Resting in an epic bowl of mountains, the city of Gap is where Provence meets the Southern Alps.
In the background there are peaks 3,000 metres high disappearing into the clouds, but on the streets of Gap with its pastel-painted houses and markets you’ll feel close to the Mediterranean.
There are sights and museums to keep in mind in the city, but a lot of the magic lies in what you can do close by.
The peaks, rivers, lake and woodland offer more active sports than you could possibly pack into one trip.
And there’s something to try at any time of year, whether self-guided or in the company of an expert.
Lets explore the best thing to do in Gap:
1. Domaine de Charance
To really get a sense of the mountain environment enveloping Gap make for this château, which is in 220 hectares of achingly beautiful upland scenery.
There’s a lake, deep forest and humbling rock formations reaching almost 2,000 metres, all laced with walking trails.
The château itself is the information centre for the Ecrins National Park, north and east of Gap.
And in the stables is the Alpine Botanical Conservatory, protecting and documenting the plants in the mountains and organising special guided walks to find rare flowers.
The terraced garden in front of the château is sublime, with views that will stop you in your tracks.
2. Musée Muséum Départemental des Hautes-Alpes
After visiting this museum no aspect of the art, history, archaeology or traditions of the Hautes-Alpes will be a mystery to you.
The galleries here are comprehensive and very diverse, but the most gripping are surely the archaeology exhibits.
See the hoards of Bronze Age torques, rings, daggers and a fabulous belt.
And move on to the stèle de Briançon, an inscribed tombstone from around the turn of the 2nd century made of white marble and with masterful carvings.
More recent but also indispensable is the huge Mausolée de François de Bonne de Lesdiguières, sculpted from black and white marble in a very naturalistic style by Jacob Richier in the 17th century and reaching a height of more than four metres.
3. Walk around the Old Town
That sense of the Alps meeting Provence is impossible to ignore when you negotiate Gap’s grid of old streets and alleys.
There isn’t much historic architecture, even if the roads follow the same plan as in medieval times.
But this is made up for by the legion of tall, pastel-painted houses on every street.
And almost every corner or square seems to have a fountain, each with a different personality, and there’s an abundance of low-key but engaging things to see: Take the Grand Hôtel Lombar on Avenue du Maréchal Foch, a vestige of the Roaring 20s when Gap was in style with Europe’s elite.
4. L’Auberge Marchand
As you peruse the shops on Rue de France, keep your eyes peeled for a plaque above one of the doorways.
At 17-19 Rue de France is the former Auberge Marchand, and while handsome, this ochre-painted house doesn’t seem too important …until you learn the small role it played in one of the most pivotal chapters in French history.
Napoleon spent the night of March 5 1815 here on his way from exile on Elba to Paris, just before the Hundred Days.
He chose this circuitous route through Gap because, unlike the towns in the Rhone Valley, this city was loyal to him rather than the French royalty.
5. Gap Cathedral
The city’s medieval cathedral had started to collapse by the 19th century so a Neo-Gothic replacement was built in its place and finished in 1904. In fact there has been a religious edifice here since Roman times when a temple to Apollo stood on this spot.
Just a couple of years after work stopped on the latest building the cathedral was declared a French “monument historique”. The dominating bell tower rises to 70 metres, making it the tallest building in Gap.
And as you approach the exterior walls you’ll see that they’re polychrome, with rings of white, pink and grey limestone.
6. Village of Chaudun
For a hike to remember you could venture to this abandoned village in the mountains north of Gap.
Chaudun had more than 100 inhabitants in the 19th century, but its isolation and the inhospitable setting eventually forced its inhabitants to sell their land to the state in 1891. Ironically it’s pretty easy to get to now, as you can drive to the Col de Gleizé around 15 minutes up from Gap and then strike out on foot into forest, meadows and beside ravines.
There are panels at the entrance to the village telling its tale, a hiking lodge open to the public and traces of old buildings all in a breathtaking hollow.
7. Parc de la Pépinière
Wrapped around the Musée Départemental is a restorative with centuries-old trees shading its avenues.
There’s an elegant wrought iron bandstand here that is a stage for many events in the spring and summer.
Jeudis du Kiosque is a weekly music event on Thursdays in July and August, when musicians of all descriptions take the stage.
And in May there’s the Gap EXPO, an international trade fair at this location.
The rest of the time there are cool paths under rich foliage, picnic tables and a playground for the youngest.
8. Weekly Markets
On Saturday mornings the tight streets and compact squares of Gap’s old core are taken over by dozens of stalls in true Provence fashion.
The market fills Place Jean Marcellin and extends along rue Carnot , rue de France and rue Elysée.
So if you’re around on this day set the alarm clock and scour these stalls for some fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, baked goods, regional charcuterie, cheese, meat, artisanal specialities (honey and nougat) and freshly made snacks like tourtons.
On Friday afternoons there’s also an organic farmers’ market in the Saint-Roch quarter.
9. Local Delicacies
At any time of year you’ll be drawn to the scent of tourtons frying at Gap’s markets.
These are a sort of doughnut, but instead of dough they’re a pastry filled with any number of different ingredients.
Sweet, they come with pureed apple or prunes inside, while the savoury variety has spinach, potato, cheese or meat.
You can detect hints of Italian cuisine in dishes like raviole (ravioli) and oreilles d’âne, a lasagne-style gratin often made with crêpes instead of pasta.
For cheese there’s alpine tomme, which tends to be firm, with a nutty, mushroomy flavour.
10. Station Gap-Bayard
In winter Gap gets a healthy coating of snow but you’ll have to travel a little to get to a traditional Alpine skiing resort.
But just ten minutes from the Centre-Ville is a snow-based activity centre with more than 50 kilometres of cross-country trails.
The “Centre d’Oxygenation will set you up with Nordic skiing equipment and any lessons you need to get started.
Then with the help of a map you’ll be gliding off on routes in this massive plateau guarded by the enormous Chaillol and Gleize peaks to inspire you.
If you can’t resist the call of these mountains then guided ski-touring is on offer on these uncharted slopes.
11. Alpine Skiing
And although you’ll need to drive to one of the family ski resorts Southern Alps, it won’t take you long to get to them.
There are seven are within a 40-kilometre radius, including SuperDévoluy/La Joue du Loup, Ancelle, Réallon and Orcières-Merlette.
Nearly all of these are tilted towards beginner and intermediate skiers: For instance, Dévoluy, which is also the most convenient to Gap has 60 kilometres of blue pistes out of 100 in total.
If you come at the height of the season a day ticket will set you back €35.60, and the abundance of sunny runs and awesome views of the Southern Alpine peaks from the top of the resort are all worth the price.
In the summer Gap be your HQ for almost any mountain activity you can think of.
But if you’re travelling with children, this “Accrobranche” course a few seconds outside the city needs to be on your list.
You’ll know why once you arrive, because the centre is on the high slopes of the Colline de Saint Mens, and is has the most amazing views of Gap and its surrounding peaks.
You’ll be equipped with a harness, and up in the treetops are 10 suspended courses for you to take on, with zip-lines and rope bridges for everyone aged three and up.
13. Water Escapades
The Durance River courses through canyons and down cascades to the south of Gap.
And if you need an adrenaline hit this is an invitation for white-water rafting and canyoning.
Luckily there’s a branch of Eau Vive Passion Rue Cyprien Chaix in the city organising all manner of river-based craziness.
Diving into a canyon or being hurled off a raft into rapids might be your idea of a nightmare, and if so you could settle for the crystalline waters of the Lac de Serre-Ponçon.
There are nine beaches around this lake that sits in a crucible mountains, and many nautical centres renting paddleboards, kayaks and rowboats.
Drop by the tourist office on Place Jean Marcellin for maps and trail guides for the eight hikes that begin right in the city and wind off into the mountains.
These vary in difficult from a light saunter through Alpine forest to a demanding 3,000 metre ascent up a mountain for calves of steel.
But a simple circuit that almost everyone can try is the Colline de Puymaure, one of the lighter hills overlooking Gap.
You can get up there and back in about 90 minutes.
And up the top are a series of information panels about the two citadels that were built here in the 1600s by the Huguenots.
Whether you’ve been scaling walls your whole life or are just getting started, Gap is almost as good as it get for climbers.
That’s because the Falaise de Ceuse is only a few kilometres from the city.
This white limestone cliff on the namesake mountain is up there with the top climbing locations in Europe.
Lots of things come together to make this possible: The cliff has a horizontal length of more than four kilometres, most of it bathed in sunshine during the day.
At its foot is a shallower grassy slope and the walls vary in toughness, with heights of between 30 and 130 metres.