Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure in the south of France is a region of glamorous sunny beaches, vast fields of colourful lavender, sensational alpine peaks, and a rich historical heritage. It borders Italy to the east, and surrounds the city-state of Monaco. Its prefecture is the vibrant city of Marseille, an important port city since ancient Greek times, and a diverse historical and cultural hub. Other cities such as Aix-en-Provence and Saint-Tropez were home to some of France’s most celebrated painters, and today are favourite getaway destinations.
Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure is probably best known as one of the top tourist destinations in the country, in particular the sparkling azure waters and beaches of the Mediterranean coast. The stretch of coast called the French Riviera is home to exclusive resorts and marinas packed with superyachts at Antibes and Nice, and is home to the renowned Cannes Film Festival. Further along the coast are natural wonders such as Calanques National Park and islands and inlets of the Var department.
Beyond the coastline, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure is a region of great natural beauty. The region includes the southernmost part of the French Alps, as well as other picturesque mountainous areas such as Les Alpilles and Mont Ventoux. The Gorge du Verdon, France’s deepest gorge, is also located in the region. Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure has a rich Roman heritage, home of some of France best preserved Roman ruins such as the amphitheatres at Arles and Orange.
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Cities in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
The cities of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure are just as diverse as the landscapes of the region, ranging from elegant beachside resorts to mountain spa towns.
France’s second largest city (metropolitan) after Paris is Marseille. One of France’s oldest settlements, the city was founded around 600BCE by the Phocaea, an Ionian Greek people. An important port city in the Mediterranean, the city has a diverse multicultural population, with large populations from North Africa, Corsica and Italy. Marseille also lends its name to the French national anthem La Marseillaise, first written in Strasbourg but first sung by Marseillaise military volunteers.
Le Vieux-Port de Marseille is the 2600 year-old port of Marseille, and the one of the city’s most popular places to visit. Fresh seafood is sold on the Quay des Belges, and plenty of restaurants can be found, as well as the spectacular Miroir Ombriére art installation. It is overlooked by some of Marseille’s oldest and most beautiful monuments, the most prominent being the 19th century Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, an incredible neo-Byzantine design. At the port entrance are the massive fortresses of Fort Saint-Nicholas and Fort Saint-Jean, and the 1855 Phare de Saint-Marie (Saint-Marie lighthouse) stands at its entrance.
In the city stand more reminders of the city’s long history, such as the Porte d’Aix, a classical arch completed in 1839; the Baroque Hôtel de Ville de Marseille; the Vielle Charité, known for its dome and columns, and pink stonework. One of Marseille’s most remarkable buildings is the 5th century Abbey of Saint-Victor, with its imposing square turrets and crenellations and high vaulted ceilings. Just 4km (2.5 miles) offshore is the Château d’If, a fortress on the island of If in the Frioul archipelago. Completed in 1531, it was the setting of the famous novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Marseille has plenty more to see, from beautiful sandy beaches and coastal drives, to its incredible number of fine art galleries and museums, second only to Paris.
Just 30km (18 miles) north of Marseille is Aix-en-Provence, a charming university city known for its historic architecture and its many fountains, earning it the nickname ‘City is a thousand fountains‘. Aix-en-Provence is also associated with arguably its most famous resident – Paul Cézanne, an Impressionist painter who depicted his favourite spots in Aix, such as his family home, the rolling green hills, and red quarries around the city.
Some of the city’s notable landmarks include the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix-en-Provence (Aix Cathedral), built between the 12th and 16th centuries in the Romanesque and Gothic styles, even depicted in the Marvel show Loki. The 15th century Aix-en-Provence Hôtel de Ville (town hall) overlooks one of the region’s most beautiful and famous squares, the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, which also features the Clock Tower and Corn Exchange Hall building.
For art lovers, the Atelier Cézanne is the studio where the artist produced his masterpieces in the last 4 years of his life, and is open to visitors. The Terrain des Peintres (Field of the Painters) is a terraced public park with a wonderful mountain view of Montagne Saint-Victoire, an inspiration for Cézanne and other painters.
The city of Avignon in the west of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure is one of France’s most interesting historic cities. From its origins as a Greek trading post and later a fortified Roman stronghold, Avignon is most notable as the seat of several popes between 1309 and 1377. Many monuments of the city’s history are wonderfully preserved to the present day. Les Remparts d’Avignon (The Walls of Avignon) were built in the 14th century by the Papacy to defend the city against marauders. Circling the city for 4.3km (2.7 miles), the walls have 25 remaining entrances. Another medieval masterpiece is the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), one of the largest and most impressive Gothic fortresses in the country, later the seat of the papacy.
The old town of Avignon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses many of the city’s greatest sights. Le Musée du Petit Palais is a former bishop’s residence turned art gallery. Avignon Cathedral is a 12th century Romanesque church which is now the seat of the archbishop of Avignon. The arches of the incomplete Pont Saint-Bénézet bridge is one of the most famous bridges in the country, with a children’s song named after it – Sur le Pont d’Avignon.
The largest town of the Hauts-Alpes department is Gap, the highest prefecture in France, with its lovely old town set against a stunning mountainous backdrop. Place Jean Marcellin is one of the most charming places to sit down and enjoy the view. Set in the northern part of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure region, the city is a link between the Alps and Provence. Gap was a stopover for Napoleon as he traveled north, after escaping his exile on Elba. The house where the Emperor stayed is still standing, and marked with a mural of his army.
Digne-les-Bains is the prefecture of the Alpes de Haute Provence department, situated in a valley between rolling green hills, and often called the Capital of Lavender. With origins as a Gallic settlement for the Bodiontici, and later a Roman outpost, Digne-les-Bains became known (and named) for its thermal water which is now a major tourist attraction today. The city has numerous relaxation spas, as well as public hot springs such as the Plan d’Eau des Ferréols, an outdoor heated swimming pool; and Le Complexe Aquatique Les Eaux Chaudes, an indoor pool with waterslides. The city is also known for the Corso de la Lavande, a 5 day festival at the start of spring that celebrates lavender.
The French Riviera (Côte d’Azure)
The French Riviera (Côte d’Azure) is the name of the French coastline from Menton at the Italian border to Toulon. The area is not officially demarcated with exact boundaries, and many believe the western boundary to be Le Lavandou or Saint-Tropez. Historically a coast of fishing ports, it was transformed in the late 18th century as a winter getaway for wealthy European aristocrats that departed on their Grand Tour.
Today, the coast is dotted with sensational sunny beaches, azure coloured water, rocky coves and picturesque villages. It is perhaps best known as a vacation playground for the rich and famous, with elegant hotels and resorts; glamorous festivals that attract Hollywood celebrities, Formula One stars and musicians; and marinas filled with superyachts.
The largest city of the French Riviera region is Nice, one of the most popular beach destinations in France and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the second largest city in the region, and the second largest on France’s Mediterranean coast. With origins as an ancient Greek port known as Nike (named after the winged goddess of victory), Nice was a prominent maritime power throughout the centuries. It gained prominence as a seaside getaway during the Grand Tour travels of young, wealthy European men 17th and 18th centuries.
Today, Nice is most often associated with its 7km (4 mile) Promenade des Anglais, a leisurely stretch of road that follows the length of the beach, fringed with palm trees and restaurants. The promenade hosts parades, and is lined with some of the city’s grandest and more elegant buildings. Beyond the beach is Vieux Nice, the old town of narrow streets and colourful buildings, covered galleries and decorative archways. Highlights are the Cours Saleya, a vibrant market; the gorgeous marble arch of La Porte Fausse; the Baroque cathedral of Cathédrale Sainte-Réparate; and the square below, Place Rosetti.
Above the city stands La Parc Colline du Château (Castle Hill), a hill that was once home to the city’s defensive citadel. Dismantled in 1706, the area is now a green space ideal for walking. Other impressive sights include La Monastère de Cimiez, an 8th century monastery, and the scenic coastal walk the follows the ocean as far as Villefranche sur Mer.
Cannes, a luxury beach town on the French Riviera, is synonymous with its iconic annual film festival, the Cannes Film Festival (Festival de Cannes). Held every May, the exclusive event showcases the very best of the year’s films, held in the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, and attracting the biggest names in cinema.
The most famous promenade in the city is Le Promenade de la Croisette, which follows the beach front for 2km (1.24 miles) as far as Pointe Croisette. It has some of the city’s most expensive and exclusive hotels, shopping and restaurants. On the other end of the promenade is Le Suquet, the old town of Cannes that is known for its narrow cobbled streets and charming shady restaurants, as well as historic monuments such as the Tour Carrée. Other sights in Cannes include the Marché Forville, a large market of seasonal produce; and the nearby islands of Île Sainte-Marguerite and Île Saint-Honorat.
Saint-Tropez is a resort town on the French Riviera, which transformed from a fishing port into an exclusive resort town after WW2. It is known for its beautiful Tropezian beaches, which includes the crystal-clear waters, lounge chairs and parasols of Pampelonne Beach; and the Plage de Tahiti, filming location of the film And God Created Woman starring Brigitte Bardot.
Saint-Tropez has lots of charming sights in the city itself, including the Vieux Port (Old Port), packed with cafes and fishing boats; the Citadelle de Saint-Tropez, a coastal fortification built in 1620; and the 16th century chapel of Saint-Anne, where Mick and Bianca Jagger were married. Saint-Tropez is also a centre of fine art, with esteemed galleries such as l’Annonciade, which celebrates artists such as Paul Signac who worked in the city; and the Galerie des Lices, the largest gallery in Saint-Tropez.
Landscapes and Natural Sights of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
From the beaches of the Mediterranean to the foot of the Alps, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure has some of the most spectacular landscapes in Europe. It is home to the Gorge du Verdon, France’s deepest Gorge, sunny ski fields at Serre Chevalier, lavender fields, and limestone calanques.
Located just south of Avignon is the Alpilles mountain range, which rises from the plains of Crau to a high point of 498 metres (1,634 feet). The name means ‘Little Alpes’. A favourite outdoor getaway for hikers and walkers for its scenic viewpoints, the area was a favourite subject matter in many of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. The area is home to many beautiful historic sites, from the wonderful Roman ruins at Glanum, to the defensive 13th century hilltop fortress of Les Baux de Provence. The Alpilles also contains many charming villages, such as Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, known for its lively market, as well as being the birthplace of the astrologer Nostradamus, and location of the asylum where Van Gogh spent a year of his life. Other villages include Fontvieille, famous for its Alphonse Daudet Windmill; and Eygalières, home to nearby vineyards and olive groves.
Gorge du Verdon
One of the most sensational sights in France is the Gorge du Verdon, situated on the Verdon river and France’s deepest gorge at 700 metres (2,300 feet). The limestone canyon runs for about 25km (15.5 miles) until the lake of Saint-Croix. The gorge is a popular tourist attraction for its many hiking opportunities, such as the Sentier Martel, which offers amazing clifftop vistas, cave tunnels, and views of the winding river. The gorge is a popular spot with rock climbing, with over 1,500 climbing routes, as well as for canoeing, rafting, paragliding and fishing. The gorge has several impressive natural features, including the Styx du Verdon, a narrow channel of white boulders, caves and stunning turquoise waters. It can be accessed via the Imbut trail.
Calanques National Park
Named after the many calanques (high-walled, narrow limestone coastal inlets) that rake the azure waters of the Mediterranean, Calanques National Park is a protected area of land and sea between Marseille and La Ciotat. The Park covers 520 square kilometres (201 square miles), and is renowned for its natural beauty. The best jumping off point for visitors is through the picturesque seaside town of Cassis, which has roads and hiking trails to the calanques. The national park is a place of high biodiversity, and is home to turtles and dolphins, as well as Bonelli’s eagles, and diverse fish life.
One of the most recognisable mountains in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure is Mont Ventoux (windy mountain), a peak of 1,909 metres (6,263 feet). It is sometimes known as ‘The Bald Mountain‘ for its distinctive summit which is almost completely devoid of plants. It is also referred to as ‘The Beast of Provence‘ and ‘The Giant of Provence‘ and is famed for being one of the toughest mountains in the Tour de France. At the top of the mountain is a memorial to rider Tom Simpson, who died in 1967 from exhaustion whilst riding to the top.
One of the major ski resorts in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure region is the Serre Chevalier in the Alps near the Italian border. The ski area extends for around 15km (9 miles), and includes the historic town fortress of Briançon, St Chaffrey and La Salle Les Alpes. The area is renowned for its variety of skiing landscapes, and dependable sunny weather.
Lavender Fields of Provence
One of the most iconic sights of Provence are the vibrant rows of purple lavender fields that bloom in June. The harvesting use done around the end of July, giving visitors a small window to explore this beautiful sight. Many lavender farms offer tours of their fields, which also sell lavender products such as soaps and essential oils. Some of the best places to see the lavender fields are the Valensole Plateau, Sault in the Vaucluse department, and throughout the Drôme department.
Roman Ruins and Monuments of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
Historically, the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure was an important trading port for the Ancient Greeks, as well as one of the Roman Empire’s provinces close to Rome. Today, there are a number of amazing Roman ruins still standing to admire today.
Roman and Romanesque Monuments of Arles
Located on the Mediterranean coast between Marseille and Montpellier is the city of Arles, notable for its incredible Roman and Romanesque monuments that represent centuries of history. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the oldest monuments are the impressive two-tiered amphitheatre (inspired by the Roman Colosseum), the outdoor Roman theatre, and the cryptoporticus, all of which date to the 1st century. In the 4th century, more Roman buildings were built, such as the Necropolis of Alyscamps and the baths of Constantine. Built in the 12th-15th century after the Roman Empire is the Church of Saint-Trophime, one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture.
Roman Ruins of Orange
Located in the commune of Orange in the Vaucluse department are some of the best preserved Roman ruins in France. The Roman Theatre of Orange was built between 10-25 CE for as many as 10,000 spectators, and is notable for its stone stage wall. The theatre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with surrounding Roman structures such as the Triumphal Arch of Orange. Roman artefacts can be seen in the Art and History Museum of Orange.
Eating and Drinking in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur
Drinking in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure
One of the region’s typical drinks is Pastis, an anise-flavoured spirit which was introduced to markets after Absinthe was banned in the early 20th century. It is served diluted with water, and is one of the most popular drinks in Marseille, with the most well-known brand being Ricard. The region is also known for its wine production. Provence is France’s oldest wine region, dating back 2,600 years to the Ancient Greeks. Rosé is the most commonly produced wine, which makes up over half of all Provençal wines.
Other drinks popular in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure include Rinquinquin, a peach liqueur mixed with white wine, and served as an aperitif. Picton, first produced in Marseille, is a dark, orange-flavoured liqueur which is served as an aperitif, or with wine, beer, or cocktails.
Dishes of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure
The culinary jewel in the crown of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure is bouillabaisse, a rich fish and seafood stew originating from Marseille. Originating in the 18th century as a way for fishermen to cook their leftover catch, this soup of racasse (red scorpion fish), mussels, tomato, onion, garlic, spices and herbes de Provence now has a charter that standardises its preparation. It is traditionally served with a mayonnaise-like rouille sauce.
Pissaladière is a pizza-like fish popular in Nice, with a thick dough topped with olives, anchovies, caramelised onions, and herbs. The French classic ratatouille also hails from Nice, a vegetable ragout of tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, bell peppers, onions, and garlic. Popular since the 1930s, it became known worldwide after the release of the Disney Pixar film Ratatouille. Gratin Dauphinoise, a dish of sliced potatoes baked with cream and cheese, is another southern favourite.
Desserts of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure
Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure has given rise to some of France’s most creative desserts. The Tarte Tropézienne is a brioche filled with vanilla cream, and topped with crunchy pearl sugar. It was created in Saint Tropez, and was given its name by Brigitte Bardot in 1955. From the other side of the region comes the Tarte des Alpes from the Valgaudemar Valley in the lower Alps. It is a tart of shortcrust pastry, filled with jam, and covered with a distinctive lattice pastry topping.
A speciality of Aix-en-Provence are Calissons, sweet candies of fruit (usually melon or orange) with almond meal, covered with a white icy fondant. They come in distinctive almond shapes and are often given as gifts in decorative packaging.
Cheeses of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure
Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azure is home to some speciality cheeses from the region, the most well-known of which might be Brousse de Rove, which was first produced over 2000 years ago. An unpasteurized goat’s milk cheese made from fresh milk, Brousse de Rove is sold in plastic conical cylinders and has a soft, creamy, sweet taste. Also hailing from Provence is Banon cheese, named after the town of the same name. It is a circular goat’s milk cheese wrapped in dried chestnut leaves with a nutty taste and a pungent smell.