The mere mention of Provence conjures some the most idyllic images of lavender fields, sunflowers, olive groves, cicadas, vineyards and that indescribable light that inspired the post-impressionist painters like Cézanne.
You can follow in their footsteps, lounging at the cafes in Aix and heading out into the countryside to find medieval abbeys and dreamy villages in this stark landscape swept by the mistral wind.
Whatever your taste there’s a list of things that you shouldn’t leave out from your trip, whether it’s the Papal Place in Avignon or the incredible rocky inlets between Marseille and Cassis.
Lets explore the best things to do in the Provence:
1. Pope’s Palace, Avignon
In the 14th century this world-renowned building was the residence for six popes, and so was the seat of western Christianity.
It’s one of an ensemble of structures with UNESCO listing in Avignon and one of the world’s largest and most important gothic buildings.
Safe to say that it has to be on your agenda if you’re in the region.
The architecture, which was the height of medieval craftsmanship, will drive home the opulence and splendour enjoyed by the popes during their exile from the Vatican.
You’ll get access to more than 20 rooms, including Clement IV’s papal apartments where the exquisite gothic frescoes by Matteo Giovanetti survive to this day.
2. Senanque Abbey, Gordes
This is one attraction that must be visit between June and August when the lavender is in bloom.
If there’s one sight that crystallises everything that people adore about Provence it’s the pale grey walls of this romanesque building, edged by cypress trees behind a lavender field.
The abbey is from the 1100s and is usually incorporated into lavender tours: If you can, try to get there as early as possible, when the field catches the low sunlight, and when there aren’t so many people around! The monks make a living from the fields, and also keep honey bees.
Typical for the romanesque style, the building is stark and unembellished, but complements its florid setting perfectly!
3. Old Port of Marseille
From the 6th century BC this was one of ancient Europe’s trading hubs.
What we see today, this rectangular finger of water with quays on three sides, is mostly from the 1700s.
It’s a symbol for Marseille, a place for locals to meet, go for meals and take some evening entertainment.
Tourists will be astounded by the rows of yachts, which seem to go on forever.
You could do a full circuit of the port, which will take about half-an-hour on foot, or catch the ferry from the Quai du Port to Quai du Rive Neuve for 50c.
The port is also more than a tourist trap as fishing still has a role in the city’s a economy.
On the Quai des Belges there’s a fish market for the day’s catch.
4. Gorges du Verdon
Running for 25 kilometres through the Verdon Regional Park is one of Europe’s most admired natural settings.
At points this limestone canyon reaches depths of more than 700 metres, and when you gaze down at the river you’ll be captivated by its bright turquoise colour.
It attracts sightseers from round the world, and you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your car for views that will last a lifetime.
But of course, it’s much more rewarding if you do! Many visitors rent a boat for a couple of hours, stopping occasionally to swim in these sparkling waters.
You can approach the gorge on foot via a range of hikes, and there are also some 1,500 climbing routes on the limestone cliffs of the valley walls.
5. Carrières de Lumières, Les Baux-de-Provence
Chances are you’ll never have seen a cultural attraction like this before.
Carrières de Lumières is an audiovisual experience set in the vast, cathedral-like galleries of a former limestone quarry.
Some 100 ultra -HD projectors project images totalling 6000 square metres onto the pristine sheer walls and accompany them with music and ambient sound.
Even the ground is completely covered, and like the walls the patterns are in constant motion.
The theme changes by the year, but is always art-related.
Past shows have projected the works of Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh and Marc Chagall.
6. Vieil Aix
A real taste of Provence can be had on the streets in the centre of Aix.
People interested in French culture will get frissons tracing the steps of the icons who lived here, such as Émile Zola, Albert Camus and Paul Cézanne.
You can amble along the Cours Mirabeau under the plane trees and take a seat at one of the many cafes that are steeped in 19th and 20th-century cultural history.
Make your way up to the medieval cathedral, which contains tapestries from the 1500s and a triptych from the 1400s depicting René of Anjou, Count of Provence up to 1480.
7. Téléphérique du Mont Faron, Toulon
Some of Provence’s high-brow attractions may go over the heads of the youngest visitors, but this cable-car ride up Mount Faron in Toulon is something everyone can agree on.
It’s the only cable-car in the region and takes you up to 584 metres above sea level.
At the summit the panoramas of the port of Toulon and the famous azure sea is unbeatable.
There’s a small zoo, a chapel and a couple of places to stop for lunch at the top.
After that you can get the cable-car back down or take the scenic route via one of the hiking trails.
8. Parc National des Calanques
One of France’s ten national parks, the Calanques is the only one to combine coastal and inland territory.
What everyone comes to see is that rocky limestone coastline, which plunges to the sea from great heights and has deep indentations that resemble fjords.
Hikers traipse along the GR-51 to heart-stopping vantage points such as Corniche des Crêtes and Cap Canaille, and the best time to do this is late-winter and spring.
This is because there’s a risk of fire in summer and some of the trails may be closed off.
The going can be quite tough on the trails so many people catch a tour boat from Marseille, and the view from the water is arguably better than on land.
You’ll love how the sea glows turquoise against the white limestone.
9. Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antiques
Arles’ museum for its ancient heritage is set where the city’s Roman circus once stood.
You’ll come away from this attraction with a clearer image of ancient civilisation in Provence.
Take the model of the Barbegal aqueduct and mill, in which water from the aqueduct fed two parallel sets of eight water wheels to power a flour mill.
Arles Rhône 3 meanwhile is an authentic Roman barge that was excavated from the Rhône in 2011: It’s on display alongside it’s large cargo of amphorae.
If you have an eye for ancient history it might be hours before you re-emerge from this museum and its galleries with early-Christian sarcophagi, mosaics and sculptures.
10. Château des Baux de Provence
This fortress atop a rugged spur has been in a state of ruin since it was demolished in the 1600s.
Only decayed towers and fragments of the chapel remain today, but the château brings feudal times back to life is with its menacing set of life-sized siege engines.
These include a ballista (a kind of giant crossbow), a mangonel (a bg catapult) and, most excitingly, Europe’s largest trebuchet: This huge machine is loaded up and launched several times a day during the summer.
There’s also a replica medieval forge, where a blacksmith will show you how to craft swords and axes, as well as swordplay and archery demonstrations.
Counted as one of ” the most beautiful villages of France”, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is on rock terraces at the foot of high bluffs by the western entrance of the Verdon Gorge.
It’s a very photogenic place, with a warren of pedestrianised streets and a stream that cascades through the centre.
Those with energy to burn can climb the 250 steps up to the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Beauvoir.
For a souvenir pick up a piece of faience, tin-glazed earthenware made in workshops all around the village.
To get the inside track on this pottery technique, pay a visit to the museum, which will show you how it’s made and has pieces of this fine glazed pottery going back to the 1600s.
12. Mines de Bruoux
When the mercury rises in July and August this historic ochre mine is a real relief, with a constant temperature of just 10 °C. The mine is unique in Europe, with galleries cut in a grid pattern extending for more than 50 kilometres.
Don’t worry: You won’t get lost as only 650 metres has been made safe for the public.
This part is magical though, with vaulted galleries 12 metres high, all man-made between 1880 and 1950. If you’ve brushed up on your French you can come by on a balmy summer evening to watch an outdoor theatre production using the entrance to the mines as a potent backdrop.
13. Le Thoronet Abbey
The best time to tour this solemn Cistercian abbey is early or late, when it is almost deserted, as the church’s supreme acoustic s will carry even the slightest sound.
And if you get the opportunity you have to attend one of the monastic choir performances held in the summer, which will send you right back to the abbey’s heyday in the 12th century.
It’s a romanesque and gothic complex hidden deep in oak woodland and with a sober lack of ornament, as befits the disciplined Cistercian style!
14. Vignoble de Provence
A number of wine regions fall within Provence, including Coteaux Varois, Cassis, Bandol, Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence and Les Baux-de-Provence and Côtes de Provence AOC. One of the remarkable things about the region is how many up-and-coming vignerons eschew modern cultivation techniques for fully-organic production.
So you’ll even see sheep brought in to remove weeds or horses ploughing vineyards.
This part of France is most lauded for its rosés, and you can immerse yourself in the culture (and avoid being a designated driver) by spending a night at a winemaker bed and breakfast, where you’ll be talked through production and can enjoy a delicious meal in an exquisite setting.
15. Savonnerie Marius Fabre, Salon-de-Provence
This soap factory is now in the hands of the fourth generation of the Fabre family and is one of the oldest operations in the region.
The company museum is set in one of the factory’s old drying rooms and has enough information panels, archive images and antique tools to acquaint yourself with one of Provence’s most typical industries.
Marius Fabre’s soaps are made with olive or coconut oil and fragranced with essential oils made in the region, such as lavender.
Visit the shop at the end of the tour for the most amazing selection of fragranced soap you’ll have seen, as well as eau de toilettes and scented candles.