Things to Do in Provence
As Europe's only protected park to contain land, water, and semi-urban areas, Calanques National Park (Parc National des Calanques) is a mecca for outdoor adventurers. Whether you want to snorkel and sail, kayak and climb, or hike and watch out for wildlife, France's answer to the Garden of Eden has it all.
At the center of picturesque Aix-en-Provence is Cours Mirabeau, a plane tree–shaded avenue lined with chic stores, patisseries, and restaurants. Marked along its length by fountains, this street is the most popular place in town for a pre- or postlunch stroll and a must-visit stop on guided tours of the town.
Reaching a height of almost 160 feet (49 meters), the three-tiered Pont du Gard bridge was part of a 31-mile (50-kilometer) Roman aqueduct network that carried water from a source at Eure to bathhouses, fountains, and patrician villas in Nîmes. Constructed in the first century, the ancient engineering marvel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Perched on a hilltop looking down over the Cote d’Azur and just minutes from the border of Monaco, La Turbie makes a worthwhile detour for those en-route to Monte Carlo. With its narrow paved streets and stone-brick archways, the small village offers an authentic slice of old Provence, and its baroque church and medieval buildings make for a pleasant walking tour.
The undisputed star attraction of La Turbie is the striking Tropaeum Alpium or ‘Trophy of the Alps’, a grand 35-meter-tall monument that looms over the town and was built by the Romans in 7 BC. North of the Tropaeum, walking trails run up into the surrounding hills and offer impressive lookouts over the Mediterranean coast below, with views spanning Cap Ferrat, Antibes and as far as Vintimille bay in Italy.
Made famous by Peter Mayle’s bookA Year in Provence, the Provençal village of Gordes boasts an idyllic setting atop the Vaucluse plateau. With its maze of cobbled lanes, honey-colored stone buildings, and medieval chateau, it’s easy to see why Gordes is hailed as one of France’s most beautiful villages.
While Provence is more a state of mind than a place – you can't actually point to Provence on a map – the hilltop village of Roussillon is exactly what visitors think of when they say they want to visit Provence. Picturesque, compact, colorful and with astounding views of the countryside, this village in the Vaucluse couldn't be more charmingly Provençal if it tried.
The almost candy-like colors of the buildings come from the surrounding earth; Roussillon lies on one of the largest ocre deposits in the world and has prehistoric origins. After a stroll around the village, take the Giants' Causeway (Sentier des Ocres), a cliffside trail loop that features the bright orange sands and plenty of forest to explore.
Marseille is France’s largest and busiest port, welcoming over 1.5 million cruise passengers to its shores each year. As the gateway to Provence and the south of France, Marseille is a popular stop on Europe cruise itineraries, and offers ferry connections to Corsica, Sardinia, Algeria, and Tunisia.
Perched atop the city’s highest hill, the magnificent Notre-Dame de la Garde, which is visible from all over the Marseille, is one of the city’s most striking landmarks. The Romano-Byzantine basilica dates back to the 19th century and is best known for its grand bell tower, which is capped with a gleaming gold statue of the Virgin Mary.
Located near the medieval village of Les Baux de Provence, the Quarries of Lights (Carrières de Lumières) is a multimedia art show projected onto massive limestone walls of a former quarry. Accompanied by music, this 40-minute light show mainly features works by famous artists.
Set between the dramatic landscapes of the Verdon Gorge and the Valensole plateau, the man-madeLake of Sainte-Croix (Lac de Sainte-Croix) is among Provence’s most popular vacation spots. With sandy lakeside beaches, water temperatures rivaling those of the Mediterranean Sea, and fewer crowds than the French Riviera, it’s the ideal summer destination.
More Things to Do in Provence
The Îles du Frioul is a collection of four small islands just off the coast of Marseille. In their long history, the islands have been used as the site of a fortress and prison, and a quarantine zone for people suspected of carrying the plague cholera. Nowadays visitors come to hike the islands and visit the famous Chateau d’If.
With its charming jumble of fishing boats and fishermen’s cabins clustered around the small harbor, and framed by the arches of a stone-brick bridge; visiting Vallon des Auffes feels like stepping back in time. Located along the Marseille Corniche, the historic port village is a world away from the bustling city and makes a tranquil detour for those traveling along the coastal road.
Despite its diminutive size, Vallon des Auffes punches well above its weight when it comes to gastronomy and its handful of waterfront restaurants are well known for serving delicious fresh fish and seafood. Top restaurants include Chez Fonfon, L’Epuisette and Chez Jeannot, while the most celebrated dish is Provencal specialty bouillabaisse.
The Palais du Pharo in Marseille was built for Napoleon III and was once home to the city’s medical school. The palace is now used for municipal events and conferences and is famous for great views over the Mediterranean Sea from the palace gardens.
Dominating the landscape around Aix-en-Provence, Sainte-Victoire Mountain (Montagne Sainte-Victoire) is a limestone ridge immortalized by Aix-en-Provence painter Paul Cézanne. Whether you bike or hike to the top or just admire the silhouette from afar, its angular profile can be seen for miles around.
The calanques are narrow and steep inlets along the limestone coast of southern France, the most impressive ones being located along the little stretch of coastline between Marseilles and Cassis. They are romantic, wild and, being surrounded by huge cliffs, often protrude fjord-like into the landscape. While many calanques require hours of hiking or kayaking to reach, the Calanque de Sormiou is more easily accessible and still provides a true visual spectacle for visitors.
After a 15 minute drive or 45 minute walk from the main road down the hills, a sandy beach awaits next to the bright blue Mediterranean water. A couple weekend homes dot the landscape and then there is Le Château, the modest but immensely popular bouillabaisse restaurant that requires a phone reservation well ahead of time to snag a seat.
As sparse as the landscape might appear, Sormiou actually serves as a habitat for a rich flora and fauna. Over 900 plants grow here and birdwatchers will find many rare birds nesting in the steep cliffs. Swimming and sunbathing is popular, but the area is also crossed by numerous hiking trails, some more demanding than others, and the little bay is also a popular destination for visitors arriving by boat.
Located in southwest Provence, the Camargue is one of France’s wildest and most scenic landscapes. Protected as a regional natural park, the expanse of wetlands, beaches, salt pans, and rice paddies is known for its herds of white Camargue horses and Camargue bulls, all tended to by localgardians (cowboys).
The largest Gothic palace in the world, Avignon’s Palace of the Popes (Palais des Papes) was home to the heads of the Roman Catholic Church in the 14th century. Visitors can tour the grand rooms, landscaped gardens, and secret passages used by members of the clergy, and see special exhibitions and concerts held at the palace.
The 12th-century Senanque Abbey (Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque) which to this day is the home and worshiping place of Cistercian monks, has no great history. There are no iconic frescoes or statues to see, and while pretty, it isn't especially notable architecturally. So why is it on every visitor's must-see list when visiting Provence?
One word: lavender. The monks here grow, harvest and process lavender from the surrounding fields, which means that come June visitors have a front-row seat to one of the most gorgeous photo ops of all time. Whether passing by in a car or stopping to smell the flowers, the Sénanque Abbey, near Gordes, is a summertime treat.
Located in the heart of Provence, France’s mountainous Lubéron region is famous for its vibrant purple lavender fields, forested valleys, and ancient hilltop villages such as Saignon, Bonnieux, and Gordes. Walking trails wind through the largely uninhabited region, past hills, woodlands, and fields dusted with wildflowers.
Set in the Luberon region of Provence, Fountain of Vaucluse (Fontaine-de-Vaucluse) is a small village famous for its hidden spring. The “fountain” feeds the Sorgue River and is a bit of a mystery, as the source of this underground spring is unknown. The Sorgue River is so crystal clear it appears emerald and is the area’s main attraction.
With its white-stone buildings, Renaissance architecture, and traditional French market, Uzès is a picturesque pocket of Languedoc that’s all-too-often overlooked by visitors. The city’s Roman roots link it to the region’s most memorable monument, the UNESCO-listed Pont du Gard aqueduct, which delivered water from Uzès to Nîmes in ancient times.
The colonnaded Palais de Longchamp, constructed in the 1860s, was designed in part to disguise a château d'eau (water tower) at the terminus of an aqueduct from the River Durance. The building of this water storage and the associated canals and aqueducts was a major turning point in the history of Marseille as it allowed the city to expand, building new districts. One of these was the Boulevard Longchamp, laid out by the city then developed by private business people who profited from providing a grand boulevard of similarly styled, gracious houses.
In the Palais itself, the two wings house Marseille's oldest museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, and the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle, which have extensive displays of the arts and the sciences respectively. Its lovely gardens' lakes, fountains, waterfalls, playground, and carousel are good spots for kids.
Winding along the Mediterranean coast along the South of France, La Corniche is a waterfront roadway that stretches five kilometers through Marseille. As both a walkway and a road for cars, it offers wonderful views of the sea and coastline. It was a particularly popular promenade for residents of Marseille in the 1920s. From there you can also see the Iles du Frioul, elegant villas of the late 19th century, and the Prado beaches. The Chateau d’If (of the Count of Monte Cristo fame) is also visible.
Along the way sits the Maregraph Building, which took measurements over thirteen years to determine France’s sea level elevation. The bench of La Corniche runs three kilometers between the Pont de la Fausse-Monnaie and Hotel Sofitel Palm Beach, making it the longest bench in the world. Part of the roadway is named after President Kennedy, who was assassinated during its construction.
The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (Le Mucem)—or Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée, in French—is a national museum in Marseille, France. It was inaugurated in 2013, the same year Marseille was designated as the ‘European Capital of Culture,’ and is dedicated to showcasing the multifaceted history of the Mediterranean and its different landscapes, cities, and shores.
The museum is built on reclaimed land at the entrance to Marseille’s harbour. Its exhibits are devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations in the Mediterranean basin, taking an interdisciplinary approach to presenting the different societies who have called this area home throughout the ages and in modern times. It is the first museum in the world to focus entirely on the cultures of the Mediterranean, and it includes all the social sciences: anthropology, political science, sociology, history, archaeology, and art history. In addition to the Mucem’s permanent collections, there are also rotating temporary exhibitions and seminars, feature films and documentaries, and performances focusing on the Mediterranean’s current affairs.
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