Provence Travel Guide

10 Must-See Towns in Provence

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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. The secret is out on Provence, and the area has always been well-known spot for celebrity vacationers, but there’s still plenty that’s slightly off the beaten track. 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.—Abbey Chase

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No longer a true hidden gem, Cassis still offers a pleasant respite from Provence’s more popular port cities in its dramatic seaside setting, framed by the imposing white cliffs and the series of calanques 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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Provence Guide

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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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Provence Guide

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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; it now 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. Don’t miss Abbaye of Sénanque just outside the city, where monks still live and produce local honey and liqueurs.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Provence Guide

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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 creatively 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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Provence Guide

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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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Provence Guide

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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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Provence Guide (Richard Semik) / Shutterstock

Le Barroux

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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Provence Guide

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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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Provence Guide

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For a town of less than 2,000, Ménerbes has experienced its fair share of brushes with fame. A group 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 buff-colored buildings seem to almost 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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Provence Guide

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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 of 8,000 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.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Provence Guide