Avignon is one of the prettiest towns in France. It's main attraction is the Palais des Papes, the 14th-century headquarters of cardinals who very nearly destroyed papal authority in Rome, but the city has many other wonderful attractions to explore. From its impressively imposing skyline to the verdant Île de la Barthelasse opposite, it’s a delight to simply amble along aimlessly, perhaps stopping at a sidewalk cafe or two en route. Countless hidden gems crop up along the way, including 50 or so trompe-l'œil frescoes that decorate many of Avignon’s city center facades. Painted by artists Dominique Durand and Marion Pochy, each one depicts a highlight from past editions of the Avignon Festival. Be sure to keep an eye out for the sun-dappled courtyard of the Hôtel d’Europe (www.heurope.com), too. This luxury hotel has been in operation since 1799, welcoming luminaries from Charles Dickens to Jacqueline Kennedy. It’s also home to the recently renovated gourmet restaurant, Vieille Fontaine, which boasts a single Michelin star.
Poking westward from the grassy banks of the Rhône River, Pont St-Bénézet ★★ (www.avignon-pont.com; (tel) 04-32-74-32-74) was constructed between 1177 and 1185. Once spanning the Rhône and connecting Avignon with Villeneuve-lèz-Avignon, it is now a ruin, with only four of its original 22 arches remaining (half of it fell into the river back in 1669). The remains of the bridge have the same opening hours as those of the Palais des Papes. Admission is 4.50€ adults, 3.50€ seniors and students, and free children 7 and under.
One of the most interactive ways to gain insight into Avignon’s rich history is through a guided tour. Avignon's Office de Tourisme organizes a range of themed tours around the city. For non-French speakers, the excellent "Secret Palace" tour is an access-all-areas ramble around the Palais de Papes. You’ll wind your way through the Palace’s private apartments, hidden passageways, and secret gardens (24.50€), areas that few visitors can claim to have seen.
Or be bold and dust off that phrasebook: Many of the Office de Tourisme tours are offered only in French, including "Once upon a time in the Palace of the Popes" (15.50€, free for children 7 and under), "The story of the Palace of the Popes for all ages" (15.50€, 10.50€ Avignon Pass and children 7 to 18, free for children 7 and under), the quirky "The Popes and their Pets" (15.50€, 10.50€ Avignon Pass and children 7 to 18, free for children 7 and under) and—new in 2014—“Avignon's Legendary Palace and Bridge” (19.50€, 15.50€ Avignon Pass and children 7 to 18, free for children 7 and under).
Most of the above tours are offered several times a week throughout the months of May, June, September, and October. For further information, contact the Avignon Office de Tourisme (www.avignon-tourisme.com).
Alternatively, Local Avignon Tours (www.local-avignon-tours.com; (tel) +1-866-663-7017) offers private English-language tours of the city (from 175€ per person) as well as day trips to Orange, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and rural Provence (from 44€ per person). Provence Panorama (www.provencetours-avignon.com; (tel) 04-90-22-02-61; from 50€ per person), Provence Réservation (www.provencereservation.com; (tel) 04-90-14-70-00; from 55€ per person), Avignon Prestige Tour (www.avignon-prestigetour.com; (tel) 04-90-14-64-83; from 60€ per person), and Occitania Provence Tours (www.occitania-provence-tours.com; (tel) 09-71-55-17-58; from 55€ per person) organize similar bilingual tours, although they tend to concentrate on Avignon’s surrounding countryside, rather than the historic town center.
For self-guided bicycle tours of Avignon, Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, and Île de la Barthelasse, contact Day Tour (www.daytour.fr; (tel) 04-90-63-50). Bike rental plus a local itinerary costs around 18€ per person, although the fee decreases according to the number of participants. They’re also able to arrange a picnic (from 10€ per person) for you to take along on your ride.
Epicureans may partake in Avignon Gourmet Tour (www.avignongourmetours.com; (tel) 06-35-32-08-96). These 3-hour walking tours discuss local culinary history and visit Provençal shops, where participants will taste traditional products, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. Tours (55€ per person) take place from Tuesday to Saturday, beginning at 9:45am.
And, like many French cities, Avignon’s own petit train crisscrosses the city center. The circuit starts outside of the Palais des Papes, then cruises up to the Jardin du Rocher des Doms, and past the Pont St Bénézet. It takes around 40 minutes. Tours cost 7€, 4€ for children 5 to 9 years old, and are free for children 4 and under. For further information, see www.petittrainavignon.fr or call (tel) 04-90-86-36-75.
Avignon’s cooking schools
The Avignonnaise are justly proud of their seasonal, fresh, enthusiastically local cuisine. Learn how to recreate a few of the delectable dishes you’ve tasted here by signing up for a lesson at one of the city’s popular cooking schools.
There’s a rotating schedule of superb regional chefs at Ateliers de Cuisine Le Marmiton, La Mirande, 4 place de la Mirande (www.la-mirande.fr; (tel) 04-90-14-20-20). Rare is the visitor who can boast that they have perfected duck breast stuffed with foie gras from Michelin-starred chef Jean-Jacques Prévôt. Or how to make pâtissier Pierre Hermé’s quirkily flavored macaroons, with hints of rose and raspberry, or apricot and saffron. Lessons, which start at 80€, are held in the hotel’s 19th-century kitchen. Most ingredients used are organic.
During Julien Charvet’s Concept Chef (www.conceptchef.com; (tel) 06-25-36-12-40), the cooking team pluck seasonal ingredients from the stands at Les Halles, the city’s covered produce market, which are then used in traditional Provençal recipes.
Seeking a class with a little less commitment? La Petite Cuisine des Halles also takes place at Les Halles (www.avignon-leshalles.com). Every Saturday morning (except August) at 11am, famous chefs from different local restaurants take turns preparing a favorite dish, answering questions from the general public, and passing out free tastings.
Also decidedly hands-off is La Mirande’s Table d'Hôte, or Chef’s Table, held on the days when the on-site gastronomic restaurant is closed. However, not only are diners privy to a private cooking demonstration from Chef Jean-Claude Altmayer, cooked on the kitchen’s ancient wood-fired oven. You’ll also indulge in a four-course gourmet meal, paired with regional wines from La Mirande’s superbly stocked cellar. Participants are limited to 12, and the one-off experience is priced at 86€.
Further afield, At Home with Patricia Wells (www.patriciawells.com) is a Provence-based cooking school taught by Patricia Wells, cookbook author, and famed former restaurant critic for the “International Herald Tribune.” The extremely popular 5-day classes take place in Vaison-la-Romaine. They are limited to 10 students and cost $5,500 (accommodation not included).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.