Provence & the Côte d'Azur
Whether you're cruising the clifftop roads, sunbathing on the beaches or browsing the weekly markets, Provence and the Côte d'Azur are sexy, sun-drenched and seductive.
Two thousand years ago Provence was part of Roman Gaul, and the Romans left behind a fabulous legacy of monuments, structures and buildings – not to mention some of France's first vineyards. The area is littered with Roman remains, including an amphitheatre in Arles, a theatre in Orange, many bridges including a fine one near Bonniuex, and even whole towns near St-Rémy de Provence and Vaison-la-Romaine. Factor in a collection of prehistoric sites, medieval abbeys, elegant churches and art deco buildings, and Provence begins to feel like a living history book.
It wasn't just the scenery that drew artists like Rénoir, Chagall, Cézanne and Picasso here: it was the light, described by Matisse as 'soft and tender, despite its brilliance'. Whether you're gazing over a glittering seascape or watching a fiery sunset in the hills, a trip around this corner of France feels like stepping straight into an impressionist canvas. And with such a rich artistic legacy, it's no surprise that the region is home to a wealth of iconic art collections, not to mention studios where Van Gogh, Cézanne and Renoir worked.
Provence and the Côte d'Azur are made for explorers. One of the joys of travelling here is touring the back roads and soaking up the stunning variety of landscapes: fields of lavender, ancient olive groves, clifftop roads, maquis-cloaked hills and even snow-tipped mountains. It's home to France's deepest canyon, oldest road and some striking mountain passes, all a dream come true for drivers. And then there's the Mediterranean itself, a bright mirror of blue reflecting back craggy cliffs, white beaches and endless skies. Take your time – getting there is half the fun.
Flavours of Provence
Wherever you end up in Provence, you certainly won't go hungry. Food is a central part of French life, but in Provence it becomes an all-consuming passion. Dominated by the hallowed ingredients of Mediterranean cooking – olive oil, wine, tomatoes and garlic – the region's cuisine is guaranteed to be a highlight, whether that's savouring a simple bowl of soupe au pistou, trying candied fruits near Apt, tasting the season's first-press olive oil on a local farm, or indulging in a full-blown bowl of bouillabaisse in a bistro on Marseille's harbourside. Bon appetit.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Provence & the Côte d'Azur.
Orange's monumental, Unesco-protected Roman theatre is unquestionably one of France's most impressive Roman sights. It's one of only three intact Roman theatres left in the world (the others are in Syria and Turkey), and its sheer size is awe-inspiring: designed to seat 10,000 spectators, its stage wall reaches 37m high, 103m wide and 1.8m thick. Little wonder that Louis XIV called it 'the finest wall in my kingdom'.
Getting lost among the dark, narrow, winding alleyways of Nice’s old town is a highlight. The layout has barely changed since the 1700s, and it’s now packed with delis, restaurants, boutiques and bars, but the centrepiece remains cours Saleya : a massive market square that’s permanently thronging in summer. The food market is perfect for fresh produce and foodie souvenirs, while the flower market is worth visiting just for the colours and fragrances. A flea market is held on Monday.
The largest Gothic palace ever built, the Palais des Papes was erected by Pope Clement V, who abandoned Rome in 1309 in the wake of violent disorder after his election. Its immense scale illustrates the medieval might of the Roman Catholic church. Ringed by 3m-thick walls, its cavernous halls, chapels and antechambers are largely bare today – but tickets now include tablet 'Histopads' revealing virtual-reality representations of how the building would have looked in all its papal pomp.
The most famous stretch of seafront in Nice – if not France – is this vast paved promenade, which gets its name from the English expat patrons who paid for it in 1822. It runs for the whole 4km sweep of the Baie des Anges with a dedicated lane for cyclists and skaters; if you fancy joining them, you can rent skates, scooters and bikes from Roller Station.
Legend says Pastor Bénézet (a former shepherd) had three visions urging him to build a bridge across the Rhône. Completed in 1185, the 900m-long bridge linked Avignon with Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. It was rebuilt several times before all but four of its 22 spans were washed away in the 1600s, leaving the far side marooned in the middle of the Rhône. There are fine (and free) views from Rocher des Doms park, Pont Édouard Daladier and Île de la Barthelasse's chemin des Berges.
Aix established one of France's first public museums here, on the site of a former Hospitallers' priory, in 1838. Nearly 200 years of acquisitions (including bequests by the eponymous François Marius Granet, himself a painter of note) have resulted in a collection of more than 12,000 works, including pieces by Picasso, Léger, Matisse, Monet, Klee, Van Gogh and, crucially, nine pieces by local boy Cézanne. This fabulous art museum sits right near the top of France’s artistic must-sees.
It might lack the scale and ambition of some of Provence's better-known Roman monuments, but for a glimpse into everyday life in Gaul, this ancient town has no equal. A Roman colony founded around AD 27, the remains of this once-thriving town have been excavated – complete with baths, forum, columns, marketplace, temples and houses. Two monuments mark the entrance, 2km south of St-Rémy – a mausoleum (from around 30 BC) and France's oldest triumphal arch, built around AD 20.
The only building French architect Le Corbusier (1887–1965) ever built for himself is this rather simple – but very clever – beach hut on Cap Martin. The cabanon (small beach hut), which he completed in 1952, became his main holiday home until his death. The hut can be visited on excellent two-hour guided tours run by the Association Cap Moderne; tours depart on foot from Roquebrune-Cap-Martin train station and must be reserved in advance by email.
If you're searching for that classic postcard shot of the medieval abbey surrounded by a sea of purple lavender, look no further. This sublime Cistercian abbey provides one of the most iconic shots of the Luberon, and it's equally popular these days for selfies. The best displays are usually in July and August. You can wander around the grounds on your own from 9.45am to 11am, but at other times (and to visit the abbey’s cloistered interior) you must join a guided tour.