. Testaments to this heritage are the 1st-2nd century Arènes (Rue Henri Vadon), an enormous amphitheater that accommodated 10,000 spectators, as well as the ruins of the Roman Aqueduct and the Théâtre Romain outside the town on the N7 Road. The Roman Theater is now used as the venue for Les Nuits Auréliennes, a French-language festival of theater (comedies, musicals, vaudeville) that takes place under the star-studded night skies of July.
16 Cassis: A Picturesque Fishing Village
This picturesque old fishing village has the vibrant ambience of a Mediterranean seaport combined with the traditional charm of Provence. Cassis is 22 kilometers from Marseilles, yet feels much further away in the countryside; it's a favorite getaway for residents of Marseilles seeking an escape to an idyllic setting. The village enjoys a protected location on a semicircular bay framed by mountains. Because of its natural beauty, Cassis became an artists' village that attracted many famous painters including Vlaminck, Derain, Dufy, and Matisse. These resident artists painted the colorful houses and small sailboats docked in the bay. Tourists will enjoy leisurely strolls along the waterfront and through the village. Lovely shaded squares and sunny terraces of outdoor cafés beckon visitors to stop and enjoy the moment. Also worth visiting are the village's 14th-century château and the beautiful Fontaine des Quatre Nations.
17 Biot: An Ancient Perched Village with Artisan Boutiques
Built on the slopes of a steep hill (a typical village perché), Biot has many charming stepped pathways that lead up to viewpoints and reward visitors with gorgeous panoramas. Hidden wonders await those who take the time to discover the village's narrow cobblestone streets, quiet alleyways, and pleasant little squares. Many of the squares have gurgling fountains that add a note of serenity. The village is also known for its arts and crafts boutiques that sell locally made jewelry, ceramics, glassware, and textiles.
Biot's history is intertwined with the Crusades of the 12th century. The Eglise Sainte-Marie-Madeleine was built during this period. The sanctuary boasts an altarpiece, the Madonna with Rosary by Louis Bréa in the 16th century. The village's more recent cultural heritage is seen at the Musée National Fernand Léger, which displays a comprehensive collection of the modern artist Fernand Léger's works. Léger briefly lived in Biot; the museum is housed on the site of the artist's villa.
18 Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux: Culture, Cuisine, and Nature
The quaint old streets of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux invite visitors to take a walk back in time. Wander around the medieval lanes and discover the hôtels particuliers (elegant historic mansions). At the heart of the village, the Cathedral Notre-Dame et Saint-Paul soars high above the town. This 12th-century church exemplifies Provençal Romanesque architecture, characterized by its simple layout and majestic spaces. The facade features intricate bas-reliefs and a porch with pillars that reference classical Roman columns, and the grandiose nave has vast dimensions. Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux also has evidence of a Jewish community from the 12th to the 15th century. The Rue Juiverie is testimony to the medieval Jewish quarter. Here, the vestiges of a 15th-century synagogue-a stone arc that was used to hold the holy text - was discovered. To learn about the village's ancient Gallo-Roman heritage, visit the Archaeology Museum at Place Castellane.
Tourists can soak up the local culture by visiting the traditional open-air market held at the Place du Marché on the first and third Sunday mornings of the month. Other cultural events include the the Saint-Paul Soul Jazz Festival (soul and jazz music festival) in July and the Festival du Film in October. The Tricastin area surrounding this medieval village has an abundance of French truffles, which the locals call "black diamonds." Truffle purveyors take their prized culinary goods (Tuber Melanosporum) to the Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux Truffle Market on Tuesdays and Sundays (from November through March). The Tuesday market is open to the public; the Sunday market is reserved for restaurateurs and private individuals. A Truffle Festival takes place in Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux the second Sunday in February.
For those staying overnight, the Villa Augusta offers luxurious accommodations in a wooded parkland surrounded by lavender fields. The four-star hotel is a converted ancienne maison (historic Provençal villa) with impeccably decorated deluxe rooms and an upscale restaurant that serves the finest cuisine of the terroir.
19 Tarascon: Provençal Festivals and Fabrics
Rich in cultural heritage, this distinctive Provençal town is known for its traditions and festivals. Tarascon exemplifies the art de vivre (lifestyle) of Provence, with its relaxing ambience and weekly gourmet market featuring regional products. Visitors will enjoy exploring the old cobblestone lanes and arcaded streets, while admiring little chapels, cloisters, and historic mansions. The town's Château de Tarascon is considered one of the best-preserved medieval fortresses in France. The château is open to the public for self-guided and guided visits.
Tarascon's rich cultural heritage comes to life during the Fêtes de la Tarasque in June. This UNESCO-listed festival dates back to the 15th century. Following the centuries-old traditions, townspeople dress up in medieval costumes and a dragon-like mascot, La Tarasque, is paraded on a procession through the town.
Tarascon is also known for its industry of Provençal printed textiles. The Musée Souleiado (39 Rue Charles-Deméry), housed in a 17th-century mansion, has an extensive collection of Provençal fabrics, as well as exhibits explaining the history and process of textile production. Provençal textiles are called "indiennes" (Indians) because they were originally imported from India to Marseilles in the 16th century. Now these brilliant polychromatic fabrics are synonymous with Provence; they're sold in shops and markets throughout the region. Souleiado sells its brightly printed Provençal cotton fabrics and designer-quality clothing at boutiques in Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Avignon, and other cities in Provence, as well as in Paris.
20 Mougins: Picasso's Favorite Hilltop Village
Mougins is an enchanting Provençal hilltop village with an exceptional artistic heritage. Tourists delight in exploring Mougins' charming streets, little boutiques, galleries, and artists' ateliers. Picasso lived in Mougins from 1961 to 1973 and left a lasting mark on the village. The artist was drawn to the town's beauty, especially the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vie, a humble Provençal-style church approached by a cypress tree-lined path reminiscent of landscapes in Tuscany. The chapel was originally built in the 12th century and then rebuilt in the 17th century. In 1961, Picasso purchased the chapel and converted it into his art studio. Another noteworthy religious building, the Chapelle Saint Barthélémy is a unique octagonal structure with a rare semicircular apse. The village's parish church, the Eglise Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur (dating to the 11th century) is found near a pleasant courtyard with a calming fountain.
For such a tiny village, Mougins has a surprising number of gourmet restaurants. The local Mediterranean cuisine is based on olive oil, vegetables, and aromatic herbs such as rosemary, thyme, fennel, and tarragon. The village has several renowned culinary establishments: La Place de Mougins restaurant with a seasonal menu based on fresh ingredients, Le Moulin de Mougins that has an outdoor patio dining area, the refined and contemporary Paloma Restaurant, and the Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Candille, which offers classic French cuisine in its sumptuous dining room or on a terrace overlooking the Provençal countryside.
21 Lorgue: A Small Town with Grand Gastronomy
Off-the-beaten tourist path, Lorgue is a typical Provençal town with a historic church, gently flowing fountains, and a main square that hosts a weekly market. The town is nestled in a fertile countryside of lush woodlands and a patchwork of small farms. It's an ideal place to spend a quiet holiday, enjoying nature and gourmet cuisine. There are many historic attractions nearby, including the village of Flayosc, known for its 11th-century church and ancient olive-oil mill surrounded by flourishing groves of olive trees.
Tourist highlights in the area include several renowned restaurant/hotels. The Château de Berne (Route de Salernes) is a luxurious five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel with a renowned restaurant, L'Orangerie. The Château de Berne also has a casual brasserie, tennis courts, swimming pool, an upscale spa, and a cooking school for tourists. Nearby, in a beautiful garden setting, is the famous truffle restaurant Restaurant Bruno (2350 Route des Arcs, Le Plan Campagne Mariette, Lorgue), which also has accommodations. This elegant restaurant is run by Chef Clément Bruno, who is known as the "Empereur de la Truffe" (Emperor of Truffles). This Michelin-starred restaurant features classic French dishes made with seasonal truffles of the region and imported from regions such as Piedmont and Umbria in Italy where white truffles are found.
22 Seillans: A Beautiful Perched Village
Listed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France), Seillans is a classic village perché (perched village). The medieval village has a traditional Provençal ambience with many historic mansions grouped on the hillsides around the ancient feudal castle. Typical in Provence, the village hosts traditional weekly markets, and locals play pétanque at the main town square (Place de la République). Visitors delight in exploring the village's narrow streets that lead to fountain-adorned squares, arcaded passageways, and viewpoints of the vine-covered hills and olive groves. The painter Max Ernst admired the beauty of Seillans and spent the last years of his life here; his work can be seen at the Tanning-Ernst Collection. The village has two noteworthy churches: the 11th-century Romanesque church, Eglise Saint-Léger, and the Cistercian Provençal style Chapelle Notre-Dame de l'Ormeau, four kilometers outside the village. Seillans is just seven kilometers away from Fayence, another pretty little medieval hilltop village.
23 Bargème: A Peaceful Countryside Retreat
Bargème is a sleepy country village, and visitors who find this out-of-the way village (one of France's Plus Beaux Villages) will be delighted by its charm and beauty. Clinging to a promontory over 1,000 meters above the rural landscape, Bargème has the distinction of being the highest elevated town in the Var department. Originally surrounded by ancient fortifications, the village's winding cobblestone streets and vaulted passageways lead to hidden treasures, such as artisan boutiques, art galleries, and ateliers. As an old feudal village, Bargème once had a magnificent castle, the Château Sabran de Pontevès, which was built in the 13th century and destroyed during the War of Religions. The ruins are an evocative site located on an elevated plateau with splendid views.
Several interesting churches are found in the village, including the 12th-century Eglise Saint-Nicolas on the highest point in the village and the 17th-century Chapelle Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs (also known as the Chapelle Notre-Dame d'Espaïme) near the château's esplanade. Vestiges of the old ramparts lie around the southern and eastern edges of the village.
24 Château de Rochegude
Surrounded by the vine-covered rolling hills of the Côtes-du-Rhône, the tiny medieval village of Rochegude is a picture-perfect retreat in the heart of Provence. The main tourist draw is the Château de Rochegude, a 12th-century fortress, restored by Viollet-le-Duc, which was once the summer residence of the Marquis de Rochegude. The château has been converted into a four-star hotel, part of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux association. The area around Rochegude is renowned for its cuisine, including dishes made with the local delicacy of truffles. The nearby Haut-Vaucluse area also has many historic attractions, including two ancient towns with amazing Roman ruins: Orange (14 kilometers away) and Vaison-la-Romaine (27 kilometers away).
25 Aureille in Les Alpilles Mountains
Aureille is a small and remote country town with a captivating Provençal ambience. Visitors are charmed by the distinctive old stone buildings featuring pastel-painted shutters, flower-bedecked homes, and fountains tucked away in quiet squares. The historic parish church is also worth visiting. Aureille is a good stopping point on the way to Les Baux de Provence or Saint-Rémy de Provence (both about 20 kilometers away). The village is in the heart of Les Alpilles Mountains, an appealing pastoral region that boasts unspoiled nature, an array of hiking trails, and ancient traditions. In mid-August, the locals celebrate during a traditional Saint's Day festival, complete with authentic costumes.
Scenic Drives through the Provence Countryside
Gorges du Verdon: Beautiful Views and Gourmet Cuisine
Nature lovers will enjoy a driving tour through the Gorges du Verdon in the Parc Naturel Régional du Verdon (Natural Regional Park of Verdon). The best starting-point for a tour of the Grand Canyon du Verdon is the little town of Castellane on the Route Napoléon. Take the road D952 in a southwesterly direction downstream through the Defile of Porte Saint-Jean and Clue de Chasteuil. At the fork, in about 12 kilometers, bear left on the D955, cross the river at the Pont de Soleils bridge (signposted "Rive Gauche"), and continue south over the uplands. Approximately six kilometers beyond the fork is the picturesque village of Trigance with its imposing château. For a meal or overnight stop, take a 12 kilometer detour from Trigance to the Auberge du Point Sublime in a tranquil setting in the little village of Rougon. The hotel's restaurant has a shaded terrace and features traditional cuisine made with local artisanal ingredients. The Point Sublime in Rougon is the finest viewpoint on the drive through the Grand Canyon du Verdon. In La Palud-sur-Verdon (15 kilometers from Rougon), the Belvédère de L'Escalès offers another incredible viewpoint.
After returning from Rougon to Trigance, take the D90 road as far as the D71 road. About ten kilometers from Trigance is the Balcons de la Mescla, the first high spot of the drive through the Grand Canyon du Verdon. This point offers a marvelous panorama of the landscape. The Corniche Sublime continues from the Balcons de la Mescla along its winding course with breathtaking views high above the Gorges du Verdon and through the Tunnels de Fayet. Continuing 10 more kilometers from the Balcons de la Mescla in the direction of Aiguines, visitors will find the Hôtel du Grand Canyon perched on a hillside 300 meters above the Gorges du Verdon. The hotel's sunny terrace and dining room feature commanding views of the canyon. After a day of outdoor activity, guests will appreciate the restaurant's gourmet cuisine, including hearty regional dishes and specialties of the terroir.
For visitors interested in water sports, it's worth a detour to the Lac de Sainte-Croix near the village of Moustiers Sainte-Marie, one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. This pristine lake has a small beach and is ideal for swimming, fishing, boating, sailing, and windsurfing. The area around the lake also has camping sites.
Gorges du Loup: Gorgeous Scenery & Hilltop Villages
The Gorges du Loup was formed by the Loup River, which cut deep into the rock creating an immense ravine. This spectacular area of the Provence countryside is dotted with medieval villages perchés (perched villages). Begin a tour in the hilltop village of Grasse, surrounded by fields of flowers and famous for its perfume. Then drive about ten kilometers on the D2085 and D2210 roads until reaching the tiny perched village of Le Bar-sur-Loup. From Bar-sur-Loup, a circuitous route of about 11 kilometers leads to the ancient village of Gourdon, sitting on a steep rocky peak overlooking the rural landscape. Listed as one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France, Gourdon boasts impressive landmarks and a thriving community of artisan craftspeople who supply the local boutiques. The town's most prominent monument, the Château de Gourdon has exquisite gardens designed by André Le Nôtre, (the "king of gardeners") famous for his landscaping at Versailles. Also worth visiting are Gourdon's two Romanesque churches: the Chapelle Saint-Pons and the Eglise Saint-Vincent. The nearby riverside hamlet of Pont du Loup, in the Vallée du Loup, has been incorporated into the greater community of Gourdon.
From Gourdon, take the D3 road to the D6 road that travels around the rock walls through the gorge up to the Saut du Loup, a scenic area in the hills with views of the Cascade de Courmes (waterfalls). Near a winding stretch of the D3 road, an observation point (signpost "Surplomb des Gorges du Loup") offers a stunning vertical view down into the gorge and up to Pic des Courmettes (mountains).
About 12 kilometers from Saut du Loup (and five kilometers from Vence) is the lovely village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup. This hilltop town presides above the landscape on a rocky outcrop, overlooking the Loup Valley and the rolling hills of the Côte d'Azur backcountry. Originally fortified, the well-preserved medieval village is surrounded by olive groves, pine woods, and fields of violets (used to make the local specialty of crystallized violets). Visitors enter Tourrettes-sur-Loup through an old gateway, which leads to the central square and a jumble of cobblestone lanes with shaded courtyards and outdoor cafés. Since the 1940s, the beauty of Tourrettes-sur-Loup has drawn many artists, writers, and musicians. Today, the village has dozens of art studios and galleries as well as artisan boutiques that sell locally made ceramics, paintings, sculpture, textiles, and jewelry. The most enjoyable things to do in Tourrettes-sur-Loup include window shopping, leisurely strolls, and dining at the town's traditional restaurants. Tourrettes-sur-Loup is well known for its gastronomy, a Provençal cuisine based on fresh ingredients from the local markets.