The backdrop of films and screenplays, timelessly captured by world-famous artists and the subject of myriad books, Provence is one of Europe’s most iconic destinations. With striking purple lavender, it’s a cacophony of colour to awaken even the sleepiest of souls. A year in Provence isn’t nearly long enough to see everything so how can one possibly master it in a week or two? With the help of Red Savannah’s expert team, we’ve selected some of the must-visit towns and villages, including a few hidden gems to explore when visiting Provence.
When to Visit Provence
The best time to visit Provence depends entirely on what you want to see and do. In late June the lavender fields are an explosion of colour and fragrance, in August the weather is warm and rainfall is low, springtime is perfect for exploring the hills without the searing summer heat, whilst autumn is alive with grape harvests and markets. Typically, the peak summer months are the busiest and it is advisable to plan well ahead to ensure availability at hotels, villas, restaurants, and attractions.
When to See Lavender in Provence
With so much kerb appeal, it’s not uncommon for visitors to Provence to base their trip between mid-June and mid-July, when the lavender fields are in bloom. By mid-July most fields will be in full bloom before harvesting takes place in August.
Staying in the heart of Provence and hiring a car is the ideal way to get around easily and to have the flexibility to hop between towns, often driving past fields awash with lavender. Working lavender farms often welcome visitors and sell hand-crafted products. It’s recommended, however, to book in advance. When exploring lavender fields ensure you are walking or biking on a public footpath and not private land.
Best Towns & Villages to Visit in Provence
Avignon is steeped in history and its beautiful architecture is a lasting reminder of its fascinating past. Although it’s a small city it can keep visitors easily entertained for a week without venturing much further. The Palais des Papes (The Pope’s Palace) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the main historical attraction. It attracts well over half a million visitors every year and also hosts art exhibitions and open-air theatres in the summer. Check listings and book ahead to secure tickets.
One of the best ways to explore the city is on the water. Located on the River Rhone, there are boat trips, as well as opportunities to canoe or paddle board through the heart of the city including past the famous Pont d’Avignon.
Slightly further afield, visit the Pont du Gard and swim in the river beneath the tallest and one of the best-preserved Roman aqueducts in the world.
Aix en Provence
Quiet and peaceful, Aix en Provence is the perfect place to enjoy life in the slow lane. Stop at one of the quaint pavement cafes and restaurants dotted along the tree lined Le Cours Mirabeau and watch the comings and goings of the street market which occupies the boulevard every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Spend afternoons exploring the tranquil parks and museums and follow in the footsteps of local artist Paul Cezanne at Terrain des Peintres, a park named in his honour.
For a small town Gordes really delivers - explore the cobbled ‘calades’, visit art galleries and museums, peek inside pretty churches and spend time absorbing the beauty of the surroundings. Ensure a stop at Moulin des Bouillons is on the agenda to learn how olive oil has been produced throughout the centuries and get out to explore on foot at Le Sentier des Ocres (translated as ‘The Ochre Path’). As its name suggests, this beautiful but short hike through the Luberon Regional Park, is a blaze of orange and yellow.
Nearby, the Notre Dame Abbey of Sénanque in Gordes is easily recognisable with its honey-coloured Cistercian abbey contrasted against a blaze of purple lavender. The abbey derives an income from lavender products crafted close by – the lavender honey will serve as a delicious reminder of your visit.
Made world famous by Van Gogh, Arles is a riverside town with a rich and vibrant history. Follow in the painter’s footsteps at many sites throughout and around the town including Montmajour Abbey, which the artist painted numerous times. The town can get busy when river boats dock, and Wednesdays and Saturdays are when the town is at its most busy with the buzz of the street market.
The Arles Amphitheatre is the main attraction and is in impressively good shape considering it was constructed was in 90 AD. It now plays host to several concerts and events throughout the year.
For a more modern view of Arles, plan a trip to Luma Arles. This contemporary ‘creative campus’ houses numerous exhibitions and projects aimed at raising awareness of issues related to the environment, culture & human rights. A tower and exhibition ticket will gain visitors access to the Frank Gehry’s designed tower, with a birds-eye view of Arles from the viewing terrace.
L'Isle sur la Sorgue
L’Isle sur la Sorgue is a mecca for antique collectors, with hundreds of stalls selling myriad treasures. The antiques market is held every Sunday, whilst the International Antiques Fair, held here every Easter and August, attracts collectors from around the globe.
As well as antique shops, there are plenty of galleries and exhibitions to visit in L’Isle sur la Sorgue and the canal which runs through the town brings a lovely sense of calm, even on the most hectic days. Market day is the perfect chance to stock up on delicious fresh produce and in August sellers take to the canals for a floating market.
Bonnieux is one of the prettiest places in Provence with lots to see in the town and the surrounding area. A small market is held each Friday which extends from the main square down to the church. Leave the car at home and hire a bike, ensuring access to even the narrowest of streets. Electric bikes are also available and are ideal for the hilly terrain!
Book well ahead to secure a guided tour and wine tasting spot at Chateau La Carnorgue; showcased in the film ‘A Good Year’, the chateau is easily recognisable. Follow your nose to the Musee de la Boulangerie to stock up on the some of the best artisan bread and pastries you’re likely to ever taste and work off the calories in the Foret des Cedres, an expansive cedar forest in the outskirts of Bonnieux. Routes here range from a simple meander beneath the gorgeously scented trees to more challenging hikes and trails, all clearly signposted.
The perfect way to end the day is dinner at La Bastide de Capelongue. The terrace offers panoramic views over Bonnieux and the restaurant serves fine Provencal cuisine. Le Rooftop De Bonnieux is also a great option for sunset cocktails if the weather permits.
Just a short drive from Bonnieux, it’s well worth stopping at Goult for lunch at Café de la Poste. Nowhere is the quaint charm that Provence is famed for more prevalent than in this pretty town; its sand-coloured stone buildings with cornflower blue shutters provide the perfect photographic backdrop. Take a walk to the Goult windmill at the top of the town, where there are places to rest and enjoy the view. Don’t miss the excellent local patisserie to complete a typically French afternoon.
Be Sure to Seek out your own Hidden Gems
The way to experience Provence is to simply get out and explore - meet the locals, eat and drink at lesser-known establishments and stumble upon your own fascinating places of interest. Guidebooks are perfect for leading you in the right direction but there’s nothing quite like finding something seemingly undiscovered to make you feel like you’re really getting under the skin of a destination.
To plan your luxury holiday to Provence, speak to our France travel specialists on +44 (0) 1242 787 800.