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691km (428 miles) S of Paris; 83km (51 miles) NW of Aix-en-Provence; 98km (61 miles) NW of Marseille

In the 14th century, Avignon was the capital of Christendom. What started as a temporary stay by Pope Clement V in 1309, when Rome was deemed too dangerous even for clergymen, became a 67-year golden age. The cultural and architectural legacy left by the six popes who served during this period makes Avignon one of Europe’s most alluring medieval destinations.

Today this walled city of some 95,000 residents is a major stop on the route from Paris to the Mediterranean. In recent years, it has become known as a cultural center, thanks to its annual international performing-arts festivals and wealth of experimental theaters and art galleries.

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.

Relaxation

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.