My favourite part of France there is so much to see, do, and generally marvel at in Provence Alpes Cote D’Azur. Enjoy everything from beautiful beaches, scenic drives, easy cycling and walking routes through stunning countryside, and the vibrant towns of Marseilles and Cannes flanked by picturesque villages. This place has it all.
In our Provence Alpes Cote D’Azur Tourist Guide we’ll take you to the main cities and towns, with a few cultural stops along the way – you must admire the art of Van Gogh, the movie experiments of the Lumière brothers, and why not enjoy a game of the ‘new’ sport of pétanque?
But no visit to Provence Alpes Cote D’Azur would be complete without enjoying the stunning picture postcard scenery of Provence and the Vaucluse.
But let’s start off our tourist guide to Provence Alpes Cote D’Azur with a visit to Marseille – its biggest city.
Things to do in Marseille
Marseille, arguably the oldest city in France, was founded 2,600 years ago by Greeks from Phocaea as a trading port. Today, it is the second largest city in France after Paris, and the centre of the third largest metropolitan area after Paris and Lyon.
The city’s main thoroughfare, the wide boulevard called the Canebière, stretches eastward from the Old Port (Vieux Port) to the Réformés quarter.
Two large forts flank the entrance to the Old Port – Saint-Nicolas on the south side and Saint-Jean to the north.
Further out in the Bay of Marseille is the Frioul archipelago, which comprises four islands, one of which – If – is the location of Château d’If, the French castle made famous by the Alexander Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The panorama from the old chapel terrace is outstanding.
The main commercial centre of the city intersects with the Canebière at rue St Ferréol and the Centre Bourse (the main shopping street).
The centre has several pedestrianised zones, most notably rue St Ferréol, Cours Julien near the Music Conservatory, the Cours Honoré-d’Estienne-d’Orves off the Old Port, and the area around the Hôtel de Ville.
What is the climate like in Marseille?
Marseille has a Mediterranean climate with mild, humid winters and warm to hot, mostly dry summers. December, January and February are the coldest months, averaging temperatures of around 12°C during the day and 4°C at night.
July and August are the hottest months, averaging temperatures of around 29°C during the day and 19°C at night. Marseille is known for the Mistral, a harsh cold wind originating in the Rhône valley that occurs mostly in winter and spring. Less frequent is the Sirocco, a hot sand-bearing wind, coming from the Sahara Desert.
The old town of Marseille
La Canebière is the historic high street in the old quarter of Marseille. About a kilometre long, it runs from the Old Port of Marseille to the Réformés quarter.
It has been called the Champs-Élysées of Marseille, and is thought to have derived its name from a hemp rope factory. The name ‘Canebière’ comes from the word Cannabis in Latin, as the area around the Old Port were originally hemp fields.
Marseille was one of the world’s largest trader of hemp baskets and ropes from the Middle Ages until the 1930s.
The avenue was built as Marseille expanded in 1666, when King Louis XIV (1638–1715) decided to expand the city of Marseille.
During the French Third Republic (1871-1940), it became a haven for high society, with many cafés, luxury hotels and boutiques, and music hall performances. However, it was marred by the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia on the avenue on October 9, 1934.
To the east, starting in the small fishing village of Callelongue on the outskirts of Marseille and stretching as far as Cassis, are the Calanques, a rugged coastal area interspersed with small fjords.
Calanques National Park
The calanques in France are a fascinating destination and should be on every nature lovers bucket list to visit. But do be careful when planning your vacation.
Most of the Calanques are closed to the public during the summer (typically July through September) due to the risks of forest fire that often happen during the dry season. The best time to visit is between the beginning of March and the end of May, when temperatures are still quite fresh and, unlike autumn and winter, rain is usually quite rare.
As no fresh water sources are available, it is advised to carry large supplies of water, especially during the hot summer to prevent serious dehydration.
Boat tours are also available starting either from Marseille, Cassis or La Ciotat, which can provide for some spectacular sightseeing.
What is a colanque?
A calanque is a steep-sided valley formed within karstic regions either by fluvial erosion or the collapse of the roof of a cave that has been subsequently partially submerged by a rise in sea level.
The limestone gorges lie within the Parc National des Calanques and include the Sormiou, Morgiou, En-Vau, Port-Pin and Sugiton. There are additional calanques in the parc, further east along the coast, incised into Cap Canaille. These formed in very different rock strata, often in layers of cemented pebble conglomerate.
Those between Marseille and Cassis are popular amongst tourists and locals alike, offering several vantage points (such as the Corniche des Crêtes and Cap Canaille). Many walkers frequent the area, following numerous pre-marked trails.
What is in the Calanques National Park?
Known for its outstanding scenery, comprising white cliffs plunging into the sea set against small isolated creeks, the National Park is equally remarkable for its biodiversity.
On land as at sea, the site has numerous protected animal species including Bonelli’s eagle, the grouper, the brown meagre and even some species of dolphins and marine turtles.
The aim of the national park is to protect the fauna and flora as well as the natural heritage. This presents a familiar problem: how to reconcile the protection of nature and human activities. Each year 1.5 to 2 million people visit the National Park.
Where is the Calanques National Park?
The Calanques National Park is located in southern France, and was established on 18 April, 2012. It extends over 520 km² (201 sq mi), of which 85 km² (33 sq mi) is land, while the remaining part is marine area.
The park stretches across seven communes, including Marseille, Cassis and La Ciotat. It is the only European national park that is continental, marine and peri-urban.
Further east still are the Sainte-Baume, a 1,147m (3,763ft) mountain ridge rising from a forest of deciduous trees, the town of Toulon and the French Riviera.
To the north of Marseille, beyond the Garlaban and Etoile mountain ranges, is the 1,011m (3,317ft) Mont Sainte Victoire.
To the west of Marseille is the former artists’ colony of l’Estaque; further west are the Côte Bleue, the Gulf of Lion and the Camargue region in the Rhône delta.
Marseille a capital of French culture
Marseille was designated as European Capital of Culture in 2013, and is a city that is proud of its differences from the rest of France.
Today, it is a regional centre for French culture and entertainment with an important opera house, historical and maritime museums, five art galleries and numerous cinemas, clubs, bars and restaurants. Marseille also has a large number of theatres, including la Criée, le Gymnase and the Théâtre Toursky.
Marseille has been important in the arts, and has been the birthplace and home of many French writers and poets. The small port of l’Estaque on the far end of the Bay of Marseille became a favourite haunt for artists, including Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne.
A popular local tradition is the making of ‘santons’, small hand-crafted figurines for the traditional Provençal Christmas crèche. Since 1803, starting on the last Sunday of November, there has been a Santon Fair in Marseille; it is currently held in the Cours d’Estienne d’Orves, a large square off the Vieux-Port.
Marseille’s main cultural attraction was, since its creation at the end of the 18th century and until the late 1970s, the Opéra.
Located near the Old Port and the Canebière, at the very heart of the city, its architectural style was comparable to the classical trend found in other opera houses built at the same time in Lyon and Bordeaux.
Currently the Opéra de Marseille stages 6 or 7 operas each year. Since 1972 the Ballet National de Marseille has performed at the opera house. In marked contrast, Marseille is also well known in France for its hip hop music. Bands like IAM originated from Marseille and initiated the rap phenomenon in France.
At a culinary level, it is argued across France, that Marseille is the only place that makes authentic bouillabaisse.
It behoves you to try it in Marseille, for lunch – but don’t expect to be good for anything afterwards apart from sleeping it off!
Cannes the gem of the Côte d’Azur
Renowned for its annual Film Festival (held in May), Cannes is a delightful place to visit at any time of year. It boasts a lovely old quarter, an up-market town centre and a glorious beach promenade: all-in-all a spectacular setting.
This gem of the Côte d’Azur became popular in the early 19th century as a place with a mild climate, bringing it to the attention of the world’s wealthy in search of a therapeutic winter resort.
The town’s fame arose from a visit by a former Lord Chancellor of England, who stayed here. He liked the place so much that he built a villa, and returned every year, initiating a period of growth and leading to the development of the town as a holiday resort, and finally classified as such in 1915.
Things to do in Cannes
Take a drive across the Massif de l’Esterel, which stretches along the coastline of the Var as far as Fréjus.
This is an ancient mountain range with Mont Vinaigre as its highest peak at 614m (2,050ft). Driving the coastal road is a dramatic sight, the rugged, reddish rocks contrasting with the azure blue sea.
Shopping and luxury
This is a great destination for fashion lovers, offering all the biggest names in high fashion, luxury off-the-peg clothing and jewellery.
Lérins Islands visit
Just a few miles away, the Lérins Islands offer delightful walks that embrace nature, history and the sea shore. There are two protected islands: St Marguerite and St Honorat.
Historically, the former was a State Prison, where its most renowned resident was the Man in the Iron Mask. St Honorat has a fortified monastery, wherein the monks produce a very palatable wine.
Visit the Vieux Port
The old Suquet district runs from the stalls at the Fortville Market to the shops in Rue Meynadier, and is very much the pulsating heart of the city. The old town is higher than modern Cannes, and so offers a stunning view across the city.
Anyone looking for fresh seafood and Provençal produce, will find that the Fortville market is the place to be.
Visitors will be hard pushed not to find something to their liking; there are over 300 restaurants, bistrots and bars in Cannes, including some of the finest in the world. Not surprisingly, seafood is available almost everywhere; it just needs a chilled glass of Provençal wine to wash it down.
Festivals and events
Cannes is renowned widely for its International Film Festival, but there are many more events going on all through the year, such as the international festival of fireworks, plays and concerts
Places to visit in Cannes
The place to be is along the infamous boulevard de la Croisette, with its luxury hotels, boutiques and Palais des Festivals, and the wide, attractive sea front, with gardens, palm trees and a splendid sandy beach.
Much of the 19th-century elegance of the town can still be seen in its grand villas, built to show off personal wealth, and, in design style, ranging from medieval castles to Roman villas. It’s all a bit bizarre, but in a nice way.
The older part of town is known as Le Suquet, ranged across a steep hill near the old port, the Vieux Port. This is the place to be for night life and restaurants, with the nearby Tour du Mont Chevalier offering a fine view over the beach, the bay and the tranquil Lérins Islands.
How to get to Cannes
The town is served by impressive air, rail, road and ferry links.
Nice Cote d’Azur Airport
Located 24km (15 miles) from Cannes, Nice Côte d’Azur Airport has over 10 million passengers a year. The smaller Cannes-Mandelieu Airport is also nearby. Cannes Shuttle operate a regular door-2-door service between Nice Airport and hotels/accommodations in Cannes.
TGV rail services to the Gare de Cannes provide access from major French cities, including Nice, Marseille, Lyon, Paris and Toulouse. Other cities with rail connections include Brussels (6 hours), Milan (5 hours), Basel (10 hours), Rome (10 hours) and Venice (10 hours).
Coach services arrive at the Gare Routière de Cannes, in the centre of the city, near the Town Hall.
Ferries are available in Nice harbour from Bastia and Calvi in Corsica. Services are provided by SNCM and Corsica Ferries.
Surrounding Carpentras, the whole of Provence and the Vaucluse is delightful, and no tyro of France and the French way of life could ever progress in their learning without a visit here, or, for that matter, several visits.
But it is Carpentras (population, 24,000+) and the surrounding countryside of the Vaucluse that holds especial appeal, and is promoted as the ‘Porte de Ventoux’.
Carpantras is one of the most historic towns of the Midi, cradled in a natural amphitheatre between the Ventoux Plain, Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail.
This was once the capital of Comtat Venaissin, and as such, it was frequently the residence of the Avignon popes; the Papal States retained possession of the Venaissin until the French Revolution.
What is Carpentras known for?
This is the land of lavender, wine and gourmandise, with weekly markets somewhere on every day of the week selling wonderful bounty. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, olive oil, honey, clothes and fabrics. The largest French market is arguably in Vaison-la-Romaine.
Few of the towns and villages don’t have a market at all, that at Sault boasts a market dating from 1515, and the whole mildly chaotic caravan of consumables is supported by town-edge supermarkets.
The town is famous for the truffle market that takes place every Friday morning during the winter months.
For the sweet-toothed, its traditional confectionery is the berlingot, a small hard candy with thin white stripes, originally made from the syrup left over from conservation of fruits.
Places to visit in Carpentras
The centre has wide squares, shops, restaurants and much activity. The St Siffrein cathedral, the Roman Arc de Triomphe, the ‘halls’ and a fine old covered passage, with high domed-class roof, are all here.
The surrounding part of the old town is residential; the narrow streets and old buildings are well maintained.
The 14th-century Porte d’Orange is a massive fortified gateway at the north side of the old town. This is all that’s left of Pope Innocent VI’s protective wall with 32 towers and four gates. The ancient fountain is on boulevard du Nord, across the street from the Porte d’Orange.
The Cathedral St Pierre and St Siffrein is right in the centre. The cathedral was started, by Pope Benedict XIII of Avignon, in 1404 and finished early in the 16th century.
The Roman Arc de Triomphe is on Place d’Inguimbert, in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice, tucked down at the side of the cathedral.
It was moved here during the Middle Ages, probably from the main cardo leading out of town. It became the porch of the bishop’s palace, converted into the Palais de Justice during the Revolution.
The 13th-century Château des Comtes de Toulouse, in the centre, has a fabulous 1576 campanile representing the universe. You’ll have to wander around some, though, to get a view of it between the buildings.
The 15th-century Synagogue in the centre is a rather plain-looking building, but it’s famous for being the oldest in France.
Carpentras (along with Avignon, Cavaillon and Isle-sur-la-Sorgue) had a Jewish ghetto until the Revolution.
A predominance of upland and mountains, steep sided and cloaked in trees, means that most settlements are shoe-horned into river valleys.
A few villages perchés do occupy isolated hill tops, notably Venasques and Gordes, and less well known along the Toulourenc valley on the north-eastern side of Mont Ventoux.
La Ciotat: movies and petanque
Located on the coast, roughly mid-way between Marseille and Toulon, the commune of La Ciotat has much to boast about, other than its generally equable and rocky maritime setting, and artificial sandy beach.
The Parc du Mugel, on the Anse deu Petit Mugel, is classified as one of the Notable Gardens of France by the French Ministry of Culture.
Sheltered by the massive rock called “Le Bec D’Aigle” (the Eagle’s Beak), 155 meters high, it contains both a botanical garden of tropical plants and a nature preserve of native Provençal plants, covering the hillside below the rock.
La Ciotat and the Lumière brothers
And while Cannes might host the famed film festival, La Ciotat was the setting of one of the very first projected motion pictures, L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat filmed by the Lumière brothers in 1895.
After several private showings, the 50-second long film was given a public screening in Paris on 28th December, 1895, the first recorded commercial public showing of a motion picture.
According to the Institut Lumière, before its Paris premiere, the film was shown to invited audiences in several French cities, including La Ciotat. It was screened at the Eden Theatre in September 1896, making that theatre one of the first motion picture theatres.
Another three of the earliest Lumière films, Partie de cartes, L’Arroseur arrosé (the first known filmed comedy), and Repas de bébé, were also filmed in La Ciotat in 1895, at the Villa du Clos des Plages, the summer residence of the Lumière Brothers.
In 1904 the Lumiere Brothers also developed the world’s first colour photographs in La Ciotat.
Fancy a game of pétanque?
Three years later, La Ciotat saw another first, the invention of pétanque, that France-wide pastime that also enjoys a running fugue with its predecessor, boules.
Now it would be an insult for me, un Anglais, to attempt to explain the differences between boules and pétanque, so, for what follows, you can blame the late Peter Mayle.
The essential difference seems to be that in boules there is a ‘run-up’ before your boule is cast into the air, while in pétanque, you start by standing within a circle with both feet together on the ground, which descends from les pieds tanqués.
Inevitably, the two expressions become interchangeable in some parts of France; indeed, in my only exploit into the boules arena, in Lyon, I stood with my feet together, without a run-up.
So that meant we were playing pétanque, although everyone called it boules. It, and I, were given new names when, by a series of flukes, I contrived to win.
Arles – the city of Ramans and Van Gogh
The ancient town of Arles stands at the northern edge of the Camargue wetlands and the Rhone delta, and is one of the most important and influential centres of Provence culture and idealism.
The town is surrounded by an environment of outstanding beauty: the banks of the Rhone river, the plains of Crau, the Alpilles and the wild land of the Camargue to which it is commonly regarded as the gateway.
The city remained economically important for many years as a major port on the Rhône. But the arrival of the railway in the 19th century killed off much of the river trade, leading to the town becoming something of a backwater.
The beauty of Arles
This made it an attractive destination for the painter Vincent van Gogh, who arrived there in February 1888, and stayed with his friend Gaugain.
He was fascinated by the Provence landscapes, producing over 300 paintings and drawings during his time here.
Picasso, a lover of bull fights, was inspired by them to do two paintings and 57 drawings. Arles is also a centre of photography. Each summer the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie brings many visitors who will be just as charmed by the light as those great artists of yesteryear.
The city has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1981, and it is easy to see why. The Roman amphitheatre was built in the first or second century BCE; it houses Corridas at Easter and the Rice Festa in September. Throughout the summer there are various courses camarguaises.
The houses and private mansions of the 16th and 17th centuries, the cloister of St. Trophime, the Hôtel de Ville, and the shaded terraces of the Place des Lices are all well worth a tour.
Places to visit in Arles
The Theatre Antique is the most important of the surviving Roman theatres.
The town’s art collection is displayed in the Musée d’Arles et de la Provence antique.
The Café van Gogh on the Place du Forum is not the real thing, of course, but go there in the evening, and you’ll find it very atmospheric.
Alyscamps burial grounds.
4th-century Roman baths of Constantin.
Musée Arlaten (furniture and traditional folk art).
Musée du Riz (rice museum).
Queyras natural park
The Queyras, located in the Hautes Alpes department, is a jewel of the Southern Alps. The Queyras is a preserved area that profits from abundant sunshine making it a stunning as well as vast playing field.
You can ski, walk, have fun, dream, wander from one beautiful village to the next…Abriès, Aiguilles, Arvieux, Ceillac, Château Ville Vieille, Molines en Queyras, Ristolas, Saint-Véran.
Here, you will discover a land with an exceptionally rich heritage. From the pleasing sunny south facing slopes to breathtaking summits which peak at over 3000m of altitude.
The Park takes you on a journey through changing atmospheres, from heat to cold, from grassy prairies to steep rock faces, from trickling streams to gushing waterfalls.
What is Queyras known for?
The Queyras cultural heritage is a rich and unique legacy. To visit its eight mountain villages is to soak up its charms: its history, its sun dials, Fort Queyras, its geological features like the ‘Demoiselles Coiffées’ and its religious heritage.
There are many places to explore on foot such as the Pisse waterfall at Ceillac or the centuries old larch and Cembran pine forests. You will immediately appreciate the charms of all these venues.
The 280m-high Pisse waterfall, located at the foot of the Mélézet in Ceillac, is the starting point for numerous treks.
The GR5 circuit will take you from the Queyras’ tallest waterfall up to the Miroir lake and then to the Saint Anne lake thanks to a stunning traverse path through the larch forest.
As soon as the temperature drops, marking the arrival of winter, the Pisse waterfall becomes one of the most well known ice climbing routes in the high Alps.
The waterfall thus changes its name to “Formes du chaos”; a perfect description of the different kinds of ice and the various ice configurations that the climber will have to deal with.
If you’re visiting Provence Alpes Cote d’Azur you can always follow the crowds and head for the glamour and ‘sophistication’ of St-Tropez.
After the war, St-Tropez became an internationally-known seaside resort, renowned principally because of the influx of artists of the French New Wave in cinema.
The change is probably down to Brigitte Bardot, who starred in Roger Vadim’s film And God created Woman (Et Dieu Créa la Femme), which was shot here. The success of the film sealed St-Tropez’s destiny, for good or bad.
Before the film, St-Trop, as the French like to call it (pronouncing the ‘p’), was discovered by writers and artists in the early 1900s, and was visited by the author Colette in the 1920s.
Today, in spite of the clamour, it has its attractions and some redeeming charm, not least the seemingly unlimited scope to sit at street cafés watching the world go by, quite a lot of which may well be rich and famous, well, rich anyway!
But be warned
St-Tropez has major traffic issues, and is best visited out of the main tourist season…and then explored on foot. The easiest approach, it has to be said, is by ferry from Port Grimaud across the bay.
The beaches are along the Baie de Pampelonne, south of Saint-Tropez and east of Ramatuelle. Pampelonne offers a collection of beaches along its 5km shore. Each beach is around 30m wide with its own beach hut and private or public tanning area.
Many of the beaches offer windsurfing, sailing and canoeing equipment for rent, while others offer motorised water sports – power boats, jet bikes and water skiing, and scuba diving.
Some of the private beaches are naturist beaches.
In the event of St-Trop overload, head for the Musée de l’Annonciade, which contains an impressive collection of modern art, or you can take a stroll to the Citadelle de St Tropez for the views across the bay.
Visit Ecrins National Park
The Écrins National Park is one of the six national parks in mainland France. It is located in the south-eastern part of France and consists in a mountainous region of the Dauphiné Alps, south of Grenoble and north of Gap, shared between the départements of Isère and Hautes-Alpes.
The Ecrins national park is located roughly 50km southeast of Grenoble and 20km west of Briançon.
It is one of the most spectacular regions of the Alps with massive mountains hung with glaciers and more than 100 summits over 3000m high. This is terrain for serious climbers, walkers and in the winter skiers. In late spring and summer you find a profusion of flowers.
At its highest point, the park rises to 4,102 m (13,458 ft) at the Barre des Ecrins and covers 918 km² (354 mi²) of high mountain areas, with high peaks, glacier fields, glacier valleys, alpine pastures, subalpine woodlands and lakes.
Its borders mostly correspond to those of the Massif des Ecrins, delimited by the main valleys of rivers Drac, Romanche and Durance.It attracts up to 800,000 tourists each year. The park has been awarded the European Diploma of Protected Areas by the Council of Europe.
This is a marvellous area, worthy of protection. But visitors are far from excluded. Specially designed nature trail footpaths, observation points, information points and the Park house are just some of the ways of discovering the richness of the Ecrins National Park.In the most environmentally friendly way possible, go in search of the extremely varied fauna and flora as you cross contrasting landscapes and settings.