Provence has so many unmissable attractions. You only have to turn a corner to find stunning lavender fields or a village perched precariously on a hill. Or you can head to the coast and find divine beaches and magnificent palaces. Here’s our best of what Provence has to offer.
The Calanques, France’s Natural Wonder
The Calanques are a series of inlets along the coast on either side of Marseille. They’re one of the big draws to the region but not always easy to get to. The best way is either to hike in or to visit by boat. Once in, head to one of the restaurants or take a picnic.
The throughly modern Museum of European and Mediterreanean Civilisations (MUCEM) is the perfect partner to the newly restored Fort Saint-Jean. They are linked by a walkway that will take your breath away.
The Romans founded Cimiez in the hill above Nice and there are some wonderful remains of an arena and the baths. In the 18th century, Cimiez became home to many grand buildings and hotels to house the painters, artists and tourists who arrived to winter on the French Riviera. It’s a great place to roam for an afternoon, visiting Matisse‘s former home as well as the Museum of Chagall.
The Sainte-Victoire is the mountain just outside of Aix en Provence. It’s a stunning place to hang out at the foot or if you take enough water, head to the top. The challenge is to touch the cross on the summit.
In the 15th century, the papacy left Rome during a time of civil and religious unrest and arrived in Avignon to make their new home. Over the next 100 years, several reigning popes built on the existing monastery to construct Europe’s largest gothic structure. The Palais des Papes is the result.
In the early summer you can spot lavender growing in vast purple fields across the length and breath of Provence, particularly in the Luberon district around Gordes. Head to the Lavender Museum to find out everything you need to know about Provence’s number one export.
The hillside village of Bonnieux is a must-see on any tourist itinerary of the Luberon (the area in the north of Provence). The best view can be had sitting at one of the restaurants overlooking the stunning views.
Cassis is an old fishing village that sits on the coast in between Marseille and St Tropez. It’s a good access point to the Calanques but more than that, it’s a beautiful place to spend some time. Watch the locals playing “pétanques”, swim on the beach, and eat at one of the port side restaurants.
This town is considered by the French to be one of the most beautiful in France – more than 1.5 million people visit each year. It sits on a rocky spur built on the hillside. It’s name comes from bauxite (a kind of aluminium ore), which was discovered here.
The legendary Château d’If is a little island fortress off the coast of Marseille. It used to be a protective military encampment but was turned into a prison in the 18th century. It’s here that Alexandre Dumas wrongly imprisoned his hero in the famous novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.
Gordes is a tiny town in the Luberon, which is well worth a stop on any tourist schedule. It’s not very big but incredibly charming to wander around with an ice-cream or to visit one of the local spas.
In the 18th century, Marseille was in the midst of a water crisis. So began an ambitious 10-year plan to bring water in from the nearby Durance river and solve the cholera epidemic. It was such a huge architectural feat that they built a big palace (the Palais Longchamp) as a monument to their hard work. It’s stunning.
The Verdon Gorges is a river canyon that’s over 25km long and in some places more than 700m deep. You can drive along the top of it (but it’s not for the faint of heart), climb the sides, kayak through it or hike into it. It leads into the artificial lake of Sainte-Croix, which is a great place to hire a pedalo or just have a picnic.
In the 18th century, Cannes as we know it today didn’t exist. There was just a little fishing village with fishermens’ cottages. British aristocrats arrived, fell in love with the place, bought land and built grand houses. They attracted even more people and so the town grew. Today, you can wander the small streets and climb to the top to take in the panoramic views.
Many people head directly to the Còte D’Azur when they arrive on the coast, towards Cannes, Nice or St Tropez. The Blue Coast is a great alternative and just as beautiful. It’s to the west of Marseille, rather than the east, and has beautiful calanques and little towns to explore.