Best cities in Provence, France
The purple lavender fields of Provence is an iconic image of the South of France. To find the best French cities and towns to visit in Provence in 2021, we have produced a guide to the 10 most beautiful places in Provence - from small sleepy hilltop villages perched high up on a cliff like Gordes and Roussillon, to larger towns & cities such as Aix-en-Provence, Marseille and Avignon.
Provence really does have it all. Great Provencal cooking can be experienced, especially around Uzes and St Remy de Provence. Ancient, narrow, winding streets can be traced in the villages of Seillans, Cotignac and L'Isle sur Sorgue. Beautiful views over the Mediterranean coast can be seen in Bormes-les-Mimosas, Cassis and Hyères. Stunning countryside can be experienced in the Luberon National Park and the breath-taking Gorge du Verdon. Amazing architecture and centuries of history can observed in Avignon, Arles and Les Beaux de Provence. Finally chic boutiques, pavement cafes, authentic markets and plenty of life can all be experienced in Aix-en-Provence and Marseille.
It is perfectly possible to visit all of these beautiful Provence villages and towns during a 1 week stay. You can divide your visit up into a day in the western edge of Provence (Uzes, St Remy and Les Beaux de Provence), 3 days around Avignon (to visit Avignon, L'Isle sur Sorgue, Gordes and Roussillon) and the rest of the time visiting Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Seillans.
1. Towns in Provence: Roussillon
The Provence village of Roussillon is often regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Provence. This quintessential Provence town, is very popular among tourists for the breath-taking views and the famous yellow and orange buildings that are tainted by the local ochre deposits. The best time of day to visit this picturesque village is just before sunset, as sunlight throws lots of different shades upon the walls of the houses. Spending time wandering the narrow, winding streets is a relaxing experience and it is easy to soak up the joys of provincial life away from the hustle and bustle.
Roussillon is situated on a rocky hilltop east of Avignon. From the village of Roussillon, France, you can enjoy beautiful views of the surrounding National Park du Luberon and the local landscape has led to comparisons being made to Colorado in the USA (it is often referred to as the ‘French Colorado’!). The town only has about 1,300 inhabitants, and it it initially grew prosperous from the local ochre deposits that were mined nearby the village for centuries.
2. Towns in Provence region of France: Gordes
The small village of Gordes, perched on top of a cliff above the valley of Calavon is one of the most charming Provence towns to visit. Inhabited since Roman times, Gordes, is a delightful place to spend time in. The Mediterranean climate and relaxed pace of life create the perfect vacation environment. It is quite easy to spend the whole day doing nothing much: wandering the winding streets, leisurely taking coffee at a café and watching the world slowly go by, spending hours over a good meal in one of the many restaurants and watching the spectacular sunsets over the lavender fields in the valley below.
Gordes does however have a tragic history. During the Second World War, Gordes was a stronghold of the French resistance ( the Maquis). Towards the end of the war, a German patrol was ambushed near to Gordes and the following day the town was heavily bombarded and 20 villagers died. There is a monument in the centre of Gordes to commemorate this event and the village was awarded the Croix de Guerre silver star by the French government in 1948 to celebrate the bravery and loss of its inhabitants.
Gordes is known as one of the most beautiful cities in the Provence region of France. Gordes boasts an impressive castle, from which you can look down onto the terracotta roofs of the houses and enjoy the panoramic views of the countryside surrounding the village. It is easy to see why Gordes attracted artists such as Marc Chagall, Jean Deyrolle, Serge Poliakoff, Vasarely and Dewasne. You will find many local attractions such as the village of dry-stone huts called Les Bories and the picturesque Sénanque Abbey (which was where one of the local monks hid 13 elderly villagers during the bombardment and reprisals in 1944).
I remember visiting Gordes for our 10th wedding anniversary some years back. I had booked an expensive hotel with a Michelin star restaurant (Le Bories Hotel & Spa, just outside Gordes). It was in the days when I was earning good money in the Middle East. We had arranged for my parents to come over and look after the kids, but they had to call off at the last minute. So our anniversary ended up with my wife and I and 3 nutty kids staying at this luxury Spa. The kids insisted on wearing their embroidered bath robes to the swimming pool and I spent my whole time telling them to be quiet and not disturb all the other guests. We did have a really lovely meal and the views from the terrace during the evening were to die for. We arranged a baby sitter for the kids and we allowed them to order off the room service menu. They couldn't agree on anything, so they asked the chef to cook them Pasta Pesto - which from memory cost about 25 euros each. When we got back to the room, I looked at their plates with still plenty of pasta left on it. In the morning they said that the pasta had a funny taste (i.e., real Basil). When we checked out, it was only the second time in my life that I have entered the pin number for my card without checking how much the bill was (the other time was at Auberge de Vieux Puits in the Corbieres). I think the expression is " . . . reassuringly expensive . . .".
We did manage to spend a lovely afternoon in Gordes before driving back home. It was one of those stunningly hot Southern France days and we spent the whole time dodging into shadows and browsing in air conditioned shops. It is a very beautiful town and you can easily spend a relaxing day here, just wandering around the narrow streets.
3. French cities in Provence: Les Beaux de Provence
The small village of Les Beaux de Provence in the Alpilles mountain range, Provence, provides some of the most dramatic scenery in the region. Located on a rocky outcrop, Les Beaux de Provence provides a spectacular view of the surrounding valley.
For centuries Les Beaux de Provence was an important fort town, but today the Castle lies in ruins. Human remains have been found in Les Beaux de Provence dating back as far as 6000 BC, and the site was used by the Celts as a hill fort or oppidum around the 2nd century BC. During the Middle Ages it became the seat of a powerful province that controlled 79 towns and villages in the vicinity. De-population during the 19th and 20th Centuries eventually led to the small number of villagers being relocated to other local villages and today Les Beaux de Provence is preserved as an Historical monument.
Located south of Avignon and close to Saint-Remy-de-Provence, Les Beaux de Provence and its castle are very popular among visitors, who come to the castle ruins to see demonstrations with enormous siege engines and catapults. The surrounding area of the village is great spot for hiking and biking. The popular l'Images de Cathédrale, a sort of multimedia art museum that beams popular artistic images onto the walls of the former bauxite mine, has recently been refurbished. If you are compiling a list of French cities in Provence to visit, then Les Beaux de Provence should be high up on your list.
4. Best Provence France towns: L’Isle sur la Sorgue
L'Isle sur Sorgue is often regarded as one of the prettiest Provence, France, cities. Located on the banks of the river Sorgue, L'Isle sur Sorgue was originally a fishing village, situated on an island in the middle of marshland. The river Sorgue provided a a healthy source of income for the town's inhabitants from cray-fishing and milling (oil and flour). L'Isle sur Sorgue also became an important centre for silk, paper, wool, rugs and dyeing. L'Isle sur Sorgue has a network of canals that cross through the town between the narrow ancient streets.
Today, L'Isle sur Sorgue is famous for its many antique shops and hosts an antique market most Sundays. There are reputed to be nearly 300 antique dealers and second hand shops in L'Isle sur Sorgue. L'Isle sur la Sorgue hosts a large antiques fair every Easter and over the August 15th holiday, where up to 500 Antique dealers from all over the world participate. In L'Isle sur Sorgue you will find many charmng waterside cafés and restaurants, all within walking distance of each other. L'Isle sur Sorgue is also famous for its many water wheels located throughout the town, many of which are still in working order.
Many of the magnificent mansions built by the silk and paper merchants have been converted into art galleries, in particular the famous Maison René Char, which is now a museum exhibiting such artists as Miro, Mauguin and Dufy. L'Isle sur Sorgue also hosts a large floating market every year on the first Sunday of August. At the market traders sell produce from the traditional flat-bottomed boats of the region.
5. Cities in Provence, France: Uzès
Uzes, South France is a very pretty town. Located west of Avignon and north of Nîmes, the town of Uzès boasts many beautifully preserved Renaissance towers and houses, coupled with narrow, winding streets. 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 cities in Provence, 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 Wonka's Chocolate factory! There were plenty of free sweets, some boring exhibits of old sweet manufacture and more interesting interactive displays about how they make the sweets today. The shop on the way out is something to behold. It cost me a small fortune.
Uzès has a rich history dating back to Roman times. Uzès in Provence, France is famous for the Roman aqueduct that supplied water to the city of Nîmes. The most famous part of this aqueduct is the Pont du Gard, which is only a 14-kilometer (9 miles) drive from the town of Uzès. In the Uzès itself, visitors can enjoy the medieval center, the Duché Palace, and the well-known Saturday farmers market. Uzès also provides a charming base to explore all the cities in Provence, France; such as Avignon and the Roman Ruins of Nîmes.
6. Cities in Provence France: Aix-en-Provence
I love Aix-en-Provence. This old University town in the heart of Provence 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).
7. Best Cities in Provence region of France: Avignon
Avignon is one of the most historical cities in the Provence region of France. Avignon 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 city in Provence, with lots of bustling streets and squares. The Rhone river which runs through Avignon has been developed into a nice park and walk-way. The main city has grown out from the Palais des Papes in a grid formation. Avignon is well-served by the TGV and also the airports at Nimes and Marseille.
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. At the back of the Palais, there is now a lovely park that commands great views over the River Rhone and the surrounding countryside. If Avignon was to be the temporary home of the Popes whilst the trouble in Italy died down, then it was certainly one hell of a vacation home.
The Pont d'Avignon (or Le Pont Saint-Bénézet to give it it's proper name was built around 1180 and it is basically famous for falling down. The bridge was first destroyed in 1220 during a Crusade by Louis VIII of France. The bridge was then rebuilt (this time in stone with 22 spanning arches. But then it fell down again. This time it was the flood surges of the River Rhone which did the damage. The bridge was repaired and rebuilt at various stages, but then in the middle of the 17th century the good people of Avignon got fed up with paying the taxes to maintain it, so the bridge was abandoned. The bridge was the inspiration for the song Sur le Pont d'Avignon and if every you mention this to any French person they will immediately break out into song, grab the nearest person and do the dance that was indoctrinated into them at school. In 1995, the four surviving arches of the bridge, together with the Palais des Papes and Cathédrale Notre-Dame des Doms were classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
While Avignon is probably most noted for its famous bridge and the Palais des Papes, it is also a very vibrant city with an active student community, lots of history and makes for a great jumping off point for exploring other cities in Provence region of France. Every year Avignon hosts a fantastic festival of street entertainment, theatre and music which takes over the whole town. This is probably the best time of year to visit Avignon, although it can be difficult to find accommodation in the city.If you are visiting Avignon, make sure that you make a detour to Chateauneuf-des-Papes, which was originally the summer home of the Pope just outside of Avignon. Today it is better known for producing outstanding wines (and the village is full of wine shops and wine tasting sites). Also, head off to L'Isle sur Sorgue for a nice lunch by the river and a quick browse of the antiques shops and pottery stores.
8. French towns in Provence: St-Remy-de-Provence
Saint-Remy-de-Provence is a pretty little town in the South of France. Saint-Remy-de-Provence 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. Saint-Remy-de-Provence is a very pleasant place to spend a week or so on vacation. Besides the monastery, the town features a beautiful historic city center and the wonderful ancient Roman site, Glanum. There are lots of small restaurants and pavement cafes, as well as interesting little shops. St Remy should feature prominently on your list of French cities in Provence to visit.
Saint Rémy de Provence is one of the most famous villages in the region, and is located south of Avignon and just north of the Alpilles mountain range. The village has about 10,000 inhabitants. The weekly market has been held in the town for centuries and takes place every Saturday. The market takes over the whole town and it is a great opportunity to stock up on some wonderful Provençal local produce.
9. Best Provence France villages: Seillans
Seillans is located to the west of Cannes on a beautiful hillside overlooking a valley. Seillans is situated in the eastern Var, beside the popular village of Fayence and about a half-hour drive west of Grasse. The picturesque medieval centre of this town is so steep that it is only accessible on foot. The narrow winding streets of the centre of Seillans eventually open out onto several beautiful squares where you can enjoy the sunny days and beautiful sunsets.
Seillans also boasts a castle, chapel and several gorgeous tall houses. The landscape surrounding Seillans is filled with olive groves and vineyards, which make for great day trips. Seillans is a great spot from which to explore Provence and the South France cities of Cannes, Nice and Aix-en-Provence.
10. Cities in Provence, France: Marseille
The port of Marseille is the largest city in Provence, being the second-largest city in France. The city is a bit of a mixed bag. Scruffy (and dangerous in parts) and also charming and modern in others. But do not be discouraged, Marseilles has much to offer.
Heading off to the Vieux Port area of the city is always rewarding and here you will find market stalls filled Provençal products, Moroccan-like souks and a centuries-old fish market with produce coming straight off the boats behind it. In Vieux Port’s Le Panier neighbourhood, you’ll find narrow, winding streets and authentic shops. You’ll also find pedestrianized shopping streets such as Rue St-Fereol.
Make sure you stop somewhere and get a steamy bowl of bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew from Marseilles containing different kinds of fish, shellfish and vegetables, flavoured with a variety of herbs and spices such as garlic, orange peel, basil, bay leaf, fennel and saffron. Marseilles is often described as the gateway to Provence and from here you can easily strike out and visit the other cities in Provence, France.