France is the most visited coutry on Earth. It offers a variety of landscapes from the cliffs of Brittany to the mountains of the Alps and all the charming castles and villages in between. With more than 4,000 km/ 2,500 mi of coasts, it is also a great place to sunbathe on a beach or enjoy the scenery from one of the many coastal trails. Each year for our summer vacation, my mom, sister, and I discover a new region of France. This year, I chose to explore a region I had never seen before: Southern France. The bright sun and deep blue waters were calling my name, and what I discovered in Provence surpassed all my expectations. Here is everything you need to know to spend the most perfect vacation in the south of France.
- Where is Provence?
- How to Get There?
- When to Go?
- What to Budget?
- What to Bring?
- What to Eat?
- What to Do?
Where is Provence?
France is often nicknamed the hexagon for its eponym shape. Provence is the region of France located in its most southeast corner. It extends from the marsh of Camargue to the Alpine range of the Italian border. It is made up of 6 departments and is home to major cities like Marseille, Nice, Nîmes, Toulon, Aix-en-Provence, and many more. It is famous for its beautiful lavender fields, chanting cicadas, and gorgeous blue seas.
How to Get There?
Marseille is the second largest city in France and easy to fly into from most neighboring countries in Europe and North Africa. You can also get to Marseille worry free thanks to the fast train network of the Marseille St Charles station. Once you arrive in Marseille, it is easiest to get around by car. We rented a Renault Twingo from Rent-A-Car in the industrial zoning of Vitrolles. Twingos are small vehicles, but it was perfect to navigate the narrow streets of Provence and park easily. The Rent-A-Car staff was super friendly and very thorough. After a quick phone call to the agency, we were picked up at the airport in our brand new Twingo, and off we went into the Provençal countryside.
When to Go?
Provence experiences beautiful weather year round, but summer months are the busiest. If you would like to enjoy the beauty of Provence away from the crowds, I recommend visiting off season in the spring or fall. However, if you are headed to Provence to see the lavender fields, keep in mind that they bloom from late June to mid-July.
What to Budget?
The south of France is a bit more expensive than other coastal regions like Normandy or Brittany, but as always, I have many budget-saving tips to help you enjoy a great Provençal vacation on a budget. First, reserve your plane/ train ticket ahead of time and opt for a smaller rental vehicle. Southern France is a destination highly prized by European and international tourists, and spots fill up quickly. Next, check out hostels and camping grounds. Many campings in France offer small bungalows for 2 to 10 people with all the amenities of a home. I recommend the Capfun campgrounds that are great for traveling with kids on a budget. Many offer activities, swimming pools with slides, and themed parties. Count 200-300 euros per person for a one-week stay in the South of France. To save money on food, splurge wisely and consider ordering a three-course menu (entrée-main course-dessert combo) much cheaper than ordering items separately. If you shop at local markets on the seaside, know that prices will be much higher than in smaller provençal villages farther inland.
EATING OUT IN FRANCEwhen you eat out in france, it is easy to calculate the cost of your meal as tax is included and no tip is required. What you see on the menu is what you will pay. french restaurants also provide water pitchers unlike in belgium, so water is free as well.
What to Bring?
In order to make the best of your trip to Provence, there are a few indispensable items you must bring along. First off, the UV index in Southern France can be sky high, which is dangerous for both your skin and your eyes. Always bring your sunglasses, sunscreen, and hat along to stay fully protected. The best time to explore Provence is in the morning and late afternoon. Many restaurants and establishments even close during midday to avoid the scorching sun and tiring heat. In order to fully enjoy the gorgeous Mediterranean beaches, don’t forget your swimwear! I am personally obsessed with bikinis. Some girls like shoes; I’m obsessed with bikinis. I purchase most of my clothes from consignment stores, but here are a few of my favorite pieces: Zaful sunflower bikini, Cupshe pineapple bikini, and Zaful criss cross flower bikini. Finally if you plan on visiting many of the places mentioned in this article, I recommend a solid pair of hiking shoes. My Quechua have hiked dozens of miles of trails and never let me down. They were especially important when we hiked in France’s Calanques National Park.
What to Eat?
It would be a sin to visit Provence without trying local specialties. Make sure to check out some of the local markets for olive tapenades, tomanades, anchoiades (made from anchovies), and local cheeses. You can find a market near you any day of the week. For a comforting breakfast, head to one of the local bakeries and get a few croissants or pains au chocolat.
PRO TIPIf you are staying in a camping, ask the restaurant/ bar staff if they offer fresh pastries in the morning or local dishes throughout the week.
What to Do?
There is SO much to see and do in Southern France. Below you will find a list of all the must-see locations in Provence. Whether you like strolling through typical provençal towns, enjoy learning about France’s extensive history or admiring gorgeous landscapes, you will find dreamy locations in every corner of the South. I recommend 10-14 days to best explore the region and do all the activities mentioned in this article.
We were based in La Couronne on the Blue Coast of the Mediterranean. The best way to explore the Blue Coast is by foot along the coastal trail or by train on the Miramas-Marseilles St Charles line. During the holidays, be sure to check for promotional fares. We scored a day ticket for 2 on the Blue Coast line for just 10 euros! Keep reading to see where our train journey took us!
The nearest blue coast beach to our camping grounds was Sainte Croix. Though the blue waters and white cliffs were dreamy, it was packed with tourists and very dirty. We found many cigarette buds and glass shards lost in the sand. My personal recommendation is to rent kayaks in Carry-le-Rouet and explore the hidden beaches and calanques of the Côte Bleue. Some of the beaches scattered along the cliffs are only accessible by sea making them much less crowded. Always check the weather before heading out to sea, keep your life vest on, and NEVER leave the shore.
PRO TIPTo make the best of your trip in Provence, make sure to check the tourism office nearest you. The staff is so friendly and eager to share their love of provence with visitors. there, We met some of the nicest people who gave us tips and addresses we would not have found anywhere else!
Martigues is a charming little coastal town in Provence. Lined with colorful homes along its canals, the setting sun gives it an especially gorgeous glow. We drove to Martigues and parked our car near the boat shuttle pickup and dropoff. Click here to find free parking in Martigues. I recommend parking at Hôtel de Ville/ Stade parking or Théâtre des Salins. Both are free and within short walking distance of the boat shuttle stop. The free boat shuttle began circulating to help free up some space on the highway during road work but became so popular that the city chose to maintain the route after the road work ended. Every day, children and adults take the boat to get to school or go to work. Click here for the touristic guide of Martigues and head to page 6 for the city map with all 3 boat shuttle stops as well as a suggested route to see the best Martigues has to offer.
We took the boat shuttle to the Quai Alsace Lorraine and walked the suggested route. In my opinion, the prettiest views of the city are found along the St Sebastian Canal that runs through the island. During your visit, make sure to stop by the Miroir aux Oiseaux, the most photographed view in Martigues. Left of the Miroir, you’ll find a cute little store full of authentic Marseille soap and fragrant lavender. The store owner was so friendly and gave us great advice to find local gifts for our friends and family.
Before enjoying the diverse wildlife of Camargue, we made a pit stop in Arles to admire its antique amphitheatre. Located along the Rhône River between Nîmes and Marseille, it is the largest city in Camargue. You will love getting lost in its colorful streets or enjoy a drink in one of its many roadside cafés. The biggest attraction in Arles is its amphitheatre, built in 90 A.D. It is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In Ancient Rome, gladiators fought in the arena while in the 19th century, it became its own town, complete with a square and chapels. Today it serves as the setting for many spectacles and even a TV show.
Natural Regional Park of Camargue
The Natural Regional Park of Camargue is known for its white horses, wet marshes, and salt pans, but as we entered the Camargue region, it was another sight that took our breath away: a beautiful sunflower field in full bloom.
After a quick stop to capture these sunflowers, we moved on to Aigues Mortes, a fortress-like city with high ramparts and a gorgeous pink lake in its background. The salt marsh is pink because of the strong presence of dunaliella salina, an algae capable of withstanding high levels of sodium chloride thanks to its high concentration in betacarotin. This algae is also used in pharmacology and cosmetology.
Get lost in the quaint little streets of the city or go on a guided tour of its ramparts. Aigues Mortes is also a great place to begin your Camargue boat tour. These boat tours take visitors on 1.5-to-2.5-hour long tour of the marshes of Camargue with a stop in a manade (a bull and horse raising farm) for a livestock-sorting demonstration. The most famous manade in Camargue is the Paul Ricard Manade in Méjanes. There you can visit its domain with the little train, ride a horse, or go on a short hike among the bulls and horses.
My favorite place in Camargue was the Réserve Ornithologique de Pont de Gau. It is a haven for many types of birds, among which the very popular flamingos. Tickets are 5 euros for children ages 4 to 12 and 7 euros for adults. The park is split in two section: a 2,6 km/ 1.6 mi section completely wheelchair accessible and a longer 4,3 km/ 2.7 mi section. The shortest section offers more up-close views of the flamingos while the longer section offers more distant observation points. If you enjoy photographing wildlife, I highly recommend bringing a telephoto lens to get the best shots of the famous pink birds.
What else to see in Camargue?
- Camargue Museum
- Maison du Riz to learn more about the riziculture in Camargue
- Salt Pan Observation Mound at Salin-de-Giraud
- Domaine de Beaujeu for wine and rice
We reached Marseille via TER (Transport Express Régional) using the Blue Coast promotion mentioned earlier in this blog post. For 10 euros a day, a duo can travel indefinitely on the Miramas-Marseille St Charles line. Sit on the right side of the train on your way to Marseille to best take in the scenic views and keep an eye out for the Marseille sign (a small cousin of the Hollywood sign) as you approach the city. Our first stop in the Phocean city was at the tourism office to best plan our visit. We opted for a guided tour of Marseille in its Little Touristic Train. The Little Train offers 2 routes: Notre-Dame de la Garde and Old Marseille. I recommend taking the little train to get to Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica. The beautiful byzantine-inspired church is located high above Marseille and offers the best 360-degree view of the city. The little train takes its passengers through the Old Port and around Marseille’s coastal corniche, revealing its beautiful secrets atop the Frioul Islands. The train then stops at the basilica where passengers can get off to explore its gorgeous architecture. It will return every 20 minutes to take passengers back to their starting point across from the tourism office. Tickets are 4 euros for children 3 to 11 years old and 8 euros for adults.
The reason I recommend taking the basilica route with the Little Train is because the Old Marseilled is best explored by foot. The charm of the Panier neighborhood is to get lost in its small and beautifully-colored streets, much quieter than the hustle and bustle of the city center. Enjoy a bouillabaisse (local fish soup dish) for lunch on the 13 Cantons Marketplace and check out Maison Janot for artisan Pastis, a typically local anise-flavored alcohol. On your way back to the Old Port, make sure not to miss Les Voûtes de La Major Cathedral. The architectural beauty of these Mediterranean religious buildings is absolutely breathtaking.
If you are interested in learning more Mediterranean history, check out the Mucem, the European and Mediterranean Civilizations Museum, which honors the diverse heritage of the Mediterranean: a melting pot of European, African, and Middle-Eastern influence. The museum is open from 10am to 8pm every day of the week except Tuesday. Entrance is 11 euros at full price or 7.5 euros at a reduced price.
Calanques National Park
The Calanques National Park is the reason we chose to stay near Marseille. Calanques are sea creeks that seep into the land. Their deep blue and turquoise waters often contrast with the sheer grey cliffs that surround them. The national park extends for 20 km between Marseille and Cassis.
There are several ways you can explore the calanques. You can hike along the GR98 coastal trail, rent a kayak, or go on a bout tour.
Hiking in the calanques
If you decide to hike the calanques, set aside at least two days as the full hike takes 11 hours for an experienced hiker. Take bus 20 from Les Goudes to the Callelongue calanque. There you can also find the GR98 coastal trail to begin your hike that will take you along the calanques of Marseille all the way to Cassis. Keep in mind that hiking all the calanques round trip in one day is virually impossible, and no camping is allowed in the Calanques National Park. For this reason, I recommend combining a hike with either a kayak or boat tour (or both). See my En-Vau itinerary below.
Kayaking in the calanques
You can rent kayaks in both Marseille and Cassis. This is personally my favorite way to explore the national park as it gives you access to secluded cliffs and beaches that are unreachable to hikers and boaters. If you decide to rent a kayak, make sure to discuss your route with the kayak rental place and keep an eye on the weather. The violent northwest wind of the Mediterranean known as Mistral could turn your kayak escapade into a life-threatening experience. Do NOT get on the water in case of high winds. Make sure to bring your sunglasses, plenty of sunscreen, water, and once again NEVER leave the shore.
Riding a boat in the calanques
A third option to admire the beauty of the calanques is to take a boat tour from Marseille’s old port. This is a great option for those with limited mobility. The company Croisières Marseille Calanques offers multiple routes, including a 3 and a half hour long trip through all of the calanques.
List of the calanques from Marseille to Cassis
- La Poulidette
- La Mounine
- La Triperie
- St Jean
- Port Pin
- Port Miou
Hiking to Calanque d’En Vau
If you have enough time for one single hike, I recommend hiking to En-Vau. En-vau is arguably the most beautiful of the calanques, and everyone who has ever laid eyes on its crystal clear waters knows the view must be earned. If you plan on hiking En-Vau during the summer season, begin your hike early to avoid the crowds and enjoy cooler temperatures. Be sure to take Marseille rush-hour traffic into consideration if you must drive through the city to reach Port-Miou.
Though there are multiple ways to reach En-Vau, I’ll share with you the most scenic.
You will begin your hike in Cassis near Port-Miou. We parked our car on Avenue Notre Dame and walked to the port. Count around 1 euro per hour for the parking fee. Once you arrive at Port Miou, you’ll notice that there is no swim beach. Simply follow the path along the boat docks to continue on to Port-Pin. After 45 minutes, you’ll reach Port-Pin and its gorgeous beach. But beware! These beautiful blue waters are deceptively warm; the Mediterranean wind can bring in very cold water into the calanques.
After a refreshing break, we continued our hike to En-Vau. From Port-Pin, count another hour and 45 minutes if you go the scenic route. Once you arrive at the base of the trail, you will be given two options: red and white for the GR and blue for the panoramic trail. We opted for the panoramic trail on our way to En-Vau and the GR on our way back. The panoramic trail longs the calanques and offers amazing views. The trail is longer than the GR and features uneven, rocky terrain but is so worth it. However it is very easy to find even for the questionable trail finder that I am. It took us a little while to figure it out, but the blue marks on the trail indicate the direction of the path ahead.
As you get closer to En-Vau, veer a little off the path to get breathtaking views of the calanque, but always watch your steps and stay away from the edge. In the end, you’ll begin your final descent to the beach of En-Vau. The descent is extremely abrupt and requires the use of your hands to get down from one rock formation to the other. Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and solid hiking shoes! Bringing hiking poles is also highly recommended.
Though you won’t avoid the abrupt ascension on your way out, once at the top, I would suggest taking the GR back to Port Pin. It is a much easier, much shorter hike.
To reward yourself after this long day of hiking, make a stop in the beautiful city of Cassis. Visit the port, swim at the Bestouan beach and enjoy some ice cream at one of the may seaside cafés.
Natural Regional Park of the Lubéron
In order to best plan our day trip to the Lubéron, I read multiple articles from Le Long Weekend. Nadine, a New-Zealander who moved to Provence, was a great source of inspiration. Using her blog, I compiled a list of the best villages in the Lubéron as well as GPS coordinates to nearby lavender fields.
Best villages in the Lubéron
Lourmarin is a charming little town in the heart of the Lubéron. Visitors can park right outside the city center for free and enjoy shopping for artisan products in its sinuous streets or stop for lunch on a terrace. Lourmarin, unlike larger coastal towns, is a lot quieter and more affordable. While still touristic, it conserves all its provençal charm.
This view of the Lubéron valley from Bonnieux is one of my favorites! We drove up into the city and noticed this gorgeous panorama on the way. What’s even better is that you can eat out with this exact view at the Terrazza di Bonnieux. From there, you will be able to admire all the blooming lavender fields in July.
Gordes is the poster child of Lubéron charm. For this view, simply look up Gordes Town Viewpoint. There is a small parking lot nearby where you can park your car for up to 5 minutes. You may notice signs that warn you to take all valuable items with you. As in most of Provence, car theft is unfortunately frequent. Make sure to walk along the road to get to the second viewpoint where the view is completely unobstructed. If you want to see more of Gordes, head into the city, follow the signs to the parking lot, and walk around its narrow stone streets lined with small shops and restaurants.
After your visit of Gordes, take a small detour and head to the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque. A wonderful religious structure made ever more picturesque with its vibrant lavender fields in the forefront. However, be aware that the abbey is currently under construction and almost entirely covered in scaffoldings.
Roussillon was our last stop in the Lubéron and the most surprising. Every home in this beautiful city is colored in warm red, orange, and ochre tones. Roussillon was a lot less crowded than other Lubéron villages we visited but no less breathtaking. After wandering its bright streets, we headed to the Ochre Trail.
The Ochre Trail
Also known as the Provençal Colorado, the ochres of Roussillon are an anomaly in the Provençal landscape. They formed millions of years ago as the sea that covered the area receded due to tectonic movement. As you head up the hill to the entrance of the trail, make sure not to miss the best viewpoint of Roussillon located on your left. Tickets are 3 euros per person and free for children under 10 years old. The site is open 7 days a week from mid-February until Christmas. There are two routes possible to admire the ochre landscape: a 35 and 50 minute walk. I highly recommend the longer walk that offers the best views.
If you enjoy painting, you can purchase ochre powder and other colored pigments for your watercolor paintings in many small shops in Roussillon. To take your visit of Roussillon’s ochres even further, head to Okhra, the Ochre Ecomuseum located in the former ochre factory of Roussillon. It offers workshops and guided visits to learn more about the lives of the ochre factory workers.
Before leaving Roussillon, we typed in the GPS coordinate of a large lavender field supposedly in full bloom, and we were not disappointed! This lavender field in Roussillon is what my Provençal dreams were made of. Click here for the exact GPS coordinates of the lavender field pictured above. Right across from this lavender field is another, smaller field. Always make sure to be extra careful when visiting the famous purple flowers, watching your step to preserve every stem. We had the chance to meet the owner of the home next door who showed us his brand new baby geese. Roussillon truly was a dream come true!.
PRO TIPDuring your trip to provence you’ll come across many roadside stands selling fresh fruits for a fraction of the price. They are full, juicy, and simply irresistible. many of these roadside shops are located right next to the orchards where the fruits were harvested. give in to temptation and enjoy some provençal summer goodness.
Pont du Gard
The Gard Bridge was built in the 1st century AD in just 5 years and brought running water to the 20.000 inhabitants of Nîmes. It is the tallest Roman bridge in the world and a true architectural wonder. The site can be accessed from either bank. Tickets are 9.5 euros per person; children under 18 years and individuals with disability get in free. On the left bank is located the museum that retraces the history of the bridge with a short film. Bring your swimsuit along if you would like to dip your toes in the Gardon River then stop for lunch at the restaurant located on the right bank.
If you visit the Roman structure in the afternoon, make sure to head to the left bank and walk past the structure to get its best-lit side.
Natural Regional Park of Alpilles
After our visit of the Gard Bridge, we headed to the Natural Regional Park of Alpilles. We stopped in Baux de Provence, classified as one of the most beautiful villages of France and known for its castle and Carrières de Lumières. The carrières, an old stone pit, offer a mesmerizing experience with theatrical, moving projections of Cézanne’s art. Known as the master of Provence, Paul Cézanne was a Post-Impressionist painter combining Impressionism and Cubism.
Located just a 5-minute walk from the Baux, the beautiful sound and light exposition is available until January 2022. Tickets are free for children under 7 years old and 14 euros full price; reductions are available for seniors and students.
If you are looking for a luxurious stay in the Alpilles, I highly recommend Le Mas d’Aigret. Located at the foot of the Baux de Provence castle, it offers a breathtaking view of the Alpilles in the heart of Provence. This 3-star hotel features a pool, fine southern cuisine, and an astonishing interior. The indoor restaurant and some of the rooms were even carved inside the rock, offering a unique cave-like decor known as troglodyte.
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