Just the thought of southern France brings stunning images to mind — endless lavender fields and vineyards, stunning fortified hilltop medieval towns and picturesque villages, not to mention the glamorous beach resorts and luxury yacht-filled marinas. There really is no end of wonderful places to see and things to do here. And there are plenty of charming and luxurious holiday homes in the south of France that make the perfect base from where to explore this glorious region.
Top 10 places to visit in the south of France
To help you decide which part of southern France to visit we’ve mapped out our favourite places, starting in the south-west with Biarritz and ending in the far south-east in Nice. Here are our top 10 must-see places to visit in the south of France. Getting around France on public transport can be tricky so the easiest way to explore is by hiring a car. You’ll find our map at the end of this post.
Biarritz is an elegant seaside town first made popular when European royalty started visiting in the mid-19th century. It still has an air of glamour about it, even though these days its long sandy beaches are more popular with surfers than royals. Iconic buildings abound, including Hôtel du Palais, the former summer palace of the wife of Napoleon III, Empress Eugénie de Montijo and now an exclusive luxury hotel, as well as the art deco Casino Municipal, slap-bang on the beachfront. Today you’ll also find a thriving food and drink scene and a fabulous collection of independent boutiques promoting local products, as well as stylish department stores like Galeries Lafayette.
The quintessential French town of Albi on the Tarn River has the nickname of la ville rouge, thanks to the handmade red bricks that virtually every building here is built with, including the impressive Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, which dominates the skyline. It was the largest brick structure in the world when it was built in the 13th century. The episcopal city which centres around the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Albi’s most famous son is art nouveau painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Palais de la Berbie, next door to the cathedral, is home to over a thousand of his works together with works by Matisse, Dufy and Gauguin to name but a few.
The fortified hilltop town of Carcassonne, in Languedoc, comes straight out of the pages of a fairytale. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, its medieval citadel with countless turrets, spires and ramparts is a stunning sight and a fabulous place to explore, especially if you visit in the off-season and avoid the summer crowds.
Once home to Vincent van Gogh who painted some 200 works here, Arles is yet another worthy UNESCO World Heritage site in southern France. Its picture-postcard streets are overflowing with architectural reminders of its former inhabitants, including the Greeks and the Romans. Arles is a beautiful and fascinating place to explore. It’s also home to one of Provence’s best markets, held here every Saturday.
Steeped in history the streets of the old city of Avignon are encircled by an impressive medieval wall. Discover shady squares, excellent restaurants, quirky boutiques and not one but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the 14th century Palace of the Popes and the ruins of Pont Saint-Bénézet (Pont d’Avignon) over the Rhône. Each July, thousands visit the annual arts festival, so unless you have a particular interest in the festival it’s probably not the best time to go!
Bordeaux is the wine capital of the world and its historic quarter is yet another of the south of France’s World Heritage Sites. The banks of the Garonne River are lined with no end of stunning examples of 18th and 19th century architecture that look particularly impressive when lit up at night and reflected in the river. You’ll also find the world’s greatest wine museum, an incredible food scene and some superb art galleries.
One of France’s most picturesque villages, Lourmarin sits nestled amongst vineyards, olive and almond groves, with a stunning backdrop of the Luberon massif mountain range. Its maze of winding, narrow streets are dotted with welcoming cafés and restaurants, leafy public squares and old restored houses.
Aix-en-Provence is a lovely university city and the birthplace of Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. The surrounding countryside and the white limestone mountain that overlooks the city were popular subjects of his works. The city itself has a laid-back charm that softly pulses through its narrow streets, grandiose squares, plethora of bars and restaurants, beautiful fountains and gardens. At its heart lies the Cours Mirabeau, an avenue of plane trees, lined with fountains, fine town houses and street cafes. Visit from the end of June to the beginning of August to catch those endless, frequently photographed lavender fields.
France’s second biggest city, Marseille is both beautiful and incredibly hectic. It was founded by the Greeks around 600 B.C. From the vibrant old port to the stylish boutiques of the République quarter, the Cathédrale de Marseille Notre Dame de Major in the La Joliette quarter to the ancient Le Panier neighbourhood, there are many districts worth exploring in this multicultural and lively city.
The heart of the Côte d’Azur, Nice is a wonderful city to visit any time of year. Nice is beautiful and beguiling, hugging a sweeping bay which looks out over the glistening Mediterranean Sea. Stroll along the Promenade des Anglais at sunset, get lost in its wonderful markets and charming medieval old town, visit the Musée Matisse and dine in any one of its many fine restaurants.
Have you a favourite place in the south of France we’ve left out? What else should be included on this list?
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