Storied cities, Roman ruins, a celebrated coastline, endless lavender fields, excellent wining, dining, and antiquing—we could easily make a list numbering into the hundreds of why a trip to the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region should be in your sightline this year. But for now, we’ve limited it to our top 10.
1. The French Riviera Coastline is Absolutely Iconic.
Few places are more appealing than the sun-dappled towns and villages that border the Mediterranean coast of France. Cities spill from the edges of the rugged cliffs, tiny towns and sandy beaches are tucked among the coves, and chic yachts drift past in the impossibly blue Côte d’Azur. Where to go? There’s St. Tropez, the legendary vacation getaway for the rich and famous; Cannes, a resort city is renowned for the glitz and glamour of the annual Festival de Cannes; Nice, known for the hills, harbor, and ruins that inspired artists like Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse; and the vibrant port city of Marseille, France’s oldest and third-largest city. And don’t overlook smaller, sleepier coastal towns like charming Villefranche-sur-Mer, Avignon, or Arles, where the sights and sounds of daily living echo that of life lived on the same streets hundreds of years ago. The absolute best way to see the coastline is from the water, so consider chartering a luxury yacht, sail boat, or catamaran to make your way from port to beautiful port.
2. You Don’t Have to Go to Rome to See Perfectly Preserved Roman Ruins.
Some of the best-preserved architectural remains of the Roman empire outside of Rome itself are in Provence. Among the highlights are the town of Avignon, once the center of the Roman Catholic world, which retains the famous Pont d’Avignon (Avignon Bridge); the ancient city of Nîmes, home to the Nîmes Arena, an amphitheater that showcases the former prestige of Rome; Orange, which claims several UNESCO–listed sites including the Triumphal Arch; and the mighty Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct that crosses the Gardon River near the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard.
3. The Provençal Markets Are Chock-Full of Treats and Treasures.
You truly haven’t experienced life in Provence until you’ve hit one of the region’s numerous markets. Choosing fresh produce, picking up flowers, wandering among the wares—it’s an essential French experience. Every village has weekly market; in larger cities and towns, markets are hosted multiple times a week or even daily. The best of the bunch, though, are the flower market in Nice, the Marché Forville in Cannes, the fish market in Marseille and the daily market at Place Richelme in Aix-en-Provence. In addition to seeking out fresh nibbles like sun-ripened apricots and herb-soaked olives, be on the lookout for staples like savon de Marseille (considered to be some of the best soap in the world); locally-grown dried lavender bunches, or packets of the region’s herbes de Provence. Any make for an excellent souvenir.
Read More: The Best Provence Markets
4. You Simply Must Taste Bouillabaisse Where it was Invented.
The famous fish stew was first concocted in France’s oldest city, Marseille. Around the old port, dozens of restaurants tempt you through the door with promises that their bouillabaisse is the very best. Sample your way around, or tuck in at these tried-and-true local favorites: Chez Michel, a family-run restaurant known for bouillabaisse and other seafood dishes, or Chez Fonfon, a restaurant that regularly earns rave reviews of both its bouillabaisse and its sea views.
5. Aix-en-Provence, a.k.a., “the Mini Paris” Beckons.
Ahh, Aix. This Provençal gem, sometimes described as a mini Paris, is considered one of the most gorgeous cities in France. There’s no Eiffel Tower here of course; instead, the 400-year-old promenade of the Cours Mirabeau is ground zero to people-watch and get a feel for the city. Dotted with cafes, market stalls, 17th- and 18th-century townhouses, fountains, statues, you’ll easily find yourself lingering along this tree-lined boulevard for hours. But pull yourself away at some point, and don’t miss a chance to visit some of Aix-en-Provence’s other delights like Atelier Cézanne, the former studio of post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, or the Musée Granet, where you’ll find works by artists Anthony van Dyck, Pierre Puget and, of course, Cézanne himself.
Read More: A Saturday in Aix-en-Provence
6. Provence’s Colors and Light May Inspire Your Own Inner Artist.
The sun-kissed hues of Provence and the Côte d’Azur have been a siren call to artists and aesthetes for centuries. Most famously, the region’s beauty has inspired a number of world-famous artists, from Paul Cézanne (as detailed in #5), to Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Paul Gaugain, Henri Matisse, and more. Add Arles and Saint-Remy de Provence to your must-visit list, as these are the towns where Van Gogh was most prolific—painting over 350 works in a matter of months—in his mad quest to capture the region’s “yellow sun.” So what exactly makes the skies so striking in Provence? It’s said that the mix of the mistral wind from the Alps and the area’s warm temperatures creates Provence’s gasp-inducing clarity, best viewed during the “blue hour” around dawn and dusk. Who knows, perhaps Provence’s marvelous light will inspire you to pick up a paintbrush of your own—or at very least, a camera.
7. “Rosé All Day” is Simply a Lifestyle in Provence.
Upwards of 90% of all the wine produced in Provence is rosé, and so it’s a sure bet that while in the region, your glass should be continually filled with the fruity, dry pink drink. The French believe that a rosé can go with any food, though it’s particularly good with seafood. In general, buying a bottle local to the area you’re staying in is the rule, though keep an eye out for highly-rated bottles like the 2017 Mas de Gourgonnier rosé, produced by a Les Baux-de-Provence house that’s been certified organic since 1975. Just remember to cheers your companions with the phrase à votre santé (to your health).
Read More: Pretty in Pink – Drinking Rosé in Provence
8. There’s No Better Place to Lose Yourself in Lavender.
Some say that lavender is the soul of Provence, and in the summertime, as the fields everywhere from Luberon to Aix to Roussillon turn a vibrant purple, this rings true. And naturally, lavender is used in practically everything: aromatherapy oils, lotions, soaps, tinctures, and more. If you’re interested, the Les Agnels Distillerie de Lavande is a great place to get a glimpse of the inner workings of a distillery and see the fields up close, or, time your visit with the summer Lavender Festivals in Sault and Valreas.
9. Lunches are Meant to be Long and Leisurely.
Yes, a long lunch is part of French culture in general, but lingering over a meal is even more pleasurable in Provence, where the region’s 300-some days of sunshine allow for year-round al fresco dining. Look particularly for the changing daily two-to-three-course set menu offered by most restaurants and cafes, which tend to make the most of seasonal local herbs, produce, and meat. Pair your dishes with a glass of wine, of course…and if you like, follow up the meal with a relaxing nap.
10. Natural Wonders Like Gorges du Verdon Must Be Seen With Your Own Eyes
Remember, Provence isn’t just all olive groves, vineyards, and lavender fields. The Gorges du Verdon, France’s deepest chasm, is the most dramatic of Provence’s natural landscapes—and driving the breathtaking circular “corniche” route around the rim of the gorge is an unforgettable experience. Once you’ve seen the gorge from on high, consider exploring it from the water as well. There’s ample opportunities to hire a boat or strike out in a kayak at the lower end of the gorge as well.