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Provence has more than enough to entertain for a two-week stay – Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon, villages perched precariously on hillsides, renowned vineyards, great spots for swimming, spa hotels and large cities full of art and culture.
The first thing to do on a sight-seeing trip to Marseille is the Old Port. It’s the cultural heartland of Marseille and a great place to get your bearings. Chill out walking around the cafés and bars and have dinner overlooking the harbour.
Marseille is a great melting pot of African and European culture. Start with a walk in La Joliette, the new cultural happening in the city and take in the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MUCEM) and its next-door neighbour the Fort Saint-Jean. If you love architecture, head out to the famous Cité Radieuse, Corbusier’s radical answer to the housing crisis after World War Two. If you’re looking for a 360 degree panoramic view over the city, head up to the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde for those Instagram moments. The Virgin Mary on the top is the highest point of the city and she’s said to watch over the entire town. Visit the Palais Longchamp, which houses the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts. It was built in the 18th century to celebrate ten years of engineering works to bring water into the city. Finish with a pre-dinner drink and a meal on the Cours Julien, the newest up and coming member to Marseille’s hip neighbourhoods.
There’s a very striking different between multi-cultural Marseille and its smarter and more posh city sister, Aix-en-Provence. Residents of both love to hate each other. Marseille is more gritty and urban, while Aix offers a great opportunity to brush up on your high culture. Its most famous resident is Cézanne and you can follow his trail around town, covering key pieces of his work and key places in his life. Aix is also a great place to go shopping (it’s not called the 21st suburb of Paris, for nothing). Read our guide to the best boutiques here.
Cézanne painted the local mountain, the Sainte-Victoire, 188 times. You too can take a little piece home in your heart by hiking the whole thing (some approaches can be harder than they look but energetic kids can also do the basic path). If you just want to have a smaller ramble, follow our guide to the best here. You might want to reward your hard work with a visit to the one of the most beloved vineyards in the area. Château La Coste offers great food (fine dining, terrace snacks or a new, high-end Argentinian grill), architectural walks, installations by some of the best artists like Tracey Emin and Frank Gehry and an art gallery. It also does award-winning wine. Read our guide here.
The Gorges du Verdon is Europe’s answer to the Grand Canyon and a must-see for anyone to the area. It feeds into the artificially created Lake Saint-Croix, which offers a great chance to swim, hire a pedalo and relax in the many spots along its perimeter. Visit the town of Moustières-Sainte-Marie, perched on a cliff.
The Luberon has lots of vineyards, which are described in more detail here. The region has been producing rosé wine for generations because the climate and the soil are a perfect combination. Provence rosés are having a revival at the moment. This itinerary takes you west across the Luberon, made famous by Peter Mayle’s book, A Year In Provence, and Ridley Scott’s movie, A Good Year with Russell Crowe. Stop at the Domaine des Peyres and Château Vignelaure. Both are well-respected but there are plenty of others.
Rousillon is a picture-perfect town, made from the clay that was quarried from the surrounding area. The clay contains a lot of ochre pigments, giving the town its distinctive red hue. After lunch, head to the Sénanques Abbey. It was built in the 12th century and monks have lived there ever since, taking a vow of silence. In between prayer, they harvest lavender, which surrounds the abbey with a glorious purple haze in the summer.
Gordes is another town perched high on a hill. It is known for its high-quality restaurants (book in the summer) and traditional ice-cream shops. It also has a ridiculously high number of good spas in the area. This should be a ‘hanging out by the pool day’, relaxing in the Luberon countryside, enjoying a massage and a good meal. People love the 5-star Bastide de Gordes which dominates the town and looks out over the entire valley below or the Hotel les Bories.
Today is all about antiques, because this is what the town of L’Isle Sur La Sorgue does best. If you can work it, so that you arrive on a Sunday, you’ll find the town heaving with antiques stalls and thronging with people. Sellers lay out their items along the river and you can have a delightful meal people-watching when you’re done.
If Aix-en-Provence is the snooty sister, then Avignon is Provence’s Queen Bee. The star attraction is the Palais des Papes, the Pope’s Palace. Constructed on the site of an old bishop’s palace, it was built up in the 14th century by a succession of different Popes who temporarily moved the papacy to Avignon from Rome to avoid political unrest. It’s one of the largest medieval Gothic structures in Europe and one of the most impressive. To its side, stands the famous Avignon bridge that is only half built. Spend your remaining time wandering the grand streets and taking in the atmosphere.
Arles is the former home of Van Gogh (it’s where he famously cut off his ear after a row with fellow painter Gauguin). He painted his sunflower pictures here and the Langlois bridge. Take the time to wander the Roman amphitheatre (free entry for the last hour of the day), the cobbled streets and if you’re there in August, head to the renowned photography exhibition, Les Rencontres D’Arles, when it takes over the streets.
The Blue Coast is often forgotten by tourists – everyone heads to the Côte d’Azur – but there are wonders to be had in the small fishing villages along the coast, west of Marseille. Ensuès-la-Redonne or Carry-le-Rouet are villages for the locals, with great beaches (and waterside brasseries and pizzerias). Both are surrounded by pine-covered hills.
Back in Marseille before you take the plane or train out, you’ll just have time to do everything you missed on your first couple of days. Head to the sleepy fishing village of Les Goudes and the Baie des Singes (Monkey Bay) or stop by one of the many markets or African restaurants.