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, it 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 two-week Provence adventure. Here are a few of my best suggestions for things to do in Avignon.
Relax in Place de l’Horloge
Place de l’Horloge (Clock Tower Square), the city’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 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.
Visit the Palace of the Popes
From 1309-1378, seven popes occupied the massive Palace of the Popes (Palais des Papes) 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 guided tours to help spark your imagination. It’s one of the top places to visit in Provence.
This half-day tour will let you skip the line at the Palace of the Popes, see the highlights of the city, and do a wine-tasting.
Step inside Avignon Cathedral
Next to the Palace of the Popes is Avignon Cathedral. The seat of the Archbishop of Avignon, the Cathedral dates from 1111, though it has been reconstructed, renovated, and expanded many times over the last 900 years.
The cathedral is most recognizable by the giant gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the belltower. Inside the recently-renovated interior, you’ll find lots of artworks, two organs, and a marble throne used by the Popes that dates from the 12th century.
Have 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.
Wander 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.
See the artwork at Musee du Petit Palais
Also in the historic center 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.
Browse 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 and sip on 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 at one of their lovely outdoor tables.
Visit Manguin Distillery
One of the unique places to see when visiting Avignon is Manguin Distillery. Just beyond the city walls on the Barthelasse island, Manguin makes a variety of brandies and liqueurs. They’re most well-known for their Poire Williams, a fabulous pear brandy with the pear “imprisoned” in the bottle. If you visit in the spring, you can actually see bottles tied to the trees with the pears growing inside.
The Manguin Distillery shop is open Monday through Saturday. Every Saturday at 11am, visitors can tour the distillery, learn about the steps that go into making their products, and sample a variety of the brandies and fruit creams. The tour is in French, but there is an English pamphlet, and the staff speaks fluent English to answer any questions.
See the wonders of Nimes
Just a half-hour away by train, Nimes is a great destination for a day trip or even a quick visit.
Don’t miss the cool Roman ruins in town. The Arena of Nimes, which dates from 70AD, is reminiscent of the Colosseum in Rome and is one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world. Not far away, you’ll find Maison Carree, an ancient Roman temple that now houses an exhibit about the history of the South of France.
After seeing the historical sights, pay a visit to the local market to browse and stop for seafood and a glass of wine at one of the stalls. Wrap up your trip with a stroll around the gorgeous Les Jardins de la Fontaine, a 17th-century public park with gardens and ponds.
Where to Stay
The two primary ways to travel to Avignon are by flying into Paris or Marseille. From Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, you can take the high-speed TGV train to Avignon’s TGV station and then transfer to the city center (about 3 hours). Or, you can fly into Marseille and take a local train (30-60 min, depending on the train). A private transfer from Marseille makes the journey even more convenient.
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.
Have you been to Avignon? What was your favorite thing to do there?