The Ultimate Guide to Traveling in Western Provence

A castle on top of a grass covered field

Provence is one of the most popular regions of France, and for good reason—think fields of golden sunflowers and lazy afternoons sipping rosé. Visitors flock to two main areas, the glamorous Côte d’Azur in the east, and the lavender-scented western part made famous by A Year in Provence. (Check out our guide to day-tripping around the Côte d’Azur, here!)

These are so far apart that it’s hard to cover both in a week, so let’s look at the west, home to famous towns like Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. Here is an itinerary with a mix of historical sites, charming hilltop villages, and some of the best restaurants in Provence.

The stops are in no particular order, so mix and match as you please. You’ll need a car or other private transport to get around, as using buses and trains is impractical for getting around smaller towns and villages. One great way to get to Provence is by taking the TGV high speed train to Avignon, where you can pick up a rental car.

One piece of advice: try not to overbook yourself, because Provence rewards slow travel. Leave time for serendipitous adventures!

Day 1: Avignon

Avignon was home to the Popes in the 14th century, and the city is dominated by the former papal palace. Take your time visiting this beautiful Palais des Papes, then head to the café-lined Place de l’Horloge for lunch. If you would prefer to picnic, buy some gourmet goodies at the Les Halles covered market—you can walk to nearby Barthelasse Island for an amazing view of the city. After lunch, explore the crooked streets of the centre ville and admire its massive ramparts. Walk along the Saint-Bénézet bridge, known as the “Pont d’Avignon” in the famous children’s song. Finish back at the Place de l’Horloge for a drink.

Day 2: Carrières de Lumières and Les Baux-de-Provence

Start your day off with a bang at the Carrières de Lumières, the immersive sound-and-light show inside a mountain. Then walk five minutes to the hilltop village of Les Baux-de-Provence, one of the Most Beautiful Villages in All of France. Stroll its streets as you make your way up to the château and its fabulous views, and enjoy demonstrations of medieval weapons (which are very popular with kids if you’re traveling as a family). Have lunch at Le Clos Saint-Roch, a restaurant in nearby Maussane-les-Alpilles. In the afternoon, sample some of the world’s best olive oil at Moulin Castelas, or local wines at Mas Sainte-Berthe.

Day 3: St-Rémy-de-Provence

Try to go on Wednesday morning, when St-Rémy hosts one of the best weekly markets in Provence. Start your day with a coffee and croissant at the friendly Bar-Tabac des Alpilles, then enjoy the sights, smells, and tastes of the market. If you’d like to stretch your legs, take the van Gogh walk to see where Vincent painted some of his masterpieces, ending at the former asylum of Saint-Paul de Mausole, where you can see his old living quarters. Have lunch at the Chapeau de Paille restaurant for an authentic Provençal meal (the aioli is a must!). Taste the goodies at Joël Durand Chocolatier, one of the best chocolate shops in France, then head to Château Romanin just outside of town for a wine tasting, with a stop at the next-door aerodrome to watch the gliders take off.

Day 4: The Luberon Valley

This is one of the most picturesque parts of Provence, the subject of a million snapshots. Start your day by heading to Gordes and enjoying the view at the photo spot on the way in. It’s selfie heaven, and so popular that the city built a special parking lot just for Instagrammers. From here, head to nearby Sénanque Abbey—a serene little church behind a field of fragrant lavender, nestled in a little valley. Now drive 20 minutes to Roussillon and enjoy lunch at Restaurant David, looking out over the vividly colorful landscape. After lunch, follow the Sentier des Ocres (Ocher Walk) through the brilliant quarries with their orange, yellow, and purple ocher—it’s like walking through a rainbow! Top your day off at Café de France in Lacoste, 15 minutes away, enjoying a magnificent view of the Luberon Valley with a glass of rosé in hand.

Day 5: Roman Provence

France’s greatest Roman sites are in the south of France, and if you only have one day to see them, you have two great choices: Arles and Nîmes. These were both important cities in the Roman Empire, and their attractions are similar.

Arles

Start with the Roman arena, now sparkling clean after a recent scrubbing. Then walk to the Roman theater, which was buried for centuries and only rediscovered in the 19th century. Have lunch at a café on the Place du Forum—one café still looks like it did when van Gogh painted it! (Though the van Gogh cafe is a famous tourist trap and is better for photos than for lunch.) Explore the Alyscamps Roman burial ground, then head to the Museum of Ancient Arles to see its Roman artifacts, including an ancient barge over 100 feet long. For something more modern, don’t miss Arles’ incredible contemporary art museum. The city also makes a local thyme liqueur that is delicious, and nearly impossible to find elsewhere.

Nîmes

Once called “the most Roman city outside of Italy,” Nîmes is not technically in modern Provence, but historically it was, so we’ll include it here. Start by visiting Nîmes’ enormous Roman arena, then admire the nearby Maison Carrée, considered the world’s most perfect Roman temple. Explore the Roman history museum across the street, full of interactive displays, including one that lets you “dress like a Roman.” Enjoy lunch at the museum’s La Table du 2 brasserie, then take a short walk to see the looming Tour Magne, part of the city’s ancient fortifications. Finally, drive a half hour north to the magnificent Pont du Gard aqueduct, as tall as the Statue of Liberty!

Day 6: Aix-en-Provence

Start your day with a coffee among the blossoms at Aix’s daily flower market, then wander the streets of the city’s old town. If you’d like to enjoy some art, the Hôtel de Caumont art center and the Musée Granet are excellent choices. Have lunch at La Fromagerie du Passage, a combination cheese shop and restaurant, and be sure to buy some tasty fromage on your way out. Visit Cézanne’s old art studio, kept much as he left it, then have a coffee on the Cours Mirabeau and enjoy one of France’s best people-watching spots. If you love those little santon figurines, don’t miss Provence’s top shop, Santons Fuques.

Day 7: l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is the place to be on Sunday mornings, when it hosts the largest weekly market in Provence. The town is also one of France’s largest antique marketplaces, with dozens of antique shops. Start your day with a coffee at Café de France on the central square, then shop to your heart’s delight. The beautiful Sorgue River runs through town, lined with bustling restaurants, so when hunger strikes, find one that strikes your fancy. After lunch, head to nearby Fontaine-de-Vaucluse to see where the Sorgue River is born—it bursts forth from one of the world’s largest springs.

Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Provence and California. He is the author of the best-selling An Insider’s Guide to Provence and the best-sellers One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Read more at Life in Provence

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