Visit our Favourite Cities in Provence
With the large geographic footprint of Provence visiting the entire region in one trip, or a lifetime is nearly impossible. In high season (July and August), long drives and even longer lines should make you think twice about extended road trips. Instead, we suggest picking an activity each day and allowing enough time to enjoy some downtime.
Creating the perfect holiday itinerary will depend on your group’s interests, ages, and mobility levels. We recommend balancing urban visits and rural landscapes. The following are our favourite cities in Provence and the Côte d’Azur, in alphabetical order.
Magnetic Aix-en-Provence is one of the wealthier cities in France, with a long history and a roster of distinguished inhabitants. A Roman community established in 122BC was named Aquae Sextiae, the waters of Sextius, a tribute to consul Sextius Calvinus. A strategically located settlement with access to natural warm water sources for the Roman thermal baths. The remains of these ancient pools are still visible at the site of a modern spa, the Thermes Sextius. Before the advent of domestic water, Aix had countless fountains for human and animal needs today a few remain beginning at La Rotonde.
A natural trading centre located between Italy and Spain, Aix evolved as a cultural capital. Inspired by the Provençal climate and pleasant surroundings, famous names such as Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Émile Zola, Frédéric Mistral and Ernest Hemingway frequented the cafés.
Step back in time with a visit to Hôtel de Caumont, where you can enjoy a meal and the current art exhibit. Stroll down the Cours Mirabeau, a wide boulevard often compared to the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Shopping in Aix is abundant. From Place St Honoré, Rue des Baginers and Rue Marius Reinud are a compact area for shoppers searching for exclusive fashion brands in fashion. Provence is a paradise for food lovers, and Aix is exceptional with its daily markets. Regardless of your religious leanings, do visit the Cathédrale St-Sauveur, constructed over several centuries. Have a drink or a meal in Place des Cardeurs. Stroll up the hill to Paul Cézanne’s studio.
Located between the larger centres of Cannes and Nice, Antibes is a must-visit. Easily walkable Vieil Antibes is a treasure trove of pedestrian-friendly streets and plazas filled with restaurant tables. Stroll the laneways for surprise discoveries like the carved 16th-century entry to Chapelle Saint Bernardin. Discover Commune libre du Safranier, a series of meandering alleyways where vivid flowers drape the stone walls.
The old town is surrounded on two sides by restored rampart walls. Outside the one-time defensive walls is Port Vauban “Europe’s largest marina” this is where vessels of every size and shape moor – from superyachts to fishing boats. Take a quick stroll along the top of the ramparts to see Le Nomade an 8-metre high, cast iron sculpture by Catalan artist Jaume Paume. The covered market (Marché Provencal), open Tuesday through Sunday mornings, is a place that feels like grocery stores don’t exist. The beauty of Antibes attracted Pablo Picasso, in 1946 he worked in a third-floor studio in Château Grimaldi, today the Picasso Museum, is well worth a visit. Music fans make sure to buy tickets in advance for the Jazz à Juan festival in July.
Reading list: Patricia Sands Love in Provence book series.
During the Roman Era, Arles was an important trading center with Rhône River access. The Roman’s presence in Arles remains highly visible both above and below ground. The arena, constructed on three levels, remains a site for concerts and special events. The Cryptoportiques (old shops and storage areas) underneath the Hôtel de Ville (city hall) are worth a visit. Pay a visit to the of Musée departmental Arles Antique to see Caesar Augustus’ bust and a Roman barge retrieved from the Rhône. Don’t miss seeing Alyscamps the Roman burial ground, painted by Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh.
In February 1888, Vincent Willem Van Gogh moved to Arles, hoping for relief at a time when he was ill. The local landscape and light enchanted Van Gogh, and his works from the period are vivid. Head to the Espace Van Gogh during his time; this was a hospital where he painted a canvas of the colourful garden. Visit Fondation Van Gogh in the centre of the old town, there are sadly few Van Gogh pieces, but there is usually an interesting exhibition.
The cityscape in Arles is changing with the Luma Foundation and the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie (ENSP) fuel the city’s artistic core. The annual Rencontres d’Arles photo exhibition celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. This annual festival attracts thousands of photography fans from July through the end of September.
Reading list: Drawing Lessons by Patricia Sands.
Situated on the banks of the Rhône River, Avignon’s urban footprint is significant. Head directly to the old Papal city surrounded by ramparts. For close to a century (1309-76), Avignon was the seat of the Catholic Church with seven (7) popes directing religious matters from this centre. Constructed during that timeframe, the enormous Popes Palace continues to dominate the view in Avignon. To understand more about the building and the city’s history, buy a combined ticket for the Papal Palace and the Pont d’Avignon (you might remember the song).
Take a stroll to the top of the Rocher des Dom’s located right behind the Palace for the sweeping view of the Rhône Valley. For shoppers, Avignon offers a mix of chain stores and independent boutiques in a walkable area. Food lovers do not miss Les Halles, the indoor marketplace Tuesday-Sunday mornings. If you visit in July, there is nearly endless entertainment in the streets and theatres with the Festival d’Avignon.
After multi-millions of Euros of capital investment, Marseille is pedestrian-friendly and should boast about its long list of museums and world-class shopping. In roughly 600 BC, the Greeks established a settlement they called Massalia. They chose a naturally sheltered harbour along the Mediterranean coastline to develop a base for their maritime trade. The Vieux Port is where the Greeks and Romans established trade routes for spices, silks, cotton, wine, and olive oil. Today, Marseille ranks as the second biggest city in France, and the country’s largest seaport – le Grand port maritime de Marseille. It is also among the top five cruise ports in the Mediterranean. The Vieux Port is one of the must-see sights in Marseille.
Above the Vieux Port is Le Panier, the oldest district in Marseille and the original site of the Greek settlement. The hilltop location has long been home to Marseille’s fishermen, dock workers, tradespeople and many new immigrants. Although le Panier has mostly shed its gritty reputation, it’s entirely possible to get lost in the maze of streets and imagine the setting for a mystery novel. Discover the charms of le Panier and don’t miss its architectural gem la Vielle Charité.
Soap manufacturing featured heavily in the industrial and urban growth of Marseille. MuSaMa (le Musée du Savon de Marseille) is a museum-boutique-workshop dedicated to safeguarding Savon de Marseille located near the Vieux Port.
More reading: Marseille City Speed Dating by photographer Renata Haidle.
Once restricted to the wealthy who wished to stroll along the Mediterranean, the Promenade des Anglais is a popular destination for everyone today. Bars and restaurants line the Baie des Anges and, in summer months, parasails fill the sky and beach chairs occupy the beach. A short walk from the waterfront is the maze of tiny streets and colourful buildings that make up Nice’s Old Town (Vieille Ville).
Food lovers will love the culinary scene in Nice. There are unique Nicoise specialties, Michelin star restaurants, and vineyards within the city limits. Visit one of the two markets the Cours Saleya Market in Old Town or Marché de la Libération; both closed on Mondays. The Gare du Sud is an entertainment centre with a variety of restaurant kiosks, musical entertainment and a movie complex.
Nice has four Penitent Order churches, which pursue community-minded initiatives. The Penitents appeared in the city around the 14th century and are among Nice’s oldest benevolent associations.
The most impressive square in Nice is the grandiose red ochre Place Masséna with its controversial Apollo Fountain and the fantastic “Conversation of Nice” sculpture series by the Catalan artist Jaume Plensa. This square is one of our favourite places in the city.
The favourable climate and international airport make Nice an attractive winter destination. The annual Carnaval de Nice, in February, is a lively family-friendly festival.
Reading List: Travels Through the French Riviera by Virginia Johnson.