Having taken my first trip to Europe over four decades ago, in numerous trips since, I have learned that many famous destinations are overpriced, or disappointing. The South of France (Provence) exceeds all expectations for its Joie de vivre (joy of living), beauty, food, people, and sites. After two trips in the past two years, I am counting the minutes until my next trip to this magical place. This guide to the South of France includes practical tips for visiting the South of France with an itinerary based on multiple trips and budget tips within each city!
Even if you don’t have time for two weeks in the South of France, you can still cut the itinerary to see Nice, Aix-en-Provence, and Arles. This itinerary is a bit faster paced than some other South of France itineraries, so if you want to relax, I recommend spending more time in one city, such as Aix-en-Provence.
Our itinerary for two weeks in the South of France
- Nice (2-3 days; ideally 4-5 days)
- Aix-en-Provence (2 days)
- Arles (2 days + 1 during festival season)
- Avignon (3 days)
- Nimes (2 days)
5 days in the South of France itinerary
- Nice (2 days)
- Day trip from Nice to villages (1 day)
- Aix-en-Provence (2 days)
Nice (2-3 days)
Nice is a great starting point for seeing the South of France due to its good connections with other parts of France by bus, train, and plane. Nice is world-famous for its beauty, many tourist destinations, food and its joie de vivre.
Essential stops include the Promenade des Anglais and the beaches. The Promenade has a very long boardwalk with many great restaurants and cafes which all have a great view of the Mediterranean Sea. (These cafes aren’t exactly cheap.) The beaches are very rocky so if you want to go for a swim, be sure to bring sandals and a mat as the rocks can be uncomfortable.We stayed at the affordable and charming Hotel Mercure Nice Centre Notre Dame. It is within a 10-minute walk from the central train station or a tram ride to the seaport. Generally, staying in the city center is lower than staying by the beach during peak season.
Close to the Promenade is Vieux Nice where there are many historic buildings on dating back 300 years ago. There are many stores in this district where the Opera House is also located. Tickets for performances are reasonably priced and you will also see the interior of the building while catching a show.
One important landmark is the Cours Saleya Market that is open seven days a week in the mornings. Every day offers a different type of goods for sale. When I was there in April, the Market had farm goods (vegetables, cheeses, salt), flowers, and other goods. Almost everything here is produced locally. Check the calendar so you can decide which type of products interest you. Another perk is the opportunity to meet locals shopping for their families and avoiding obvious tourist traps. If you still in the market at noon, the cannon will be shot off!
Another landmark (not for vegans!) is the Marche de Liberation where fresh fish is for sale. I was amazed by the size of the sardines and the other local fish. I am was amazed by the wide selection of fish being sold including tuna.
Castle Hill (Colline du Château) is truly one of the must-see places in all of Southern France. It offers an incredible view of Nice from 300 feet above the city. The first use of this site dates back to Ancient Greece in the 4th century B.C. The Romans later occupied it. Much of the buildings and the castle were destroyed over the centuries but the archaeological dig dates back to the Roman era. The elevator ride to the top is free, but to avoid a long wait arrive early in the morning. There are a nice cafe and a children’s playground on top of Castle Hill where you can enjoy the views for free.
Nice Port offers views of the many yachts in the harbor. Since I did not arrive by my personal yacht, I booked a harbor tour by boat. The tour took us around the port for one hour. Another great option is to use boats as transports to other cities. The boat cruises offer many spectacular spots in the Mediterranean. In the summertime, there are ferries going to Monaco and other destinations.
Place Garibaldi is one of the main squares in the city. There are many restaurants and famous gelato places in the square. In the evenings, there are many street performers including musicians in the square. I encourage travelers to spend time here.
Albert 1er Garden is a lovely park close to the beach close on Place Messan. The park dates back to one century. It is a great place to eat lunch, read a book, look at art exhibits among other activities. It is free and worth visiting.
The tram runs regularly throughout the city. Rather than buying one ticket at a time, I purchased a 10-trip that can be shared with multiple people. The ten trip ticket lowers the cost by 50% as compared to buying a single ticket. We used up our tickets within two days.
Generally the closer you eat near Vieux Nice, Place Garibaldi, and other popular tourist destinations, the more that you’ll pay for lunch or dinner. I recommend that you take the tram to Nice Etoile, which is a big shopping mall. This area (near Rue Biscarra) has lots of local restaurants with reasonable prices without the tourist crowds. I recommend Le Cenac although other choices are available on this street. The plat du jour specials were fantastic.
Aix-En-Provence (2 days)
After Nice, it is a great change of pace visiting Aix-En-Provence. It is a relaxed city with a long history going back to the Romans through Zola, Cezanne, Piaf, Picasso, Camus, and Sartre. Aix earns substantial points for its class and culture.
Musee Granet is a world-class museum with two different separate buildings. Each building has different collections. The main building has archaeological relics and classical paintings from Rembrandt and other masters. The second building Granet XXE, Jean Planque Collection, has numerous works painted by modern artists including Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Picasso.
I particularly loved the Granet XXE as a lover of modern art. Since you will be issued two tickets and the two buildings are separated, safeguard the entrance tickets. There is a short walk between the buildings. In France, students under age 26 and those under 18 generally receive free admission to museums, so be sure to bring your student ID! (Click for budget
Atelier Cezanne (Cezanne’s studio) is just outside of town and easily reachable via bus and open for tours. Unfortunately, there are no sketches in the studio. Visitors can see Cezanne’s workspace and see his inspiration for many of his paintings. The tours are offered throughout the day and provided in English and French at different times. Make a reservation as the studio is very small and due to the popularity, it sells out early. Save time to work around the grounds since they are beautiful.
The Outdoor Market is very popular with locals. The Market is located next to La Rotonde where clothing, fruits, vegetables, and records are for sale. Check the calendar since each day since the Market specializes different merchants and products for sale during the week.
We stayed at a charming boutique hotel called Cezanne Hotel close to the central train station that we loved. The breakfast was great along with the central location.
Cours Mirabeau is the main avenue in the center of town. I spent time strolling around this famous street with its many trees and stores. It offers a wide selection of cafes. There are many museums in this district. I particularly enjoyed the wide boulevard and should be experienced while in Aix.
Old Aix dates back more than 300 years ago with many historic buildings. I spent time strolling around these famous streets with its many trees and stores. It offers a wide selection of cafes. Spend time looking at the architectural wonders from an earlier age.
Calisson is the local pastry that is sold everywhere in Aix. You can find it everywhere. Caisson is a mixture of almonds, melons, oranges and other ingredients. Sample one at the numerous stores throughout Aix.
Our favorite restaurant in Aix-En-Provence is Aix is La Brocherie, 9 Rue Fernand Dol. The restaurant offers tremendous value in a casual setting. La Brocherie is next to Granet XXE. The luncheon menu has an open salad bar with various types of seafood and many fresh vegetables at a low price. Skip breakfast if you are going there for lunch since the selection is amazing. The hot meals are also very reasonably priced. The restaurant was formerly the horse barn for royalty and the building shows its historic past. (Be warned the chefs stop cooking before 2 pm.)
The Tourist Office sells City Passes in durations of 24, 48 and 72 hours. Depending upon your length of stay and interests, it offers savings especially if you want to see many sites in a limited period. I recommend that you compare the price of the City Pass against the separate admissions and in all likelihood, the City Pass will save you money if you intend to visit multiple museums.
Arles (2-3* days)
One of my personal highlights of visiting the South of France has to be Arles. This charming town was a major inspiration to Vincent Van Gogh who lived here and famously painted the sunflowers here! Beyond Van Gogh, Arles is a charming town with a stunning arena from Roman times and other Roman ruins. You can see most of the highlights within one day in Arles.
One of the best reasons to visit Arles is its easy access to the Camargue National Park. This stunning marsh preserve is home to wild bulls, horses, flamingos, and other birds. If you love nature, we highly recommend spending at least a day exploring this stunning national park.
There are many ways of seeing the Camargue including using a tour guide. (Click to book a tour to the Camargue with a guide.) For more information about bird watching in Camargue National Park on your own, I recommend this independent travel guide to Camargue National Park.
Another highlight of Arles has to be its unique Easter festivities. We visited in time for Easter this year and it was definitely worth the extra time spent here. We enjoyed watching flamingo dancers! (You can read more about why you should visit Arles and the holiday season here.)
I stayed at a great 3* hotel called Hotel le Calendal very close to the Arena and theatre that I stayed at. Although it’s touted as a three-star hotel, I believe that it should be rated as a 4* hotel for its value and hospitality. The manager told me that Rick Steves stays in the hotel when in Arles.
Nimes (1 day)
If you want to take an exciting side trip from Arles, Nimes is only 30 minutes by direct train. Nimes is one of my favorite cities in Provence and in my opinion, an essential place to visit. Nimes dates back to 4000 BC, but the Romans called it Nemausus. It was one of the main cities in Gaul during the Roman period.
Festivals are frequently held in Nimes, including the running of the bulls. Check the Tourist Board to see the upcoming events. I was amazed to see Les Arenes as it was one of the largest arenas in the Roman empire. It is smaller than the Roman Colosseum, but still has a capacity of 22,000 seats. It is still used today for tours, concerts, bullfights, and other events year-round. I was able to walk on the ground where the Gladiators once fought.
La Maison Carree is over 2,000 years old and considered one of the excellent landmarks in France from the Roman era. It was dedicated to the grandsons of Caesar and has been restored by numerous parties to the current state. Thomas Jefferson wrote that this building exceeds anything in Rome, Greece, or Palmyra. He used the design for designing buildings in the United States.
Temple of Diana (next to Jardin de la Fontaine) is a former Roman temple dating back to the 2nd century. It is free to explore the building’s architecture. It has not been restored, but admission is free and it’s worth it to imagine this building in its glory.
Next to the Temple is the Jardin de la Fontaine. It was the first public European garden in the 1800s. It is very large and has a beautiful garden with Mediterranean plants. Great place to picnic or simply enjoy a coffee or tea from the cart vendors.
Les Halles is a terrific market that has great local vegetables, cheeses, bread, seafood, meat and other locally produced foods with low prices. Everything is fresh and has tables to enjoy your food. It is cheaper than a conventional restaurant.
Avignon (3 days)
Avignon is one of the largest cities of Provence and the South of France. I recommend that you spend one to two days within the city and at least one day seeing visiting nearby sites.
One must-see places in Avignon is the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes.) It dates back to the 14th century. Although very few objects remain today, the virtual reality tablet provided upon your entrance, which shows what the Palace looked like in the 14th century when occupied by the Pope. It is an amazing and unforgettable place. Buy tickets early to avoid lines.
Nearby is the Pont Saint Benezet (Pont d’ Avignon) that crosses the Rhone River. It was originally built in the 12th century and has been destroyed many times and rebuilt on numerous occasions. You will need a ticket to cross the Bridge. You can buy this at the Palace. We liked the audio tour! It has a great view of the Palace.
Be sure to visit the Avignon’s Les Halles (Market) for its great food. Many locals regularly shop for produce, bread, fish, meats, and chickens although it closes at 2 PM. I enjoyed the omelets and cheeses. I particularly loved the olives and fresh sardines.
We stayed at the Hotel Novotel Avignon. It is located opposite the old city walls and a short walk from the Central train station.
Optional day trips from Avignon in the South of France (1 day)
Nearby towns have incredible sites but require a car or tour. Normally, I do not like to do day tours, but renting a car can also be expensive and this can be a money saver. Public transportation makes it difficult to see all the sites in one day on your own. We paid about $80 per person for a five-hour tour of the surrounding area and it was worth it! We highly recommend this tour because of the guide and convenience. It covers the following places. (You’ll find other tours from Avignon as well.)
Pont du Gard is the tallest Roman aqueduct in the world and one of the landmarks of the South of France. It dates back to the 1st Century to Augustus. It has been visited for centuries by many notables including Napoleon III, numerous Kings of France with good reason! This is one of my favorite sites in Provence. I was amazed that it is still standing.
Les Baux de Provence is a historic French town dating back to the 11th century. It is abandoned today and it in the National Park. It has an ancient village and a castle. This charming village is considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. The area has been traced back to the Bronze age.
Gordes is a town built on a cliff of a mountain. Some of the buildings date back to the 11th century and the town offers amazing views of the countryside. There are many historic buildings and I spend time seeing the village’s Castle and Market.
Roussillon is a beautiful small town made with natural ochre (red-ish) minerals. Its red cliffs are incredible. While there, be sure to visit the clock tower and wander the beautiful streets. This is a popular destination for artists.