Anyone familiar with cathedrals will sense something peculiar about this sublime medieval building: There are two apses, one at the west end where the portal to the nave would normally be, and another on the usual east side.
This makes the cathedral utterly unique and came about because the apse on the west end is a vestige from an earlier Romanesque church that burned down in 1308. In this older apse, there’s a fresco painted in the 1100s, and you can descend into the crypt to see an entombment from the 1400s.
The nave and the eastern apse meanwhile are Gothic and mostly from the 13th and 14th centuries
2 Palais Ducal
On the high ground where Nevers’ political and religious institutions are set is the Ducal Palace, the symbol of power for the old Counts and Dukes of Nevers.
The architecture is spellbinding; it’s a blend of Renaissance designs from the 16th and 17th centuries, with dormer windows, decorative chimneys and a central spiral staircase you can see from the front.
The man who started it was Jean de Clemency, the Count of Nevers, who wanted to live in something more stately than a fortress.
The palace is now the town hall but also houses Nevers’ tourist office and an exhibition about the city’s past.
3. Musée de la Faïence
Heaven for people with an eye for fine decorative items, this museum in a Benedictine abbey has hundreds of pieces of local faience.
You’ll appreciate the technical know-how of the Nevers Manufactories.
And this comes in all forms, including tiles, dishes, ceremonial plates statuettes and bottles, all representing more than four centuries of expertise.
But the galleries don’t end there as you can also admire almost 300 pieces of intricate enameled glass from the 17th and 18th centuries, crafted with a technique that has since been lost.
On top of all this, there’s a stash of art from the French and Italian Schools.
4. Faience Workshops
Nevers’ faience industry took off at the end of the 1500s when Italian potters settled here at the invitation of the Duke of Nevers.
Everything was just right for this craft, as the Loire promised swift export and the wood sourced from the Morvan forest could belt out the 1000°C heat to bake these ceramics.
The trade went into decline at the end of the 18th century and only one of the original 12 manufactories survived.
Since the 20th century, there has been a rebirth, and you can call in at three workshops, Faiencerie d’art de Nevers, Faiencerie Georges, and Faiencerie Bleue to see a master potter at work and make a purchase.
5. Porte du Croux
There’s a really evocative slab of medieval heritage on the west side of the old center: Looking at the Porte du Croux as you enter the city you can see the slits in the front of the gate for the chains on the drawbridge.
Back in the 14th century, this would have been lowered to allow people to cross the Passière River, which has since moved underground.
Look higher and you’ll see the machicolations and turrets that are supported by corbels.
Inside there’s a little archaeology exhibit for Nevers and its region spread over three floors.
6. Promenade des Remparts
From the Porte du Croux you can stroll down to the right bank of the Loire in a pretty garden complemented by a long sliver of the city’s old walls.
These defenses were built in the 12th century by the Count of Nevers, Pierre de Courtenay to defend the Abbey of Notre-Dame.
After the 1600s they were never needed again.
But this long stretch of the wall remained incorporated by local properties, while the land that became the garden was never developed because of its marshy ground.
So by a quirk of history and the landscape, there’s now a big chunk of the medieval wall beside pergolas, trees, a rose garden and flowerbeds, all ending with vistas over the Loire from the Quai des Mariniers.
7. Église Saint-Étienne
Although not many tourists make it to this church on the east side of the city, anyone who values historic architecture should make the short walk.
The Church of Saint-Étienne is an exceptional Romanesque building, built from a subtly golden limestone more than 900 years ago and hardly altered since then.
The great 19th-century restorer Viollet-le-Duc called it “the most perfect 11th-century monument left to France”. The architecture is sober, and there isn’t much sculpture or ornamentation, but for the purity of style and preservation, you’ll have to travel a long way to beat this church.
8. Nevers Magny-Cours Circuit
Petrolheads will be aware that the French Grand Prix was a yearly fixture at this racetrack up to 2008 when the French Motorsports Federation pulled out of the tour.
The track is only 15 minutes down the road and apart from welcoming a few minor international events, is mostly used for heritage rallies, testing and “track days”. So if you’d fancy taking a spin on a circuit graced by the likes of Michael Schumacher, Mika Häkkinen and Ayrton Senna you can book a driving experience with one of the companies putting you behind the wheel of a Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche or F1 car.
9. Espace Bernadette
Nevers is also a big pilgrimage site as it was where Bernadette Soubirous became a postulant and worked in a convent until she passed away in 1879. In case you’re wondering, Soubirous was the woman who witnessed the supposed Marian Apparition that turned the town of Lourdes into one of the most important places in the Catholic world.
There’s a museum here, at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity, explaining her life and routine around the former Saint-Gildard Convent.
Her apparently incorrupt body is displayed in the adjacent chapel.
10. Église Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay
If you wander up to Nevers’ northern suburbs you’ll come across a building that looks nothing like the delicate architecture in the old center.
You’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’ve found a relic from the war, as this church bears a striking resemblance to a German concrete bunker.
That is no coincidence because the functionalist designer Paul Virilio was a big admirer of the blockhouses that were scattered around France in the post-war years.
There are two half-shells of concrete cantilevered on a central pillar, and we can guarantee that you’ve never seen a church like it.
11. Voie Verte de Nevers
In the 19th century, along the canal was dug to run alongside the Loire to ensure that goods could still be shipped when the river flooded in winter or dried up in summer.
At Nevers, a 13-kilometer length of the canal’s towpath has been converted into a greenway.
This designated cycle lane allows riders of all ages to get out into the verdant countryside around Nevers, which is a mosaic of market gardens bounded by hedges.
And if you’re up for something more adventurous, at the Pont de Guetin the greenway connects with Loire à Vélo, a signposted and serviced trail that traces the river all the way to its estuary in the Atlantic.
12. Chapelle Sainte-Marie
Navigating the streets of the center, this extravagant building on Rue Saint-Martin should turn your head.
The Chapelle Sainte-Marie has a lavish Italian Baroque style that is unheard of in the Nivernais region and rare in the rest of France too.
It was attached to the Monastery of the Visitation and was built in the first half of the 17th century.
The future Queen of Poland, Duchess Louise-Marie de Gonzague laid the first stone.
It’s enough to pause in front and gaze at the columns and statue of Madonna with Child, but you can go into nose around on Saturdays in summer.
13. The Loire
You could also ramble next to this “Fleuve Royal” and imagine the barges shipping faience to all corners of France and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The banks around Nevers are picturesque and quiet, with little more than woodland, water meadows, hedgerows and vegetable farms.
If you sort out a fishing license you could visit these banks to catch perch, pike, whitefish, and carp.
And you could also rent a canoe or take part in a guided paddle with the Canoë Club Nivernais.
For a motorized voyage there’s a small port at Sermoise-sur-Loire where you can hire a boat for a day or more on the Lateral Canal.
The Allier River joins with the Loire a couple of kilometers west of Never, and if you retrace the course of the Allier for a few minutes you’ll come to a village that needs to be seen to be believed.
Apremont is a group of tiny settlements on the west bank of the river.
Here the Allier’s waters, the rich greenery on the riverside, the rustic stone houses and the Château d’Apremont all combine to make this an unforgettable place.
The Château’s grounds are a marvelous floral park, flowing down to the river and decorated with follies, ponds, and cascades.
15. Local Gastronomy
To order something regional when you’re at a restaurant in Nevers, go for Charolais beef, which is a cornerstone of Burgundy’s meaty cuisine.
In Nevers, this will be served as a tartare, but if that makes you uncomfortable the entrecôte steaks are fantastic.
There’s also fish straight from the Loire, and perch, pike, trout or small fry (deep-friend) are all on the menu.
At the Carnot covered market, open Tuesday to Saturday mornings you could also get to know some other local products like goats’ cheese, honey and pain d’épices, a sweetly spiced loaf similar to gingerbread. Where to stay: Best Hotels in Nevers, France Lowest Price Guarantee
If you’re visiting Paris it pays to venture beyond the Boulevard Périphérique and see what you can find around the wider Île-de-France region.
Many of the attractions like the Palace of Versailles and Disneyland Paris will be known to all, but some exciting discoveries may not.
If you can’t get enough of châteaux and formal gardens you could spend days jumping from one stately home to another, while the homes of all sorts of famous French personalities also open their doors to the public.
You may also want to get clear of the hubbub of the Parisian streets for restorative days walking in the countryside, and the good news is you’ll never have to travel far.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Île-de-France:
1. Palace of Versailles
You’ll have read about it and seen it in movies, but these can’t prepare for the size and splendor of the palace in real life.
The gardens alone took 40 years to complete.
There’s such an array of things to see that it may make your head spin, but whatever you do make sure you get to palace as early as possible to avoid the worst of the queues as it does get very busy.
Among the many musts is the Hall of Mirrors, the scene of momentous events like the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and a bold symbol of the economic power wielded by Louis XIV in the 17th-century.
One of the world’s great cities hardly requires an introduction.
Paris shines for its culture, history, shopping, nightlife and landmarks that are etched in everyone’s minds.
A whistle-stop tour means packing in as many of those unmistakable sights as possible and has to include the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, a walk up through Montmartre to the Sacré-Cœur and a cruise on the Seine.
But that’s just for starters, and if you have a particular interest in French art or history you can give your curiosity free rein at countless museums around the capital.
3. Disneyland Paris, Marne-la-Vallée
These are two theme parks that are part of the same resort.
The first, Disneyland Park opened in 1992 and is the most popular theme park in Europe, and in the top ten most-visited in the world.
It’s no exaggeration to say there’s something for everyone in the park’s five “Lands”, holding 49 attractions, from the high-speed Space Mountain: Mission 2, to the kid-friendly Alice’s Curious Labyrinth in Fantasyland.
Neighboring Walt Disney Studios gets almost as many visitors and brings to life the movie-making process with zones like the “Backlot” where there’s a gripping action show with stunt drivers.
4. Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, Maincy
There’s a story to go with this extravagant domed palace and gardens that is just as riveting as the architecture.
It was built for Nicolas Fouquet, a precocious young man in Louis XIV’s court, Appointed Superintendent of Finances in the 1640s.
The complex was the work of Louis le Vau, André le Nôtre and Charles le Brun, all later responsible for Versailles.
But Fouquet’s ambition, as epitomised by Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, inspired the king’s suspicion and he was jailed from 1661 until he died in 1680. Hear about his life via the audio tour as you peruse his home, which was the last word in 17th-century opulence.
5. Château de Courances, Essonne
Set an hour south of Paris by road, this palace has formal gardens that are held among the most beautiful in France.
The mid-17th-century renaissance water features have drawn the admiration of visitors for centuries, with a sequence of long rectangular ponds fed by water from a natural source.
The château and grounds are quite unusual as they’re still privately-owned, but they open up to visitors on the weekends.
It’s impossible not to feel distinguished as you saunter along the boulevards and past the pools, but don’t neglect the Japanese garden laid out by Duchêne and Mme de Ganay, ancestors of the current occupiers in 1930.
6. Domaine de Sceaux
These are the fabulous grounds of the Château de Sceaux, built in the 17th century for Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis XIV’s finance minister.
After the revolution, the original palace was demolished, but many of the 17th-century structures around the park remain, including the orangery, stables and a stunning pavilion.
The gardens were restored in the mid-19th century when a more modest version of the château was also erected.
Take a leisurely stroll through the parterre, past scrupulously-groomed topiaries and carpet-like lawns.
Those lovely 17th-century outbuildings have housed the Musée d’Ile-de-France since 1973, with exhibitions about the history of Paris and special attention paid to the Parisian art scene in the early-1900s.
7. Le Parc de la Vallée-aux-Loups, Châtenay-Malabry
Sprawling over 60 hectares, the Parc de la Vallée-aux-Loups is a set of parks and gardens on the southern fringe of Paris.
The most photogenic part is the arboretum, which is founded on the nurseries of the Croux family and is replete with exotic species.
Two of the trees in this garden have been awarded the label “Arbre Remarquable de France”, weeping blue atlas cedar and a myrsine-leaved oak, an extremely rare variety.
You can make an afternoon of it by bringing a picnic or calling in at the cafe, or having a look around the romantic writer Chateaubriand’s home here.
8. Basilica Cathedral of Saint-Denis
Saint-Denis may be one of the scruffier parts of outer Paris, but it has an enchanting gothic cathedral where all but three of France’s kings are buried.
This alone makes it a must-see.
You can choose between a two-hour guided tour, guidebook, or handheld audio guide.
Before you go in pause for a moment before the western facade, which was built in 1130 and among the earliest example of gothic architecture in the world.
See the funerary monuments, including the Order of Saint-Louis, dating to 1250, where the tombs of 16 successive kings are in a row to express the connection between their dynasties.
Later the tombs were designed during the monarchs’ lifetimes and become very elaborate, like the renaissance marble sculpture for Louis XII and Anne de Bretagne.
9. Forest of Fontainebleau
For fresh air, you could take a day trip south of Paris to this oak and Scots pine forest covering 280 square kilometers.
The forest is so vast that it’s worth popping into the tourist office for trail maps, whether you’re walking or mountain biking.
There are 16 different hiking routes specially laid-out for visitors, all depending on how long you want to walk and what sort of terrain you’d like to tackle.
They’ll lead you to some cool natural monuments like caves and huge boulders that you can climb over.
Pay a visit to Fontainebleau, the town cradled at the heart of the forest, with a UNESCO-listed palace that was a home for monarchs from the 1200s up to Napoleon III in the 19th century.
10. Maison Jean Cocteau, Milly-la-Forêt
The 20th-century French cultural icon settled in this house in 1947 and stayed there until he died in 1963. Jean Cocteau was famed for his large circle of influential friends, and during this time some of the world’s most celebrated artists were welcomed here as guests, most notably Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.
Fans of Cocteau’s work will be absorbed by the sheer wealth of material to sift through, including manuscripts, sketches and film and sound clips as you step through his office, lounge area, and bedroom.
Artwork by Picasso, Modigliani and Warhol are on show, and there’s a screening room where you can get an introduction to Cocteau’s acclaimed cinematic works.
11. Musée Albert-Kahn, Boulogne-Billancourt
In this posh suburb just to the west of Paris is a museum where you can delve into the work of the turn-of-the-century banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn.
He is best known for the “Archives de la Planète” a mammoth archive of 72,000 color photographs taken around the world between 1909 and 1931. There’s nothing to compare to it anywhere else.
If you’re inspired by anthropology or vintage photography you can kill hours perusing these photos.
But you’d be remiss not to see the park, also designed by Kahn and modeled on locations around the world.
Come on certain days in the summer and you can even take part in a Kyoto-style Japanese tea ceremony in these tranquil gardens.
12. Château de Vincennes
In Paris’ eastern suburbs, close enough to the center to reach via Metro Line 1, is a vast French royal castle, the only in the area to be completely fortified.
Surprisingly few tourists make it to this landmark, but it’s brimming with history and is a no-nonsense alternative to Versailles.
The castle’s roots go back to the 12th century when it was chosen as a hunting lodge for Louis VII: King of England, Henry V died at Vincennes in 1422 from dysentery, while Louis XIV also lived here in the 17th century while Versailles was being built.
The tour will take an hour, and you have to follow this up with a turn in the grounds, designed
ou can recount the last days of van Gogh at this village 35 minutes northwest of Paris by train.
The beloved post-impressionist painter was extremely productive in the last 70 days of his life, producing 70 works before he died. As the village is also now within the Vexin Natural Regional Park it is a conservation zone and can’t be expanded or altered, and so gives you a good snapshot of life in the late-19th century.
In the summer there’s a daily “In the Steps of van Gogh” tour, pointing out the main landmarks, including scenes that he painted and the Auberge Ravoux where he died in 1890. His grave is next to his brother Theo’s, who passed away six months later.
14. Parc des Félins, Lumigny-Nesles-Ormeaux
This zoo 55 kilometers southeast of Paris is all about feline conservation, and this calls for large enclosures that encourage the park’s cheetahs, lions, lynxes and leopards to reproduce.
For people who want ethical animal treatment, it’s a guilt-free attraction, and also one of the most complete overviews of the cat family.
Of the world’s 41 cat species, 30 are kept at Parc des Félins.
The spacious enclosures have a potential downside, in that it can be hard to spot the cats in the undergrowth, but there are carefully-positioned viewing windows that get you a bit closer.
Littler visitors can meet and feed goats at the petting zoo, and there’s a lemur section where these adorable primates roam free and often approach visitors.
15. Château de Malmaison
Set in Rueil-Malmaison, this manor house was Empress Joséphine’s residence, which she bought in 1799 while Napoleon was away for the Egyptian Campaign.
She remained here after her divorce with Napoleon until her death in 1814. It’s a large château and needed a lot of restoration when it was purchased, and Napoleon hadn’t been pleased with the expense! The French government was based at Malmaison and the Tuileries at the start of the 19th century, and it’s now a museum dedicated to Napoleon, with loads of intriguing objects belonging to him and especially Joséphine, like her porcelain dining service and opulently furnished chambers.
A stroll through the quaint old streets of Rouen, in Upper Normandy, feels like a walk back in time. History awaits at every turn, from the Middle Ages to the modern era. For believers, the journey leads a few steps closer to heaven. Rouen has more than 50 religious buildings, and many of the churches are gems of Gothic architecture. Most of the top tourist attractions in Rouen lie within the city’s pedestrian zone, a charming area of winding medieval lanes and picturesque half-timbered houses. Highlights include the magnificent cathedral, the renowned Fine Arts Museum, and the remarkable Gros-Horloge clock tower. In Rouen, visitors can retrace the steps of Joan of Arc to see where she went to trial and where she was martyred. Tourists can also witness the destruction suffered during the Second World War. The exquisite facade of the Palais de Justice still has evidence of shell holes from Allied bombings
1 Cathédrale Notre-Dame
In the heart of the old town, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame is one of the largest and most impressive Gothic cathedrals in France. The cathedral’s main structure was built in the 13th century but the building was not completed until the 16th century. Viewers are dazzled by the elaborate facade, which inspired Impressionist painter Claude Monet. The cathedral’s central doorway was the subject of Monet’s famous painting series. He painted the scene at different times of day to capture the effects of various lighting. Above the facade, two towers loom over the town. The tower on the right is called the Tour du Beurre (Butter Tower) because it was paid for by offerings from the faithful, who in return were permitted to eat butter during Lent. The cathedral also boasts France’s highest spire at 151 meters. Despite damage during the Second World War, the cathedral still has some original stained glass windows.
2 Musée des Beaux-Arts
The Musée des Beaux-Arts ranks among the most important art museums in France. In a shady tree-lined square, this fine arts museum is renowned for its variety and breadth of artistic movements. The collection presents a wide range of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and objets d’art from the 15th century to the 21st century. The most notable works include the 17th-century masterpieces by Caravaggio, Diego Velázquez, Anton van Dyck, Nicolas Poussin, and Philippe de Champaigne, as well as the 19th-century works of Eugène Delacroix; Théodore Géricault; Paul Delaroche; and Impressionists Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There are also rooms devoted to landscape art, with paintings by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Hubert Robert, and Gaspar van Wittel.
3 Abbatiale Saint-Ouen
This majestic 14th-century building was created as a church for the powerful Benedictine monastery of Saint-Ouen and is considered a masterpiece of Late Gothic architecture. The building’s tower is topped with a pinnacled section known as the “Crown of Normandy.” With its immense proportions, the abbey’s harmonious vaulted interior offers a peaceful space for spiritual worship. There are 80 exquisite stained-glass windows, which allow light to filter into the sanctuary. In the south transept of the abbey is the Portail des Marmousets that depicts events of the Virgin Mary. Visitors should also be sure to see the famous organ built by Cavaillé-Coll that is often used for recorded musical concerts. On the same square as the abbey stands the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), once used as the dormitory for the monastery’s monks. Behind the Hôtel de Ville are the former abbey gardens, now a public park.
4 Aître Saint-Maclou
One of the most interesting tourist attractions in Rouen, the Aître Saint-Maclou is a medieval building that currently houses the Ecole Supérieure d’Art et Design (Regional School of Fine Arts) in the southern gallery. The history of the site dates back to the “Black Death” plague of 1348 that killed a third of the town’s inhabitants. The space that is now a pleasant courtyard was once used for burials, and the buildings surrounding the cemetery served as the ossuary. The building’s galleries feature macabre decor depicting skulls, bones, gravedigger tools, and objects of funeral rites. The skeleton of a cat was discovered in the masonry. During the Middle Ages, cats (especially black cats) were considered to be evil spirits, and the cat would have been enclosed here (while still alive) to protect against bad luck.
5 Palais de Justice and Monument Juif
A splendid example of medieval civilian architecture, the Palais de Justice houses the Rouen Law Courts and was the meeting place of the Parliament of Normandy. This Gothic masterpiece was built by Rolland Le Roux in 1508-1509, damaged during World War II, and subsequently restored. The building is not open for tours, but visitors will be awed by the ornate detailing of the facade and especially the incredible gargoyles. The central wing features a resplendent balustrade, soaring pinnacles, and perforated buttresses. The Palais de Justice was damaged during an Allied bombing in 1944 and the shell holes are still visible in the building’s walls.
In 1976, during a renovation of the Palais de Justice, the remains of a beautiful stone building were uncovered beneath the courtyard. The building was determined to be the lower room of an old Yeshiva (rabbinical school) that dates from 1100. Once uncovered, this Monument Juif (Jewish Monument) was immediately protected by an archaeological crypt. The location, as revealed by the street name (“rue aux Juif” translates to “Street of the Jews”), was at the center of the old Jewish quarter that flourished during the time of William the Conqueror until the expulsion of the Jews in 1306. Rouen’s Monument Juif is the oldest Jewish monument discovered in France. The Monument Juif will be closed for restoration work beginning in the fall of 2017.
6 Tour du Gros-Horloge (Big Clock Tower)
One of the most emblematic sites in the historic center of Rouen, the Gros-Horloge lies just south of the Palais de Justice. From the southeast corner of the Place du Vieux Marché (where the Eglise Jeanne d’Arc is located), the Rue de Gros-Horloge leads to the cathedral. Halfway along this charming route of cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses, the Tour du Gros-Horloge adjoins a Renaissance pavilion. The Gothic belfry tower was built in 1389 for defensive purposes and the decorative clock dates from 1889. The belfry clock still serves its timekeeping functions for the city. Visitors should take a moment to admire the clock’s incredible details. The deity symbolizing the day of the week appears on a triumphal chariot at noon. A globe above the dial shows the phases of the moon, and sheep represent the wool industry. Depicted in the middle of the clock, a Passover lamb represents the arms of the city.
7 Eglise Saint-Maclou
Just a short walk east of the cathedral stands the Eglise Saint-Maclou, considered a jewel of Flamboyant Gothic architecture. The church was built in 1437 and dedicated to Saint-Malo. The twin-towered building has a decorative porch that features Renaissance-era wooden doors embellished with intricately carved Biblical scenes. A blend of different architectural styles is found throughout the church, from the Gothic staircase to the Baroque confessionals. Saint-Maclou Church was severely damaged during WWII and has been well restored. In particular, the belfry was repaired and its five church bells now resound with daily chiming.
8 Eglise Jeanne d’Arc
This surprisingly modern church allows visitors to appreciate the invincible spirit of Joan of Arc, who spent the last days of her life in Rouen. The church was built at the Place du Vieux Marché, the very site where Joan of Arc was martyred (she was burned at the stake in the center of the square). Designed to commemorate the famous saint, the Eglise Jeanne d’Arc was given a radical design. The shape of the church’s roof represents the flames of the stake. Inside the church are spectacular Renaissance stained-glass windows that were taken from the former Church of Saint-Vincent. This contemporary church provides an inspiring place for spiritual worship.
9 Musée Le Secq des Tournelles
Housed in the former Gothic church of Saint Laurent, this unique museum boasts an exceptional collection of antique wrought-ironwork. The 15th-century church building still has its stunning stained-glass windows, including the remarkable “Tree of Jesus” window. The largest museum of its kind in the world, it contains 14,000 items that date from the Gallo-Roman era to the 19th century. The collection covers a wide range and variety of ironwork, such as railings, door knockers, locks, scientific instruments, and jewelry. The collection was donated by Henri Le Secq des Tournelles.
10 Musée de la Céramique
In the elegant Hôtel d’Hocqueville, the Museum of Ceramics displays a wonderful collection of faience and porcelain. The collection includes earthenware from Rouen as well as from other cities such as Delft. Two rooms of the museum are devoted to delicate Sèvres porcelain from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are also examples of Rococo chinoiserie, ceremonial dinnerware sets, and lovely faience sculptures.
11 Tour Jeanne d’Arc
When Joan of Arc was brought to trial in 1431, she was taken to the dungeon of this tower to stand before her judges. Here she endured threats of torture by those who accused her of heresy. The Tour Jeanne d’Arc is the only remaining part of the château built by Philippe Auguste in 1207. The large and imposing cylindrical tower features three superimposed rooms and an attic.
Provence is one of nature’s most vibrant works of art. Everything is brighter here than elsewhere in France. The sunshine, the red poppies, yellow sunflowers, and deep purple lavender fields. Even the traditional Provençal fabrics feature prints of intense colors. From verdant rolling hills and quaint fishing ports to picturesque villages perched on rocky outcrops, each detail of the landscape seems designed to delight. It’s no wonder the region charmed many famous painters, including Cézanne, Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Vasarély, and Léger.
The art de Vivre (“art of living”) is a way of life in Provence, similar to the dolce vita in neighboring Italy. A sunny climate, slow-paced lifestyle, and rustic earthiness encourage relaxation. In Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, tourists and locals alike bask on the terraces of outdoor cafés, shop at open-air markets, and admire amazing art at top-notch museums. Outside of the cities are off-the-beaten-path destinations and attractions in the Haut-Vaucluse and Luberon areas: ancient Roman outposts, walled medieval towns, and fortified castles. Throughout the region, visitors can enjoy delicious Mediterranean cuisine based on olive oil, vegetables, and aromatic herbs. Fresh local ingredients are transformed into specialties such as pistou, a basil and garlic sauce; bouillabaisse, a flavorful fish stew; fougasse, soft braided bread; and pissaladière, a pizza-like tart of caramelized onions, anchovies, and black olives.
1 Aix-en-Provence: Quintessential Provence
Aix-en-Provence has the elegance of Paris combined with the warmth of Southern France. This traditional Provençal town is distinguished by its shady tree-lined streets, historic squares, and ornate fountains. A legacy of the ancient Roman heritage, one thousand flowing monuments are found throughout the city. The hub of Aix-en-Provence is the Cours Mirabeau, a broad boulevard with outdoor cafés that are bustling on sunny days and balmy evenings. Other places that are top on tourists’ sightseeing lists are the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur, with its flamboyant mix of architectural styles, and the Musée Granet, an exceptional fine arts museum with masterpieces by Ingres, Rembrandt, Rubens, Cézanne, Monet, and Picasso, among others. Lovers of Post-Impressionist art should tour the Atelier Cézanne (studio), on the Colline des Lauves, where Cézanne painted his “still life” pieces. Near the studio is a spot on the Chemin de la Marguerite overlooking Mont Sainte-Victoire, the landscape Cézanne cherished and that inspired him to create many paintings.
Many travelers visit Aix-en-Provence to experience the traditional outdoor Provençal markets, held at the town’s spacious squares. At the Place de la Mairie is a popular flower market that’s pictured in many tourist brochures, while fruit and vegetable markets are found at the Place des Prêcheurs and Place de la Madeleine. Aix-en-Provence’s most traditional farmer’s market is held daily at the Place Richelme; this market is considered one of the best fruit, vegetable, and gourmet food markets in Provence. Aix-en-Provence is also renowned for its local cuisine, artisanal culinary products, and specialty items such as Calissons d’Aix, sweet almond candies. For fine dining, L’Esprit de la Violette (10 Avenue de la Violette) is a Michelin-starred restaurant that prepares modern Provençal cuisine from the finest local ingredients. The legendary Brasserie Les Deux Garçons (53 Cours Mirabeau) has a sidewalk terrace where patrons can watch the world go by. Cézanne was once a regular habitué, and Picasso, Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Edith Piaf were also counted among the celebrity patrons.
2 Avignon: Medieval City of the Popes
When describing Avignon, it’s impossible to begin anywhere else than the Palais des Papes. This glorious UNESCO-listed palace was built in the early 14th century when the Catholic church moved the papal court from Rome to Avignon. The fortress-like building is the largest Gothic structure in the world, with an imposing exterior of crenelated fortifications and massive defense towers. Extravagant interior spaces hint at the lavish lifestyles of the nine Popes who lived here between 1309 and 1403. The Grand Tinel banqueting hall was once the scene of enormous feasts, and the opulently decorated private apartments suggest a luxurious approach to daily living. The private chapels of the Palais de Papes give visitors an insight into the spirituality of the Popes, expressed in the biblical-themed frescoes created by the Italian painter Matteo Giovannetti.
Beyond the Palais de Papes, the town of Avignon has plenty for tourists to explore. For those who appreciate the fine arts, the Musée du Petit Palais is an obligatory stop. This museum displays works by the great masters from Italy: Giovanni Bellini, Sandro Botticelli, and Vittore Carpaccio, among others. The most acclaimed piece is Botticelli’s La Vierge et l’Enfant (Madonna and Child) painting. Avignon has two important churches: the 12th-century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Doms and the Provençal Romanesque Eglise Saint-Didier. Another famous sight is the Saint Bénézet Bridge (Pont d’Avignon), a graceful half-intact structure that partially spans the river.
Farther afield, four kilometers across the river is Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, renowned for the Val de Benediction Carthusian Monastery built by Pope Innocent VI. In the countryside of rolling hills (20 kilometers from Avignon) is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a medieval village where the Popes of Avignon built their summer palaces.
3 Ancient Ruins and Provençal Traditions in Arles
Steeped in history and drenched in sunshine, Arles has a fascinating heritage that dates back to the Classical era. The town was an ancient Greek settlement and then became an important Roman colony in 46 BC. Visitors are impressed by the well-preserved ancient buildings, including the Roman Amphitheater, the Alyscamps (a Gallo-Roman-era necropolis), the Roman Theater, the Forum, and the Baths of Constantine. Art lovers can trace the steps of Vincent van Gogh through the city of Arles to find the scenes that van Gogh painted, such as the Café de la Gare and the Café du Forum. History buffs will be wonderstruck by the Eglise Saint-Trophime, a UNESCO-listed 12th-century Romanesque church where pilgrims once stopped on the medieval “Way of Saint James” route to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
A wonderful place to discover the culture of Provence, Arles exudes traditional Provençal ambiance, seen in its graceful public squares, tree-lined streets, and terraced outdoor cafés. During spring and summer, several festivals bring out townspeople dressed up in historic costumes. The Fête des Guardians, on May 1st, includes authentic dancing, a horseback parade, and bullfighting at the Amphitheater, and the Fête du Costume in July combines a costume parade and a presentation to select the “Reine d’Arles” (“Queen of Arles”) among the participating young women.
4 Saint-Tropez’s Seaside Glamour
Saint-Tropez has a reputation for glitz and glamour, so many tourists will be surprised to discover its origins as a humble fishing village. The mesmerizing turquoise waters of the harbor are graced by luxury yachts, and the town’s well-groomed streets are lined with designer boutiques. But this small Provençal village has retained much of its authentic character. La Ponche, the Old Town, is a maze of quaint pedestrian alleys and cobblestone streets lined with little shops, cafés, and restaurants. At the town’s main square, the Place des Lices, locals socialize at shaded outdoor cafés. Elderly men play pétanque, and on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, a traditional Provençal market is held here. The colorful Place aux Herbes outdoor marketplace and Halle aux Poissons fish market also give visitors a taste of everyday life in Saint-Tropez.
A beach lover’s paradise, Saint-Tropez is one of the sunniest places on the French Riviera and has an extensive, palm-fringed sandy shoreline. Some beaches are private, but many are open to the public. Hikers will appreciate the Sentier du Littoral, a seaside path with unspoiled scenery. Although the resort vibe predominates in Saint-Tropez, cultural attractions abound. The Musée de l’Annonciade has a superb collection of Impressionist art displayed in a 16th-century chapel. The old Citadel built in the 1600s houses the Musée d’Histoire Maritime illustrating Saint-Tropez’s maritime past. Visible from a distance, the 18th-century Eglise Notre-Dame de l’Assomption has an iconic Italian Baroque bell tower and a sanctuary filled with fine artworks.
5 Les Baux-de-Provence: A Historic Town in a Dramatic Setting
Perched on a rocky plateau overlooking a peaceful valley in the Alpilles natural regional park, Les Baux-de-Provence takes its name from the Provençal word “Li Baus,” which means “The Rocks.” The ruins of the Château des Baux and its citadel seem to form part of the steep limestone crag. Visitors must park in the lower part of the town and walk up to the historic village, which gives the impression of stepping back in time to the Middle Ages. Tourists can try to imagine the medieval troubadour culture of chivalry and love poetry that flourished here in the 12th and 13th centuries.
Listed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France), Les Baux-de-Provence is distinguished by its delightful old stone buildings, shaded squares, and terraces full of fragrant flowers. Wandering the old cobblestone streets, tourists will find charming cafés, small boutiques, and inviting art galleries. A great place to begin a tour is at the Château des Baux and the Place Saint-Vincent, with its striking panoramas of the landscape, then continue to the Eglise Saint-Vincent, a 12th-century Romanesque church with modern stained-glass windows created by Max Ingrand. Other noteworthy attractions include the Musée des Santons with a collection of antique Christmas nativity figures; the Musée Yves Brayer (in the 16th-century Hôtel des Porcelets) featuring the artist’s finest paintings; and the Hôtel de Manville, a Renaissance mansion that is now used as the village’s Town Hall.
Les Baux-de-Provence is in the heart of the Alpilles Mountains, 20 kilometers north of Arles and 11 kilometers south of Saint-Rémy de Provence. The best view of the village is from the Plâteau des Bringasses. From here, the view extends to Mont Ventoux and the Luberon in Haut-Vaucluse, the Rhône Valley, Aix-en-Provence, and Arles. Travelers staying overnight can choose from several luxury hotel options. The five-star hotel Baumanière Les Baux de Provence is nestled at the foot of Les Baux-de-Provence village in the Vallon de la Fontaine. This Relais & Châteaux property is renowned for its restaurant with two Michelin stars, L’Oustau de Baumanière, and also has a more casual restaurant, La Cabro d’Or, that serves innovative Provençal cuisine based on fresh local ingredients.
6 Marseilles: Cosmopolitan Seaport
Marseilles is an authentic Mediterranean port town, complete with a bustling harbor, multiethnic ambiance, and urban grit. This big cosmopolitan city is the oldest in France and the second largest after Paris. It’s not a picture-postcard scene, but Marseilles does offer a real slice of life. Tourists can wander the historic district of Le Panier to find traditional Arab souks and atmospheric Algerian restaurants or stop at a waterfront restaurant in the Vieux Port (Old Port) to sample delicious bouillabaisse (seafood stew)-a Marseilles specialty. The sea is central to Marseille’s existence, and the Mediterranean setting gives the city a special beauty and refreshing atmosphere. Many landmarks in Marseille offer views of the bay’s deep blue waters. The city’s most iconic church, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde stands on a hillside overlooking the bay, and the terrace offers sensational coastal panoramas. The Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée illustrates the history of Mediterranean civilization. In the museum’s lush Mediterranean gardens, visitors are awed by sweeping views of the coastline from the bridge pier above the sea. A short ferry ride from the Marseilles port, the Château d’If on the Frioul Islands lures tourists to a serene seaside destination where turquoise waters lap on pristine beaches. Another nearby nature escape is in the Calanques, magnificent fjord-like coves filled with pools of salt water connected to the sea.
7 Saint-Paul de Vence: A Picture-Perfect Hilltop Village
This dreamy medieval village is perched high on a hilltop and surrounded by well-preserved ramparts. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Provence, Saint-Paul de Vence is often crowded with tourists taking a detour from all the attractions of the Côte d’Azur. The distance from favorite French Riviera beach resorts, Nice and Antibes, is less than 20 kilometers, but the village feels much farther away in spirit. Upon entering the ancient town gates, visitors are transported to a magical place of labyrinthine cobblestone streets, tiny alleyways, staircases, and small squares adorned with gurgling fountains. Historically, a central gathering place in Saint-Paul de Vence was the Place de la Grande Fontaine, where the weekly market was held during the 17th century. Villagers drew water from the square’s well and washed laundry in the washhouse area.
The spiritual center of Saint-Paul de Vence is represented by the Collegiate Church, built between the 14th and 17th centuries. The sanctuary has a Romanesque choir, original pillars in the nave, and a Baroque Chapel containing precious relics from catacombs in Rome. The Folon Chapel is a 17th-century chapel that was used by the Pénitents-Blancs (White Penitents), a Catholic brotherhood that provided charity to the sick and needy. The entire interior is adorned with modern artworks by artist Jean-Michel Folon. The artist’s dazzling mosaics, sculptures, paintings, and stained-glass windows give the sanctuary a special ambiance.
Since the 1920s, many artists have been drawn to Saint-Paul de Vence. Marc Chagall lived in Saint-Paul de Vence for nearly 20 years. Visitors can take a guided tour to walk in the footsteps of Chagall and see the scenes that he painted. More of the village’s artistic heritage is on display at the Fondation Maeght, about one kilometer outside of the village ramparts on the Chemin des Gardettes. The museum displays mosaics by Chagall; stained-glass windows by Georges Braque; paintings by Bonnard, Chagall, Kandinsky, and Léger; sculptures by Giacometti, and ceramics by Miró. The Foundation Maeght also has a bookshop, library, cafeteria, and free parking. Throughout the year, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions and cultural events.
Besides history, culture, and art, Saint-Paul de Vence boasts several fine dining options. On a quiet street near the village ramparts, the restaurant at Le Saint-Paul hotel serves superb Mediterranean cuisine in a refined dining room or on the bougainvillea-draped garden terrace. The legendary La Colombe d’Or is a quaint hotel with a gourmet restaurant that offers traditional Provençal dishes and has outdoor seating where guests may dine al fresco on warm days.
8 Ancient Roman Ruins in Orange
Renowned for its Roman ruins, Orange lies in Provence’s Haut-Vaucluse region, an area that flourished during classical antiquity. The 1st-century AD Théâtre Antique (Roman theater) is testimony to the ancient heritage. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Théâtre Antique is extremely well preserved with the back wall and decorations still intact. During the Roman era, a crowd of more than 7,000 spectators would pile into the theater to watch comedies, tragedies, dance performances, acrobatics, and juggling acts. Today, the Théâtre Antique is used as the venue for cultural events such as the summertime music festival called the Chorégies d’Orange. Other interesting archaeological sights are the Arc de Triomphe, the triumphal arch dedicated to ancient Rome’s Emperor Tiberius, and the Hémicycle, ruins of a Roman temple adjoining the Roman theater. For a deeper understanding of the town’s ancient history and cultural heritage, visit the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. This museum has an excellent collection of artifacts, antiquities, and artworks from prehistory to the 18th century. Be sure to see the Mosaïque des Centaurs, an impressive mosaic that was discovered in the Théâtre Antique.
9 Gordes: A Beautiful Village in a Natural Park
This characteristic village perché (perched village) is beautifully situated in the UNESCO-listed Luberon Natural Regional Park, a wild and rugged mountainous area. Because of its dramatic hilltop setting and splendid architecture, Gordes has been named one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France. Many artists, including Victor Vasarély and Marc Chagall, have been seduced by the allure of Gordes and have found inspiration for their paintings here.
Gordes abounds with all the charm of a Provençal medieval village. The 16th-century Château de Gordes is a fortified castle complete with gigantic towers and an enormous entrance doorway. Visitors can tour the château’s interior to admire the monumental fireplace (classified as a historic monument) in the Salle d’Honneur (Hall of Honor). The château also houses the Pol Mara Museum, which displays masterpieces by the Flemish painter. After visiting the château, tourists will be tempted to stop at one of the nearby cafés or restaurants.
Gordes is a 40-kilometer drive from Avignon and 17 kilometers from Cavaillon. A worthwhile detour from Gordes is the Abbaye de Sénanque, five kilometers away in a valley blanketed by fields of lavender. This 12th-century Romanesque building is considered one of the most interesting abbeys in France. The harmonious architecture reflects the Cistercian concepts of seclusion, simplicity, and spirituality. Tourists may visit the abbey by taking a self-guided tour (silence is required) or by joining a group tour led by a French-speaking guide (reservations recommended), but should keep in mind that the Abbaye de Sénanque is a working monastery. The religious services of the Eglise Abbatiale (Abbey Church) or the Chapelle de la Communauté (Community Chapel) are also open to the public; visitors must respect the abbey rules and participate in the meditation of prayer.
10 Archaeological Sites in Vaison-la-Romaine
At the foot of Mont Ventoux between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea, Vaison-la-Romaine (30 kilometers from Orange) is an excellent stop on an itinerary through Provence. The picturesque village is known as “one of the most beautiful detours in France.” Begin exploring Vaison-la-Romaine in the Quartier de Puymin archaeological site, which reveals evidence of the ancient Roman town that thrived from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD. On a hillside shaded with oak and cypress trees, the Quartier de Puymin is a fascinating site where ruins of ancient Roman houses, the House of the Messi and the Portico of Pompey, were uncovered. Also on this site are the remains of an ancient Temple and Roman theater (now used as an outdoor venue during the summer). Amid the archaeological ruins, tourists will find the Musée Théo Display. This archaeological museum displays the original statues that were found on the site (copies appear on the site) along with other antiquities discovered in Vaison-la-Romaine. In the Quartier de la Villas, tourists can see ancient paved streets with gutters and original mosaic floors from Roman houses.
In this slow-paced town, time seems to stand still. Narrow cobblestone streets and an abundance of fountains and leafy plane trees lend a distinctive old-world character. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Vaison-la-Romaine is considered “modern” but the building was constructed around the 11th-13th century. A tradition since 1483, Vaison-la-Romaine’s weekly market is held on Tuesday mornings throughout the main streets and squares of the town. This traditional Provençal market includes more than 400 stalls selling fresh fruits; vegetables; flowers; regional specialties like tapenade, fougasse, olives, and truffles; as well as linens and handcrafted ceramics. A farmer’s market offering organic produce and food products takes place at the Place Burrus on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Summer is an especially enjoyable time to visit Vaison-la-Romaine when the markets are at their busiest and lively cultural events such as the Vaison Dance Festival and Ancient Theater Week (held at the ancient theater in July) bring the town to life.
About 31 kilometers away from Vaison-la-Romaine is a stunning nature sight, Mont Ventoux, a UNESCO-listed biosphere reserve. According to local legend, the poet Francesco Petrarch climbed the mountain in 1336. Today, the area has many hiking and biking trails. It’s worth making the trek to the Col des Tempêtes viewpoint for sensational panoramas.
11 Vence: A Picturesque Artists’ Village
Like its neighbor Saint-Paul de Vence (five kilometers away), Vence is an enchanting medieval hilltop town and thriving artistic community. Visitors enter the historic center of Vence through Porte du Peyra (close to the bus stop and tourist information office), a gateway in the ramparts surrounding the Cité Historique (Old Town). Inside the walls is an enchanting world of narrow cobblestone lanes, historic sights, delightful boutiques, art galleries, and peaceful squares. The Place du Peyra is a pleasant fountain-adorned square and the Place Godeau is a shaded square often painted by artists.
In the heart of the Old Town stands the 11th-12th-century Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Nativité built on the site of an ancient Roman temple. The Romanesque Cathedral has an exquisite interior with precious Carolingian-era sculptural details on the pillars of the nave and remarkable 17th-century carved wood choir stalls. The cathedral’s Saint-Véran Chapel contains a Gallo-Roman sarcophagus, which serves as an altar. A highlight of the cathedral is the Baptism Chapel featuring a mosaic by Marc Chagall, which depicts Moses’ rescue from the Nile River in Egypt. Another attraction in the Cité Historique is the 17th-century Château de Villeneuve, now a museum that displays an excellent collection of contemporary art including pieces by Matisse, Chagall, Dubuffet, and Dufy.
A must-see sight on the outskirts of Vence is the Chapelle du Rosaire (Matisse Chapel) on the Avenue Henri Matisse. Once part of a Dominican convent, the chapel was elaborately decorated by Matisse in a project that he completed from 1948 to 1951. Matisse designed the entire interior, including the stained-glass window, choir stalls, ceramics, and objects of worship, using bold graphics to represent biblical stories, such as the birth of Christ and the Passion of Christ (Way of the Cross). The simple and somber sanctuary is illuminated only through a stained-glass window, creating an ethereal ambiance. For those who would like to spend more time in Provence’s artistic heartland, the Château Saint-Martin & Spa is a wonderful choice. Nestled in a secluded estate (just two kilometers outside of historic Vence), this five-star hotel overlooks a striking Provençal landscape of olive groves and rolling hills with the French Riviera coastline in the background.
12 Saint-Rémy-de-Provence: Van Gogh’s Artistic Inspiration
Saint-Rémy de Provence is a pretty village in the northern foothills of the Alpilles Mountains. The tranquility of Saint-Rémy de Provence provided solace and inspiration to Vincent van Gogh, who spent a year in the village at an asylum. Saint-Paul de Mausole is the hospital (located in an old Romanesque monastery) where Van Gogh stayed from 1889 to 1890 under the care of kind nurses. Tourists can visit the artist’s room and see copies of the paintings he created here. Other reproductions of Van Gogh’s paintings are on display at the Musée Estrine (8 Rue Lucien Estrine) along with an interpretive film that discusses the artist’s life and works. The Vincent van Gogh Trail indicates sites throughout the town that were painted by Van Gogh, although some imagination is required as the scenery has changed since the artist’s time.
At heart a traditional Provençal town, Saint-Rémy de Provence is well known for its open-air markets. On Wednesday mornings, the Grand Marché Provençal (large market) spills out onto the main squares of the old town; on Saturday mornings a smaller farmer’s market is held at the Place de la République. Tourists will enjoy blending in with the locals, wandering the cobblestone streets, and getting lost while admiring the stately old buildings. Tourists will also find many other worthwhile things to do, such as attending a mass or organ concert at the Eglise Saint-Martin, rebuilt in the 19th century in Neoclassical style, or exploring the archaeological ruins at the Glanum Excavation Site, which has a Triumphal Arch from the 1st century BC dedicated to Julius Caesar.
Gastronomic delights abound in Saint-Rémy de Provence, and tourists will enjoy sampling the regional specialties. La Roma (33 Boulevard Marceau) is an Italian restaurant and salon de thé (tea salon) known for its crêpes, ice cream, and macaroons. Chocolate lovers are advised to visit the Chocolaterie Joël Durand (3 Boulevard Victor Hugo), an upscale chocolate shop that offers tantalizing chocolate candies in delicate flavors. Le Petit Duc is a tempting shop that sells typical Provençal confections such as nougat (candy made with almonds and honey), crystallized violets, and calissons (sweet almond candies). In the nearby village of Paradou, Le Bistro du Paradou is renowned for its delicious cuisine.
Saint-Rémy de Provence is about 25 kilometers north of Arles and 20 kilometers south of Avignon, which makes the town an excellent base in the heart of Provence. Families seeking a countryside retreat near the village of Saint-Rémy will appreciate the Le Mas de l’Ange. This beautifully renovated 17th-century stone farmhouse features typical Provençal pastel-painted shutters and cozy decor. The entire property is available for rent including eight bedrooms, a swimming pool, and a private tennis court.
13 Salon-de-Provence: Historic Landmarks and Artisan Soaps
On the Plaine de la Crau northwest of Marseilles, Salon-de-Provence is a town steeped in history. In ancient times, the Romans created salt marshes on the Hill of Valdemech, and the town also has origins from the time of Charlemagne. During the medieval era, the Archbishops of Arles built the fortress-like Château de l’Empéri (“Emperor’s Castle”), which dominates the townscape. This 12th-15th century château has some of the best-preserved fortifications in Provence and a lovely Romanesque church, the Chapel of Saint-Cathérine. The Maison de Nostradamus is a historic landmark where Nostradamus spent the last 20 years of his life and is now a museum that displays original editions of Nostradamus’ prophecies and a reproduction of his study.
Salon-de-Provence is well known for its artisanal olive oil and fragrant soap products that are sold throughout Provence and other cities in France. To learn more about the history of soap production in Salon-de-Provence, tourists can visit the Marius Fabre Soap Factory and Savon de Marseille Museum. For those who want to commune with nature in the nearby Luberon Natural Regional Park, the Hostellerie à Salon de Provence is a romantic place to spend a few nights. The hotel occupies a converted 12th-century Abbaye de Sainte Croix, a marvelous example of Romanesque architecture, surrounded by 20 hectares of wild scrubland, lavender fields, and olive groves.
14 Grasse: Perfumes, Gardens, and Art
Perched on a hilltop in an idyllic landscape, this quintessential Provençal village delights all the senses. The old town of Grasse is only accessible to pedestrians because the streets are too narrow for cars. Typical of medieval villages, Grasse is brimming with atmospheric streets and babbling fountains found in hidden squares. The green rolling hills and plains around Grasse flourish with orange blossoms, roses, mimosa, jasmine, lavender, and violets, which provide the essential oils to make delicate fragrances. At the Musée International de la Parfumerie (2 Boulevard du Jjeu de Ballon), visitors learn about the history of perfumes, soaps, and cosmetics and then can stop to smell the roses (or have a picnic) in the museum’s gardens. Visitors can also tour the famous perfume factories, including Fragonard, Molinard, and Galimard. Other must-see attractions are the Villa-Musée Jean-Honoré Fragonard (23 Boulevard Fragonard) that displays a collection of Fragonard’s Rococo artworks and Princess Pauline’s Garden a verdant oasis that boasts panoramic views.
15 Sunbathing and Sightseeing in Fréjus
Fréjus is an attractive port town (about 39 kilometers from Cannes) with a sunny marina and sandy beaches that are packed with tourists during summertime. Beside resort ambiance, Fréjus has plenty of cultures. The Romanesque Cathedral of Fréjus was built in the 11th-12th centuries. While the cathedral’s exterior is now hidden by more modern surrounding buildings, its spire soars high above the cityscape as a beacon of faith. Next to the cathedral’s cloisters, the Archaeology Museum displays an extensive collection of Greek and Roman artifacts. Like many towns in Provence, Fréjus has an ancient history dating back to the Roman era. Testaments to this heritage are the 1st-2nd century Arènes (Rue Henri Vadon), an enormous amphitheater that accommodated 10,000 spectators, as well as the ruins of the Roman Aqueduct and the Théâtre Romain outside the town on the N7 Road. The Roman Theater is now used as the venue for Les Nuits Auréliennes, a French-language festival of the theater (comedies, musicals, vaudeville) that takes place under the star-studded night skies of July.
16 Cassis: A Picturesque Fishing Village
This picturesque old fishing village has the vibrant ambiance of a Mediterranean seaport combined with the traditional charm of Provence. Cassis is 22 kilometers from Marseilles, yet feels much further away in the countryside; it’s a favorite getaway for residents of Marseilles seeking an escape to an idyllic setting. The village enjoys a protected location on a semicircular bay framed by mountains. Because of its natural beauty, Cassis became an artists’ village that attracted many famous painters including Vlaminck, Derain, Dufy, and Matisse. These resident artists painted the colorful houses and small sailboats docked in the bay. Tourists will enjoy leisurely strolls along the waterfront and through the village. Lovely shaded squares and sunny terraces of outdoor cafés beckon visitors to stop and enjoy the moment. Also worth visiting are the village’s 14th-century château and the beautiful Fontaine des Quatre Nations.
17 Biot: An Ancient Perched Village with Artisan Boutiques
Built on the slopes of a steep hill (a typical village perché), Biot has many charming stepped pathways that lead up to viewpoints and reward visitors with gorgeous panoramas. Hidden wonders await those who take the time to discover the village’s narrow cobblestone streets, quiet alleyways, and pleasant little squares. Many of the squares have gurgling fountains that add a note of serenity. The village is also known for its arts and crafts boutiques that sell locally made jewelry, ceramics, glassware, and textiles.
Biot’s history is intertwined with the Crusades of the 12th century. The Eglise Sainte-Marie-Madeleine was built during this period. The sanctuary boasts an altarpiece, the Madonna with Rosary by Louis Bréa in the 16th century. The village’s more recent cultural heritage is seen at the Musée National Fernand Léger, which displays a comprehensive collection of the modern artist Fernand Léger’s works. Léger briefly lived in Biot; the museum is housed on the site of the artist’s villa.
18 Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux: Culture, Cuisine, and Nature
The quaint old streets of Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux invite visitors to take a walk back in time. Wander around the medieval lanes and discover the hôtels particuliers (elegant historic mansions). At the heart of the village, the Cathedral Notre-Dame et Saint-Paul soars high above the town. This 12th-century church exemplifies Provençal Romanesque architecture, characterized by its simple layout and majestic spaces. The facade features intricate bas-reliefs and a porch with pillars that reference classical Roman columns, and the grandiose nave has vast dimensions. Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux also has evidence of a Jewish community from the 12th to the 15th century. The Rue Juiverie is testimony to the medieval Jewish quarter. Here, the vestiges of a 15th-century synagogue-a stone arc that was used to hold the holy text – was discovered. To learn about the village’s ancient Gallo-Roman heritage, visit the Archaeology Museum at Place Castellane.
Tourists can soak up the local culture by visiting the traditional open-air market held at the Place du Marché on the first and third Sunday mornings of the month. Other cultural events include the Saint-Paul Soul Jazz Festival (soul and jazz music festival) in July and the Festival du Film in October. The Tricastin area surrounding this medieval village has an abundance of French truffles, which the locals call “black diamonds.” Truffle purveyors take their prized culinary goods (Tuber Melanosporum) to the Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux Truffle Market on Tuesdays and Sundays (from November through March). The Tuesday market is open to the public; the Sunday market is reserved for restaurateurs and private individuals. A Truffle Festival takes place in Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux the second Sunday in February.
For those staying overnight, the Villa Augusta offers luxurious accommodations in a wooded parkland surrounded by lavender fields. The four-star hotel is a converted Ancienne Maison (historic Provençal villa) with impeccably decorated deluxe rooms and an upscale restaurant that serves the finest cuisine of the terroir.
19 Tarascon: Provençal Festivals and Fabrics
Rich in cultural heritage, this distinctive Provençal town is known for its traditions and festivals. Tarascon exemplifies the art de Vivre (lifestyle) of Provence, with its relaxing ambiance and weekly gourmet market featuring regional products. Visitors will enjoy exploring the old cobblestone lanes and arcaded streets while admiring little chapels, cloisters, and historic mansions. The town’s Château de Tarascon is considered one of the best-preserved medieval fortresses in France. The château is open to the public for self-guided and guided visits.
Tarascon’s rich cultural heritage comes to life during the Fêtes de la Tarasque in June. This UNESCO-listed festival dates back to the 15th century. Following the centuries-old traditions, townspeople dress up in medieval costumes and a dragon-like mascot, La Tarasque, is paraded on a procession through the town.
Tarascon is also known for its industry of Provençal printed textiles. The Musée Souleiado (39 Rue Charles-Deméry), housed in a 17th-century mansion, has an extensive collection of Provençal fabrics, as well as exhibits explaining the history and process of textile production. Provençal textiles are called “indiennes” (Indians) because they were originally imported from India to Marseilles in the 16th century. Now, these brilliant polychromatic fabrics are synonymous with Provence; they’re sold in shops and markets throughout the region. Souleiado sells its brightly printed Provençal cotton fabrics and designer-quality clothing at boutiques in Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Avignon, and other cities in Provence, as well as in Paris.
20 Mougins: Picasso’s Favorite Hilltop Village
Mougins is an enchanting Provençal hilltop village with an exceptional artistic heritage. Tourists delight in exploring Mougins’ charming streets, little boutiques, galleries, and artists’ ateliers. Picasso lived in Mougins from 1961 to 1973 and left a lasting mark on the village. The artist was drawn to the town’s beauty, especially the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Vie, a humble Provençal-style church approached by a cypress tree-lined path reminiscent of landscapes in Tuscany. The chapel was originally built in the 12th century and then rebuilt in the 17th century. In 1961, Picasso purchased the chapel and converted it into his art studio. Another noteworthy religious building, the Chapelle Saint Barthélémy is a unique octagonal structure with a rare semicircular apse. The village’s parish church, the Eglise Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur (dating to the 11th century) is found near a pleasant courtyard with a calming fountain.
For such a tiny village, Mougins has a surprising number of gourmet restaurants. The local Mediterranean cuisine is based on olive oil, vegetables, and aromatic herbs such as rosemary, thyme, fennel, and tarragon. The village has several renowned culinary establishments: La Place de Mougins restaurant with a seasonal menu based on fresh ingredients, Le Moulin de Mougins that has an outdoor patio dining area, the refined and contemporary Paloma Restaurant, and the Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Candille, which offers classic French cuisine in its sumptuous dining room or on a terrace overlooking the Provençal countryside.
21 Logue: A Small Town with Grand Gastronomy
Off-the-beaten tourist path, Logue is a typical Provençal town with a historic church, gently flowing fountains and the main square that hosts a weekly market. The town is nestled in a fertile countryside of lush woodlands and a patchwork of small farms. It’s an ideal place to spend a quiet holiday, enjoying nature and gourmet cuisine. There are many historic attractions nearby, including the village of Flayosc, known for its 11th-century church and ancient olive-oil mill surrounded by flourishing groves of olive trees.
Tourist highlights in the area include several renowned restaurants/hotels. The Château de Berne (Route de Salernes) is a luxurious five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel with a renowned restaurant, L’Orangerie. The Château de Berne also has a casual brasserie, tennis courts, a swimming pool, an upscale spa, and a cooking school for tourists. Nearby, in a beautiful garden setting, is the famous truffle restaurant Restaurant Bruno (2350 Route des Arcs, Le Plan Campagne Mariette, Logue), which also has accommodations. This elegant restaurant is run by Chef Clément Bruno, who is known as the “Empereur de la Truffe” (Emperor of Truffles). This Michelin-starred restaurant features classic French dishes made with seasonal truffles of the region and imported from regions such as Piedmont and Umbria in Italy where white truffles are found.
22 Seillans: A Beautiful Perched Village
Listed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France), Seillans is a classic village perché (perched village). The medieval village has a traditional Provençal ambiance with many historic mansions grouped on the hillsides around the ancient feudal castle. Typical in Provence, the village hosts traditional weekly markets, and locals play pétanque at the main town square (Place de la République). Visitors delight in exploring the village’s narrow streets that lead to fountain-adorned squares, arcaded passageways, and viewpoints of the vine-covered hills and olive groves. The painter Max Ernst admired the beauty of Seillans and spent the last years of his life here; his work can be seen at the Tanning-Ernst Collection. The village has two noteworthy churches: the 11th-century Romanesque church, Eglise Saint-Léger, and the Cistercian Provençal style Chapelle Notre-Dame de l’Ormeau, four kilometers outside the village. Seillans is just seven kilometers away from Fayence, another pretty little medieval hilltop village.
23 Bargème: A Peaceful Countryside Retreat
Bargème is a sleepy country village and visitors who find this out-of-the-way village (one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages) will be delighted by its charm and beauty. Clinging to a promontory over 1,000 meters above the rural landscape, Bargème has the distinction of being the highest elevated town in the Var department. Originally surrounded by ancient fortifications, the village’s winding cobblestone streets and vaulted passageways lead to hidden treasures, such as artisan boutiques, art galleries, and ateliers. As an old feudal village, Bargème once had a magnificent castle, the Château Sabran de Pontevès, which was built in the 13th century and destroyed during the War of Religions. The ruins are an evocative site located on an elevated plateau with splendid views.
Several interesting churches are found in the village, including the 12th-century Eglise Saint-Nicolas on the highest point in the village and the 17th-century Chapelle Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs (also known as the Chapelle Notre-Dame d’Espaïme) near the château’s esplanade. Vestiges of the old ramparts lie around the southern and eastern edges of the village.
24 Château de Rochegude
Surrounded by the vine-covered rolling hills of the Côtes-du-Rhône, the tiny medieval village of Rochegude is a picture-perfect retreat in the heart of Provence. The main tourist draw is the Château de Rochegude, a 12th-century fortress, restored by Viollet-le-Duc, which was once the summer residence of the Marquis de Rochegude. The château has been converted into a four-star hotel, part of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux association. The area around Rochegude is renowned for its cuisine, including dishes made with the local delicacy of truffles. The nearby Haut-Vaucluse area also has many historic attractions, including two ancient towns with amazing Roman ruins: Orange (14 kilometers away) and Vaison-la-Romaine (27 kilometers away).
25 Aureille in Les Alpilles Mountains
Aureille is a small and remote country town with a captivating Provençal ambiance. Visitors are charmed by the distinctive old stone buildings featuring pastel-painted shutters, flower-bedecked homes, and fountains tucked away in quiet squares. The historic parish church is also worth visiting. Aureille is a good stopping point on the way to Les Baux de Provence or Saint-Rémy de Provence (both about 20 kilometers away). The village is in the heart of Les Alpilles Mountains, an appealing pastoral region that boasts unspoiled nature, an array of hiking trails, and ancient traditions. In mid-August, the locals celebrate during a traditional Saint’s Day festival, complete with authentic costumes.
In northwest France, Brittany is a region with an identity, landscape, and even a language, all of its own. It is one of the six Celtic Nations and has a maritime climate that can sometimes make it feel more like Ireland than mainland France.
On the coast, the scenery is at turns awe-inspiring and quaint, but always beautiful. At its most epic there are gigantic headlands lashed by the Atlantic and cliffs as you’ve never seen on the Pink Granite Coast. We could be here all day if we had to list the historic towns and villages around the region, some so diligently-cared for that they have barely changed at all in centuries.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Brittany:
1. Coastal Scenery
The region pushes out boldly into the Atlantic and has physical geography so raw and beautiful that you could spend years visiting the oceanfront around Côtes-d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine, and Morbihan, and feel like you’ve never come close to seeing every heart-rending sight.
Rightfully celebrated is the Pink Granite coast in Côtes-d’Armor, where the rocks have a mysterious tint that makes them seem not quite natural.
The Sentier des Douaniers trail and the granite lighthouse at Ploumanac’h will take your breath away.
Honorable mentions also have to go to Pointe du Grouin near Saint-Malo, Pointe de Pen-Hir in the Parc Naturel Régional d’Armorique and Cap Fréhel together with the redoubtable Fort la Latte.
2. Prehistoric Monuments
Anyone who reads Asterix books as a child will know that the forests of Brittany’s interior are littered with prehistoric menhirs, dolmens, and cairns.
These were erected 7,000 years ago and sit either alone on a hillside or in woodland, or as part of highly-significant complexes that have left generations of inheritors and visitors scratching their heads in amazement.
The village of Carnac in the Morbihan department is a kind of El Dorado for prehistory nuts, with more than 3,000 monumental stones, the largest collection in the world.
But this is just the gateway for your trip through Neolithic Brittany, with loads more to see, including cairns at Barnenez and Gavrinis, and a stunning passage grave at Roche aux Fées.
It isn’t sacrilegious to draw comparisons between the old part of this port city with nearby Mont-Saint-Michel.
Saint-Malo’s medieval walls are majestic, and you can walk along every inch of the ramparts and either look down at the labyrinthine streets or out over the cinematic beaches to the north and west.
On clear evenings you’ll be overwhelmed by the sight of the sun setting behind the solemn grey stone buildings of the old town.
Check out the tomb of the romantic writer, Chateaubriand, and when the weather’s good beaches like Plage du Sillon, with its rocky islands and clear, lagoon-like pools are a good bet.
Even if the water might be a bit chilly for swimming.
4. Huelgoat Forest, Finistère
In the hilly inland part of the Parc d’Amorique is the lakeside village of Huelgoat swathed in the woodland that conceals wondrous natural rock formations and caves.
If you pop into the village’s Office de Tourisme you can get hold of route maps, for hikes ranging from anything between hour-long circular tours to intrepid quests through the mossy deciduous forest.
Locally the best walk begins behind the old watermill on the lake, leading into a world of bizarre and outsized granite boulders.
Take the steep stairway down into the Grotte du Diable, a cave 10 meters below the lake, with walls lined by these rounded rocks.
5. Old Centre of Dinan
Even in a region lauded for its picturesque towns, Dinan stands out.
Most people have it down as the prettiest in Brittany, and the upper part, within the walls, has cobblestone streets with houses dating as far back as the 1200s.
As you step down Rue de la Cordonnerie you’ll be wondering whether you’re actually still in the 21st century! The upper floors of these rickety half-timbered buildings hang almost perilously over the street.
The river port is just as atmospheric, with restaurants by the quay and a 40-meter-high railway viaduct to add drama.
Make for the 13th-century castle to begin a tour of the ramparts or to learn about the history of this wonderful town.
6. Oysters, Cider and Crêpes!
Order a plateau de fruits de me and you’ll be presented with a mountain of shellfish and crustaceans accompanied by slices of crusty bread and melted butter.
Unique gastronomic experiences abound in the region, like the waterside oyster market in Cancale, where you can eat them there and then.
Cider is the regional drink, and in Finistère, there’s a designated Route du Cidre, through the AOC Cournouaille cider region.
And finally, you can hardly make it down a single Breton street without finding a crêperie.
These will produce the classic crêpes we all know and love, but also galettes, buckwheat pancakes usually with a savory filling like a fried egg.
One of France’s “plus beaux villages”, Locronan blows everyone away.
It’s a tiny place, with only several hundred inhabitants and a totally pedestrianized old center that is a true delight to discover.
If it feels a bit like a film set to you then it will come as no shock that several French movies and TV shows have been shot here.
The largest and most palatial homes in Locronan are from the 1700s, belonging to the owners of sail-weaving businesses who did roaring trade not just with the French navy but also the Spanish and British.
8. Quimper Cathedral
Like many of Brittany’s churches, this marvelous gothic building is a real joy to investigate, but it also has a few quirks that make it special.
One is the way it tapers in the middle, to adapt to its natural setting.
That was to avoid a swampy bit of land when it was built in the 13th-century.
The cathedral is Quimper’s most beautiful piece of heritage and is a French National Monument.
Those marvelous spires are 75 meters in height and stand on either side of a sculpture of Gradlon, the semi-mythical 5th-century King of Cournouille.
9. Remparts de Vannes
In the Breton War of Succession in the 14th century, Vannes came under siege four times from both the English and French forces.
Its bloody past has endowed it with a complete system of defenses, which enclose an old quarter with half-timbered houses and add charm and a sense of authority to the town.
Nowhere is this truer than at the Jardin des Remparts on the east side of the walls.
It’s an elegant formal garden with topiaries and flowerbeds through which the River Marle flows, all with the medieval curtain and towers setting the scene.
There’s a market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings at Place des Lices, a square that hosted jousting tournaments in the middle ages.
10. Île de Batz, Roscoff
Opposite the town of Roscoff, once a haven for pirates and smugglers, is an island that is a little slice of rural paradise.
The ferry takes about 15 minutes and you should spend at least half a day on Batz seeing the coast and countryside.
Many people rent bicycles for the day and pedal off along coastal trails next to small beaches with nothing more than farmland on the foreshore.
The island catches the warm currents of the gulf stream, so many of the fields are dedicated to potato farming, and they say that Batz potatoes are the finest you can eat.
The warmer air also nourishes the island’s botanical garden created at the turn of the century with 2,000 species, like palm trees that are normally found at far more southern locations.
11. Brittany’s Canals
The region’s countryside is laced with a system of canals that totals 600 kilometers.
This, of course, opens up a world of possibilities for outdoor tourism.
On the Canal de Nantes à Brest in the south and the Canal d’Ille-et-Rance in the north, you’ll be able to hire a narrowboat.
You won’t need a license for one of these as they travel at a glacial speed, giving you the chance to take in the historic sights on the banks and 19th-century engineering that made these waterways possible.
On land, you could follow the “Voies Vertes”, where the canal’s towpaths are now walking trails, with a gentle slope that makes them great for even the littlest members of the family.
Another village selected as one of the most beautiful in France, Rochefort-en-Terre in Morbihan transports you back at least a century in time.
It’s not just the historic houses, but the entire structure of the old medieval village is still in place: The well and drinking troughs are still here and now decorated with geraniums.
Indeed the whole of Rochefort is alive with florid color in the summer, with flower boxes on windowsills and wisteria creeping up the granite walls.
The village took shape over several centuries so there’s also an arresting blend of styles, from rustic half-timbered houses to stone renaissance palaces with conical roofs on their turrets.
On summer nights the entire village is illuminated as if couldn’t get any more romantic!
13. Château de Fougères
Not far from the border with Normandy the small town of Fougères has a brooding fortress that rises up sharply on the western section of the walls.
It’s considered one of the greatest castles in Europe and is a compendium of historical military architecture.
The castle as we recognize it first went up in the 1100s, but there were a host of reinforcements and additions over the coming four centuries.
The towers are in great shape considering their age, and you can enter and climb three of them.
The best of these is probably Mélusine Tower, built in the 1300s by Raoul II, the Count of Eu.
From the 17th to the 19th century this port was one of the busiest in Morbihan and saw some pretty momentous events.
One was the arrival of Benjamin Franklin in 1776 to request French assistance in the War of Independence.
The port doesn’t handle that kind of traffic today and instead is a charming spot for a walk in the sunshine, with half-timbered houses dating to the 1400s, lots of boutiques and art galleries, and restaurants with outdoor seating next to the water.
After pottering around Saint-Goustan you can cross the medieval bridge to visit the town Auray, which holds a fantastic market on Mondays.
15. Zoo and Botanical Garden of Branféré, Le Guerno
Few zoos will have locations as dignified as this one in Morbihan: The park is set in grounds of a château from the mid-19th century.
In the early 1900s, the estate’s owner was inspired to create a game reserve where the animals are able to roam free and pulled in zoologists to work out how to bring his idea to life.
It opened to the public in the 60s and has evolved into this popular attraction.
There are 1,000 animals, with zebras, hippos, antelopes, and yaks, in 150 hectares of carefully-designed parkland that includes waterfalls and prairies.
If you like to see zoos that create a suitable environment for their animals then you won’t be disappointed here.