No trip to Provence would be complete without a visit to Avignon, often called the gateway to Provence. In fact, you will likely need to take a train from Paris to Avignon to get there before moving on to any other nearby city. You could also fly into Marseilles (via Paris or London) and catch a train to Avignon.
Avignon is certainly worth a visit on its own merit. People have called Avignon home since the 6th century B. C., the earliest evidence of the name. Today, the town encompasses the medieval all the way up to the present, and the historic charm flows through every cobbled street. The most notable historic fact is the presence of the French Papacy for nearly 70 years. The pope didn’t move from Italy to France . . . There were two of them! You can see the enormous Pope’s Palace (below) when you visit.
The first thing you’ll notice about Avignon is the medieval walls surrounding the city. Once inside, a labyrinth of narrow streets crisscrosses the town, leading to courtyards with fountains, canals, and wide squares filled with café tables and lined with shops. Poplar trees dapple the sidewalks with filtered sunlight.
The 7 best things to do in Avignon
My favorite thing to do when in Avignon is wander the streets and take everything in. Don’t try to drive inside the city walls, since some streets are so narrow you can barely get through! Instead, plan to cover every fascinating corner on foot. You can even take a tour to acquaint yourself with the city. In the town center, you’ll see the Place de l’Horloge (clock), the Hotel de Ville (city hall), and the opera house.
The Palace of the Popes
is the main attraction dominating the city. This huge palace was the headquarters of the French pope during the Great Schism of the 14th century which set up a new pope in France. You can admire the impressive structure from the outside but also visit the inside, too. Though it’s mostly empty now, a “histopad” is provided with admission and you can see how it was back then. Take photos of the town from the higher towers of the palace. Surrounding the palace, find yourself in the Place du Palais, where you can have a drink or lunch at the foot of the Palace.
If you look out into the Rhone River, you’ll see a strange structure: a bridge that seems to just end in the middle. This is the Pont d’Avignon, officially known as the Pont Benezet, made famous by the French song. You can visit the bridge with an audioguide (though I think it’s better to take some photos from a distance.) At one time it was a complete bridge with 22 arches but was destroyed by weather and climate changes. Only 4 arches remain. It hasn’t been used as a bridge since the 17th century.
This is a Provence icon you shouldn’t miss. This covered market includes specialties from the region and is open Tuesday through Sunday. You can sample, have lunch, and take home some souvenirs (edible or not). It’s called Les Halles, so keep your eye (and stomach) open for that for a memorable picnic.
Annual Festival in July
In July, the streets come alive even more than usual with performances of music, dance, and theatre. People from all over Europe come here for this week, so expect a crowd, but lots of entertainment as well. For more info on the festival: https://festival-avignon.com/
Rue des Teinturies
This tucked-away little street is easy to miss. The word “teinturier” refers to a professional fabric dyer. This area used to be a center of textiles. You can still find waterwheels on the street, used in the textile industry. (More waterwheels in the gorgeous town of Ile-sur-la-Sorgue, which you can read about in the Luberon post.)
Rocher des Doms Gardens
Drink in the shady greenery, hear the lapping waters from the pond, enjoy the pure beauty of this higher-elevation garden. A great place for a picnic, a nap, or just a change of pace. Take the steps from the Cathedral Notre Dame des Doms (whose bell tower is topped by a golden Virgin Mary) or on the banks of the Rhone.
Visits Close to Avignon
Without straying too far from the city, you can experience other places. First, take a free ferry (navette fluviale) to the island of Barthelasse, to the west of the city. You can go for lunch or a picnic. Keep going west to visit the town of Villeneuve-les-Avignons, 20 minutes from Avignon, which offers different flavor, but one you’ll appreciate. (See more on this town plus 4 other road trips in my free eBook: Hit the Road in France.) See Tour Philippe le Bel will give you great views. Fort St. Andre is a medieval fortress you can tour. Otherwise, more quaint, winding roads await you.
You can spend a few days in Avignon before (or after) making a circuit around Provence, specifically the charming villages in the Luberon mountain range. Check out this road trip post for more details and a made-for-you driving itinerary.
By now you can probably see that Avignon should be on the must-see list! There’s much to see in and around this sun-soaked Provence city!