The Essential Guide to Provence

Provence may be known for its sleepy villages, Roman ruins, and endless fields of lavender, but it’s also home to Europe’s Grand Canyon, a famed antique market, and a moving Holocaust memorial. Come for the impressive restaurants and delightful hotels, stay for the truffle hunts, cooking classes, and small-but-mighty museums.

Highlights
6 Rue Rose Goudard, 84800 L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, France
Housed in a 17th-century town house at the heart of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, this boutique hotel offers superior service, luxurious rooms, a secret garden with a swimming pool, and an art gallery, where pieces by local artists and designers hang alongside souvenirs from the owners’ extensive travels. Past the hotel’s monumental entrance with its 300-year-old locks, a staircase lined with 17th-century stained glass leads to four spacious rooms, each uniquely decorated with fine furniture, carefully selected fabrics, and objects from around the world. Guests can also look forward to a cozy lounge with a fireplace, and a bright kitchen, where cool-as-can-be owners Frédéric and Marie-Claude serve a mind-blowing breakfast spread each morning.
Rue de la Combe, 84220 Gordes, France
For one of the best restaurant views you’ll ever enjoy, head to L’Orangerie at the five-star hotel Bastide de Gordes. Here, you can dine on the garden terrace or open-air veranda with breathtaking vistas over the Luberon Valley. The menu features traditional Provençale dishes, providing flavors—and prices—to match the elegant setting. Start with a salad of chilled watermelon, feta, mixed greens, and fresh mint, followed by roasted cod with squid ink spaghetti. The Grand Marnier soufflé with bourbon-vanilla ice cream will set you back around $20, but there are few places you can savor dessert in such extraordinary surrounds.
84110 Vaison-la-Romaine, France
At Cuisine de Provence, Barbara Schuerenberg offers memorable, hands-on cooking classes in her home kitchen overlooking Vaison-la-Romaine and Mont Ventoux. Students learn to prepare five or six typical Provençale dishes using fresh, seasonal produce from Vaison’s famous market, then enjoy the fruits of their labor during a lunch paired with regional wines. Held in English and open to all abilities, the 4.5-hour classes also include a complimentary apron and illustrated recipes, so you can re-create the flavors of Provence for your friends and family back home.
84110 Vaison-la-Romaine, France
Just 33 miles northeast of Avignon, the town of Vaison-la-Romaine is home to some of France’s most significant archaeological finds. The Ouvèze River flows through the village, creating two separate banks. On the left, a medieval town features enchanting fountains, houses built into the sides of cliffs, a towering belfry, and the ruins of a 12th-century castle. On the right, the new town surrounds an ancient Roman village, complete with preserved dwellings, a theater from the 1st century C.E., and a Gallo-Roman bridge. Amid the Puymin and La Vilasse archaeological sites, you’ll also find the imposing Our Lady of Nazareth Cathedral (built in the 11th and 12th centuries) and the St. Quenin Chapel (with an apse dating back to the 13th century). A 9-euro (around $10) pass grants 24-hour access to all the sites with guided tours if desired, but you can also just wander the cobblestone streets for free, discovering ancient doorways, striking facades, and hidden statues as you go.
Mt Ventoux, 84390 Brantes, France
At 6,200 feet, Mont Ventoux—also known as the “Beast of Provence”—is the highest mountain in the Vaucluse region, and a popular part of the Tour de France cycling race. About half a mile from the summit stands a memorial to British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died during the 1967 Tour de France at just 29 years old. It serves as a sort of reminder to those tackling the grueling, 15.5-mile ascent, which, at some points, features a 10 percent gradient. At the top, winds can howl at up to 150 miles an hour, but the panoramic view stretches all the way from the Alps to the Mediterranean Sea. Despite being nicknamed the Bald Eagle, Mont Ventoux is a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, with more than 1,000 species of flora and fauna. Take a drive to the top, then reward yourself with a visit to the Boyer nougat factory in nearby Sault, or a stop at the Vallon des Lavandes distillery on the Lavender Route.
Place de l'Étang, 84160 Cucuron, France
A Good Year, starring Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard, was shot in Cucuron, just 35 miles north of Aix-en-Provence. While the medieval town hasn’t had many celebrity sightings since, it stills draws visitors with its exquisite Michelin-starred restaurant Le Petit Maison. Here, the weekly set menus—each available with wine pairings—come courtesy of chef Eric Sapet, who worked for 11 years in renowned Paris restaurants like the three-Michelin-starred Tour d’Argent. Ranging from wild shrimp bouillabaisse with chanterelle mushrooms to roast duck breast with peaches, his dishes are something to be savored, especially when enjoyed in La Petite Maison’s elegant dining room, which charms with old-fashioned woodwork, Renaissance tapestries, and period tiles.
84160 Cadenet, France
At this 11-acre organic farm outside Aix-en-Provence, American Lisa Pepin and her French husband, Johann, lead truffle-hunting tours in English during both the summer (May to September) and winter (mid-November to mid-March) truffle seasons. Guests search for “black gold” while learning about how truffles are harvested and truffle dogs are trained, then enjoy a sampling of fresh truffle hors d’oeuvres, Champagne, and Les Pastras’ olive and truffle oils. During the hunt, the Pepins regale their visitors with stories of success and sabotage, while teaching them the difference between a Provençale truffle and its inferior Chinese counterparts, and how to properly clean, store, and cook with truffles. Johann’s enchanting tales and Lisa’s joie de vivre will have you coming back for more, only next time to stomp grapes, harvest olives, or simply shop the farm’s delicious products.
5 Avenue du Pigonnet, 13090 Aix-en-Provence, France
Tucked away in a quiet pocket of Aix-en-Provence, Hôtel Le Pigonnet seems too good to be true, from its four acres of flowering gardens and statue-lined swimming pool to its outdoor restaurant under the chestnut trees and cozy bar with live music. In fact, the hotel, which is housed in a former 18th-century Provençal manor, is so lovely that Cézanne used to wander the grounds, painting the distant Ste-Victoire mountain from various angles. Currently owned by French actor Christophe Lambert, Le Pigonnet is a deserving member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, with 45 romantic rooms and service that accounts for every detail. Stay here for just one night and you’ll understand why it’s attracted the likes of Princess Caroline and Clint Eastwood.
40 Chemin de la Badesse, 13290 Aix-en-Provence, France
A 10-minute bus ride from Rotunde lies Camp des Milles, a former tile factory that served as an internment camp and deportation center from 1939 to 1942. In August and September of 1942 alone, the camp held 10,000 people, 2,000 of whom were eventually deported to Auschwitz. Today, the site functions as a history museum and memorial, with the purpose of honoring those lost during the Holocaust and educating against racism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of fanaticism. Over three floors, visitors can observe areas like the former sleeping quarters, and view illustrations and paintings left by the interned on the walls. In addition to its permanent exhibitions, the museum often hosts temporary shows, cultural events, conferences, educational workshops, and more.
Place Saint-Jean de Malte, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, France
Art lovers will have to wait until at least 2121 for the opening of Aix’s Jacqueline and Pablo Picasso Museum, which will include 2,000 works from when the artist was married to his second wife. Until then, they can find Picasso on the walls of the Musée Granet, which also boasts pieces by Cézanne, Rembrandt, Degas, Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh, plus an American exhibition, a neoclassical sculpture collection, and several Pop Art works. The museum is a little tricky to find—look for the Church of St. John off Cours Mirabeau—but once you’re there, it only costs 5.50 euros (around $6) for a ticket. Admission nearly doubles during the summer season but also includes entry to the nearby modern art museum, Granet XXe.
34 Place des Martyrs-de-la-Résistance, 13100 Aix-en-Provence, France
One of France’s national monuments, the St. Sauveur Cathedral in Aix-en-Provence occupies the site of a 1st-century Roman forum and, according to legend, a temple to Apollo. Upon approaching the church, you’ll immediately notice its varied architecture—there’s a 12th-century Romanesque gate adjoining a Roman wall; an enormous, intricately carved Gothic gate from the 15th and 16th centuries; and a bell tower that was erected between 1323 and 1425. Inside, three naves of different styles (Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque) flank an octagonal font, which rests on a stand dating back to the 5th century. As with many sites in Aix, you can scan a QR code with your smartphone and download an audio guide to learn more about the cathedral, including its 12th-century cloister and baptistery.
Verdon Gorge, France
The winding road to Gorges du Verdon (Europe’s Grand Canyon) is a bit of a white-knuckle ride. If you want to take in the views, it’s best to pull over at Point Sublime (the right bank after La Palud on the D952), where a gigantic cliff of calcareous rock plunges 2,834 feet to the bottom of the gorge. Once you reach Gorges du Verdon, there are hikes for every athletic ability, but the 8.6-mile Blanc Martel circuit, which takes you to the heart of the canyon, is legendary. Just note that it can take between five and nine hours depending on your skill level, so be prepared with water, sunscreen, hiking shoes, a hat, and an extra pair of socks for the puddles in the two tunnels near the end. If you prefer the water, head to the emerald-green Lake of St. Croix, where you can rent a stand-up paddleboard, canoe, or kayak, or simply spend the day swimming and sunning. No matter how you spend your time at Gorges du Verdon, remember to bring a bag for garbage and leave nothing but footprints.
Chemin de Quinson, 04360 Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, France
When one of the world’s most famous chefs falls in love with one of France’s most picturesque villages, the result can only be La Bastide de Moustiers. After chancing upon Moustiers-Ste-Marie, Alain Ducasse promptly bought a secluded seven-room home, which he later turned into an inn and Michelin-starred restaurant. Complete with charming rooms, an idyllic garden, a shady terrace, and a serene pool area, the inn is more than worthy of an overnight, but guests really come here for the restaurant. The three- and four-course menus change depending on what’s fresh in La Bastide’s vegetable garden, but often include such delicacies as tomato sorbet, stuffed zucchini flowers, and seasonal ratatouille. Whether you sit in front of the majestic walnut fireplace in Le Salon Voyage en Asie, or amid local pottery in Le Salon des Arts Décoratifs, you’re in for a magical meal. The restaurant also features a room for private groups and a salon with a single table for couples, making it perfect for celebrating a special occasion.
L'Hubac et Saint-Jean, 04270 Châteauredon, France
France is the world’s third-largest producer of lavender, with a 559-mile-long Lavender Route that passes directly through Provence. Driving the route—at least from Manosque to the Plateau de Valensole to see the most vivid patches of purple—is practically a must when visiting this part of the country, with stops along the way to walk through the fields, stock up on lavender products, and snap as many pictures as possible. Peak lavender season runs from the third week of June through July, although the annual lavender parade in Dignes-sur-Bain, known as Corso de la Lavande, takes place the first weekend in August, with the Lavender Fair following later that month. To really experience the season, time your drive to the various tours, workshops, and events offered at farms along the route.
8 Rue Maréchal Foch, 84230 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, France
Just 7.5 miles north of Avignon, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is heaven for red wine lovers. Home to 80 growers, the village produces more wine than the entire northern Rhône region collectively, using several of the appellation’s 14 permitted grape varieties, including grenache and syrah. Find your favorite at Maison du Vin Vinadéa, which offers between six and 10 free tastings each day—plus bottles for sale at vineyard prices. The shop features more than 200 different wines—including rare white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, red magnums, and, depending on the season, rosé and white wines from Côtes du Rhône, Tavel, Gigondas, and Rasteau—so you’re guaranteed to find something you like. In 2019, Vinadéa plans to launch a museum and wine bar for further enjoyment.
Pont d'Avignon, Boulevard de la Ligne, 84000 Avignon, France
The Pont St-Bénézet is so famous it even has its own song, “Sur Le Pont d’Avignon” (as the bridge is more commonly known). The last crossing on the Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea, the 3,000-foot bridge was built between 1177 and 1185, using similar engineering to the Pont du Gard (one of the world’s most famous Roman aqueducts, just up the road). As legend has it, the process began when a young shepherd named Bénézet heard voices telling him to build the bridge, then carried a boulder down from the mountains and threw it into the water to lay the foundation. The bridge was later destroyed during a siege in 1226 and rebuilt in 1234 with 22 stone arches. Due to flooding, all that remains of it today are four arches, but it’s worth a visit for historical purposes. You can purchase one ticket for entry to both this UNESCO World Heritage site and the adjacent Palais des Papes.
5 Rue Laboureur, 84000 Avignon, France
Although Van Gogh painted his famous Wagons de Chemin de Fer while living in Arles, the painting actually hangs in the Musée Angladon in Avignon, along with a sumptuous collection of paintings and furniture inherited from visionary fashion designer Jacques Doucet. Here, in the 18th-century mansion where Doucet’s two nephews once lived, visitors can view works by top 19th- and 20th-century artists like Degas, Cézanne, Manet, Picasso, and Modigliani, as well as European and Far Eastern decorative arts from the Renaissance through the 18th century. What the collection lacks in size it more than makes up for in excellence, plus the museum often hosts temporary exhibitions by contemporary artists like David Hockney that only enhance the experience.
40 Rue Saint-Christophe, 84000 Avignon, France
Led by local expert Aurélie Gilabert, these gourmet walking tours offer a true taste of Avignon. Meet local artisans and sample regional products on the Taste of Avignon Morning Tour, which takes guests to the most picturesque parts of town to learn about local history and culinary traditions. Over 3.5 hours, you’ll visit everywhere from the town’s oldest bakery to its best artisan chocolate-maker, sampling local delicacies, olive oil, and Châteaneuf-du-Pape wine as you go.

For an even tastier experience, opt for the Food & Wine Day Tour (which travels to Châteaneuf-du-Pape to learn about the local wine), or time your visit to July or August, when Aurélie offers the City and Market Tour (which includes a stop at Les Halles to discover local produce and soak up the French market atmosphere). If you’d rather just see the sights, she also does an Avignon Walking Tour, which visits places like the old pedestrian area, the Palais des Papes, and the Pont d’Avignon.
Allée l'Oulle, Parking des Allées de l'Oulle, 84000 Avignon, France
Take a two-hour dinner cruise along the Rhône River aboard the charming Mireio, the largest panoramic restaurant boat in the region. On the Saint Bénézet Cruise, you’ll pass the most beautiful sites in Avignon—from the famous Pont d’Avignon and the quays along the Rhône to the Palais des Papes, the clock tower, and the Rocher des Doms—all while enjoying delicious dishes like duck with Provençale herbs and seasonal vegetables, and fillet of beef with jus au Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For something even more lively, you can opt for the Dinner Entertainment Cruise, which includes dancing on board until 1 a.m., or the Dinner Show Cruise, complete with a candlelit dinner and Brazilian entertainment. There are also lunch cruises, though they’re often more crowded than the dinner options.
17 Rue Des Trois Faucons, 84000 Avignon, France
There’s no shortage of outstanding places to eat in Avignon, but this small husband-and-wife-run restaurant is one of the best. Here, the well-priced menu focuses on local dishes made with seasonal produce, from pumpkin-and-butternut-squash soup with chorizo croutons to fillet of Iberian pork in cider-and-apple jus. Whatever you choose, be sure to finish with one of the delectable desserts, like banana pie with caramel and whipped cream.
Rue Madeleine Roch, 84100 Orange, France
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Roman Theater of Orange is the most well-preserved ancient Roman theater in Europe, complete with a magnificent stage wall and an imposing 340-foot facade that Louis XIV once called “the finest wall in my kingdom.” With seating for up to 10,000, the theater continues to host shows to this day, including the Chorégies d’Orange opera festival every summer. Sure, you could skip the entry free and sneak a peek of the theater from the adjacent hill, but this testament to the glory of the Roman Empire really merits an in-person visit, especially with the new 360-degree, virtual-reality headsets. Get a discounted rate one hour before the site closes, or buy a ticket that also includes access to the Art and History Museum of Orange.
More From AFAR