15 Best Places to Visit in the South of France

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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The South of France is the embodiment of style and sophistication, and might make you think of the jazz age, the jet set in the 50s, impressionist painters, ochre-hued Provençal villages or Roman ruins.

It’s all of that and a whole lot more, so we’ve tried to curate a list that ticks all the boxes, with famous cities that make the headlines, and towns forever linked to the artists or writers who were inspired by them.

So whether you’re drawn by the South of France’s history, landscapes, culture, food or beaches there should be a place on this list to tempt you.

Lets explore the best places to visit in the South of France:

1. Avignon

AvignonSource: proslgn / shutterstock

For a time in the middle ages this city on the banks of the Rhône was the centre of western Christendom.

Six papal conclaves were held in the spellbinding Palace of the Popes in the 14th century, and the building has fascinating little vestiges from this time, like the invaluable gothic frescoes still on the walls of the papal apartments.

The exalted ruins of Pont Saint-Bénézet are also from this period, poking out half-way across the river, guarded by a gatehouse and boasting the little medieval chapel of Saint Nicholas.

Browse the arty walled town, take a cruise on the Rhône, and see if you can come for the Theatre Festival in July, when Avignon becomes one giant stage.

2. Carcassonne

CarcassonneSource: Riska Parakeet / Shutterstock

The Cité de Carcassonne, above the right bank of the Aude is a sight that can you dream: Walls have encircled this part of the city since the 4th century, but they were beefed up in the 13th century to stand as a barrier against the Crown of Aragon to the south.

After the 1600s they were no longer needed and allowed to decay, until the architect Viollet-le-Duc came along and gave them a romantic overhaul in the 1800s.

Carcassonne has much more besides: The Canal du Midi crosses the city and is a mind-blowing accomplishment from the 1600s, while the stained glass windows in the Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus are some of the loveliest you will ever see.

3. Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-ProvenceSource: RossHelen / Shutterstock

Aix differs from the first two entries in that people visit this town, not so much for sights, but for its less tangible, atmospheric qualities.

On the evocative Cours Mirabeau, with its plane trees, fountains and elegant mansion, you’ll visit the haunts of the many famous personalities connected to Aix, like Paul Cézanne, Ernest Hemingway and Émile Zola.

You can continue the Cézanne theme by making the pilgrimage to Montaigne Saint-Victoire, just to the east of the city.

This jagged limestone ridge was a scene that Paul Cézanne returned to paint time and again in the late-19th century.

4. Nice

Promenade des AnglaisSource: trabantos / shutterstock
Promenade des Anglais

Nice is grander, a city of spacious squares and long esplanades.

It was one of the first coastal destinations to attract tourists, furnishing it with imposing 19th-century palaces and hotels on the Promenade des Anglais.

You can duck down the alleys of Vieux Nice to shop at the boutiques and flower market at Cours Selaya, or ascend the Colline du Château for a view that never ceases to delight.

If you don’t mind pebbles you can also join the select few who go down to sun bathe on Nice’s beaches.

Even in July and August it’s never exactly heaving on the shore and most visitors stick to the promenade.

Nice also has a clutch of artists who swore by the city: Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse both have dedicated museums here.

5. Albi

AlbiSource: Nata Shilo com / Shutterstock

Chances are you’ll know one of Albi’s most famous sons even if you don’t recognise his name: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted those iconic scenes of dancers at the Moulin Rouge, and created the art nouveau posters inextricably associated with the Belle Époque.

The museum in his name at the Albi’s Episcopal Palace has the largest single collection of his work in the world, with more than 1,000 pieces.

Its brick gothic home is also a UNESCO site, part of a group of dominating red brick buildings designed to inspire awe.

None more so than Albi cathedral, which looks like a fortress and was erected in the 13th century as a declaration of Catholic power after the suppression of the Cathar sect in this region.

6. Lourmarin

LourmarinSource: marketa1982 / Shutterstock

The little town just to the south of the Luberon Massif is the quintessence of Provence.

All the ingredients are here, particularly the landscape of mountains, orchards and vineyards that frames the Caselas belfry.

Lourmarin is one of France’s “most beautiful” villages, but is much more than an outdoor museum: It’s a lively little place, with 15 cafes and restaurants that make use of what little outdoor space they can find on this tangle of streets.

And, inevitably, there’s a cultural giant linked to the town.

Albert Camus lived and wrote here, and is buried in the town’s cemetery.

7. Biarritz

BiarritzSource: trabantos / Shutterstock

In the 19th century the European elites “discovered” Biarritz, and turned it from a seaside village into one of Europe’s most luxurious resorts.

Summing up this swift transformation is the Hôtel du Palais, built as a summer getaway in 1855 for Eugénie de Montijo, Empress of the French and wife of Napoleon III. Families flock to the Grand Plage, a broad golden sandy beach in front of regal turn-of-the- century landmarks like the Casino Barrière.

There are also good swells for surfers on the Grand Plage, as well as at Côte des Basques just along the shore.

8. Uzès

UzèsSource: Joao Paulo V Tinoco / Shutterstock

North of Nîmes, with its profusion of Roman monuments, is the understated town of Uzès.

The nerve centre of this little place is the Place aux Herbes, where in summer the sunlight is scattered by the square’s plane trees, and the arcades on all sides shelter restaurants and cafes.

One of the south’s most celebrated markets is also held in these arches on Saturdays.

The square is the best place to begin a walking tour of this town with its feudal towers and creamy limestone mansions from the 1600s and 1700s.

You can scale the 100 steps of the Royal Tower for the best view of the symbolic Tour Fenestrelle, the romanesque campanile of Uzès Cathedral.

9. Marseille

MarseilleSource: S-F / Shutterstock

Chaotic, cosmopolitan and edgy, Marseille challenges all of the stereotypes about Provence and the French Riviera.

It’s France’s second city and the country’s largest port, with a lot of diversity, epitomised by the hectic Nouailles Market.

The colossal Old Port, founded by the Phocaeans 2,600 years ago, is still the best place to see Marseille in action.

And for one of France’s most recognisable landmarks, make your way up to Notre-Dame de la Garde, at the highest point in the city, just to the south of the Old Port.

The new MuCEM is a high-profile attraction devoted to the history of the Mediterranean, while Marseille can also be your gateway to the Calanques, those vast fjord-like cliffs to the south of the city.

10. Pézenas

PézenasSource: All themes / Shutterstock

Up to the late-1700s Pézenas was the seat of the Governors of Languedoc, which has left this town in Hérault with plenty of stately renaissance and  baroque architecture for a place with just 8,000 inhabitants.

More than 100 buildings have been listed as “historic” in Pézenas.

You can check in with the tourism office for the locations of all of Pézenas’ “hôtels”, and begin a walking tour you won’t soon forget.

A famous citizen from this period is the revered 17th-century comedy writer Molière, who performed at the theatre here several times in the 1650s and spent time in the court of Armand de Bourbon, the Prince of Conti, inspiring some of his early works.

There’s a small exhibition to the writer at this plush monument.

11. Arles

ArlesSource: LI SEN / shutterstock

A UNESCO site for its abundance of Roman and romanesque architecture, Arles has a Roman theatre, amphitheatre, baths, necropolis and aqueduct to discover.

The 12th-century Church of St. Trophime is immensely valuable too, for the peerless romanesque sculptures above the portal.

The city didn’t miss out on impressionist painters either, as van Gogh produced some 300 works in his year in Arles, and shared the “Yellow House” with Gauguin for nine weeks.

Arles is also in the north of the Camargue, a region of salt flats, marshes and meadows where semi-feral white horses roam free, and fighting bulls are bred for export to Spain.

Between April and June the briny lagoons and reedy marshes in the Camargue teem with thousands of flamingos, one of the most amazing natural spectacles in the south.

12. Toulouse

ToulouseSource: Sergey Dzyuba / Shutterstock

On the Garonne River, the old centre of this university city is replete with stately 18th-century neoclassical buildings all made with a pinkish terracotta.

This has won Toulouse the nickname “La Ville Rose”, exemplified by the glorious facade of the Capitole.

There are older monuments in the city, sure to set historians’ pulses racing.

The Church of the Jacobins is the resting place of Thomas Aquinas, the 12th-century friar with a lasting influence on modern philosophy.

You can spot the World Heritage Basilica of Saint-Sernin by its spired bell-tower, and if you take a close look, you’ll see how the design of the arches changes with phase of construction.

13. Gordes

GordesSource: Romrodphoto / Shutterstock

A typical “village perché”, Gordes is a small medieval town on a hilltop in the Luberon range.

Gordes is one of the “most beautiful” villages in France, and you can be sure that it intends to remain so.

Any new buildings in Gordes must be built with limestone and capped with terracotta tiles! Like many of Provence’s rustic settlements, Gorde has attracted celebrities in their droves.

The town’s cobblestone streets coil around the hill, and at the top is a renaissance castle containing the town hall and a small art museum.

Minutes from here is Sénanque Abbey, feted for the image of its walls at the end of a lavender field.

14. Bordeaux

BordeauxSource: JeanLucIchard / Shuttestock

Another of the south of France’s many World Heritage sites is Bordeaux’s historic quarter.

This was mostly planned in the 1700s, when the city became too big to keep within the walls.

So there was a large urban remodel endowing Bordeaux with many of the sights and monuments people adore today.

This goes for Grand Théâtre, Place de la Bourse and the Place du Parlement.

Add these to the list of medieval must-sees, like the Grosse Cloche, the 15th-century belfry of the old town hall, and the ghostly gothic cathedral.

We haven’t even mentioned that Bordeaux is the world capital of wine, or that it’s a fun-loving university town with some of France’s best nightlife outside Paris.

15. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

Saint-Rémy-de-ProvenceSource: Oliverouge 3 / Shutterstock

The little capital of the Alpilles, a small range of low mountains to the south of Avignon, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is a medieval town blasted by the legendary mistral in winter and spring.

On clear days this creates that unique light that attracted the impressionists, and van Gogh made 150 paintings in and around this town.

Art lovers will get frissons when they notice a scene or building immortalised by the artist.

Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is adorned with mansions from the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was a prestigious place to be.

This was partly to do with Glanum, the ancient city a few minutes’ walk from the town.

There’s a 2,000 year-old triumphal arch, sacred spring and one of the most intact mausoleums in the former Roman world.

15 Best Places to Visit in the South of France:

  • Avignon
  • Carcassonne
  • Aix-en-Provence
  • Nice
  • Albi
  • Lourmarin
  • Biarritz
  • Uzès
  • Marseille
  • Pézenas
  • Arles
  • Toulouse
  • Gordes
  • Bordeaux
  • Saint-Rémy-de-Provence