Folk legends, Catholic heritage, and Roman history color the fabric of modern life in Provence’s “City of Popes.” Anchored by the magnificent Palais des Papes and guarded by ancient stone walls, Avignon has a storybook quality with details that will catch you by surprise: a Ferris wheel glowing in the twilight, or a whiff of blooming lavender in the wind.
What We Love
Saint-Bénézet Bridge: This historic span linking Avignon and the island of Villeneuve is memorable for both its imperfections and folkloric connections. Constructed in the 12th century, it was a gathering spot for local townspeople — inspiring the famous song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.” The bridge would partially collapse regularly due to strong storms or attackers, and be rebuilt — only to fall again. Ultimately it was abandoned, and a more modern bridge was built. Today only half of it stands, but almost every person in France can sing the song.
Les Baux-de-Provence: With all the medieval and Roman ruins to see in Avignon, is an hour-long excursion to another medieval village really worthwhile? The answer is yes — because this one, hewn of cream-colored stone and set atop a verdant mountain, with flowers peeking out from every corner and streams running through the lowland pastures, is where French people go to sightsee in France.
Best Known For
Palais des Papes (Popes’ Palace): The ecclesiastical legacy is a defining characteristic of Avignon, even today, 300 years after the French Revolution wrested the town away from papal control. The largest Gothic building in Europe, the Popes’ Palace is the physical anchor of Catholic history in France, and was home to seven popes before “the Great Schism” demanded the pope’s court return to Rome. Approximately 25 rooms are open for public viewing.
Footsteps of van Gogh: The legendary Dutch artist lived in Avignon at one point and painted many of its most famous perspectives. If you want an art history lesson — and a connect-the-dots tour of great photo ops — just follow the well-marked signs showing where van Gogh spent his time.
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Who It's Best For
Architecture Tourists: The historic center of Avignon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with designated structures including the Palais des Papes, the Saint-Bénézet Bridge, the Petit Palais, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame des Doms, and the encircling ramparts themselves.
Café Life: If all the history feels a little overwhelming, do what residents have done for a thousand years: Head for one of Avignon’s picturesque public squares to enjoy a glass of wine. The Place de l'Horloge is Avignon's heart, located right next to the Pope’s Palace.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
It's Touristy With a Capital T: It goes without saying that by visiting with an excursion group you’ll be right in the thick of it. Some people opt to tour on their own, but without a guide, you’ll miss a lot of the details. And no matter what, you can't possibly see everything in a single day.
The Mistral: This strong, cold, gusty wind blows in from the northwest unpredictably — but mostly in winter and spring — dropping temperatures well below the regional norm for as long as it lasts. That might mean a few hours or several days.
Lena Katz is a New York-based contributor to ShermansCruise who has also written for Brides.