The quintessential region of the south of France, the Provence is the location of the famous French Riviera – a picture perfect destination of glittering coastline meets luxury, jet-set living. The coastal towns of this area – also called the Cote d’Azur – have long been known for their charming appeal and association with elegant lodgings and moneyed visitors.
But look further back in time and this region has a positively ancient history. Many of the towns along the Provence coast were founded by Ancient Greek colonists well over 2,500 years ago; after which, many became part of the Roman Empire. Today, there are examples of this ancient history in the form of amphitheaters, aqueducts, and uncovered amphorae in archeological sites that make it a history lover’s dream.
Map of the Provence
Click to enlarge
Head inland, and there’s still more history. Hilltop villages full of rustic lifestyles hide medieval lanes and monuments, as well as some of France’s most famous vineyards; Roussillon, for example, is well known throughout the world. Combine all this with natural, rugged scenery, and the Provence seems more and more like a storybook than a real destination.
But it is real, and you can stay there. There are so many incredible towns, villages and cities to visit in the Provence, or why not stop off at a few different destinations and make it a road trip? Either way, the prestige of the Provence is waiting for you.
Set on the sparkling coast of the French Riviera, Nice has gone from Ancient Greek colony to a getaway for the well-heeled of Europe. Follow in the footsteps of the elite of yesteryear and stroll along the Promenade des Anglais, or get cultural and check out some of the artwork of famous resident Henri Matisse at the Musée Matisse, great for fans of impressionism. Nice comes with a couple of tram lines, a central train station, and even its own airport – the third busiest in France! When it comes to accommodation in Nice, stay somewhere high-end and historic or book yourself into a budget apartment; it’s all here.
Famous for its world-renowned film festival, Cannes is situated along the French Riviera west of Nice. This city is equally well known for its high-end living, with everything from designer boutiques and chic restaurants to elegant, upscale hotels. Mid-range offerings are available here, however, so everyone can enjoy the luxe ambiance of this coastal city – complete with grand villas dating to the 19th century and millionaires’ yachts bobbing in the harbor. Getting in and out of Cannes is easy, thanks to its ferry services, railway stations, and multiple airports.
Marseille is at the western end of the French Riviera and is known not only as France’s second-biggest city but also as the capital of the Provence. It has long been an important fixture for everyone from Ancient Greek colonists to the Roman Empire. Expect a lot of history, from its Vieux Port (Old Port) area to the cobbled streets that twist throughout. Elsewhere, witness the elegance of the 19th century Palais du Pharo, catch a performance at the Opéra de Marseille, or try the famed bouillabaisse – the specialty fish stew of the city. Transport connections and a whole range of hotels – this city has it all.
Located along the banks of the River Rhone, Avignon is a city in the Provence that was once famous for being the home of the Catholic Pope. For a time, this was the seat of the Catholic Church, and there remains the enormous 14th century Papal Palace, the medieval Pont d’Avignon, and the 12the century Avignon Cathedral. The entrancing city is full of history, but bubbles with modern life too; theatres, shops, restaurants, and bars now occupy the old streets. Hotels in Avignon are usually situated in charming old buildings in the oldest parts of the city, but more modern options are available a little further out, too.
Founded by Roman consul Sextius Calvinus in 123 BC, Aix-en-Provence is a university town located to the southeast of Avignon, slightly north of Marseille. This is the hometown of impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, and features Cezanne’s Studio – the artist’s former studio now turned museum. For more art, head to the Musee Granet, featuring works from Cezanne – of course – all the way to Rembrandt. The street of Cours Mirabeau runs along where the old city walls used to be and divides the old town, to the north, from the new town. Hotels here range from grand residences to casual lodgings housed in old buildings.
This is the place where, arguably, the coastal resort city was born. Saint-Tropez played host to the first jet set tourists of the world and has retained its status as a place to see – and be seen. With that in mind, the hotels here are traditionally mid-century wonders of luxury and retro design, which don’t come at budget-friendly prices – and neither do the more modern boutiques found here. Connected by ferry and road only, this is the place to come to stroll along the beach, watch the yachts, enjoy sumptuous meals, and wander its narrow lanes.
Sainte-Maxime looks south across the bay to Saint-Tropez; hotels here still don’t come cheap, but they’re mid-range – often boasting pools – and are much more affordable than its neighbor across the water. Plus, you get the same sort of views! Sainte-Maxime boasts several Blue Flag-certified beaches, where you can jet-ski, water-ski, or just soak up the sun until it goes down. There are no less than eight golf courses within a radius of around a half hour drive, too. Visitors will also find a host of shops, boutiques, cafes, bars and eateries in Sainte-Maxime’s old town, situated opposite the harbor.
Along the coast to the east of Marseille, on the banks of the River Rhone, lies the historic city of Arles. This place is famous for its well preserved Roman amphitheater – a triumph of engineering that dates all the way back to 90AD. Also famous for being a place of great inspiration to none other than Vincent van Gogh, Arles neighbors the tranquil wetlands that comprise the Camargue Natural Regional Park, an excellent place for bird spotting. With hotels in this city ranging from affordable to luxurious, and boasting an intercity railway station, Arles is a convenient place to stay.
Antibes is set to the east of Cannes along the coast and was named by ancient Greek colonists around 400 BC. Taken over by the Romans in 43 BC, Antibes has few relics left of Roman rule, save a few aqueducts. Head to the Archaeology Museum, however, and you will find many ancient artifacts from the city’s past. There’s also a Picasso Museum, a theme park, plus 48 beaches in the surrounding area where you can simply sit back and relax. Hotels in Antibes run from modest, affordable 2-star affairs to seafront luxury.
Thanks to the Romans who once called this town home, Frejus – set between Sainte-Maxime and Cannes – is rich in history. Much of it is still visible too, including the ruins of an aqueduct, an amphitheater, baths, a Roman lighthouse, a bridge, and some of the old city walls and gates which used to lead into town. Away from all the history, families can have a fun day out at the waterpark of Aqualand Frejus or simply splash around on one of its beaches. Though not crawling with accommodation, a few casual hotels and more upscale options mean there is something for everyone here.
Next door to Frejus is another of the Cote d’Azur’s resort towns – Saint-Raphaël. Complete with nearby history and the fun of the waterpark, there’s enough to keep everyone entertained in this town. Head up to Bonaparte Gardens for some stunning views of the sparkling blue Mediterranean Sea, complete with beaches. Those very beaches were used during World War II, when in 1944, the Allied forces landed here for Operation Dragoon – the invasion of southern France. As well as being well connected by boat to St Tropez and Cannes, Saint-Raphaël features a number of seafront lodgings, with a few high-end options, too.
Nicknamed the perle de la France (meaning the “Pearl of France”), Menton is a picturesque town located just to the east of Nice. This lovely town is famous for its gardens, including the tropical feeling Jardin Botanique Exotique de Menton and the walled garden of Fontana Rosa. Its architecture is also impressive, particularly the Basilica of Saint-Michel-Archange, an ornate baroque building dating back to 1619. There’s even a museum dedicated to its most renowned resident, French artist Jean Cocteau. Ranging from the modern and contemporary to the low-key and relaxed, you’ll find a variety of places to stay in this pretty town.
Toulon is the fourth largest city on the Mediterranean coast of France (after Marseille, Nice, and Montpellier). A stone’s throw from Marseille to the west, Toulon has a beautiful old town to stroll around, with many squares and narrow lanes and, famously, quite a lot of fountains to admire. Here is where you will find Toulon Cathedral, which was under construction from the 11th to 18th century! The city created a series of sandy beaches in the 1970s at nearby Le Mourillon, making it a popular destination for Toulon’s residents. Looking for accommodation? You’ll find a handful of mid-range hotels around the station and a few seafront options to choose from.
Grasse is world renowned for its perfume industry and is quite often known as the perfume capital of the world, with many perfumers trained in this historic city. Thanks to its location with an abundance of water and plenty of natural scents – like jasmine, brought to this region by the Moors in the 16th century – it’s the perfect place to make perfume, There are some 27 tons of jasmine harvested here annually! Located north of Cannes, and with its own train station, Grasse features just a few hotels, including some out of town villas and high-end country retreats.
Practically situated in the rugged stretch of coastline that is the Parc national des Calanques, Cassis is located just to the east of Marseille and is all about its natural scenery. The Cap Canaille, in particular, offers some stunning hiking opportunities just out of town. Once you’re back in Cassis, you can sit at a terrace cafe on the pastel-colored street and watch the world go by. Nearby are vineyards where you can sample the famous Cassis white wine. While there isn’t a huge selection of hotels, Cassis boasts a few low key lodgings and high-end cottages.
Around 12 miles south of Avignon, Saint-Remy-de-Provence is set within the rolling hills and majestic nature of Alpilles Natural Regional Park. This is a popular holiday destination, thanks not only to its pretty old town, with streets featuring terrace cafes and colorful florists, but also huge historic Roman ruins of Glanum, which is a mere one kilometer south of Saint-Remy-de-Provence. As another claim to fame, this town is where Vincent van Gogh spent the last year of his life. If you want to stay in Saint-Remy-de-Provence, this place is all about its refined farmhouse and boutique style local hotels.
Far to the east of Avignon lies the beautiful town of Roussillon. This place is situated in the borders of the Natural Regional Park of Luberon, a stunning slice of nature with gorgeous, wild, mountainous terrain – perfect for those who enjoy the outdoors. In the vicinity are many deposits of ochre, which is why some of the hills nearby are red. You can actually visit one by following the Sentier des Ocres – or “Ochre Trail” – to one of the former quarries. Roussillon is also famous for its wine, with many vineyards in the area. Staying here means upscale hotels and rustic country retreats.
The western neighbor of Roussillon is the hilltop town of Gordes. This famous village is built on the foothills of the Monts de Vaucluse and boasts many picturesque white stone buildings set into the cliffs themselves, all connected with winding lanes and cobbled streets. A famous hub for artists over the years, Gordes hosts cultural events over the summer months. There is history too, with a 10th-century chateau overlooking the village, as well as the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, a monastery dating back to 1148. When it comes to hotels, you’ll find posh spa hotels surrounded by lavender and refined lodgings in historic buildings.
Slightly inland from the coast, not too far west of Nice (including its handy airport), Saint-Paul de Vence is another of the Provence’s attractive hilltop towns. In fact, Saint-Paul de Vence claims to be one of the oldest cities on the French Riviera. The medieval stone walls around the town are now home to many modern art museums, like the Fondation Maeght – founded in 1964 by famous impressionist Marguerite, and Ami Maeght. The 14th century Eglise Collegiale Saint Paul and the iconic Fontaine de Saint-Paul de Vence (1615) are a testament to the town’s history. Accommodation here includes 5-star lodgings in 16th-century buildings and homely, contemporary guesthouses.
Hyères is situated to the east of Toulon. It’s another place where you can find much of Provence’s history, with the hilltop-located old town home to a medieval castle, amongst other relics, while the 1920s modernist Villa Noailles is a masterpiece designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens. Head out of town to the offshore island of Porquerolles for rugged terrain, beaches, a winery, and hiking trails. When it comes to finding a place to stay in Hyères, there are plenty of places – some on Porquerolles, some near the conveniently located Toulon Hyères Airport, and others in the center of town.
A small town situated just a few minutes from Antibes, Juan-les-Pins has its own train station, bakeries, and beaches, as well as casinos, nightclubs, bars, and restaurants, making it a popular destination for fun times by the sea. There’s a famous jazz festival here, Jazz a Juan, and this spot has been well known for hosting celebrities and famous faces for decades. The hotel Le Provençal opened in 1926 and has even played host to Charlie Chaplin, amongst others. If you feel like staying here, there are historic – as well as more modern – upscale options, as well as simple, more relaxed lodgings to choose from.