Overlooking the Rhone River on the western edge of Provence is the brilliant city of Avignon, France. Here, cobblestone lanes lined with towering plane trees swirl within the city’s medieval walls. Outdoor cafes sprawl into the squares where visitors and locals enjoy the sun and a glass of France’s best wine. While its long heritage plays a critical role in its success, Avignon is a very modern city with all the beauty, spirit, and French-ness that Provence has to offer. For all these reasons, I chose this lovely, walkable city as one of the bases on my Provence adventure. Here are a few of my best suggestions for what to do in Avignon.
People watch at the Place de l’Horloge
Place de l’Horloge (Clock Tower Square), Avignon’s main square, is bursting with life. On any given afternoon, it is full of children begging for a ride on the carousel and adults enjoying a break at one of the many outdoor cafes and restaurants.
The busy square is also home to the city’s 19th century city hall and opera house. Spend some time here people watching and soaking up the atmosphere. Even better if you have an ice cream or glass of wine in-hand.
Step back to the 14th century at the Palace of the Popes
From 1309-1378, seven popes occupied the massive Palace of the Popes in the heart of historic Avignon. When the popes lived here, it was lavishly decorated. Brilliant, lifelike frescoes graced the chapels. Elaborate tilework adorned the floors. It was all done in a style befitting the popes and appropriate for hosting coronations, conclaves, and other important events.
Since much of the interior has been destroyed over the centuries, rent an audio guide or take one of the regular guided tours (I recommend the Secret Palace tour) to help spark your imagination.
Indulge in tea at La Mirande
The five-star La Mirande hotel was once a 14th-century cardinal’s mansion. Today, it combines its heritage of hosting travelers with its original purpose as a lavish home. If the €400/night rates are too steep (as they were for me), enjoying the daily afternoon tea is a great way to peek into this beautiful space. For around €15, you can have an assortment of indulgent French pastries and a beverage in the sitting room or the quiet garden area. It’s the perfect afternoon break.
Take a walk in the Parc Rocher des Doms
The Parc Rocher des Doms, just a short walk from the Palace of the Popes, is a great place to wander around or just relax and enjoy the Provence sun. This sprawling green space covering seven acres is designed around a large pond full of ducks and geese (and its adjacent snack bar).
The park also provides beautiful views of the surrounding area, which are explained on signs around the grounds. On a clear day you should be able to see as far as Mont Ventoux, the tallest mountain in Provence. A visit here is one of the best things to do in Avignon in the spring or summer.
Visit the Musee du Petit Palais
Also in the historic center of Avignon is the Musee du Petit Palais, a cardinal’s palace turned art gallery. It contains a world-class collection of Renaissance works from Italy and from the Avignon school, all dealing with Christian themes. These include prominent works by Botticelli, Carpaccio, and Giovanni di Paolo.
Depending on your level of interest in the details, a walk through the museum will take about an hour. In addition to the impressive artworks, the museum is also home to a garden café.
Be mesmerized at the Les Halles market
Not far from the historic area, Les Halles, Avignon’s covered market, has a permanent home on Place Pie. One of the best markets in Provence, Les Halles is home to 40 stalls selling just about every food item one could think of.
Several of the shops will heat up the dish of your choice for you to enjoy in the square just outside the market. There are also several bars and “sit-down” restaurants inside, if you’re looking to stay in the air conditioning as long as possible. Even if you’re not hungry, Les Halles is certainly worth a visit for the colors and scents alone.
Stroll Rue des Teinturiers
If you’re wondering what to do in Avignon in the afternoon, the pretty Rue des Teinturiers (Street of the Dyers) is a short walk from Les Halles. This tree- and canal-lined street used to be home to Avignon’s cloth industry–weaving and dyeing. Remnants of this past can be seen in the form of four water wheels along the canal.
A walk along this street is one of the best things to do in Avignon outside the historic center. The cobbled street is now home to a number of shops, galleries, and cafes shaded by the ubiquitous plane trees where you can easily while away an afternoon. My favorite stop along this path is La Cave des Pas Sages, where you can get a cheap glass of regional wine (€2,50-3,50) at one of their lovely outdoor tables.
My visits to the Palace of the Popes and the Musee du Petit Palais were hosted by Avignon Tourisme. All opinions of the beautiful and charming are my own. Note: Some links may be affiliate links, which means Travel Addicts may earn a few pennies if you buy something, at no additional cost to you.
Have you been to Avignon? What was your favorite thing to do there?