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Published 15 July 2022 by Leyla Alyanak
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This article details every step of a ten-day South of France road trip that takes you to all the major sights of the region, including the main stops and sights, things to see at each stop, and where to eat, along with a few intriguing backstories.
Coming up with south of France road trip ideas isn't easy – the region is huge, glorious, and you could spend a year exploring its corners without seeing it all.
What follows is but ONE of the many France road trip ideas you'll find on this website. Here, we visit a diversity of regions: the Camargue wetlands, the historic cities of Avignon and Nîmes, the hilltop villages of the Lubéron, and the French Riviera.
The destinations on this south of France itinerary are all part of the region called Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur,
If you prefer the freedom of driving in the south of France, stopping along impossibly scenic routes, if you're searching for the purest French essence and its southern charm (not to mention great food), this is among the best road trips France and will take you ten days.
CHECK OUT: Tips for Driving in France
This is an eclectic France itinerary, that takes in Roman ruins, beach and coastal scenery, wild nature, and cosmopolitan luxury – something for everyone, or a bit of everything if you simply cannot decide and want to see it all.
Summer can be hot and crowded in this region, especially in late July and August.
However, if you want to see lavender fields in full bloom and vineyards bright and perky, then there's no avoiding summer – you'll have to visit in late June and early July.
After that, though, stay away until September because of the heat and the crowds.
Another season to avoid in France is the school holiday – there are many, and can be as crowded (though less hot) than the high summer season. (Here is a list of holiday dates to avoid if you can.)
South of France road trips map
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While this south France itinerary is designed for driving, certain parts could be done by train. For example, rather than driving from Avignon to Nîmes, you could take the train between the two cities and start your road trip to the south of France in Nîmes. (If you're interested in finding out more about trains, check out itineraries and prices here.)
But make no mistake: this southern France itinerary is road-heavy itinerary, a road trip in the truest sense.
It's not a relaxing amble through the delightful South (I have other itineraries for that). But if you're pressed for time, don't mind driving, and want to see as much as you can in as short a short time as possible, this is the perfect road trip in the south of France.
Avignon is for history lovers, its UNESCO World Heritage Site a perfect introduction to medieval France. This is where the French popes lived during the 14th-century schism when French popes split with Rome. The palace of the popes is the largest gothic structure of its kind in the world, and the bridge (now partly gone) has major cultural significance as the subject of a children's song we all learn at the youngest age. At the same time, Avignon is compact enough so that you can visit most highlights even if you only have one day.
Avignon is one of the few French cities that still has defensive walls, which were built during the Avignon papacy – they are an impressive 4.3 km (2.7 mi) long.
This fortress cum palace is one of the biggest gothic constructions of the Middle Ages in Europe and for decades served as the heart of the papacy in Avignon, when the popes left Rome and moved to France. The entrance ticket includes a tablet which recreates what parts of the palace would have looked like back when the popes lived here. Or, combine your Papal Palace visit with a walking tour of Avignon.
THE UNUSUAL STORY OF THE POPES OF AVIGNON
Rome hasn't always been the seat of the Roman Catholic popes.
At one point, during the 14th century (from 1309-1378), the papacy moved to Avignon, encouraged by the King of France, Philip IV, who resented Rome's growing religious stronghold on temporal affairs. Six popes would reign here, all of them French.
It wasn't exactly an unpleasant time for the French popes, who appear to have blossomed far from the strictures of Rome. Avignon boasted some 11 bordellos during this time, compared with only two in Rome, and life was a little more relaxed than in stricter Rome.
The time in Avignon came to be known as the Babylonian Captivity, in reference to the Jewish exodus from Babylon in the sixth century BC.
This enormous complex is one of Europe's largest gothic structures and is well worth a visit. Get a skip-the-line ticket and explore what was once a fortress.
Across of the Palace of Popes is one of France's most famous bridges. Every French child knows the song of the same name so even though part of it has been washed away by the mighty Rhône River, a visit to the bridge will mean paying respect to one of France's most recognizable symbols.
Known as the "French Rome", Nîmes grew rapidly in Roman times, situated as it was along the Via Domitia, the road that led from Rome to what was then called Hispania. This is a city with an incredible Roman heritage and some exquisite monuments that remain standing despite the centuries.
Driving from Avignon, about 20 km from Nîmes, you'll come across the Pont du Gard, the tallest Roman aqueduct in the world. I remember as a child, we could climb to the very top, and I don't believe there was even a railing back then.
You can visit on a guided tour, or hike along the aqueduct, or even kayak past it on a hot summer day. The aqueduct can get crowded in high season so make sure you get your ticket ahead of time.
This is a perfect example of Rome's impressive architecture. It's more of an amphitheater, though, one of the best preserved in the world.
It was built in 70 CE, right after its Roman counterpart was finished and, like other arenas, it was built for shows of all kinds, like gladiator combats.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE NÎMES ARENA
With the waning of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the "Barbarians", the Nîmes Arena lost its role as an entertainment center and was turned into a fortress to defend the city. It was partly closed off and its archways sealed.
Over time, people moved inside the arena, putting up houses and churches. It took the 16th century and French King François I, builder extraordinaire, to begin rehabilitating the structure.
He began by clearing the buildings from the first floor, but the ground floor was still home to hundreds of people. Proper restoration would have to wait until the 18th century.
Today, the arena has a number of different uses: concert venue, film location, part of a cycling route... and, sadly, bullfights: Nîmes is considered the bullfighting capital of France. In most of France, bulls are not killed during a bullfight – unless it can be proven that the town has a historical claim to the practices. Both Arles and Nîmes claim this and hence, bulls here are killed. In recent years, the anti-bullfight movement has been gaining steam, with more people unwilling to see animals submitted to any kind of torture.
The statue out front, by the way, commemorates Nimeño II, a famous bullfighter.
This is probably the best-preserved Roman temple in the world and intriguingly, it has an odd number of steps. Priests would have placed their right foot on the first step, ending with the right foot at the top. In this way, they neither started nor ended on the left foot, deemed unlucky.
This modern interactive museum right across from the Amphitheater is a highlight of Nîmes. They excavated deeply during building and found the foundations of a magnificent Roman villa, including an impressive and beautifully preserved mosaic. The museum traces the history of Nîmes right through to the Middle Ages. Get your tickets here.
The Camargue is an area of wild beauty, different from other parts of France. As a wetland, its salt marshes are paradise for bird-lovers, but this is also where many of the south's bulls are raised – you can visit a farm and ride some of the famed Camargue horses, if you'd like.
If you're not in the mood to drive, you can take a half-day tour from Avignon to the Camargue and just go along for the ride.
I could have spent most of my day here, watching flamingos at the height of the breeding season, which runs from December to March. This bird park is a perfect introduction to a day trip in Camargue, region of salt marches and home to a wide variety of birds. It's an easy walking circuit, more of a stroll, really, with plenty of bushes and inlets.
At the edge of the Camargue, where it meets the Mediterranean, the small town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is the area's capital, fabled for its folklore. Its church of the same name is a place of pilgrimage for Europe's Roma populations and was built to protect holy relics, especially their patron saint, the "Black Virgin" Saint Sara, whose statue located in the downstairs area of the church.
Each year, towards the end of May and October, Saint Sarah is celebrated and a multitude of pilgrims converge here. You may want to witness this, but beware that these are crowded times in Saintes Maries and not necessarily the best to visit.
LEGENDS OF SAINT SARA
Each year (except during Covid), on 24 May, Saint Sara - patron saint of gypsies - is removed from her crypt in the church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer (Our Lady of the Sea) and carried to the sea, where she will be submerged.
Ceremonies, services, vigils, all take place during the next few days as thousands of pilgrims from Europe's various nomadic tribes converge here for a week of festivities, prayer and family gatherings. Guitars, candles and prayer strengthen the fervour of those for whom the "Black Virgin" is a spiritual beacon.
Her name is Kali, a resemblance to the Hindu goddess Kali ("she who is black"), reinforcing the belief that the Roms and other nomadic Europeans came from India during the 9th century.
You may be familiar with the "Three Marys", Christian women who followed Jesus and witnessed his crucifixion and resurrection. According to one legend (of many), Sara traveled with them as a maid as they went to France from the Holy Land, landing and settling near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The church was built to hold her relics.
Breeding bulls and horses is a centuries-old tradition in the Camargue, and takes place in manades – or large open areas – where they are left to reproduce in freedom. You can visit a manade for a few hours during your Camargue trip and find out more about the tradition. The tourist office can help you organize your manade visit.
Your south of France tour must include Arles! The heart of old Arles is relatively large, but not too large to explore on foot. Everything is within walking distance and the layout of the town makes mapping a route easy. You'll need one day to see Arles and even so, you won't see it all – but possibly enough to make you want to return.
So much in this city is dedicated to the artist Vincent van Gogh, from the foundation that bears his name to the places he lived and worked to the 187 scenes he painted while he lived here. Follow in van Gogh's footsteps in Arles and discover what inspired him so.
Arles was once a provincial capital of the Roman Empire and is doted with Roman ruins. The Amphitheater is a stunning venue and today hosts plays, concerts or corridas, as well as the occasional fashion or light show. But the city has plenty more, including a magnificent arena and ancient theater. Have a look at Arles' tremendous roman heritage.
Designed by Frank Gehry, this latest addition to the Arles art scene is quite the structure, in and out. Walk around and admire the exterior before taking in the permanent and temporary exhibitions. The newest must-see.
The shores of the Rhone River are a perfect ending to the day – and part of the reason for Van Gogh's enchantment with this city will be made clear by the riverside, where he often painted.
This medieval village isn't really a full-day trip (at least not in my opinion) but you cannot really miss Les Baux de Provence if you're in the area. Get there early if you want to park anywhere near the entrance, or prepare for the uphill walk along the cobblestone streets. The village itself is part of the Most Beautiful Villages of France network, and rightly so. Consider coming in the evening, spending the night, and visiting in the morning before the crowds have arrived.
These are the remains of the chateau dominating the pinnacle of the village, an interesting fortress, but the reason you really come here is the panorama over the entire region. Unsurpassed.
This light and sound show takes place inside an old quarry, ideal if you want to get away from the summer heat. The exhibition changes yearly to highlight a different artist – van Gogh, Michelangelo, Klimt, Chagall, Dali, Picasso... Wear a jacket. You can also bypass the driving and take a tour to Les Baux and the quarry from Avignon.
Since Les Baux will not take you an entire day, you could push on across the mountain to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, a perfect addition if you love van Gogh. After having followed in his footsteps in Arles, you can share the second half of his Provence journey here, including a visit to the asylum in which he interned himself and, right next door, the fabulous Roman ruins of Glanum.
in the old village, there are plenty of restaurants. One to be recommended: Le Bouchon Rouge (Rue du Trencat) offers authentic cuisine provençal and is located near the castle
Made (in)famous by Peter Mayle's original A Year in Provence, the Lubéron region has become a compulsory stop on the way south, so much so that you can find the bus tours hogging the small roads a bit daunting. Choose less-visited villages, or do your sightseeing very early in the morning or late in the evening (in summer, it's so hot you may have no choice). I love winter in this region, but sadly, with few tourists around, many places are closed, so my advice would be to visit during the shoulder season, or in late June if you're headed for the nearby lavender fields.
Gordes is one of my favourite Lubéron villages and no visit is complete without it. Even a short stroll through the village will give you a sense of its beauty; just beware, there isn't much parking (especially on Tuesday morning, market day).
Before you get to Gordes, on the climb up, you'll see a sign for the Villages des Bories, made of typical mortar-free dry stone walls of the region. The bories have been used to store tools or even as dwellings, but they were originally built to dispose of excess stones removed to clear farmland.
Not far from Gordes, this (still active) 12th-century Cistercian monastery is one of the can't-miss places if you want to see lavender (or you can drive around the countryside at the end of June or beginning of July and see it everywhere). But at Senanque, you also get to visit the monastery and explore its history, as well as the daily lives of the monks who live here. You can walk here from Gordes if you're in the mood (just remember, Gordes is uphill from the abbey so at some point you'll have to walk uphill). Here's where to get your tickets.
This doesn't take long and is fun – just don't wear white or delicate shoes because they'll end up yellow and brown from the natural ochre of Roussillon, the world's biggest deposit. The entire village of Roussillon is dedicated to ochre: the colour of the houses, the hills at the village's edge, the trail... all mined here since Roman times.
LONG-LOST LEGENDS OF THE LUBERON
The Lubéron is a mystical land, one with many legends underlying its truth.
Like the legend of lavender, originally a fairy called Lanandula, who flitted through Provence looking for the perfect place to live (she found it), or the strange scratchings on the walls of Lourmarin castle, or the legend of Lady Sermonde and her horrible husband. Read about all these and other legends here.
And there's there's the epidemic... not Covid, but the Great Plague of 1721. As the illness spread, they built a wall, parts of which remain visible.
This is not your everyday visit and few people know it, but if you decide to swing by the lovely village of Lourmarin, you might as well push on to this medieval fortress, a working military fortress until the 16th century – although be prepared to hike, and make sure you have good shoes. You won't be able to beat the view!
Beware, though, it closes often, whenever the weather is poor: rain, fog, snow, or potential forest fires. Check out the openings on its official website.
Marseille has its admirers and detractors, but there's no denying its natural beauty, its harmonious architecture, and the cultural place it has been occupying since it was named European Capital of Culture in 2013. Its ancient neighbourhoods and graceful port make it visually attractive and historically important, but it has retained a certain grittiness from its rough and tumble days. But is it worth visiting? Yes, absolutely, because France isn't only about pretty villages and colourful markets. This is France, too. (You can visit Marseille for a day with this 24-hour day pass, for unlimited public transportation and entrance to the top attractions.)
This Byzantine basilica (Rue Fort du Sanctuaire) provides the best aerial view of the beautiful bay of Marseille. Its informal name is "La Bonne Mère", the Good Mother, and when you look at it you'll understand why: it seems to be watching over the city.
MARSEILLE, FRANCE'S OLDEST CITY
For a city claiming to be France's oldest (that title is disputed by Béziers, in light of new excavations), Marseille has precious few ruins. Whereas Nîmes and Arles are stuffed with Roman remnants, Marseille would be hard-pressed to come up with an arena or even an arch.
Why is that?
Marseille, once called Massalia, was founded by Greek mariners in the 7th century BCE, at a time when a few Neolithic traces were to be found in what is now Paris. There are even earlier traces of inhabitants in the region, during Prehistory, some 30,000 years ago.
Ruins have been discovered in Marseille − they just haven't been preserved. Instead, they've been reburied or destroyed, to make way for the city's expansion.
So much has been buried... an antique quarry, the old agora, a ceramic workshop (which probably made the amphorae that held France's first wine), the city's first Christian church, an amphitheater, all in a tug-of-war between urban development and the conservation of antiquities.
It might be time for city authorities to recognize the two are not necessarily incompatible...
The Musée de la Civilisation de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée − or European and Mediterranean civilization − was built in 2013 when Marseille was named European Capital of Culture. It regularly holds fascinating exhibitions that shed a light on this corner of the world − and the building itself is extraordinary, a stunning cube of concrete lace.
Cassis can be divided into two parts, the lovely village that winds down to the port, and the calanques, or tiny rocky inlets, that you'll find in the Calanques National Park between Marseille and Cassis. If you're driving from Marseille, the D559 road will take you through the stunning calanques panoramas to the delightful town of Cassis.
From Cassis, you can get to the calanques in several ways – you can walk to the first one, Port-Miou, and then on to Port Pin and beyond. Hiking the calanques is a wonderful way of experiencing these natural formations. You can drive between the calenques but bear in mind that the area is heavily touristed and some calanques are limiting the number of visitors. Instead, try one of the short walks to experience the beauty of this area, or better yet, visit by boat.
This charming fishing village is perfect for a rest and a meal after your calanque walk or boat ride. Relax, have a drink, take a few pictures... after the intensity of Marseille, you'll need a slower day in nature.
You'll find plenty of places near the Port and in the old town. For a gastronomic treat, try La Villa Madie (Avenue de Revestel-anse de Corton) which serves haute cuisine from the Mediterranean region and offers a splendid view on the sea. For a more relaxed atmosphere, you can definitely try the wooden-baked pizzas at La Stazione (39, avenue Victor Hugo).
There's plenty to see and do in Nice, a lovely town that can easily keep you busy all day. But if you'd rather escape the city, there are plenty of day trips or half-day trips you can sample while you're here – to Cannes or Saint-Paul-de-Vence, for example.
This famous7km stretch of boardwalk is named after the British aristocrats who made it popular once they began wintering on the coast. Back in the early early 19th century, but over the years it was widened and became home to luxurious palaces and villas. You can drive along the road, walk along the parallel walkway and bike path, or laze on the beachfront – you'll still end up with one of the most dazzling views on the Riviera.
The Old Town is a delight: you'll find plenty of boutiques and traditional restaurants along with piles of antiques, both at the Monday brocante of the Cours Selaya (one of the best flea markets in France) or among the antique shops of the the Old Port of Nice. The Sainte-Réparate Cathedral is a mix of styles, the initial chapel dating back nearly 1000 years. Visit the atmospheric fish market at Place Saint François, with one of Nice's few remaining examples of baroque architecture in Nice (old town hall).
NICE AND MATISSE
It's no wonder the post-impressionist French artist Matisse fell in love with Nice when he moved here in 1917.
Nice's beauty, wedged as it is between sea and mountains, overwhelmed the artist with its warmth and light.
Matisse spent nearly 40 years in Nice, overwhelmed by the warmth and light of the city. He came to cure a nasty bronchitis – he would stay nearly 40 years, until his death.
And to think he almost didn't stay... when he first arrived, the weather was horrible and he had been ill. Making plans to return to his family in Paris, he was about to leave when he awoke to that irresistible Nice sunshine one morning... and the rest is history.
See his work at the Musée Matisse at 164 avenue des Arènes de Cimiez.
Monaco – or more specifically its central town, Monte-Carlo – will be a complete change of pace from the rest of this south France road trip, ending your journey in luxury in this tiny city-state. Luxury yachts, stunning views, a hint of royalty – this is what you can expect in this bucket list destination, the perfect way to end your France vacation.
This is probably the most famous building in the Principality of Monaco and its Belle Epoque architecture has been the backdrop of many films, including Ocean's Twelve, GoldenEye, Never Say Never Again... You may see a resemblance in style with the Opera Garnier in Paris, both of which were designed by Charles Garnier.
Another famous view, with its graceful bay and yachts and the little shops of Monte Carlo. Don't expect to see Prince Albert but do visit his large apartments and Palace, which can be visited six months a year.
Discover more than 6000 aquatic species in one of the best oceanographic museums in the world.