How to get the best from a South of France (Provence) vacation
The South of France (Provence) is one of the top vacation destinations in the world. It boasts some of the best beaches, and most dramatic countryside in the whole of France. In addition, the South of France has a rich artistic and literary heritage. Cezanne, Picasso and Van Gogh are all inextricably linked with the area. Writers such as Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Albert Camus wrote some of their greatest works here. History buffs love the plentiful Roman sites and the world famous, Gothic, Palais des Papes in Avignon. Add in one of the best climates in the world and it is not hard to see why tourists come flocking.
This article (by Jamie Ivey, author of the Moon Guide to Provence) is intended to help those in the planning stage of a South of France vacation. It sets out the need to know basics of for choosing the south of France for a vacation destination and includes a list of the top 10 places to visit.
South of France vacation, geography
First a little geography. The south of France refers to France’s Mediterranean coast and extensive hinterland stretching roughly from Perpignan near the Spanish border to Nice near the Italian border. The main areas tourists will visit are – the Cote d’Azur, commonly referred to as the Riviera, the inland Provencal heartland centered around the three cities of Aix en Provence, Arles and Avignon; and finally Nimes and the surrounding countryside.
When to visit the South of France and what to expect
Holiday in the Cote D’Azur
The Cote d’Azur is dominated by big name cities and resorts: Nice, Cannes, St Tropez, Antibes, and Cap Ferrat to name just a few. The coastline deserves its stella reputation. The play of light on water around the pine fringed coves is a delight to experience. Less pleasing are the traffic jams and small public beaches where people are jammed in like sardines.
More than any other region of the South of France it is important to plan your vacation at the right time of year. Winter is short and the vacation season begins in February with the blooming of the Mimosa and shortly afterwards the Fete du Citron in Menton. By June July and August the coast is overcrowded and to avoid the ceaseless traffic you need to take the coastal train line (or splurge on a helicopter!). Calm returns in September, and there are plenty of tourists up until the end of October.
Holiday in Inland Provence
Inland Provence is a much calmer place to visit. The lifestyle here was popularised by the English author Peter Mayle with his best selling “A Year in Provence.” Although Mayle indulged in a little dramatic licence, the portrait he painted of a rural sleepy society bathed in golden sunshine is still true today. Like the Cote d’Azur the summer months are the busiest, but out of this peak season the countryside remains quiet and the villages pleasantly animated. Focus on nature parks like the Luberon and Les Alpilles which are filled with the most dramatic countryside and the cities of Arles, Avignon and Aix en Provence.
Holiday in the Languedoc
Finally to the west of the Rhone is the Languedoc. Lured by the Pont du Gard and the Roman Arena, most tourists head to Nimes and its hinterland. This is the least wealthy region in the South of France. Tourism, although an important contributor to the economy is not the dominant force it is elsewhere in the South of France. Although not as picturesque as some of the more famous areas of the South of France, the Languedoc is still an appealing region to visit. The relaxed southern French lifestyle epitomised by games of boule and glasses of pastis in the shade of a café is as strong here as in Provence. And because it is less busy, the Languedoc is my pick for a July/August visit to the South of France.
South of France Provence vacation, accommodation options
The big choice is between staying in a hotel / guest house or renting a villa.
Villa Rentals for a Provence South of France vacation
There are thousands of villas to rent in the south of France and a range of prices to suit all budgets. Large families and groups often favor villa rental. For those nervous about the shopping and cleaning involved when renting a villa, note that concierge services are available. Also note that a month in a villa in the Languedoc can be had for the price of one week in a villa in the trendier areas of inland Provence and the Cote d’Azur. My preferred villa rental company is Only Provence.
Best Hotels for a South of France vacation
Provence is filled with hotels. Here’s a small list of 5 of my favourites.
- Mas de Senancole, a simple three star hotel with a picturesque swimming pool and garden which is a great base to explore the Luberon.
- Chateau des Alpilles, just outside Saint Remy de Provence, a dreamy experience just outside the town of Saint Remy.
- Domaine de Fontenille, in Lauris, a vineyard come hotel, which offers a great location for touring the Southern Luberon.
- Les Roches Blanches, located right at the entrance to Les Calanques in Cassis, with stunning views of the highest cliff in Europe.
- The Bellerives in Juan Les Pins. The hotel oozes old school glamour and in the glittering bar overlooking the Med, it’s possible to close your eyes and feel the presence of past guests such as Scott Fitzgerland and Hemmingway.
Transport links in the South of France
The main hub airports for a South of France vacation are Marseille and Nice. The TGV train runs from Paris and Lille south to Avignon, Aix en Provence, Marseille, Cannes and Nice. A separate service runs to Nimes. In the summer it is also possible to get a direct train from London to the South of France (Avignon TGV).
Once in the south of France hiring a car is the best way to get around. The road network is excellent and the scenery as you drive is exceptionally beautiful. Be aware that the autoroutes (freeways) get very busy in the summer months and particularly at the weekend.
The one exception to the hire a car rule is the Cote D’Azur where a good alternative is the local train line which runs along the coast and connects all the big name cities and resorts. The trains run through Monaco all the way to Italy.
Major Provence sights and cities for a South of France Vacation:
When planning your South of France vacation, there are some must see sights to build into to your itinerary. In no particular order here are 10 not to miss south of France sights.
Jardin de Villa de Rothschild
These gardens located on the Cap Ferrat Peninsula are a joy to wander around. Filled with verdant and exotic plants there are plentiful places to stop and stare out to sea. The tour gives a real insight into the decadent lifestyle of the Riviera during its early 20th century heyday.
Aix en Provence
A dream of a city to visit, Aix has it all: fountain-filled squares, grand avenues, a daily fruit, vegetable and flower market, quirky boutiques, big brands, and a café filled lifestyle. It’s a city that feels like a small town and the place is a joy to spend time in. Culture vultures will love the Musee Granet and Cezanne’s atelier.
The Gorge du Verdon
This 800m deep limestone gorge is a jaw dropping experience and not for the faint hearted. The nearby man-made Lac Saint Croix offers plentiful beaches with electric boats and pedalos for hire. Hikers love dropping down into the gorge. Some of the trails include Indiana Jones style rope bridges and rickety ladders plus the opportunity to spot wildlife such as vultures and golden eagles.
The village of Lourmarin
Lourmarin is the epitome of a Provencal village. Framed by the soft folded hills of the Luberon mountains it’s as picturesque from the inside as the outside. The heart of the village is the terraces of three cafes: the Ourmeau, the Fontaine and the Gaby, that line the central street. The shopping lures the Provencal from as far as Marseille thanks to an eclectic mix of art galleries and clothes and jewellery boutiques. If you visit only one Provencal village during your time in the South of France, make it Lourmarin.
The Roman Arena Arles
You have to hand it to the Romans, they really knew how to build a stadium. The sharply rising stands are still in great condition today and its easy to imagine the crowd baying for blood as the gladiators fought to the death below. Visiting the arena is an evocative experience and a must for history lovers.
Carrieres des Lumieres, Les Baux
The old bauxite mines of Les Baux de Provence now host spectacular art shows. Works by masters such as Picasso and Gaudi are projected onto the expansive walls of the quarry. Visitors feels as if they are actually walking through an artistic universe.
Visitors planning a south of France vacation often ignore The Camargue. Formed at the delta of the Rhone river it is one of the largest wetland areas of Europe. The Camargue is famed for its flamingo colonies, the white horses of the Camargue gardiens and herds of bulls. Hikes crisscross this nature reserve which is a must for lovers of wildlife.
Pont du Gard
The Pont du Gard is simply the most magnificent example of Roman Engineering you are ever likely to see. My favourite way to visit is to hire a canoe and paddle downstream. Looking up at its arched glory from the river, you really appreciate the scale of the endeavour.
Cote du Rhone Wine Tasting
The Cote du Rhone region just north of Avignon makes the best wine in Provence (apologies to Bandol). Take yourself on a day trip to villages such as Gigondas, Beaumes de Venise, and Seguret. Taste the sumptuous reds on offer at any of the plentiful local vineyards.
Palais des Papes, Avignon
Built in just 30 years at the beginning of the 14th century by Pope Benedict X11 and Pope Clement VI, the Palais is an awe inspiring Gothic monument. Technology brings the visit alive with the Histopad tablet projecting 3 dimensional images of the Palais in its heyday.
If you have any questions about a visit to Provence post a query below. I will reply as soon as possible. And if you like the idea of a South of France vacation but find planning the logistics daunting, you might want to consider a Provence Small Group Tour with Provence Guru. We do the hard work of organising everything and you sit back and enjoy. You might also like our recent post on choosing the right tour for you – Provence France Tours
For more tips try our Best of Provence Travel Itinerary