691km (428 miles) S of Paris; 83km (51 miles) NW of Aix-en-Provence; 98km (61 miles) NW of MarseilleIf Disney made a Gallic romcom set in the most French of locations, Avignon would be the movie set. This city of 95,000 has it all in one compact center: honey-colored architecture, awesome restaurants, one-of-a-kind boutiques, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That’s the Pope’s Palace, where Pope Clement V fled in 1309, when Rome was deemed too dangerous for clergymen, ushering in a 67-year golden age for Avignon. The city even has its own vineyard that ripples against the River Rhone. It sits slap bang in the middle of Côtes du Rhône and lavender country with hikes, tours, and tastings dedicated to both.
Today this walled city makes a perfect stop on the route from Paris to Mediterranean cities like Marseille, Cannes, and Nice. From Avignon’s cute train station you can be in the thick of the city in minutes. In recent years, the city has become known as a culinary and arts center, thanks to its annual international music festivals and wealth of experimental theaters and art galleries. It’s as pretty as a postcard.
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.