The South of France is home to some of the most picturesque cities in France to visit. Outside of the well-known cities such as Nice, Cannes and Marseille, you will find a wealth of beautiful cities to see. Outside of the summer, a visit to the South of France in May or September is always pleasant. The climate is still warm, the restaurants are still open and the throngs of tourists have died down. If you are looking for inspiration about which South of France cities to visit, then follow our guide to the Best South France cities.
Best South of France city: Nimes
Nimes will always be linked with two things: Romans and Denim jeans. Its location on the Via Domitia - the main chariot route from Spain to Rome - helped make it a favourite with a series of Emperors. Today it is endowed with an outstanding collection of monuments including the Maison Carree, the Amphitheatre and the temple of Diana. During the middle ages up unto the late 19th Century, Nimes also forged a wealthy vocation as a textile centre, including its famous blue cotton cloth "de Nimes" (thus later "denim") that was imported to America by Levi Strauss for use as clothing for working men. The outskirts of Nimes always reminds me of some Midwest American town, full of bowling alleys, fast food restaurants, car showrooms and industrial units. The centre of Nimes however is a total contrast. It is home to a bustling commercial district, with winding streets hiding a plethora of boutiques and artisanale shops. Nimes also houses two good art galleries and hosts some of the most colourful festivals in the South of France - February's Carnival and the Ferias of Pentecost and September. Maison Carree (or "square house") is a perfectly formed temple that was once the centrepice to Nimes' forum. It was built in 4AD at the intersection of two major Roman roads (one leading to Spain - the via Dormitia - the other going north to Germany and Britain) and was dedicated to Emperor Augustus' adopted grandson. Maison Carree is regarded as the world's best preserved Roman temple and despite its patchy history over the years (it was once used as a stable in the middle ages) it has been cited as inspiration for Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Capital building and the Magdalene Church built by Napoleon in Paris. Today Maison Carree, Nimes, sits in a sunken position in its own square, ringed by pavement bars and off-set by the impressive modern Carre d'Art building. Inside Maison Carree you will find a small museum, providing details and excavations of the building itself. Visit our articles on Nimes tourism and the nearby Pont du Gard Roman aquaduct.
Best cities in France to visit: Narbonne
When you approach Narbonne from a distance it appears like a normal modern city with its high rise buildings in its centre. But as you get nearer what surprises you is that these buildings that dominate the skyline are in fact some of Narbonne's oldest buildings. Narbonne has a rich heritage. It was once the capital of the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis, covering 70% of present day Languedoc. At the time it flourished as a port town, up until the system of dykes and canals fell into disrepair and Narbonne's river por silted up. It was also the site of an important Jewish University, until the jews were expelled from Narbonne in the mid 13th century. Narbonne then really did go backwards for a while. The Black Prince burnt it down, like he did with a lot of South France towns that didn't fancy surrendering to him. It only really pulled itself through this difficult time by rediscovering its wine heritage in the late 1800s, which led to some form of prosperity. The centre of Narbonne is quite small. In fact there are only really a few streets either side of the Canal du Robine that bisects the centre, that are worthy of a visit. Perhaps the best time to catch Narbonne is on a Sunday morning when the whole of the town is taken over with a huge market. The grassy banks of the Canal du Robine provide a pleasant splash of green and colourful flowers. Read more about Narbonne here: Narbonne France
Best South France cities to visit: Perpignan
I really like Perpignan. It has a real Spanish feel to it and the old narrow streets towards the Palais des Rois de Majorque are a real pleasure to walk around. Perpignan has a couple of buildings worth searching out. It is also a great town to shop in and quite pleasant to look at along the grassy esplanades of the river that runs through it. Perpignan is the capital of Roussillon. Its Spanish influence predominantly comes from the thousands of refugees that fled Catalonia at the end of the Spanish Civil War. But it has also been part of the Catalan-aragonese Crown, before it was brought under French control in 1659. The most important building here though is the Palais des Rois. The Kings of Mallorca made Perpignan their mainland capital and brought with it propsperity from cloth-making. The Palais des Rois has come to symbolise Perpignan. It is a massive palace sitting on a hill to the south of the city centre. Some of the original building still remains, but the impressive outer defences were constructed by Louis XIII and Richelieu after they successfully took Perpignan from the Catalans in 1659. In the centre of Perpignan's old town you will find the 15th century Palais de la Deputation (where the Catalan Kings once convened the Roussillon parliament); the 16th century Hotel de Ville; and the 14th Century Loge de Mer, which served as the regions stock exchange. The square outside these buildings once served as a base for executions during the 15th-16th centuries. At the end of the place de Loge, you will also find the distinctive Le Castillet, a red brick tower that was once part of the old town walls. Discover more things to do in Perpignan France here: Perpignan tourism.
Best Southern French city: Aigues Mortes
Spending time in Aigues Mortes is an absolute joy. This medieval walled town is romantically set among the dunes and plain of the Camargue. A tour of Aigues-Mortes' fortifications and grid pattern streets is a must on any visit to the South of France. Although popular in the height of Summer, you can easily spend a very pleasant day wandering around the shops and eating at the pavement restaurants in the centre. Aigues-mortes, South France, was originally intended to be the principal port in the South of France. It was founded in 1246 by Louis IX, who used the Port as his base for two expeditions from the South of France to Cyprus and Tunis (where he met with his death). His son, Philip, took over from his father and commissioned Genoan engineers to build up Aigues-mortes' famous fortified walls and grid-pattern streets. For a time the town prospered from the nearby salt beds. By the end of the 14th century Aigues-mortes had become a back-water town, with its port area being swallowed up with silt. The town seems to have ambled through history up until the 19th century when it was rediscovered as a place to visit. Aigues-mortes is now a mandatory stopping off point on any tour of Languedoc and the South of France (read Aigues Mortes tourism for more information about what to do and see in this Southern French city).
Best South of France city: Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer
Saintes-maries-de-la-mer, South France, is situated on the Camargue coast. Although the place is tiny, it is absolutely heaving in the summer. The town itself is a fairly non-descript sort of place, but you can imagine that for centuries fishermen have dragged their boats and their catch up onto the beach - just as they do now. What makes Les Saintes-maries-de-la-mer standout however has been the succession of pilgrims that have visited it for centuries. A huge gypsy fair is held in Saintes-maries-de-la-mer, South France, every year towards the end of May.
If you are visiting Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, then the beautiful Camargue is just on your doorstep (see Petite Camargue for more information).
Best South of France cities: Aix-en-Provence
The old University town of Aix is a wonderful place to spend time in. Perhaps the most recognisable part of Aix is the Cours Mirabeau, the wide avenue with rows of plane-trees that follows the line of the old city wall and divides the town into two halves. Along this avenue, you will find plenty of cafés, including the Deux Garçons, which has been frequented by the likes of Paul Cézanne, Émile Zola and Ernest Hemingway. Aix has a lovely old Cathedral and the impressive looking Hôtel de Ville, which looks onto a picturesque square (place de l'Hôtel de Ville). Aix is often referred to as the city of a thousand fountains and they are everywhere. The most prominent is Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins (Fountain of the Four Dolphins) in the Quartier Mazarin.
Aix hosts an important opera festival, the Festival international d'Art Lyrique, founded in 1948 (which ranks alongside Salzburg and Glyndebourne in terms of importance). The festival takes place in late June and July each year. The main venues are the outdoor Théâtre de l'Archévêché in the former garden of the archbishop's palace, the recently restored 18th-century Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, and the newly built Grand Théâtre de Provence. Aix also holds a week long music festival, featuring Jazz, Classical and Rock music. Concerts are held in different street venues and courtyards in the city, hence the name of the festival "Musique dans la Rue". The festival takes place each year in June to coincide with the national 'Fête de la Musique' (21 June). Visit our article on Aix-en-Provence tourism for more information.
Best towns in the South of France: St-Remy-de-Provence
Saint-Remy-de-Provence is a pretty little town in the South of France. It is often regarded as the heart of Provence. The centre of the town has lots of mazy streets and it has a large market which takes over the town every Saturday morning. Saint-Remy-de-Provence was the birthplace of Nostradamus, a 16th-century author famous for his prophecies. The brother of Vincent van Gogh lived in St Remy and the painter was treated here in the psychiatric center after he had cut his ear off. He painted Starry Night whilst he was in Saint Remy (read more about Van Gogh's stay in St Remy here: Van Gogh in St Remy). Saint-Remy-de-Provence is a very pleasant place to spend a week or so on vacation. There are lots of small restaurants and pavement cafes, as well as interesting little shops.
Nearby to Saint Remy, you will find the Baux de Provence, a picturesque village perched on the edge of a rocky outcrop. The village is no longer inhabited full time, but there is still plenty to see as you wander the old streets inside and around the castle. You will also find the Cathedral des Images, a huge old quarry, the walls of which are used to project images of famous paintings. It is quite something and well worth the visit.
Just a word of warning, be careful visiting Saint Remy outside of May-September. The Mistral wind just rips through the town and surrounding areas. On a bad day it can knock you sideways.
Best South of France cities: Arles
Arles is definitely my favourite cities in the South of France. With its Roman heritage - complete with Amphitheatre, Forum and Theatre; beautiful 17th Century mansions, mazy streets, modern Museums and wide rolling river; Arles has it all. Arles was also the base for Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, during their ill-fated but successful partnership in the 'Studio of the South'. Here van Gogh painted some of his most famous masterpieces. Arles is also convenient for exploring the natural beauty of the Camargue region. Arles, South France, is widely regarded as the heart of Provence. It is an excellent little city, with beautiful 18th and 19th century Mansion houses and old Roman buildings. Arles was made famous through its association with van Gogh and there are plenty of van Gogh's famous scenes to see around the town. Arles is bisected by the wide River Rhone, with one major bridge across (Pont de Triquetaille). In the height of summer Arles is absolutely awash with visitors and all the pavement cafes and restaurants are full with people and create a lively atmosphere. Read our article on Arles and Van Gogh for more information.
Best towns in the South of France: Uzes
Uzes, South France is a very pretty town. We recently spent a weekend there and we had a great time. Together with Aix en Provence, St Remy. Aigues Mortes, Avignon, Sommieres and Pezenas; Uzes really ought to be up there on your list of places to visit if you are planning a tour of the South of France. In the centre of Uzes, South France there are lots of narrow streets with little boutiques arranged around the old Duchy. In the centre you will find a big square (Place aux Herbes), laid out with fountains and plenty of decent restaurants. Whilst we were visiting, there was a big Arts Fair going on - which really sums up Uzes - it is a big art loving town. The Saturday market in Uzes takes over most of the town and it is supposed to be very good (as well as busy). Uzes and region have a bit of a reputation as a foodies paradise. The other reason for coming to Uzes, France (especially if you have kids - or a sweet tooth) is to visit the Haribo sweet museum. I took my three little monkeys there and they absolutely loved. It was like Willy Wonkas Chocolate factory! There were plenty of free sweets, some boring exhibits of old sweet manufacture and more interesting intreactive displays about how they make the sweets today. The shop on the way out is something to behold. It cost me a small fortune. Find out more about Uzes here Uzes France tourism information.
Best cities in France to visit: Sete
The busy port town of Sete is a real gem on the South France coast. Don't be put off by the industrial outskirts to the town, we love Sete and it has become one of the fastest growing property hot spots in the South France. Sete grew rapidly during the late 17th Century due to its links to the Canal du Midi and the Canal a Rhone. The town of Sete itself wraps itself around the rocky Mont St-clair promontory. The old quarter of Sete straddles the Canal Royal, the site of the famous water jousting championships in the summer and the home of lots of good restaurants and bars. You will probably want to spend most of your time in Sete wandering around the canals and the old quarter. Here you will find lots of seafood restaurants and pavement cafes. On the other side of the town you will also find some excellent beaches, including a long stretch of golden beaches (running a full 20kms down towards Marseillan). The beaches to the north of Sete (Frontignan) are not much to right home about. The other two interesteing things to do in Sete, France, are to wander around the two museums dedicated to its famous sons: Georges Brassens and Paul Valery. Perhaps the best time to visit Sete is during the early summer when the Fiesta de Sete is in full swing or during the middle to end of August during the water jousting chanpionships. When it comes to food, Sete is a seafood paradise. Amazing seafood is literally pulled straight off the boat. It is also a stones throw away from the Etang Thau with its fantastic oysters. Sete is also home of 'La Tielle' a spicy tarte made with garlic, tomatoes and squid; and 'Zezette' a sweet biscuit. Read more about the festivals in Sete and things going on in Sete during the year at Sete France tourism.
Best South of France cities: Avignon
Avignon, South France, arrived on the World's stage when in 1303 the Vatican decided to move away from the anarchic violence of Rome to the peaceful pastures of Provence. Although they only stayed for 70 years their legacy can still be seen on the beautiful streets of Avignon. Today Avignon is a charming South France city, with lots of bustling streets and squares. Set in the heart of Avignon, the Pope's Palace is the biggest Gothic palace in Europe. Once home of the Sovereign Pontiffs, this Palace with its ceremonial rooms, chapels and private papal apartments, became a symbol of the power of the Christian world in the 14th Century. It certainly is a spectacular site, the whole complex is enormous and shows the wealth and power that the Vatican enjoyed at this time. As a stopping-off point, Avignon is worth a visit. The Palais des Papes aside, there is not a lot of other sites to visit. The Pont du Avignon over the River Rhone is worth a look at. But for me, the enjoyment of Avignon is just to wander around its ancient streets and soak up the atmosphere. For more information visit our article on Avignon tourism and the Avignon festival.
Best Southern France cities: Sommieres
Sommieres, South France is a pretty little town with a wide river flowing through it. Sommieres is situated in between Nimes and Montpellier and it is easy to spend a day here wandering around the old narrow grid streets of this ancient town. The old Roman bridge that crosses the river is still in use today and forms the centerpiece of Sommieres. The old town is situated on the east bank and this is probably where you will want to spend most of your time. After passing over the bridge you enter Sommieres through the 17th century Tour de l'Horloge, which as you would expect features a large clock face. The old town of Sommieres was laid out on a grid pattern by the Romans and much of it remains the same. There are two traditional arcaded market squares around which are congregated some excellent bars and restaurants. On Saturdays, these squares are taken over by an excellent local market. Find out more about what to do in Sommieres by reading our article on Sommieres France tourism.
Best South France cities to visit: Montpellier
I love going to Montpellier. It makes such a change from our sleepy little South France village. Montpellier in contrast is a buzzing, vibrant, youthful, bright, and cultured City. Montpellier's shops are excellent and so are the restaurants. There is also the internationally acclaimed Musee Fabre, Montpellier's Modern Art Museum. Montpellier also has a wonderful Zoo, a Planetarium, a large botanical garden, a fantastic modern tram system and beaches a short bus ride away. What more could you want from a city? If you are in South France on vacation it is defintiely worth spending a day in Montpellier as part of your itinery. Montpellier is the fastest growing city in France and along with Nimes is probably the most vibrant City in South France. Starting off life as an old University town, Montpellier grew to be an important medieval commercial centre, rivalling only Paris in size by the end of the 13th Century. Later on, Montpellier was also an important agitator during the French revolution, indeed the revolutionary anthem: "Le Marseillaise" was first sung by a a medical student at Montpellier university. In recent years, Montpellier has become an important high tech business centre for South France. University spin-offs and international investment have transformed the Antigone quarter of the city into a wonderful 21st Century architectural metropolis. This forms a good contrast to the 17th Century mansions of Montpellier's old town. Continue reading about the things to do & see in Montpellier France.
Best South France cities: Pezenas
Pezenas, situated between Montpellier and Beziers in the South of France, is without doubt the most beautiful town in Languedoc-Roussillon. I may be biased because Pezenas is my local town, but trust me, it is a great little spot. The best time to visit Pezenas is in the height of summer on a Wednesday or Friday night when all the shops in Pezenas stay open late and the old town is buzzing with life. The best part of Pezenas is the old town. Once the refuge of Jews, the narrow streets have been brilliantly preserved. You will still find small artisans working away and bijou restaurants tucked away in courtyards and alleys. Pezenas has two culinary claims to fame. The first is the "petits pates". These are bite-sized mince-tarts that are based on a recipe of the Indian chef attached to Lord Clive, the English Governor of India. Lord Clive took a summer vacation in Pezenas in 1768 and the small tarts have stayed with the town ever since. The second is the "Berlingot", a hard candy sweet that comes in a variety of flavours. The best place to pick these up is the small sweet shop next-door-but-one to the tourism office. Finally, Pezenas is home to one of the best restaurants in Languedoc. L'Entre Pots is a relaxed, chic restaurant with great service and fabulous food. I have tasted nothing better since I have been here. More tourism information about Pezenas can be found at Pezenas France.
Best South of France cities: Carcassonne
Carcassonne, South of France, is France’s most famous and evocative medieval citadel. Carcassonne is one of four UNESCO World Heritage Site in the South of France. It is the scale of the castle at Carcassonne that blows you away. A wonderful monument with an impressive history. If you are on holiday and you are looking for a good day out then Carcassonne must come top of your list of cities in South of France to visit. The preserved and rebuilt town inside Carcassone castles magnificent walls provides an insight into what medieval life was like, even if it has been somewhat spoilt by tacky souvenier shops. But if you can look beyond the plastic suits of armour and tea towels you will be in for a real treat. Carcassonne is a magical place. There can not be a more impressive castle in Europe and it is worthy of a trip from all visitors to South France.
The old medieval town below the Citadel (Ville Basse) is worth a quick visit. The centre of the town is Place Carnot, which still features a regular market (Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays). Most of the town dates from the 14th century onwards, when it was re-built after the Black Prince's arson. Read more about what to see in Carcassonne.
Best towns in the South of France: Collioure
Beautiful Collioure is one of my favourite towns in the South of France. With the Pyrenees mountains tumbling into the sea, the impressive harbour, the castle, wonderful old church, beach-side restaurants, narrow old streets, bijou boutiques, art trails and three beaches; what more could you ask for in one town? Collioure is easily the most picturesque coastal resort in South France. Collioure is situated in the very south of France, 26 km (approx. 15 miles) from the Spanish border. It has always attracted a host of artists because of its 'special light' and you can follow the unique art trail through the town. Its small Catalan harbour is sheltered by a quiet bay where the Pyrenees meets the Sea.
You can spend a very pleasant day in Collioure. There are three small beaches in collioure that back right onto the town. The beaches are separated by the Church and the Castle and everything is ringed in by the harbour that is testament to Collioure's maritime history. Collioure still makes a healthy living from its salted anchovies that are exported all over France. Collioure also has a wonderful old town, feturing numerous restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. There is also a wonderful art trail through Collioure (see Collioure Art Trail) where you will find picture frames mounted on stilts through which you can look through and see the scenes painted by Collioure's famous resident artists of the past. We always tend to go to Collioure on a Sunday and take in the market which is always busy.
Where to next . . . ?
Read our article on the Best South France beaches to visit this summer
Interested in visiting the South of France? Check out our South of France city apartments to rent
Read about the Best Museums and Art Galleries to visit across the South of France during your stay
Contact Iain by Email or by phone +33 6 95 00 28 44 if you have any particular questions you would like to ask about visiting the South of France. If you liked the article then please share it with others using the Twitter, Facebook and G+ buttons below. I wish you a wonderful stay in the South of France.