It is unsurprising that France has been named the world’s most popular holiday destination, with so many diverse landscapes and artistic treasures to discover. One region in particular that has never gone out of fashion is Provence, with its warm climate, glittering seas, sophisticated cities and untamed, mountainous countryside. Here we explore 10 of its most visually appealing towns and the cultural attractions they have to offer.
Named as one of France’s Most Beautiful Villages, Gordes is a remote delight amidst the rugged landscapes of the Luberon Regional Nature Park. Cobbled streets and golden stone houses wind their way around a mountaintop, culminating in the majestic 16th-century château. The town has been home to several celebrated French painters, including André Lhote, Marc Chagall, Jean Deyrolle, Victor Vasarely and Pol Mara. With the sun-baked greenery and jagged rocks surrounding it, it is easy to see how it could provide inspiration. Highlights for visitors are the Pol Mara Museum, the ancient, preserved settlements known as Bories, and the joyful summer music festival.
Known as ‘the first duchy of France’, Uzès is a town brimming with history and romance. It still has a Duke, who resides in an imposing castle in the town center, flanked by medieval residences, cobbled streets, flourishing gardens and the famed Tour Fenestrelle. Perhaps the most stunning historical feature, however, is the nearby Pont du Gard, a huge and perfectly preserved Roman aqueduct which cuts across the nearby countryside. Surprisingly, although the aqueduct has been named one of France’s five most popular attractions, Uzès itself remains little known among tourists, so now may be the time to visit to soak up the peaceful, authentic atmosphere.
Another Most Beautiful Village award winner, Lourmarin can be found nestled under the Luberon mountain range as it opens out into a lush valley. It is a real cross section of history, featuring a Neolithic cemetery, the remains of a Roman city, a grand Renaissance château, and quaint stone homes from various eras. Art lovers and bookworms alike can find much to interest them, as several galleries and the tombs of writers Albert Camus and Henri Bosco are located here. Food connoisseurs will be surrounded by temptation as one of France’s most prestigious chefs, Reine Sammut, runs a restaurant in an historic building just outside the town, and a plethora of traditional cafés and bistros are dotted around the center.
Along with Gordes, Roussillon is the most popular destination for visitors in the Luberon area of Provence. Set at the top of a cliff on the world’s largest ochre vein, it offers an awe inspiring example of the beauty of this rust colored rock, which is perfectly complemented by mountain vegetation and charming 17th and 18th century dwellings. The rugged panoramas have attracted a succession of artists over the years, meaning that the town now has an impressive art scene for its size. Its 15 galleries represent over 50 painters and sculptors. Tourists can also explore ochre through a variety of activities, such as cycling tours along the cliff and pigment-making workshops.
The small mountain community of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is a must see destination for art and history lovers. Not only does it have sun-warmed medieval walls, ornate fountains and one of the oldest ‘Arcs de Triomphe’ in the country (which has survived from Roman times) it can also claim to be the place that inspired some of Van Gogh’s most celebrated works. While living here as a patient of the local asylum, he produced The Starry Night; his famous Wheat Field series; numerous depictions of roses, irises and forest trees; and some haunting views of the hospital itself. It is also possible to visit the birthplace of another legendary town resident, the philosopher Nostradamus, and enjoy some excellent cuisine in the cozy cafés.
Perched on a steep ridge near the dazzling Nesque river canyons, Venasque is yet another Provençal destination considered to be one of France’s most beautiful villages. As well as easy access to the magnificent rock formations, it offers picturesque houses, ramparts and churches from the Middle Ages, and one of the oldest shrines in France, the pre-Romanesque Baptistère de Venasque. These historical attractions have remained in incredible condition thanks to their isolated, rural location, which has escaped external influences over the centuries. Another of the town’s enticing features is its renowned cherry and grape industry. Local farms produce some of France’s most desirable fruits, perfect for savoring under the hot Mediterranean sun.
No list of Provence’s most beautiful towns could truly be complete without including Avignon, the region’s cultural hub. Having once been the center of the Christian religion, it overflows with stunning chapels and churches and is crowned by the gigantic Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), an architectural masterpiece. These historic buildings blend charmingly with the serene waters of the River Rhône and the famous medieval bridge, which has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was immortalized in the song Sur le Pont d’Avignon. Nowadays, the city is a focal point for culture and wine. The theater and music festivals are world-renowned, while thousands of visitors flock to the Côtes du Rhône vineyards every year.
Formerly a nautical village, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is now a major attraction for antiques-lovers and anyone wishing to experience the scenery of a bygone time. It hosts vibrant traditional markets every Sunday and its yearly antiques fair is considered to be second only in the world to London’s. Over 450 dealers come laden with curiosities, making for hours of fascinating browsing for those who love learning about the art and fashions of the past. Even if the fair is not for you, you can explore the classic riverside cafés, the quaint clusters of shops, or the winding stretches of water with their historic boats, which have caused the town to be nicknamed The Venice of Provence.
With its dignified 18th-century homes, sturdy medieval ramparts and verdant, hilly surroundings—the ‘sea’ on which it proudly floats—Ménerbes is a fascinating place. It is not surprising, then, that so many famous artists and writers chose it to be their home, including Nicolas de Staël, the Marquis de Sade, the British author Peter Mayle (who used it as a base for writing his best-selling novels about Provence) and, most famously, Picasso. A museum regarding Picasso’s muse and model, Dora Maar, can still be visited, and the town is also renowned for its high-quality wines and truffles, making it a retreat for culture-lovers and gourmets alike.
Porquerolles is located on an island, the largest of the three Îles d’Hyères off the coast of Toulon. While it is still relatively unfrequented by tourists, it has a huge amount to offer; gleaming beaches, exotic plant life, sparkling, transparent waters, and one of the most peaceful environments imaginable, since the French government works hard to protect its unique ecosystem from too much external intervention. The town has a selection of hotels and restaurants to suit all budgets and is increasingly playing host to popular cultural events, including the yearly jazz and sailing festivals. This is another magical hideaway to explore before everyone else discovers it.