In the 14th century Avignon was the most important city in Europe: It was the seat of the Catholic church, represented in spectacular style by the Palais des Papes, the largest gothic building in the world.
This period furnished Avignon with a glorious cityscape of gothic and renaissance buildings that today are protected as a UNESCO site. The Pont Saint-Bénézet for example has a special place in French culture, while there’s also an assortment of art and history museums that will keep inquiring minds enthralled for days.
Lets explore the best things to do in Avignon:
1. Palais des Papes
You can’t comprehend the scale of the 14th-century Papal Palace until you see it in real life.
Just to trying to convey the size, you could fit four gothic cathedrals in here and there are 24 rooms to visit on the tour.
It’s the marquee attraction in Avignon’s World Heritage site and one of France’s most famous and valuable historical buildings.
Get the audio-guide for the full story, and pause in the papal apartments with walls adorned with frescoes painted almost 700 years ago by the gothic artist Matteo Giovanetti.
2. Pont Saint-Bénézet
Known to all as the Pont d’Avignon, the mythic bridge is from the late-12th century, linking France with Papal Territory.
It was positioned on the tightest part of the bend in the Rhône to lessen its exposure to the river’s notorious strong currents.
Originally there were 22 arches, of which four remain today, and the bridge was 915 metres long, sensational dimensions for the time it was built.
Over the next few hundred years the bridge was damaged and rebuilt by flooding, until finally a catastrophic flood in the 17th century carried off most of the arches.
What remains is beautiful though, and you can visit the gatehouse that defended the crossing, the stranded western terminal, the Tour Philippe-le-Bel and the Chapel of St. Nicholas above the second arch.
3. Place du Palais
The wide open space that sets off the Papal Palace isn’t here by accident.
It was laid out by the antipope Benedict XII in the early 15th century, when the winding streets around the palace were razed to enhance the grandeur of the structure.
On the square you’ve got the perfect view of the palace, as well as the renaissance Petit Palais, Avignon’s romanesque cathedral and the Hôtel des Monnaies (mint), which was renovated in the baroque style in 1619.
4. Collection Lambert
Collection Lambert is one of Avignon’s newer art museums and was founded in 2000 by the art dealer Yvon Lambert as a space to display the works he had donated to the French government.
The galleries are set across two marvellous 18th century Hôtels.
The museum expanded dramatically in 2009 when Lambert made another donation of 560 pieces, the largest gift of art to France since Picasso’s posthumous donation in the 1970s.
The art on show is contemporary, with photography, video, paintings and sculpture from the 1980s up to the last few years from the likes of Cy Twombly, Anselm Kiefer and Nile Toroni.
Temporary shows are put on in the Hôtel de Caumont, while the Hôtel de Montfaucon has the permanent collection.
5. Place de l’Horloge
Avignon’s main square is where you’ll find the city hall and opera house.
Place de l’Horloge is named after the Avignon’s gothic clock tower, but this can actually be quite tough to spot on the square as it’s hidden behind the newer neoclassical city hall buildings.
In the summer nearly half of Place de l’Horloge is taken up by rows of seating for the line of restaurants that spans the entire length of the square.
There’s a carousel for kids, while in December the Christmas mark is held in front of the city hall.
But the ideal time to be here is in July when public performances for the OFF theatre festival take place under the square’s plane trees.
6. Basilique Saint-Pierre d’Avignon
Local folklore has it that this church’s predecessor was destroyed by the moors in the 7th century.
The current gothic building was started in the 1300s during the papacy of Innocent IV, who was the fifth Avignon Pope.
Before you enter, take a little time to appreciate the monumental wooden tours, sculpted from walnut in 1551by Antoine Volard.
There’s a trove of art to see inside too, like the gilded choir from the 1700s, renaissance and baroque paintings, as well as the 15th-century relics of Saint-Pierre de Luxembourg, with his actual cardinal’s robes and hat.
7. Petite Train
If you don’t mind everybody knowing you’re a tourist, Avignon’s road train is a useful way to see the main sights but also get your bearings in a city that can be puzzling for first-timers.
It will take around 40 minutes and covers the famous bridge, the picturesque streets and neighbourhoods around the centre, the Rocher des Doms on the left bank of the Rhône and, naturally, the Palais des Papes.
The train is a particular favourite with older visitors, families with toddlers and anyone with limited time on their hands.
8. Île de la Barthelasse
At 700 hectares the Île de la Barthelasse is one of Europe’s largest river islands.
It belongs to Avignon and is connected to the city by the Pont Daladier, although you might find it more fitting to catch the free ferry across the Rhône.
The island is mostly peaceful orchards with only clusters of houses because a few times every century there’s a catastrophic flood.
The highest point of the island is just 18 metres; it’s what makes the Île de la Barthelasse vulnerable to inundation, but so enjoyable to discover on two wheels.
Hire a bike in the summer and bring a picnic to while away a few hours on the banks of the Rhône.
9. Musée Calvet
Open to the public for more than 200 years the Calvet Museum was founded after the local doctor and collector Esprit Calvet donated his art, library and cabinet of curiosities to the city of Avignon.
This diverse collection has since been expanded by donations from a host of patrons, and contains ancient archaeology, fine art, a wide array of decorative art and ethnological artefacts from Oceania, Asia and Africa.
There’s a serious amount of interesting stuff to get through, but the part many come to see is the Egyptology department with a sarcophagus, canopic jar and offering table.
10. Rue des Teinturiers
This old street traces the Vaucluse Canal and is painfully cute.
Rue des Teinturiers was the intense centre of Avignon’s silk spinning and dyeing industry from the 1300s up to the 1800s.
There are still charming clues in the form of four water-wheels mills suspended from the embankment next to the water.
The beautiful stone houses on the other side of the canal are linked to the cobblestone street by little bridges, and the whole route is shaded by tall old plane trees.
Look out for the Maison du IV de Chiffre, one of Avignon’s oldest mansions, as well as the home Jean-Henri Fabre, the revered 19th-century entomologist, at no. 14.
11. Musée du Petit Palais
Part of the same ensemble as the Palais des Papes is a smaller renaissance palace on the north side of the square.
If it looks a bit like a fortress that’s because it had been a citadel during the Western Schism that followed the Avignon Papacy.
The palace has barely changed since the start of the 1500s, when the future Pope Julius II revamped the building and added his coat of arms to the south facade, still visible above the entrance.
The Petit Palais is just the right building for 327 paintings and 600 sculptures by Italian and French artists from the gothic and renaissance periods.
Nearly all were commissioned for churches around Avignon, many from the 14th century during the Avignon Papacy.
12. Musée Angladon
Jacques Doucet was a Parisian tailor active at the turn of the century and regarded as one of the pioneers of fashion design.
During his lifetime he amassed an immense art collection, including world-famous pieces like Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, displayed as New York’s MoMA. Doucet’s heirs founded this museum in a fabulous early-18th-century mansion in the middle of Avignon to exhibit the remainder of Doucet’s paintings.
So you can revel in the palatial setting as you view works by Degas, Sisley, Cézanne, Picasso, Manet, Derain and Modigliani, as well as the only van Gogh painting hanging in Provence.
13. Avignon Les Halles
Every morning from Tuesday to Sunday some 40 merchants set up their stalls at this superb covered market on Place Pie.
If you’re renting an apartment you needn’t look any further for your food shop: There’s seasonal meat, fish, fruit and veg, as well as wine, olive oil, herbs, cheese and charcuterie from around the region.
Amateur cooks need to make sure they’re here on Saturdays as this is when the market welcomes prominent local chefs to its designated exhibition space.
You can watch them work as they put on cooking demonstrations and if you’re lucky you’ll get to taste their creations.
14. Pont du Gard
What could be Roman Gaul’s most photogenic ruin is 25 kilometres to the west of the city.
The Pont du Gard is magnificent, but it’s astonishing to think that it’s just a fragment of a system that once spanned 50 kilometres, descending just 17 metres on its route from Uzès to Nîmes.
What’s more it was made in just five years.
The 275-metre-long, 50-metre-high section built to cross the Gardon River has astounded people for two millennia, and you’d be remiss not to see it if you’re in Avignon.
On the site is a compact museum of Roman history with kid-friendly displays, and a video explaining how this work of ancient engineering was undertaken.
15. Les Baux de Provence
Just 30 kilometres south of Avignon, tucked in the magical countryside Alpilles, Les Baux de Provence is one of the “most beautiful villages in France”. It’s a tiny hillside settlement of houses bunched together on steep slopes, dwarfed by large slabs of limestone rock.
Even higher is the Château des Baux, a ruined fortress built in the 900s, promising a fun time for kids with its full-size recreations of siege engines.
They’ve got the largest trebuchet in Europe, flinging missiles all day long in summer.
Also local is the Carrières de Lumières, a multimedia art experience with the iconic works of a chosen artist (in 2016 it was Chagall) projected onto the high faces of a former quarry.