In just under four hours on a fast train from the centre of Paris you can find yourself in a completely different fairy tale, of the Medieval type. Just a few moments outside of the city the scenery shifts from the urban to one dominated by fields and crops growing in the countryside. However, it is a particular harvest that draws thousands to the south of France every year; the picturesque Provence lavender fields. I made the journey south to witness the harvest in all its glory and uncovered many other amazing things to do in Avignon during a Provence weekend away.
Paris to Provence
It is wise to plot your trip based on what to see in Provence and what you personally want to experience because there are many beautiful little Provence villages to explore.
Because my trip was limited to a long weekend, and the lavender had already been harvested in other parts of the region (very important to check before you arrive).
I decided to stay in Avignon and journey beyond this town for the few days that I had to explore.
Provence is made special in part by its location: located in southeastern France it is lovingly held by the left bank of the Rhone River to the west and the Italian border to the east, with the Mediterranean Sea to the south and all of France to the North.
Because of its placement, it boasts diverse landscapes that include the Southern Alps and Campargue plains to rolling vineyards, olive groves, pine forests and the coveted Provence lavender fields beloved around the world.
The southernmost part of this region is where the “French Riviera” can be found; it is the Côte d’Azur where Nice, Saint Tropez and Cannes line the coast.
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Things to do in Avignon
Like other Medieval villages in the south of France, Avignon has a fairytale story and this story is part of its charm. There are so many things to do in Avignon; many are shaped by the rich history of the area.
Between the years 1309 and 1377, Catholic popes from Rome fled to Avignon and made it their home and in 1791 Avignon became part of France. When Italian popes flee to a village this leaves an impression on the village.
This legacy is the number one iconic stop in Avignon: the massive Palais des Papes or “Pope’s Palace” is a must-see when you visit.
Palais des Pape
The Palais des Papes is one of the largest and oldest Gothic buildings in all of Europe and one of the top things to do in Avignon. To give you an idea of its size, you can fit four Gothic cathedrals in this palace. Even if you only exploring Avignon in one day, visiting the Pope’s Palace is a must.
In the 14th century this 25-room fortress and palace was the seat of Western Christianity, it is now an official UNESCO site. You can visit the palace every day from 10 am until 6 pm and tickets are between ten and twelve euros. On this tour, you will learn about the nine popes that made the palace their home, including two during The Great Western Schism (1378-1417) who reigned from Avignon while the church was split in two.
“If the walls could talk…” I’m certain they would tell grand tales of the things that were discussed and experienced here. You can feel the holiness and majesty when you visit. Be sure to make time for the rooftop garden, where you can take a beautiful panoramic photo of the area.
Pont Saint Bénézet
A close second to the palace is the world-famous Pont Saint Bénézet or “Pont d’ Avignon” as it is commonly called, with an equally romantic story.
It was built of wood originally between 1177 and 1185 by its namesake and he claimed that he was told by God to build the bridge that spanned the Rhône between Avignon and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon at the time.
The bridge has a long history of being destroyed and rebuilt, what stands now are four of the twenty-two original arches and an unfinished bridge that is the subject of much love in France; it is poetry.
Every child in France learns the famed song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” written about this bridge.
Stroll the Avignon Streets
Before travelling beyond Avignon spend some time wandering within the walls of this village. Like most towns, you can find a variety of experiences depending on which rue you take.
Be sure to take a stroll down Rue des Teinturiers. This Instagrammable street contains the charming remnants of Avignon’s silk spinning and dying industry including four water-wheel mills, beautiful stone houses, cobblestone streets and little bridges leading to shaded terraces which are perfect for an afternoon snack.
There are several notable museums in Avignon. These are your must-see museums:
Musée Calvet, a private collection turned public and open for 200 years which contains a wide variety of art and artifacts including a sarcophagus.
Musée du Petit Palais which is the museum attached to the Palais des Papes and contains 327 paintings and 600 sculptures by Italian and French artists from the Gothic and Renaissance periods.
The Musée Angladon which houses the private collection of Jacques Doucet, a Parisian tailor who is regarded as one of the pioneers of fashion design during the turn of the century. The collection includes Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and works by Degas, Sisley, Cézanne, Manet, Derain and Modigliani, as well as the only Van Gogh painting hanging in Provence.
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Go Shopping in Avignon Les Halles
If you have an itch to do some antique shopping you can visit Avignon Les Halles where you will find forty merchants’ stalls every morning from Tuesday to Sunday. If you find yourself in Avignon on a Saturday you can visit Les Halles to watch demonstrations by local chefs, and if you are lucky you can taste one of their dishes.
Get a Tarot Reading
One unexpected and unique experience I found in Avignon was a stop into the little Tarot Creatif shop where you can meet owner Franck Battig who is passionate about Tarot.
He does personal readings and hosts weekly ‘apero’ events for visitors to learn more about his passion and this mystical world.
Stay Active in Avignon
The typical outdoor activities are available in Avignon: city hiking, cycling, local yoga and even Qigong by the Rhône which I happened upon during my morning walk and castle-gazing.
Because of the river, there are many water sports available to visitors as well. However, one of the more unusual things to do in Avignon is to take out a SUP o to the river. I spotted a couple on stand-up paddleboards and a small group in canoes venturing around Pont d’Avignon during a morning stroll. I cannot think of a more magical morning in Avignon than this.
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Where to Stay in Avignon
Where to Eat in Avignon
Because of the number of visitors to the city, the range of Avignon restaurants is varied. The town has been catering to the tourists for years and this has resulted in options beyond the traditional French café and bistro.
I was happy to discover Hygge during my visit, this cozy morning or lunch spot is “Une cantine bio” serving fresh vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options along with other healthy dishes. It is located in the centre of Avignon, easy to find and the perfect place to start your day or break for lunch while exploring.
Au Jardin des Carmes
If “Top Chef” dining is what you are looking for, make your way to Au Jardin des Carmes, a charming and delicious spot for a garden terrace dinner. This Michelin Star restaurant serves delicious, gastro-forward dishes that are made with healthy, fresh and local ingredients.
The tomato, basil and mozzarella salad that I had was pure summer in a dish and the ambience is really romantic, be sure to make a reservation and ask for the secret garden in the back of the restaurant.
The menu, created by Justine Imbert daily is innovative, try the “tacos” her way if you find them on the menu when you visit.
Fou de Fafa
Fou de Fafa is another popular and delicious choice, this cozy restaurant is the passion project of a British couple Antonia Pyemont-Coughlan and Russell Coughlan.
It has a simple and delicious menu in a relaxed environment just around the corner from Musée Angladon.
Only open for dinner and a hard table to get in Avignon during high season, a reservation is strongly suggested or plan on being there for the first seating at 6:30 pm. The set menu consists of French dishes made with fresh, local ingredients.
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Le Lapin Blanc
Restaurant Le Lapin Blanc was the perfect spot for me to catch my breath after visiting Rue des Teinturiers. The shaded terrace is great for people watching and the salads are delicious for lunch.
Alternative Concept Store nearby is a unique boutique with vintage and new clothing along with a coffee café and tattoo parlour in the back, and you can have your first lavender gelato at their shop next door.
Day trips from Avignon
Because of the limited time of my visit, I hired a local guide to help me navigate the surrounding area for the full day I had planned for outside of Avignon.
The central location of Avignon makes it quite possible for you to visit many different towns in one day. But, you will need to plan and it is important for you to have your own transportation; either a guide or a rented car.
Fountaine de Vaucluse
From Avignon, we made our way to explore more of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. We began with the largest natural spring in Europe which can be found in the town of Fountaine de Vaucluse nestled by at the base of a cliff and along the Sorgue River.
The spring which flows out of the 230-metre-high cliff can be hiked to by visitors. The spring is the most powerful in France and the fifth in the world.630 million cubic meters of water flow out of it every year.
A few other notable stops to consider when you visit: Restaurant Philip which can be found along the riverside hike. It provides the most beautiful terrace dining beside the river. This restaurant is also a Michelin Star restaurant and has been in this spot since 1926.
Be sure to wander to the Petraque Museum. Just behind it, you will also find a garden and rambling brooks with plenty of shade for a meditative stop and a beautiful photo.
It is best to visit Fountaine de Vaucluse early in the day to avoid the massive crowds that visit in the high season, and it is also cooler during the morning.
Abbaye de Senanque
From Fountaine de Vaucluse, make your way to one of the most photographed spots in the area: the Abbaye de Senanque (Notre-Dame de Sénanque Abbaye). There you will find the first Provence lavender fields of the day. These are also some of the “holiest” lavender in the region.
The Cistercians monks of this operating Abbaye tend to the lavender themselves. There is a gift shop inside where you can take some of it home with you.
You can also visit the ancient dormitory, the cloister, the chapter house and the warming room for a small entrance fee. Visit on your own or with a guide. The abbey is open Monday through Saturday (check the website for current hours before your visit as they change with the seasons).
The abbey is located in Gordes. This famous village is a must-see while you are close. It is home to many movie stars, artists and celebrities. Gordes is perched above the valley on a rock foundation with contrasting white and grey stoned houses. At the very top is the church and castle which face out onto the hills of Luberon.
Often listed as “one of the most beautiful villages” in France, I can attest to its charm and beauty. Take your time here to wander the streets without a plan, taste the local homemade lavender ice cream and pop into the church.
The streets are narrow, the shops are charming and the café terraces are tucked away in shaded areas. You will never want to leave. If you love as much as I did, you can plan your stay here while you visit Provence as there are many charming hotels with terraced pools perched above the valley.
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A poetic contrast to Gordes was my next stop. We travelled to the ochre-painted town of Roussillon full of the “colour of Provence.”
Not only is this town another charming stop. But, it has the impressive claim of having the biggest ochre deposits in the world. The ochre cliffs are stunning, especially in contrast to the surrounding green pine tree forest.
Many visitors grab things for a picnic in town and hike to the ochre cliff for a picnic in the shade.
Explore Roussillon the same way you would explore Gordes, with no plan and lots of wandering. Every street is a postcard waiting for you to walk into it.
This village has inspired many artists and as a result. You can spy local artists capturing their painting of the day on the spot, and visit many galleries full of local treasures.
The Secret Lavender Fields of Sault
One of the many benefits of hiring a local guide is that they likely know where the “secret” Provence lavender fields are. This was certainly the case with my guide the day that I visited.
The lavender fields near Sault were our next stop and they were more incredible than I could have ever imagined.
Depending on when you visit Provence, the lavender can be anywhere in its growing and harvest cycle. So, it is a good idea to check ahead of time if seeing the lavender in bloom is important to you.
My visit at the end of July meant that I missed the lavender in other areas. But in Sault, the lavender was at the end of bloom. On the day that I visited the harvest as it was being distilled. So I had the rare and beautiful opportunity to watch this process happen.
I found myself standing in the middle of 400 acres of lavender, nearly alone. It was the experience of a lifetime.
On the day that I visited the farm of Marc and Earl Cheyrias they were putting a harvest through the distillation process. Our guide took us to the facility so that we could watch (and smell).
It takes 1200 kilos of harvested lavender to make ten litres of lavender oil, and the harvested lavender steams for forty minutes each time. The process is a simple, time-tested and generational process that this farm and family has been doing for decades. This lavender farm distributes lavender oil mostly in France, like many farms in Provence.
The last stop on our Provence tour was a visit to the village of Sault. A beautiful, quiet spot to end our day-long adventure. Many visitors begin their ascent of Mount Ventoux from this tiny town.
Sault is also one of the main stops on the annual Lavender Tour organized by local distilleries. It is surrounded by breathtaking lavender fields, flushed with the blooming herb.
The town is simple and easy to navigate with the main square, a promenade and many narrow streets for exploring.
I tried the tastiest lavender ice cream of the day here. I also wandered into the Romanesque church Notre Dame de la Tour which is beautiful.
The Avignon lavender fields are a must-see to complete your fairytale Provence itinerary. Avignon is perfectly located to plan a long weekend adventure or to stay longer and explore. It is a town that has inspired me, and one that I will return to again and again.
Pat Bailey is a certified Bhakti Yoga Teacher, published poet, writer and entrepreneur with a passion for exploring the globe. Pat is also the founder of The Hell Yes Life, where she has created her own branding academy helping to elevate brands and students through authentic and intuitive coaching.