The secret is out on Provence, and the area has always been a well-known spot for celebrity vacationers, but there’s still plenty that’s slightly off the beaten track.
The smell of lavender wafting in a summer breeze, the gentle swaying of hillside olive groves, empty sun-swept corridors between picturesque stone buildings—Provence is a region full of sensory romance, rewarding travelers with its breathtaking vistas, mouthwatering cuisine, and small-town tranquility. The Romans once dominated this area, and many of the towns serve as visual historical accounts of France’s southwestern region, with remnants of Roman, Byzantine, medieval, and Renaissance structures incorporated into the modern construction of the upscale (but still quaint) towns. When you’ve had your fill of idyllic lanes in famous Aix-en-Provence and enjoyed St. Tropez’s legendary beaches, head for one of these smaller, lesser-known towns.
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No longer a true hidden gem, Cassis still offers a pleasant respite from Provence’s more popular port cities with its dramatic seaside setting, framed by the imposing white cliffs and the series of calanques (narrow inlets) tucked among them. Winemaking is now the primary activity in the region, but Cassis has maintained its idyllic fishing village vibe, with pastel-colored buildings lining the harbor. Be sure to sample the local specialty, a very particularly prepared bouillabaisse, before you leave.
Avignon is probably best known as the center of the religious conflict that took place in the 14th century, when Pope Clement V decamped to the French city and moved the seat of the Catholic Church out of Rome for nearly 70 years. Clement’s sumptuous Palais des Papes still remains in Avignon today, crowded on all sides by the city’s surprisingly bustling center. For a sampling of the region’s flavors, taste your way through the Les Halles market, enjoy a drink on one of the sprawling patios, and peruse Avignon’s many shops.
Often listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France, Gordes is a charming mix of sleepy French hillside village and posh resort town. The area is a favorite among celebrities as a quiet summer retreat, but the atmosphere is still unpretentious. The idyllic setting is dominated by the fortress standing guard over the city—a Roman foundation that was significantly renovated during the Renaissance. Now, the fortress houses an art museum.
Be sure to look down every tiny alleyway as you stroll through Gordes, as some of the best views of the countryside can be glimpsed through the narrow corridors leading out from the city center. Make sure not to miss Abbaye de Sénanque just outside the city, where monks still live and produce local honey and liqueurs.
If the gently rolling wheat fields and gnarled olive groves surrounding Saint-Rémy-de-Provence look familiar, don’t be surprised; Van Gogh spent a year here during one of his more productive periods, during which he composed Starry Night among other famous works. After perusing the town’s surprisingly cosmopolitan boutiques and eateries, venture further afield to explore the nearby ruins of Glanum, a Celtic-Roman city with an intact triumphal arch dating back to the first century B.C.
White sandy beaches, ragged cliffs, and crystalline waters lend Îles d’Hyères, a chain of four islands off the coast of Var, a vaguely Caribbean vibe. Porquerolles is the largest and has some of the best beaches in all of Provence on the island’s less rugged north shore. Porquerolles’ small village is brand-new compared to most of Provence; constructed in the 19th century, it has an atmosphere more akin to an Italian port town than a hillside Roman village. Purchased from a private owner in the 1970s, Porquerolles is a protected development area, so its natural beauty has been left blissfully untamed.
At sunset, the village of Roussillon practically glows, its fiery red and orange buildings lighting up the surrounding landscape. Its unique color palette—most Provencal towns are a study in sandy beiges and creamy whites—is due to the large ocher clay deposits in the vicinity. While Provence is known for its fertile landscape, the area surrounding Roussillon is a pleasant change of pace with its stark red cliffs and dramatic canyons. Grab a seat at one of the tiny sidewalk cafes and admire the town’s vibrant architecture.
Few places in Provence feel further removed from the well-trod tourist path than Le Barroux. The tiny village is seemingly one giant looping street, with impossibly narrow alleyways punctuated by mint green and robin’s egg blue shutters and window flower boxes hanging from the rugged stone facades. The Château du Barroux, from the 12th century, sits precariously on the top of a hill with the town circling its base, before giving way to sweeping vineyards and olive groves on all sides. On a sunny day, you can see Mont Ventoux in the distance. After a stroll through the sun-kissed streets, where you’ll encounter gurgling fountains at every turn, head to Entre’ Potes for fantastically prepared Provençal food.
It wasn’t the Romans but the Celts who were the first people to settle this picturesque hill in the Vaucluse department. Today, Vaison-la-Romaine is a charming mix of the old and new, with the steep medieval-era streets leading up to the Colline de Chateau on the south side of Ouvèze River. Over the Pont Romain, dating back to the first century, you’ll find the older, original Roman settlements and the bulk of the town packed with al fresco cafes and shops selling the region’s lavender and olive-based products. Ruins of an original Roman villa and theater can be seen just outside the city center.
For a town of fewer than 2,000, Ménerbes has experienced its fair share of brushes with fame. A number of quasi-celebrities, from one of Picasso’s models to high-profile English businessmen, settled in the otherwise forgotten village in the middle of the 20th century, before Ménerbes was put back on the map by Peter Mayle’s writing (it was the setting in A Good Year and appeared in his other works). The charming village, whose sand-colored buildings seem to disappear into the leafy landscape, is dominated by the Protestant-built citadel, a remnant from Ménerbes’ time as an important Protestant stronghold during the French Wars of Religion.
Secreted away in the Gard department west of the Rhone River, Uzès is a hidden-in-plain-sight gem with as much authenticity as you’ll find anywhere in the dozens of small towns scattered over the Provence region. The village was at different points a Roman settlement, a Jewish enclave, a bishopric, and a dukedom, evidence of which can be found in the stately homes, chateaux, and 17th-century chapel still preserved in the city center. A mid-century investment from the French government turned the town into a secretly hip hamlet, where many expats now own homes, but the atmosphere is still entirely French. Don’t miss the Sunday market, one of the best in Provence.
Unlike the hilltop villages that draw in thousands of tourists each year in the Luberon, Lourmarin unassumingly resides on a plain, where olive groves, vineyards, and almond trees act as the natural barrier for this picturesque town. Don’t let the low stature fool you; Lourmarin is often regarded as one of the most beautiful villages in Provence. The village has attracted numerous illustrious figures over the years, including Winston Churchill and Albert Camus, but it was resident writer Henri Bosco that famously wrote of his home village, “This land has taken root in me…”
INSIDER TIPBook a table at La Bastide de Capelongue to experience the village’s celebrated two Michelin Star dining.
This medieval town has been inhabited since the Neolithic Age, protected by a series of ancient ramparts that still stand today beneath this hilltop village. Venasque has become famous for its exceptional cherry crop, and everywhere throughout France the designation “Monts de Venasque” indicates flawless fruit grown under ideal conditions. The Roman walls and the baptistery found within this village are must-see sights, but don’t pass up the chance to see Venasque’s beloved Crucifixion painting within the Notre Dame de Venasque church. The town won the painting back when the Louvre in Paris borrowed it and forgot to return it to the village.
Situated serenely on the banks of the Sorgue River, this town is a shopper’s paradise, only instead of shopping malls and boutiques, visitors are met with fabulous antique stores and bustling weekend markets. Wake up early to stroll along the more than 300 stalls at the famous Sunday market at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue when it opens at 8 a.m., before taking an early lunch at Café Fleurs to enjoy a glass of rose beneath the café’s shaded terrace. Don’t miss the floating market if you’re in town during the first Sunday of August, when locals sell their wines and wares from traditional “nego-chin” boats.
There’s only one road in and one road out to this hidden gem within Provence’s Petit Luberon. Tiny roads meander through the village where outdoor tables mark the entrances of cafes and colorful window boxes filled with flowers greet guests into the shops owned by local families. A short walk up from the famous Café de la Poste puts you in Old Goult, where many buildings were carved out of the rocky hill itself, and finally up to the iconic Goult windmill and the perfect spot for taking in the gorgeous scenery.
Old stone houses made from ochre limestone are just the first pages of this storybook village. As you walk deeper through the streets, history unfolds to reveal medieval architecture and the town’s famous 11th-century chateau that soon became home to some infamous characters. The chateau in Lacoste provided refuge for “the father of eroticism” Marquis de Sade. Today its designer M. Pierre Cardin that calls the chateau home, after an extensive renovation that brought this ancient edifice into the modern age.