Avignon is one of the best places to stay in Provence, the amazing region in south-east France. There are enough things to do in Avignon to keep you there for three days or so, including the Popes’ Palace (Palais des Papes) and the famous Pont d’Avignon. However, it’s the range of day trips from Avignon that make it such a great base from which to explore Provence.
Avignon has the good fortune to be on the doorstep of some of the best places to visit in the south of France. Many of these are within easy reach by train or bus. They include some of the best villages in Provence, several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and best cities in south of France.
If you choose to hire a car in Avignon, even more places are opened up to you. The Provence lavender fields are among the most beautiful landscapes in Europe. They’re spread across the countryside to the east and north of Avignon. You can reach off the beaten path Provence with a car, and even drive to the summit of its highest mountain, Mont Ventoux.
So read on for our guide to the best Avignon day trips. All of them are within an hour of Avignon, except for Ventoux.
Where is Avignon?
Avignon is the capital of the Vaucluse département in the west of Provence, in the south of France. It’s located on the east bank of the River Rhône, which flows into the Mediterranean Sea 30 miles (50 km) to the south.
It’s 64 miles (103 km) from France’s second city, Marseille, and (260 km) from Nice, at the heart of the Côte d’Azur.
Getting to Avignon
The closest major airport to Avignon is Marseille-Provence Airport, just over an hour south of Avignon. It’s conveniently close to the A7 motorway to Avignon, so if you’re planning to drive during your Provence trip, it may be worth considering car hire from Marseille airport. Alternatively, regular trains make the journey from Vitrolles Airport station to Avignon-Centre station.
It’s also worth considering Nîmes airport, which is closer than Marseille. The only airline currently flying there is budget carrier Ryanair, which operates flights from London Stansted, Liverpool and Brussels.
Avignon-Provence airport is a small regional airport to the south-east of the city. It operates seasonal (spring and summer) flights from Southampton and Birmingham in the UK.
Another great way to get to Avignon is by TGV, the sleek, super-fast Euro Star train. You can travel by EuroStar from London St Pancras International, changing in Paris. Alternatively, you may wish to combine a stay in Paris with your trip to Provence, in which case you can reach in Avignon in around 2 hours 40 minutes from the Gare de Lyon.
There’s a great choice of Avignon accommodation around the city.
The 16th century Hotel d’Europe is our top-end recommendation. It’s a beautifully understated 5-star hotel in Place Crillon, one of my favourite places in Avignon, a gorgeous square with outdoor cafes. It’s a stone’s throw from the Rhône, and only five minutes’ walk from the Pont d’Avignon. The terrace has magnificent views over the rooftops of the city to the Palais des Papes.
The Cloitre Saint-Louis is another historic Avignon hotel, a quiet four-star retreat at the southern end of the Old Town. The Cloister was founded in 1589 as a seminary for Jesuits, and was later a military hospital during the French Revolution. Most of the rooms are in the Cloister building, with some in the modern wing. The vaulted restaurant is magnificent, and the rooftop pool is open May to September.
Hotel Les Corps Saints is one of the best budget hotels in Avignon. It’s down a lovely side street, opposite the garden of a former church just inside the old city. There is a mixture of en suite and shared rooms, and breakfast is an extra. It’s less than five minutes’ walk from Avignon-Centre train station and the bus station.
There are enough things to do in Nîmes to warrant a stay of two or three nights. It has a lovely old town with some wonderful bistros and cafes to while away an afternoon. But if you’re on a day trip from Avignon. You won’t have too long to linger.
Nîmes has a wealth of Roman sites, and they’re some of the best preserved in France. The imposing Les Arènes, the Roman amphitheatre dating from the 1st century BC, used to hold crowds of 20,000. And Maison Carrée, a short walk away, is an exquisite temple built during the reign of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, in honour of his two sons.
Since our last visit, the Musée de la Romanité (Roman Museum) has opened. It’s across the street from Les Arènes, and its distinctive futuristic façade has quickly become a popular Nîmes landmark. There are over 5,000 Roman artefacts on display, drawn from the surrounding region which is incredibly rich in Roman history.
I always liked the contrast between ancient and modern in Nîmes, and another place that illustrates this is the Carrée d’Art, te contemporary art museum across the street from the Maison Carrée.
Getting there: Getting from Avignon to Nimes takes 35 minutes by train. The last service back from Nîmes currently departs at 8.20 pm.
Pont du Gard
The Pont du Gard – the bridge over the River Gardon – is one of the most amazing places to see in the south of France. It’s an ancient Roman aqueduct built to carry water to the nearby city of Nimes, then known as Nemausus. It’s just across the border from Provence, in the region of Languedoc-Roussillon.
It dates back to the 1st century AD, and is a formidable structure, with three rows of arches, one on top of the other. It fell into disuse around the 6th century AD, when it gradually became clogged up, interrupting the flow of water.
Getting there: Two morning buses – one at 8.40, the other at 11.40 – run from Avignon bus station to the entrance to the Pont du Gard site. Three buses – currently leaving at 1.20 pm, 5.31 pm and 6.45 pm – make the return journey to Avignon.
You can see the summit of Mont Ventoux, the highest point in Provence, from far away across the region, including from Avignon itself. Provence can be a windy region, with the northerly mistral whipping its way down the Rhône Valley. So it’s fitting that its highest summit should be called ‘Windy Mountain’.
It’s 1,909 metres above sea level, and is by far the highest mountain in the region. The panorama across Provence from the summit is breathtaking, leaving an indelible mark in my memory. You can stop at the top at the café, just below the telecommunications mast. The landscape of the upper reaches is bare, denuded, stark and barren, a result of the forest cover being removed over several centuries.
It’s legendary in cycling as one of the most difficult climbs ever visited on the Tour de France. It’s classed as hors categorie – beyond categorization. The Tour has visited Mont Ventoux sixteen times in all. In 1967 the British cyclist Tommy Simpson died from heat exhaustion, which was exacerbated by dehydration, amphetamines and alcohol. A small memorial to him is on right hand side of the road up from Sault.
Getting there: It’s only possible by road. There are three ways up the mountain. If you’re travelling from Avignon, the quickest way is via Carpentras and Malaucène, which takes you up the sheltered north-western side. You can also join this route from Bédoin, to the south-west of the mountain. The other, more gradual, route to the summit is from Sault, to the east.
Dentelles de Montmirail
The Dentelles de Montmirail are a small chain of mountains which are the foothills of Mont Ventoux. They’re just to the east of some of the Rhône valley vineyards, and their name ‘dentelles’ means lacework, a reference to the erosion of the jagged summit areas of the mountains.
The range is to the west of Mont Ventoux, and the south of the town of Vaison-la-Romaine. The summits are mostly around 700 metres, and the range is criss-crossed with trails with some of the best hiking in Provence.
Our favourite Dentelles village is Gigondas, a medieval gem surrounded by vineyards and mountains. It’s wonderfully picturesque, with an ancient church and chapel and honey-coloured houses. It’s home to some of the best Côtes du Rhône wines, fine appellation d’origine controlée reds produced from the grenache grape.
Getting there: This is another excursion from Avignon where you’ll need to drive to reach your destination. The easiest route from Avignon is via the D225 and D942 to Carpentras, from where you pick up the D7 which passes along the western side of the Dentelles. It’s 37 km (23 miles) away, or roughly 40 minutes.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the famous wine village of Chȃteauneuf-du-Pape is only 15 km away, and it is possible to fit both in the same day trip.
St Rémy de Provence
I used to think of St Rémy de Provence as the perfect quintessential French village. It has beautiful shuttered houses, winding back streets, quiet squares with cafes and a few old-timers playing pétanque (or boules). Yet there’s actually much more to it than that.
After a few hours wandering the heart of the village, head south along Avenue Vincent van Gogh. The street is so named because the Dutch artist spent a year there, admitting himself for treatment at the St Paul de Mausole mental hospital. St Rémy and the surrounding countryside was the location for many later van Gogh paintings, including the famous Olive Trees series. Some of the van Gogh olive trees are close to the road, near the archaeological site of Glanum. The mountains in the background are the small but impressive Alpilles range.
Two of the main Glanum sights are on the right-hand side of the D5 road as you head south. The ancient mausoleum and triumphal arch are at the entrance to the city, while the rest of the site is on the other side of the road. It’s an amazing site: the city was abandoned during the 3rd century AD, and wasn’t excavated until 1921.
Getting there: St Rémy is well served by buses from Avignon gare routière departing twelve times a day. The journey takes 40-45 minutes. The last bus of the day leaves St Rémy at 6.45 pm. During summer (late June to early September) the 57 bus continues the 10 minutes or so to Les Baux de Provence, a stunning hilltop village to the south. However, if you’re looking to combine Les Baux and St Rémy driving it yourself is a better bet: the limited bus timetable doesn’t leave you enough time to do justice to both.
Les Baux de Provence
Few villages – even in France – have a more spectacular setting than Les Baux de Provence. It’s one of the most beautiful villages in France, even Europe. The ruined castle and village occupy a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles range a few miles south of St Rémy.
In the early Middle Ages Les Baux ruled a large part of the surrounding region, but it fell into decline by the 15th century when the ruling dynasty died out. The castle is magnificent, as are the views of the plain below. There are also two medieval churches, some mansions turned into art galleries and some picturesque streets and corners.
Just behind the village, the rocky Val d’Enfer (‘Valley of Hell’) is worth further investigation. There are some splendid walks along the ridge with some of the best views of Les Baux. Also check out Les Carrières de Lumières, which has some tremendous sound and light exhibitions in chambers and caverns carved out of the mountainside. The theme for the main 2019 show is van Gogh’s Starry Night, which was painted in nearby Arles.
Getting there: If you really want to visit Les Baux de Provence on a bus from Avignon, it can be done, but your best bet is to stick to Les Baux when you go, and not to try to fit St Rémy in as well. Otherwise, a car gives you far greater flexibility.
Salon de Provence
The soap capital of Provence (it really should have been called Savon, but never mind) makes for an intriguing afternoon trip from Avignon.
Its main claim to fame is that it was home to the 16th century astrologer, doctor, seer and, some would say, prophet, Michel de Notre Dame, better known as Nostradamus.
He wrote his main work, Les Propheties, in Salon. The book is a series of over 900 quatrains making vague reference to possible future events. His supporters claim that he predicted the Great Fire of London, the French Revolution, the rise of Hitler and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bomb. The verses are open to very varied interpretation, and some poor translations haven’t helped.
That said, he is a captivating figure, and in some cases who knows, he may have been onto something. The Maison de Nostradamus is the house where he spent his final twenty years. It has been turned into an exhibition of ten tableaus, taking you through different stages of his life. You go from room to room with an audio-guide or written guide. A visit normally lasts around an hour.
Getting there: Regular trains leave from Avignon-Centre, calling at Salon en route to Marseille. The faster TER trains take around 40 minutes.
Provence Lavender Fields
The lavender fields of Provence are spread across the département of Vaucluse, of which Avignon is capital. Some are also found in the neighbouring département of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, to the immediate east.
The Provence lavender season varies a little from year to year, and from place to place. Usually you can expect the French lavender season to last between four and six weeks.
In some places the plants are in bloom by late June (normally around the 20th), and they would be harvested within a month. However we’ve also encountered some fields in full bloom as late as the first week of August. If I was to make a return trip, I’d aim for around the 10th to 20th of July, though you can never be certain what you’ll see because the crop depends on rainfall in the months leading up to flowering.
If you’re planning to drive around the lavender fields Provence has two areas which you should head for. The first is the route from Carpentras to Sault and Aurel, which is mostly along back country roads. The lovely hilltown of Banon, around 10 km south-east of Sault, is also a great stop, with lavender fields laid out beautifully below the village.
The other Provence lavender route is to the south-east of Avignon. One of the most iconic sights of Provence is the lavender field outside the 12th century Abbaye de Sénanque, just to the north of the village of Gordes. The area between the villages of Apt and St Saturnin-les-Apt round 6 km apart, also often has good lavender yields. I’d be inclined to leave the Luberon lavender behind and head towards Manosque on the D907. Cross the A51 autoroute and follow the D6 towards Valensole. You won’t get as many views of hilltowns and fields around this area, but you will find an abundance of lavender fields. For a few weeks each year, it’s one of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe.
Getting there: If you want to go it alone, you’ll need a car. If you don’t plan to drive in Provence, you can join a Provence lavender fields tour. The Avignon lavender fields tours tend to head for Sénanque, and also explore Gordes and other Luberon hilltowns.
Roussillon is one of several stunningly beautiful villages in the Luberon region to the east of Avignon. It’s distinct from the others because of its striking ochre colour. It’s surrounded by ochre quarries, part of a small, narrow belt of the rock stretching a few kilometres east to Rustrel, where you can visit the ‘Colorado Provençal’ trail through former quarries.
It’s a small but remarkable landscape which contrasts dramatically with the greenery of the fields and mountains all around. The Sentier des Ocres is a trail through the ochre quarries immediately below Roussillon village. Entry costs €2.50 for adults, and opening times vary throughout the year.
Roussillon is one of the most beautiful villages in Europe. Most of the houses and buildings are ochre-tinted, and the colours are incredibly vivid, wherever you look. Unsurprisingly the village has a long history of attracting artists, and there are eight galleries in the tiny village. There are also a few small cafes in the Place de la Mairie where you can while away the afternoon.
Getting there: It’s so much easier by car. In summer you can get the #17 bus from Cavaiilon, to the east of Avignon, to Roussillon and back to Gordes. It would probably give you enough time – three hours – in Roussillon, but it is not very convenient. At all.
Gordes is another of the most beautiful villages in Provence. It’s only a few kilometres west of Roussillon but very different in character.
The village makes for a captivating sight from the approach road. It’s a fortified village dominated by a hilltop château, with narrow cobbled streets winding their way down towards the valley floor. Like Les Baux and Roussillon, it’s one of ‘les plus beaux villages de France’.
As well as exploring the village, there are some intriguing things to do in Gordes. The cellars (caves) of the Palais St-Firmin offer a glimpse into the underworld of this beautiful bastide (fortified) village. The Village des Bories is home to a collection of bories, the ancient stone huts you often see around the Provence countryside. And the aforementioned Abbaye de Sénanque is a short drive up the D177 from Gordes.
Getting there: It’s an easy short drive to Gordes, and we recommend going by car as you can then visit the bories and abbey nearby. As mentioned in the information on Roussillon, you can get to Gordes from Avignon by public transport. You have to catch a train to Cavaillon, then a bus to Gordes, but once you’re there the attractions near Gordes are out of reach. The other option is to join one of the Provence tours from Avignon, which stop at Gordes.
The small city of Orange is a short trip north from Avignon. We’d strongly recommend a few hours there to visit Orange Roman Theatre – the Théâtre Antique – one of the most impressive ancient buildings anywhere in the world.
The semi-circular audience area is an excellent vantage point for a performance, but the stage wall steals the show. It’s one of the best-preserved buildings from antiquity, 37 metres high, and it makes an outstanding backdrop for concerts or operas.
Both the Theatre and nearby Roman triumphal arch are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The arch dates from the 1st century AD, and again Is one of the best-preserved of its kind.
Getting there: Direct trains run from Avignon to Orange, taking between 15 and 25 minutes. Otherwise it’s less than half an hour in a car.
It is possible to visit both Orange and Châteauneuf-du-Pape on a day trip. By car, it’s easy. If you want to get top them both on public transport, you’d need to catch the early train from Avignon to Orange, then catch the 1245 from Orange (Pourtoules), which arrives at 1310. This leaves you four to five hours in Châteauneuf – which is enough time to take things very slowly.
The name of this world-famous French wine village translates as ‘new castle of the Pope’. The chateau was built in the 14th century as the Papal summer residence. It’s a good starting point for your visit, though only one tower now remains. The village itself is lovely, with a few shops and cafes lining the medieval streets.
However, it’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine is the main reason most people visit. It’s the first wine growing area in France to receive an appellation controlee, a mark of great prestige. The local wineries tend to open year-round, with longer hours (alright, a shorter lunch break) during the summer months.
If you’re travelling by bus the Brotte winery is a good introduction to the wine and how its produced. It has a small in-house museum explaining how it’s made. The local pebbly soil is crucial to the flavour of the grapes: the pebbles absorb the daytime heat, releasing it at night when it is transferred to the grapes.
The village is surrounded by vineyards, and one of the most attractive is the Château de la Nerthe, with the opulent 18th century chateau at its heart.
Getting there: It’s very easy by car, otherwise there are three buses daily in each direction between Avignon gare routière and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
The city of Arles is smaller than its neighbours Avignon and Nîmes, but it’s a place full of charm, surprises and secrets – enough for me to suggest that it’s one of the best cities in Provence to visit. There are enough things to do in Arles to warrant at least an overnight stay.
Arles’ Roman amphitheatre dominates the centre of the small city. Like its counterpart in Nîmes it’s magnificent and astoundingly well preserved. It has a capacity of 20,000, and events from bullfights (Provençal-style, without killing) to concerts are held there. Arles has more fascinating Roman remains to discover, from the small Théâtre Antique in the centre to Les Alyscamps, a Roman necropolis. It’s one of the best in the world, an evocative avenue of ancient tombs outside the city.
Back in the city centre, Cryptoportiques is a series of three underground chambers which date back to Roman times, possibly even earlier. A short walk away, the former cathedral, the church of St Trophime, is a splendid Romanesque basilica with a beautiful west door and cloister.
Many visit the city to explore the Arles van Gogh connection. The Dutch painter spent over a year in Arles, living in the mental hospital that is now known as the Espace van Gogh. Arles is the location of some of his best-known paintings, including Starry Night Over the Rhône (painted from Quai Lamartine) and Café Terrace at Night (painted in the gorgeous Place du Forum).
Getting there: A wonderfully easy day trip by train: the Avignon to Arles train takes just 17 minutes, costing €8 each way.
Fontaine de Vaucluse & L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue
Fontaine-de-Vaucluse is a village at end of a closed valley, hemmed in by soaring precipices on three sides. It gets its name from the source of the river Sorgue, which flows into the Rhône at Avignon.
It’s a very enticing location. The water of the river is so crystal-clear, you can make out every detail in the river bed. The river is lined with cafes and restaurants, which get especially busy in summer, when the mountains give some shade and welcome respite from the heat.
The best thing to do in Fontaine is to follow the riverside footpath from the village to the source of the river. It’s a 20-30 minute walk, and at the end of the walk you can look down onto the source, a bubbling torrent emerging from under the ground.
I’ve passed through L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue several times on my travels around Provence without ever stopping there. It’s a very picturesque Provençal town with the river and canals flowing into it. It’s best known for its many antique dealers (the most in France outside Paris) and its Sunday market, the biggest in the Luberon area. There also some art galleries to browse and enchanting cafes around the town.
There’s not much to see related to him, but L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was home to the great French photographer and photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, who died there in 2004.
Getting there: You can reach Fontaine de Vaucluse by bus – the number 6 service runs every couple of hours. Sometimes the service terminates at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, a few miles before Fontaine. The onward service runs every one to two hours, depending on the time of year.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.