Mmmm…imagine sunshine, the scent of lavender and rosemary, parasol pines, olive groves, sunflowers, and the Mediterranean…you are experiencing the South of France. But Provence and the Cote d’Azur offer much more than that. Think of hill towns, charming markets, art galleries, sailing, scuba diving, star-gazing (movie star, that is), swimming and soaking up the sun, and of course, fine French food and wine; you’ll love it! If you are a golfer, look no further for some of the best courses on earth. You must come to Provence and the Cote d’Azur to really appreciate the charm and beauty of France.
The South of France is legendary for its beauty and charm. The people here live a slower lifestyle than their Paris compatriots and it shows in their friendly approach to visitors and the care they give to their homes and beautiful gardens. After a week of sightseeing in Paris, we love to come to Provence to unwind and relax. We take in the markets and wander through the cobbled alleyways in the many quaint towns to experience life in the slow lane.
Every town in Provence has at least one weekly market; some have several. Here’s our list of the best markets in Provence.
Read on for a brief guide to our favorite towns and cities of Provence and the Cote d’Azur. Each of the towns listed below are special in their own way; we love them all!
Aix en Provence
Called the Paris of the south, Aix en Provence (Aix is pronounced ex) is a chic and cultured city. Be sure to stroll down the main street – the Cours Mirabeau. Lined with arching Plane trees, the Cours hosts 17th century mansions and sidewalk cafes. This city is known for its beautiful and plentiful gardens and fountains. Don’t miss the Old Town area in the north part of the city where you will find an excellent market on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturdays.
Looking for a great place to stay in Aix en Provence? Look no further than our Where to Stay in Aix en Provence Guide
Apt, known as the world capital for crystalized fruit, lies at the northern entrance of the Parc Naturel Regional de Luberon. The Luberon is a spectacular limestone mountain range with peaks rising as high as 3690 feet at Mourre Negre.
We came upon this town as we were driving through the Luberon looking for a hotel. After a late check-in at our Hotel, we woke the next morning to the sights and sounds of the Saturday Market. This market goes for blocks and blocks throughout the town. You can buy just about anything here. I bought fabric to make a tablecloth and napkins, gifts for our grandchildren, food for lunch, and a hand-woven basket to carry all of my treasures. This market has it all… do not miss it. After the market, be sure to stop and watch the men play boules in the town square; it is the quintessential game of skill in Provence.
Be sure to stop in Arles when you are in Provence. This small city is teeming with Roman ruins and has one of the most well preserved Roman amphitheaters (1st century) in existence. Home to Van Gogh for many years, the city has honored him with a wonderful museum. You can read more about Van Gogh in Arles here.
The heart of the city is the Place du Forum, where a statue of Mistral looks over the outdoor cafes in the shaded square. Café de Nuit, made famous by Van Gogh’s like-named painting, is located right on the square. It is now called the Café Van Gogh.
We recommend the reasonably priced “art pass” for access to most of the museums and monuments in the city. The market in Arles is located on the ring-road on Wednesday and Saturday. It is considered one of the best markets in Provence. Find a place to stay in Arles here.
Once the seat of the Catholic Church, Avignon is home to the Palace of the Popes; a beautiful castle and cathedral located in the city center surrounded by lovely gardens. You can even stop in the castle for some wine-tasting. Be sure to visit the Petit Palace as well.
Avignon is a sophisticated city with a university, abundant cafes and marvelous shops. When in the Main Square, be on the lookout for tromp l’oeil paintings on buildings (faux windows, flower pots, etc).
Located at the top of a hill in the Luberon, Bonnieux offers fine dining and impressive views. The scent of lavender and rosemary in the air give you the feeling that you are really in Provence. Great wines and excellent lavender honey is produced in this area. Le Clois du Bois is a beautiful Hotel right in the center of this wine region, if you are looking for a base.
Our encounter with Bonnieux occurred on a summer night as we drove through the countryside with no particular destination in mind. We came upon this delightful little town that was hosting a small traveling carnival in the town center. It was a great opportunity to observe life in Provence and meet and talk with very friendly, welcoming families.
Situated on the shores of La Napoule bay, Cannes is a glittering city with lots of old world charm. Cannes is world renowned for its International Film Festival and the legendary Boulevard, La Festival. To find the grandest hotels, the best restaurants, and the most fabulous designer shops, look no further than La Croisette.
During the 20s and 30s, Cannes was the playground of the rich and famous as well as the art crowd. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda lived nearby during that time while the famous expatriate wrote about their Jazz Age lifestyle in several of his stories and books.
Cannes is now one of the leading convention and exhibition destinations in Europe. The nearby international airport easily connects Cannes to the world. Cannes embodies all the charm of the French Riviera: an ideal climate, sandy beaches beneath an azure sky and the luxury of its palatial hotels, 3 casinos, boutiques, golf courses, tennis, deep sea fishing, sailing and more.
A small fishing town on the Mediterranean, Cassis is charming yet sophisticated. You can enjoy a delicious meal at several fine restaurants, sit at an outside table and watch the world go by, or try your luck at the local casino. You may also want to take a boat trip to the Calanques. The Calanques are steep white cliffs jutting into the Mediterranean Sea. I love this town so much, I keep coming back!
Parking can be tricky; we park at the top of the hill in a designated parking lot to avoid driving through the narrow streets on the bay. Boat trips to the calanques are easy to arrange with tickets purchased from a little ticket booth on the bay. Boats depart every 15-30 minutes. This is a wonderful experience; do not miss it. Cassis also hosts a charming market on Fridays; try to visit if you can.
Ezasques as the Eze natives are known, number just over 2600. Their home is actually a two-part settlement: The site of the ancient village at Eze-village and also Eze-bord-de-la-Mer (also called Eze-sur-Mer), a fishing village or residential seaside town, located between Beaulieru-sur-Mer and Cap d’Ail. You’ll find beaches, water sports, cafes, restaurants, and hotels at Eze-sur-Mer, while parts of Eze-village which circles the base of the hilltop chateau, is now in ruins.
In the village, enjoy beautiful shaded public squares, well restored old buildings of red-brick centered stone, and narrow streets leading up to the Jardin Exotique. Perched high above the sea on a corniche (rocky cliff), Eze is a spectacular example of a fortified village, with its ancient ramparts evoking the significant threat of 6th century Saracen pirates who terrified coastal dwellers. Nearby are hiking trails with breathtaking views, and the Roman ruin of the Alpine Trophy at La Turbie.
The center of the French perfume industry, Grasse has a perfume museum and many fine perfume shops. The town is an interesting blend of the old and the new. The surrounding countryside is filled with the scents of the flowers planted for their essence.
The International Rose Festival in May celebrates a blossom long favored by the perfumers. In August, Grasse lets out all the stops during the Fete du Jasmine (Jasmine Festival) where fragrant flowered floats delight your senses.
You can discover the old city on your own just by walking about the shaded streets while enjoying the architectural treasures as you come across them, or you can rent a listening device at the Tourist Office and follow the arrows on the included map while you listen to the history of Grasse.
Les Baux de Provence
Les Baux de Provence, an exquisite hill town, consists of the “live city” with tourist shops and restaurants and the “dead city” carved out of rock at the very top of a hill. The dead city has many interactive stations, where you can try out how it feels to be in stocks, and see how catapults work. The kids will love this. And there are also jousting competitions that can be viewed as well. Louis XIII razed this city in1632. Passing through the live city to get to the dead city will present spectacular vistas. It is well worth the climb.
Marseilles is a Provencal city with new-found vitality. The city boasts a 26-century-old port, a dynamic downtown with great hotels, shopping, big parks, a medieval-village-style neighborhood, and wonderful seafood. The spectacular Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde sits atop a hill overlooking the city while offering panoramic views of the city, the port and the nearby Chateau d’ If. If you have a negative image of “industrial” Marseilles, a visit here will be a wonderful surprise.
The capital of the Cote d’ Azur, and the fifth largest city in France, Nice is a glittering gem. It is as sophisticated and elegant, as it is charming and quaint. Walk along the Promenade des Anglais for wonderful views of the sea and the hotels and shops across the way. Visit the Old Town featuring the chateau, Place Garibaldi, and the hanging gardens. Nice is also home to several world-class museums including the Musee Matisse, the Musee d’Art Contemporain and the Musee Chagall.
Nice takes its heritage and beauty seriously, carefully protecting the beautiful frescoes and the trompe l’oeil, which ornament the façades of the houses of Old-Nice. It supports the activity of the Cours Saleya, where the flower, fruit and vegetable markets are held daily.
Nice is designed for walking. Nice’s green spaces, gardens, plane and palm trees lining the wide avenues, fountains of the forum Massena, and the esplanades all provide memorable pleasure to those strolling through this sensuous city. Nice cannot be discovered in just one day. Plan to spend at least three days in the city to learn for yourself why the many pleasures of Nice continue to delight her fortunate visitors.
Here are our suggestions for Where to Stay in Nice
St. Paul de Vence
Yes, St. Paul de Vence is a tourist town, but it is so for the best reasons. This town is perched atop a hill with wonderful views of the countryside, the Mediterranean, and the Alps. The streets are paved with river-rock in a delightful sunflower pattern. Walking into the main town, you will pass the famed Colombe d’ Or restaurant on the left and the boules court on the right. Spend a few minutes watching the boules players; it will give you an idea of the pace of life in the village. Tourist shops abound, but there are some gems selling local products as well as some interesting art galleries. The Fondation Maeght is a modern art museum located nearby; be sure you visit this gem.
St. Remy de Provence
This little town is abuzz on market day and a charming tourist town the rest of the week. It is set near the ancient Roman site of Glanum and is a great little town for walking, shopping and (of course) dining. There are several little museums to visit. One, The Centre d’ Art Presence Van Gogh, is dedicated to Van Gogh, who lived here from 1889-1890.
Chic in the 50s, St. Tropez is still home to the artsy crowd. The seaside resort town is still very popular with tourists, and the younger movie in-crowd seems to have recently re-discovered its charms. Set on the lovely blue water of the Bay of Saint-Tropez, this modern version of a medieval town is most popular for the line of yachts along the quai, and the facing line of terrace cafés, divided by a parade of strolling tourists and slow cruising expensive cars.
Behind the cafés, the small streets and old buildings are picturesque, but they’re more popular for the multitude of shops and restaurants than historical significance. There are endless possibilities for buying gifts or items of proof that “you’ve been here.”
Written by Terri Fogarty for EuropeUpClose.com