Provence is possibly one of France’s most diverse and breathtaking regions with the glamorous French Riviera along the south coast, the dramatic Alps to the east, miles upon miles of national park in the center, and historic traditional towns and villages to the west.
It would be so easy to dream the days away sleeping under the tranquil Provençal sun, eating fresh seafood in old fishing villages, and wandering aimlessly through hazy lavender fields, and in this article we recommend you do all of those things, but there’s so much to explore here that you won’t be able to stay still too long.
Instead we recommend hiring a car and driving along stunning scenic roads to reach every corner of this unmissable region. From the tall Calanques to the deep Gorge du Verdon, and the ruins of the tiny Château des Baux to the grand Pope’s Palace, read on to find out what else there is to discover in Provence.
Drive along the Route Napoléon
Named after one of France’s most famous historical figures, Route Napoléon maps the journey Napoléon took from Cannes on the French Riviera 325km north to Grenoble, to reclaim his power after being banished from France in 1815. Each stop along the way, including Grasse, Castellane, Sisteron, and Gap, holds a piece of his history.
However, the mountainous route’s fascinating history is superseded by its unfathomable beauty. From the glitzy southern coastline, it winds through the gorge of Verdon National Park, up mountains, past picturesque villages, and alongside vivid blue lakes, until you reach Grenoble, an alpine city surrounded by white-tipped mountain peaks.
Take pretty holiday snaps in the lavender fields
While in some cases postcards seem to exaggerate the beauty of a place, painting it in its best light, in Provence’s case, the image of a hazy lavender hills embellished with crooked stone cottages really is a true reflection of the regions’ unique landscape.
There are many walking and cycling trails, especially around Sault, Valensole, Lagarde d’Apt, and Bonnieux, which take you through the fragrant fields, and they offer some of the world’s best lavender scented goodies, like soaps and candles.
Just don’t forget to take a camera on your adventure because a trip to Provence without a picture in the lavender field is no trip to Provence at all!
Make perfume in a traditional perfumery
Provence may be known for its abundance of lavender, but the region is in fact the ideal climate for many fragrant things to grow, like roses, tubero, and jasmine.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Provence is where perfume was first commercially produced, and today, the regions’ town of Grasse has risen to prominence as the world’s perfume capital. You can learn about Grasse’s perfumed history in the International Museum of Perfume, and learn how to make it in one of the town’s parfumeries.
In Parfumerie Fragonard, not only do you attend a perfume-making workshop, but you get to take home your very own scent.
Admire Nice’s art and architecture
From the orange-tiled roofs of Nice’s Vieille Ville to the stylish art deco details of the Promenade des Anglais, and the decadence of its Belle Epoque mansions, this city’s architecture is guaranteed to make you look up instead of ahead.
A few of Nice’s mansions have been transformed into museums which hold the collections of some of its most favorite (and famous) resident artists including Matisse and Chagall.
With its historically established place in the elite art world, Nice also has a number of other galleries and museums across the city, including the MAMAC, which displays pieces by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Yves Klein.
Indulge in traditional Provençal cuisine
Thanks to its never-ending Mediterranean coastline, Provençal cuisine is perhaps one of the most fragrant and flavorful in France.
Simple fresh ingredients like olives, tomatoes, garlic, and anchovies go a long way in this region, making up many of the locals’ favorites like alioli and tapenade (a dip consisting of black olives, garlic, anchovies and capers), whilst some of the best-known dishes to hail from here include ratatouille and bouillabaisse.
Of course, Provence stretches far from the sun-drenched coast and into the chill of the Alps, meaning a number of rich, hearty dishes like daube, a slow braised beef in a red wine sauce, are a welcomed contrast here too.
Eat seafood in the old fishing town, Cassis
From east to west, Provence’s Azure Coast is bursting with traditional fishing boats that set sail soon after sunrise to find their next big catch, and return just in time for restaurants and markets to sell their fresh and flavorful fish for lunch.
Cassis is one of the best fishing towns to visit along the French Riviera because while most are frilly and flashy, this town offers a more modest beauty with a color-splashed harbor and traditional charm.
But while Cassis may look unassuming, its restaurants actually offer some of the coasts’ finest seafood dishes, including seafood stew and sea urchins, along with excellent views of the bay.
Hike along the Calanques
Heading west from Cassis towards Marseille, you’ll be met by one of the most spectacular coastlines in the Mediterranean — the Massif des Calanques, a 20km stretch of limestone fjord land reaching over 500 meters above sea level at the tallest point.
The clear waters resting at the bottom of these fjord-like inlets is so fresh that it illuminates like an aquamarine as the sun beams off its small angular waves.
The Calanques is only accessible by foot or boat, and while taking a charming sailboat to this hidden treasure is the most relaxing way to see it, hiking along its peaks and witnessing its astonishing beauty from clifftops is the most rewarding.
Town-hop along the stylish Côte d’Azur
Quaint fishing towns turned glamorous vacation spots for the rich and famous, Provence’s Côte d’Azur sparkles with style and class.
After the Cannes Film Festival began in 1943, the Azure Coast became more and more popular, and now from Monaco to Montpellier, it is lined with villages, towns, and cities that offer world-class shopping, dining, and hotels, along with the promise of sunshine and sensational cerulean seascapes.
Although Cannes has the biggest claim to fame, Saint Tropez and Antibes are equally bustling with big-name crowds. Meanwhile, places like Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat and Villefranche-sur-Mer offer a quieter elegance, as well as some of the coasts’ best Belle Epoque mansions.
Tour the historic Pope’s Palace in Avignon
Sat along the rambling Rhone River, Avignon is a tranquil medieval city with many architectural highlights including Île de la Barthelasse and Pont Saint-Bénézet, as well as charming shopping streets and quietly bustling squares.
However, the Pope’s Palace is a site that you cannot miss — literally. It is one of the largest and most spectacular examples of medieval Gothic architecture in Europe, and even today this 14th century fortress dominates the city center, which looks like a model town in comparison.
You can tour parts of the palace and visit the art exhibitions it holds, or simply admire the old seat of Christianity from one of the city’s many vantage points.
Soak up the mountain views in Mercantour National Park
While most of Provence’s landscape is characterized by softly meandering hills coated with colorful flora, once you reach the foot of the Alps towards the eastern edge of the region, the hills dramatically transform into the jigsaw of tall mountains and deep valleys which encompass Mercantour National Park.
With cold and dry winds coming in from the north and warm and salty winds coming in from the Mediterranean Sea in the south, the park offers some of the most diverse and extraordinary nature in France.
Turquoise lakes, verdant green mountain sides sprinkled with pink wildflowers, and white snowy peaks all come together to create magical fairytale views.
Walk amongst the ruins of Château des Baux
Set atop a rocky outcrop high in the Alpilles mountains view some of Provence’s best views, Les Baux-de-Provence is listed as one of France’s most beautiful villages, and its 20-odd residents are all very proud of it.
The village may be small, but it has a big draw — the impressive ruins of a 10th century fortification that overlooks it named Château des Baux.
The castle complex was built into the rock, and as it crumbled, its walls have become almost indistinguishable from their foundations, yet you can still find striking remains of its dramatic military and religious 500-year-long history as the house of Les Baux’ lords.
Explore the ochre village, Roussillon
Avignon is surrounded by a handful of quaint, typically French must-see villages including, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and Sorgues, but there’s one in particular that stands out from the crowd.
Roussillon is not your typical French hilltop village; it’s built upon one of the world’s largest ochre deposits, giving everything a striking blood-orange tinge.
The houses have been finished with the same earthy-red, brown and orange tones that the village was built upon, contrasting beautifully with the surrounding lush greenery of Luberon Natural Regional Park and the ever-blue skies. This artistic color palette has drawn in creatives for years, and now it’s filled with cute boutiques, galleries and restaurants.
Meander around the streets of Gordes
Gordes is a must-see hilltop village surrounding Avignon, with old stone houses stacked almost on top of one another, and crowned by the 10th century Château de Gordes.
The château sits proudly on the village square where you’ll find charming local restaurants and shops, and a weekly Tuesday market selling everything from local art and other handmade goods, to traditional French food including smoked meats, cheeses and breads.
From the square, you can wander around the narrow and notoriously steep streets of the village, where you’ll undoubtedly happen upon cute old houses decorated with flowers, local food stores, and outstanding views of Luberon and beyond.
Bask in the beauty of Gorges du Verdon
Gorges du Verdon, in Provence’s Verdon National Park, is possibly one of the country’s best natural treasures. The rocky walls of this narrow gorge give way to a striking bright turquoise river (thanks to the rocks’ unique minerals) that winds quietly around the park.
The best views and photo opportunities of the gorge are from the Pont du Galetas bridge, but there’s no better way to enjoy it than by renting a paddle boat, kayak, or motorboat within the park.
If you hire a boat, not only can you swim in the turquoise river, you can take advantage of the sand banks along it and spend some time soaking up the sun and the extraordinary beauty of this hidden world.
Follow in Van Gogh’s footsteps in Arles
Half way between the Côte d’Azur and Avignon along the Rhone River, Arles basks in an exceptional sense of history and beauty.
Arles is so beautiful, in fact, that it inspired one of the world’s most acclaimed painters, Vincent Van Gogh, who painted some of his best work here including The Night Café, Café Terrace at Night, and Van Gogh’s Chair, before he proceeded to amputate his own ear.
You can take walking tours that follow his footsteps through the city, and show you the exact scenes he painted. However, Arles’ history stems much further back than Van Gogh’s time, as it was also the provincial capital of ancient Rome over 2000 years ago, and the Roman amphitheater and bathhouse still remain today.
About the Author: Emily Draper
Originally from the UK, Emily Draper has lived in Chile, with an Amazonian tribe in Peru, in a Wisconsin trailer park, and on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering herself, and the rest of us, as global citizens, Emily’s mission as a writer and journalist is to expand global consciousness of the fundamental importance of travel, culture, and diversity.