The South of France is a wonderful area of Europe characterised by its sandy stretches, glittering Mediterranean coastline, and countless colourful villages. Inhabited since antiquity, you can’t go wrong by exploring at least several French destinations on any venture through the area. Here are 18 sun-soaked places in the south of France you simply must visit…
Often referred to as the ‘Paris of the South,’ Montpellier is filled with Haussmannian architecture and plenty of historical museums and art exhibitions. As one of the largest cities in France, it’s also home to oodles of coffee shops, bars, and cafés. Other highlights of the city include the impressive Gothic cathedral, Montpellier’s very own Arc de Triomphe in the form of Porte du Peyrou, and the breathtakingly beautiful Château de Flagergues in the outskirts of the city.
The Roman ruins of Arles are often said to be some of the best archaeological sites in the South of France, if not all of the country. Complete with a two-tiered amphitheatre which was first founded in 90 AD, the city has inspired countless writers and painters over the years, including world-famous painter, Van Gogh. Arles’ position alongside the River Rhone also means that it’s easy to access the Camargue from here, a region of France which is synonymous with grassy open plains, pink flamingoes, and wild horses.
Home to the UNESCO world heritage site of Les Ecluses de Fonserannes, a series of nine stepped locks which link the Canal du Midi to other French waterways, Beziers is one of the oldest cities in France. In fact, it’s only a couple of decades younger than the Provençal city of Marseille. Today, highlights of Beziers include wandering around the city’s many cobbled lanes, seeing the city’s fortified old town, and exploring a side of France which many tourists never get to experience.
Read more: Where to find the best view in Béziers.
Birthplace of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi is the kind of city you see on a vintage postcard. And the kind of place that you might believe no longer exists. Yet Albi does exist, and it couldn’t be easier to visit! Located in Occitanie, this city was founded thousands of years ago and is now home to a population hovering around seventy thousand inhabitants. Highlights of Albi include the Gothic 13th-century Albi Cathedral and the formal French gardens of Musée de la Berbie.
Once a Roman port city, silt and sand have built up to such an extent over the years that the pretty town of Narbonne now lies some 15 kilometres or so from the sea. Today, instead of a sandy beach, you’ll find plenty of cobbled lanes, museums, and the birthplace of iconic French singer Charles Trenet should you opt to visit this pretty southern French town. If you still want to experience some sea, sun, and sand, then simply take a day trip from Narbonne via bus to Narbonne-Sur-Plage.
For some sun-soaked sea adventures, then you simply must head to Biarritz, a seaside town on France’s Basque coastline. Located in the Pyrenées-Atlantiques, Biarritz is best-known for its historic lighthouse and great surf. In fact, it’s often referred to as the ‘Capital of Surf’ for all of France. The town’s beaches are sandy and cloud coverage is minimal throughout the spring, summer, and autumn, making it an ideal destination for sun seekers.
One of the oldest cities in France can be found in the form of Marseille, a city founded as early as 600 BC in antiquity. First known to the Ancient Greeks as Μασσαλία (Massalía), today Marseille is the second largest city in France after Paris. The historic fishing town still functions as a working port and highlights of the South of France destination include Notre Dame de la Garde basilica, as well as the city’s ultra-modern Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations.
Read more: One week in Provence itinerary.
Made famous in the South of France by the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’, this city in the South of France is characterised by its imposing Gothic ‘Palais des Papes,’ as well as the remains of the 12th-century bridge, Pont Saint-Benezet.
The city’s iconic bridge is named for a 12-year-old shepherd boy who lived during the middle ages. One day, Benezet allegedly heard a divine voice instructing him to venture to Avignon so that he could build a bridge. The story goes that this is exactly what he did and so (most of) the bridge still stands to this day!
The word ‘cassis’ in French is not only the name for ‘blackcurrant’ in the language, but also the name for a pretty port town that lies right beside the seaside. A must-see on any trip to Provence, highlights of Cassis include candy-coloured houses, a Carolingian hotel, and easy access to the now designated heritage site, Calanques de Cassis.
If you want a taste of the ‘real’ France then simply pick up an ice cream in a local flavour (lavender is a must-try!) and wander around the town. Just don’t forget your camera, almost every corner is picture perfect!
Read more: Best things to do in Cassis.
Fortified walls and a whole host of impressive structures come together to form a hilltop town that’s iconic the world over. Carcassonne was first founded as a fortified settlement in Gallo-Roman times and then further additions to the town’s defenses were added during the Middle Ages.
Although the medieval fortress lay in pretty bad shape by the 19th-century (money constraints, the lack of a needy for defenses etc. all contributed to the crumbling of the walls), the fortifications were heavily restored by architect Viollet-le-Duc (remember him from Mont Saint Michel?).
Today, Carcassonne is probably one of the most visited spots in the Occitanie region. Although there are certainly less touristic spots to visit when it comes to the South of France, Carcassonne remains worth a visit.
Warm stone, a hundred cobbled lanes, and plenty of fountains are the trademark of Aix-en-Provence, a fairly substantial city which lies to the base of Montagne Sainte Victoire. Home to artist and impressionist Paul Cézanne, today you can follow in the footsteps of this famous Frenchman and even take your picture with a life-sized statue of Cezanne in front of the tourist office!
If you’re also looking for a little nightlife when it comes to your next destination, then I highly recommend considering Aix as it’s full of cafés, bars, bistros, and clubs thanks to its abundance of students!
Read more: 10 best day trips from Aix-en-Provence.
For a little glitz and glamour, you need to look no further than Cannes, a stunning resort town along the glittering French Riviera. Even if you’re ‘not really a beach person,’ then you may well have heard of this Southern French destination thanks to its annual film festival, ‘Festival de Cannes.’ And so, if you’re a movie buff, then you simply must head to this French destination!
Little and located by the sea, the charm of La Ciotat lies in its authentic French ambiance and well-preserved old town. Though there is little by way of attractions when it comes to this Provençal town (several seafood restaurants and a man-made beach), La Ciotat’s main claim to fame is that it is believed to be the birthplace of Petanque, a ball game similar to that of Boules.
Read more: A quick guide to La Ciotat.
Best seen just before or just after peak season so as to enjoy the city sans the crowds but with the best possible weather, Antibes is situated between the famous resort towns of Cannes and Nice. Home to a particularly impressive Museum dedicated to Picasso, 16th-century star-shaped fort, Fort Carré, is a must-see while in the city.
Massif des Calanques
Stretching a 20 km length of coastline between Cassis and Marseille, the Massif des Calanques is a unique National Park in the world in that this terrain is formed of rugged limestone which has been worn away by the sea, time, and salty breeze.
Small inlets and impressively high peaks make this park a must-walk for lovers of hiking. Should you choose to plan a visit, make sure to avoid the summer months as the park is often closed due to the risk of a forest fire!
Read more: Hiking the Calanques de Cassis.
Of all the beautiful towns and villages in Provence, Saint-Paul-de-Vence is probably the most picturesque of them all. Characterised by its meandering walkways, floral displays, and cobbled lanes, wandering through this Provençal town feels akin to stepping back into a vintage postcard!
A fishing city which still functions as a working port to this day, Sete is located between the historic cities of Beziers and Montpellier. Easy to visit as a day trip from Beziers, the area is well known for its sea-inspired dishes, notably ‘moules’ (mussels)!
Nice is nice, or so they say… Bad puns aside, Nice is a stunning city along the French Riviera. Best-known for its long boulevard along the sea named ‘Promenade des Anglais’, the city became a place for the rich and wealthy when celebrities started flocking to the beach resort town during the 19th-century. Ever since, it has featured in countless paintings, movies, and is well worth a visit if you’re looking for a glittering getaway.