Last Updated on 12th January 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
Every France fanatic should make a point of adding Provence to their bucket list at some point or another. And not just because it’s home to some of the best local food in the country, endless coastal stretches, and the purplest fields of scented lavender you could ever imagine. Instead, it’s also filled with typically French towns, friendly locals, and oodles of history. Here are the very best things to do in Provence!
#1 See the original Arc de Triomphe
You’ve heard of the Arc de Triomphes in Paris (yes, there are two triumphal arches in the City of Love, in case you hadn’t already realised!), but did you know that the real and original Arc de Triomphe is located in Orange, Provence?
Built during the Roman era to commemorate a string of battle successes, the arc is so well preserved, that it has since been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Constructed between 10 and 26/27 CE, the Triumphal Arc of Orange was incorporated into a medieval town wall during the middle ages, that has since been demolished.
#2 Visit the hundred fountains of Aix-en-Provence
A university city in the very heart of the region, and lying under the high peak of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, Aix-en-Provence is pretty, historic, and well worth your time. Birthplace of impressionist painter, Paul Cezanne, Aix is often dubbed ‘the city of a hundred fountains’ thanks to its abundance of water features.
Elsewhere in town, there’s beautiful architecture to be seen, cafés to enjoy local cuisine within, and plenty of museums on the offchance that the weather is a little rainy. Aix’s popularity likely lies in its proximity to fast rail links, its abundance of culture and it sunny disposition.
Read more: How to spend seven days in Provence.
#3 Be amazed by the lavender fields of Provence
If Provence could be characterised by one scent, it would be that of ‘lavande.’ Soaps, food products, and even skincare all incorporate the provençal flower. Endless seas of lavender fields can be found throughout the Provençal region and are best seen in mid-summer when the blooms are at their best and the sweet smell is at its strongest.
Indeed one of the most visited monuments in Provence is L’Abbey de Senanque, a stunning abbey made famous by its outlying lines of lavender. These rows must be visited at sun-up or during sundown for the best lighting in photos, and to ensure the fewest number of tourists around. In other parts of Provence, Sault is the capital of lavender, and the Luberon region also offers plenty of locations to enjoy the lavender fields.
#4 Hike the Calanques de Cassis
The salty sea breeze will whip your hair into knots, and the limestone coves will stretch out before your eyes should you choose to make the journey to the Massif des Calanques. Hiking the Calanques de Cassis was something of a dream come true for me, and it likely will be for you too if you enjoy adventure travel.
If you’ve never heard of the term ‘calanque’ before, then it’s probably because this stretch of coastline, characterised by inlets, coves, and secluded beaches, is a unique geographical feature, confined to this part of the world. Stretching between Cassis and Marseille, this area of outstanding natural beauty is now a designated world heritage site- and rightly so!
Read more: Hiking the Calanques de Cassis.
#5 Be amazed by the sunflower fields
Provence may well be most famous for its lovely lavender fields, but it’s also full of sunflowers come the summertime and these are certainly one of the best reasons to head to Provence! Visit Provence in mid-summer to enjoy the sunflowers at their very best. Think endless stretches of sunny yellow under a warm sun, all in the heart of one of France’s most beautiful regions, that of Provence.
#6 Visit the ancient port city of Marseille
Inhabited for millennia, the port town of Marseille is one of the largest cities in France (the second largest, after Paris, to be precise). As a result, Marseille has seen its fair share of history over the years. Highlights of the city include hiking up to the church which crowns the highest hill of the town, a chapel dedicated to Notre Dame de la Garde. Another is visiting the old port (an area used for imports for over two millennia), as well as wandering around Le Panier neighbourhood.
Read more: Postcards from Marseille.
#7 Visit the ancient town of Saint Paul de Vence
Often cited as the ‘prettiest village in Provence,‘ Saint Paul de Vence is one of the oldest medieval towns along the French Riviera and offers picture-perfect views onto many earthy vineyards, as well as breathtaking panoramas across the Provençal region.
Since the 10th-century, a community has built itself around the Saint-Michel-du-Puy church, and a medieval castle nearby. Both historic attractions are well worth a visit, as are the oodles of cobbled lanes worth walking along and the impressive architecture worth snapping photos of in the lower part of town.
#8 Enjoy the many quaint villages and towns of Provence
Elsewhere in the South of France, there are plenty of other towns and villages to explore. Many of which, unlike Saint Paul de Vence, haven’t been ‘discovered’ by tourists yet. As a result, these hidden Provençal gems are filled with authentic eateries, local history and none of the tourist traps you would expect to find in more popular places.
Read more: Most beautiful towns and villages in Provence.
#9 Visit the iconic bridge and Pope’s Palace in Avignon
The children’s French nursery rhyme of ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’ finds its roots in real historical events, notably the fact that the town’s once impressive bridge was often washed away whenever the River Rhône flooded during the middle ages. Today, what’s left of the bridge has since become a tourist attraction, and perhaps the most famous thing to see in this part of Provence.
Elsewhere in Avignon, the impressive Papal Palace dominates above the city and remains one of the most important medieval Gothic buildings of Europe. Known in French as the ‘Palais des Papes,’ construction of this world-famous palace began in the 13th century. Today, the former residence of popes is now a designated UNESCO world heritage site and can be visited for a small fee.
#10 Sample local food and drink!
One of the very best things to do in Provence is to enjoy its Mediterranean cuisine fused with French tradition. The result of this marriage of foods comes together to form a beautiful blend of sea-inspired cuisine. And, of course, some of the best rosé in the world originates in Provence!
Head to Provence and you can expect to find plenty of olive-based dishes and all the fish plates. For those who don’t eat meat, then there’s plenty of sweet treats on offer (don’t leave without sampling lavender flavoured ice cream!). When it comes to beverages, wine aside, pastis, an anise flavoured spirit, also originates in the region.
#11 See Roman ruins in Arles
Arles is an ancient city dating back to the Gallo-Roman period, and perhaps even before. A city on the fringes of the Rhône River, Arles has seen its fair share of changes over the years… And I’m not just talking about the geographical meandering of the river over the centuries!
Visit this southern French must-see, and inside the city limits you’ll find the well-preserved ruins of a Roman arena, plenty of museums, and the ruins of a Roman aqueduct. For those interested in more modern history, there’s the chance to follow in Van Gogh’s footsteps, as well as those of Gaugin.
#12 Soak up some history in La Ciotat
A pretty port town with little by way of your traditional tourist attractions, La Ciotat is a place to visit if you want to sample some local cuisine and experience a slower pace of life first-hand. Like many towns in the region, La Ciotat also offers an old town which is filled with narrow winding lanes, ancient churches, and plenty of authentic eateries. Fun fact: La Ciotat is also said to have been the birthplace of Petanque, a popular French pastime similar to our game of ‘Boules’.
Read more: A quick guide to La Ciotat.
#13 Hike Montagne Sainte Victoire
Imposing and mighty, as well as towering above the city of Aix-en-Provence, the mountain of Sainte-Victoire has inspired plenty of writers, artists, and other creatives over the years. Also known in the language of Provençal Occitan as ‘Santa Venturi,‘ this limestone mountain ridge is located in the very heart of Provence and stretches for 18km.
Although the mountain is mainly closed during the summer months (the risk of fire is very great during periods of intense heat), the rest of the year offers incredible hiking opportunities across the mountain slopes. To the base of Sainte Victoire, the rich mountainous soil offers plenty of grape growing opportunities to local vintners.
#14 Visit the prettiest village in Provence, Cassis
While many maintain that Saint Paul de Vence is the prettiest commune of Provence, others insist that it’s the village of Cassis (whose name also translates to the English word for ‘blackcurrant’). Either way; both French settlements are stunning in their own way and should be visited on any visit to the region.
Saint Paul de Vence is the perfect place to visit if you want to experience the countryside, whereas Cassis is the place to go if you’re looking for some sea-inspired living. Head to Cassis to see an ancient castle, wander around a two millennia old port, and find the perfect base from which to head out to hike the Calanques de Cassis.
Read more: A quick guide to Cassis.
#15 See the famous Senaque Abbey at Gordes
In the summer months, the Senaque Abbey of Gordes is simply awash wish tourists- a victim of its own popularity, and no doubt thanks to its apparent ‘instagrammability’. This means that if you want to visit the ecclesiastical building with fewer tourists around, then you should head there in the shoulder seasons (late spring/ early autumn).
#16 Walk around a vineyard (and taste some wine on the slopes!)
Lavender aside, the Provence region is best known for its rosé wine. And besides, there’s no denying that wine tastes its best when sipped in situ among the very vines where the grapes were grown. Head to Provence if you want to stroll around a vineyard for yourself, and try some of the best rosé wines in the world. If you’re not a fan of rosé, then the region also offers some lesser-known sweet white wines and spicy red wines.
Read more: A visit to a vineyard in Provence.
#17 Discover the Luberon of Peter Mayle
Of all the books about France, Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’ may well be the most famous of them all. The best selling book has since been transformed into a well-loved TV series and humorously documents Mayle’s first year of living in the Luberon. If you head to Provence, then you can track down locations from the book and experience culture and life in the Luberon for yourself!
#18 Enjoy world-famous beaches
A sparkling sea and plenty of great weather: together with sandy beaches and the promise of all-year-round tanning opportunities, Provence offers some of the most famous and iconic beaches in the world. Located along the Mediterranean sea, this region offers sandy stretches such as the ‘Grand Plage’ of La Ciotat, the ‘Pointe Rouge’ oasis of Marseille, and the stunning sand of Arles’ beach, which also happens to be the longest natural stretch of beach in the entire Mediterranean.
#19 Shop for some Provençal Pottery
If you allow yourself to make one purchase while in Provence, then make it some local provençal pottery. Wares have been thrown here for millennia, and the blue and white ceramics found here are as synonymous to the Provençal way of life as the lavender which grows in the region’s fields, and the seafaring ways of the Provence’s people.
#20 Follow in the footsteps of great artists
Picasso, Cezanne and Monet, among many others, were inspired by the streets of Provence, the azure blue coastline of the French Riviera, and the rich rosé wines that are grown on the slopes throughout the region. As such, it’s easy to follow in the footsteps of many of the great artists themselves, admiring where they painted their works and stepping back in time through their objets d’art.