684km (425 miles) S of Paris; 80km (50 miles) NW of Aix-en-Provence; 106km (66 miles) NW of Marseille
Once the heart of Christendom, medieval Avignon invites you to meander its elegant cobblestones in the shadow of the world's largest Gothic palace, the 14th-century Palais des Papes. Nowadays papal fervor has been replaced by an upbeat, arty vibe that peaks during July's wildly theatrical Festival d'Avignon. But the capital of the Vaucluse region throngs year-round too, in squares and museums, on bustling cafe terraces, and atop the ruins of one of the world's most serenaded bridges, the Pont d'Avignon.
Things to Do
Avignon's 4.3km (2 2/3 miles) of ramparts embrace one of Europe's culture centers. Discover monumental Cistercian and Gothic architecture inside the Palais des Papes, the 14th-century headquarters of schismatic cardinals who very nearly destroyed papal authority in Rome. Then whistle "Sur le Pont d'Avignon" on the very bridge the kitschy song was written about. Admire medieval treasures at the Musée du Petit Palais, then relax with locals amid historic water wheels, cafes, and bookshops on Rue des Teinturiers.
Stroll through the Rocher des Doms, the hilltop gardens that are the site of the city's oldest settlement. Perched over the Rhône River, the lush gardens include landscaped terraces and a shaded duck pond. A free ferry shuttles across the Rhône to Ile de la Barthelasse, Europe's largest river island and home to the municipal swimming pool, campsites, restaurants, and small organic farms.
Restaurants & Dining
This is Provence, the land of juicy tomatoes, lemons, rosemary, and thyme. Avignon is nestled into the vine-clad region, and you can drink down all that glorious food with delicious, locally produced wines. Place de l'Horloge is littered in brasseries, while Hiély Lucullus, on rue de la République, has been serving dishes like beef with truffles since 1938. Gastronomes can head to the covered market at Les Halles for Saturday-morning cooking lessons with the city's finest chefs.
Nightlife & Entertainment
Avignon's nightlife is all about roaming its narrow, softly lighted streets, stopping as soon as you hear the locals' accents warming the airwaves on a cafe terrace. Place de l'Horloge, watched over by its ornate clock tower, is awash in cafes and bars. Opera lovers catch a concert in the gracious 19th-century environs of the Opéra Théâtre. If film's your genre, the quaint art house Utopia Manutention cinema is snuggled into a nook below the papal palace.