The region of Provence is situated in the utmost southeastern part of France. Its full name is Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. Those names ring a bell, don't they? Home to the French Riviera, Provence is famous for its coastal cities bordering the Mediterranean sea, such as Nice and Marseille, its breathtaking nature and its exquisite wine and cuisine. Not only is Provence a popular tourist destination for the French themselves and all of France's neighbouring countries, but the region also welcomes travellers from every corner of the world. Whether you want to sunbathe on the beaches of Saint-Tropez, hike and swim through the Parc Naturel Regional du Verdon or eat and drink on the terraces of Aix-en-Provence, prepare yourself to experience one of the best holidays of your life.
The coastal city of Marseille
The largest city in the region is Marseille. You may have come across beautiful pictures of Marseille's port or heard about their football team called 'Olympique de Marseille,' most often called the 'OM.' If you have ever met someone from the North of France, they will have mentioned the famous accent of the South. The city counts approximately 850.000 inhabitants. There are various ways to reach Marseille. The city's airport, Marseille Provence, is the 6th busiest airport in France and is connected to hundreds of destinations in Europe and North Africa and to cities worldwide, including Montreal. There is also the train station of Marseille Saint Charles connected to the rest of France and Europe.
Marseille's art and culture
Some of the things you cannot miss in Marseille include the gorgeous Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde. The basilica was built in the 19th century and is considered the city's emblem. The basilica is 149 metres high (490 feet), so you will be able to enjoy a breathtaking view of the city and the sea. The Cathedral of Marseille also called the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure, is known worldwide for its Roman and Oriental history and architecture. Getting lost in the streets of the city's old port may be one of the most enjoyable activities you will be doing over there. To gain as much knowledge as you can about the city, do not forget to go to the Marseille History Museum or if you enjoy art, you can go to the city's oldest museum, the 'Musée des Beaux-Arts.'
Marseille's iconic architecture
Are you familiar with terms such as Modernism or the 'Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne' (CIAM)? The second part of the 20th century saw a transition from traditional architecture to modern architecture focussed primarily on functionality and efficiency. A prominent architect of modernism was Swiss-French designer Le Corbusier and some of his work can still be visited today in Marseille. Take a trip back to the 20th century by visiting Le Corbusier's ‘Cité Radieuse,’ listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The Nature surrounding Marseille
The city is also famous for its neighbouring Parc national des Calanques. Now, I know what you're thinking. 'What does 'Calanque' mean? An accurate translation in English is Creek. There are no guarantees that this creek is better than Schitt's Creek, but everyone who has ever been there came back mindblown. Let me be honest; you're not ready. The park is full of beautiful rocky inlets and borders the Mediterranean Gulf of Lion. There are many ways to visit; you can go by yourself and explore on your terms or rent a wide variety of tours, such as an electric bike tour.
The local cuisine you cannot miss
If you are a foodie, these are the places you cannot miss. Le Petit Nice Passedat and Les Bords De Mer both combine seafood with the utmost 'expérience gastronomique française.' The restaurant Chez Michel is where you can eat Marseille's famous 'Bouillabaisse' and where you will be able to experience the typical 'Bistrot' atmosphere of France. If you want an enjoyable night out, CopperBay Marseille keeps on getting phenomenal reviews. Do not miss our article focussed specifically on food from the Provence region.
The coastal city of Nice
The second-largest city in the region is Nice. The town counts approximately 350.000 inhabitants. Like Marseille, there are many ways to make it to Nice. The airport is the third busiest airport in France behind the two airports in Paris and is connected to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and the United States. You can also reach Nice Ville Train station from various French and European destinations. You will definitely have heard about this city for its iconic beaches, its beautiful architecture and again, its exquisite wine and cuisine.
Discover the City Centre of Nice
The Place Masséna might be one of the prettiest city centres in France. The place is named after the French empire general André Masséna. It was built in the 19th century and was inspired by the Piazza Vittorio Veneto in Turin. Visiting the old town, called the 'Vieille Ville' in French, is also a typical activity in French cities. The architecture and the variety of shops and restaurants will never cease to surprise you. You can get lost and never get bored, I promise. If you are tired of the city and want to see the beach, no need to go very far, the Promenade des Anglais is a magnificent 7-kilometres walking track on the coast of Nice.
Make sure to go to the 'Parc de la Colline du Château.' Sit down somewhere with a local craft beer (that you can buy at the nearby Allez Hops Beer Cellar) and silently grasp the beauty of the view from up there. If you appreciate art and architecture, Nice is the place to be. Go to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and the world-renowned Musée Matisse. Visit the splendid Cathédrale Saint-Nicolas de Nice constructed in the early 20th century. It is the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe, and it belongs to the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. Does that also surprise you? You can read more about why this cathedral is considered Russian property here. Don't forget to enjoy a beautiful view of the city from the 191-metres high Parc du Mont Boron, where you will discover unique architecture such as the Château de l'Anglais.
The Food in Nice
Countless positive reviews exist about the restaurant Jan in Nice. Its pleasant candle-lit atmosphere, its exquisite food and famous chef Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen. La Merenda is a restaurant that the locals consider a local landmark, so let that be a good indicator. This restaurant is probably the best place for traditional Nice cuisine. Finally, Café Le Séjour is perfect for the famous Salade Niçoise, a local coffee, a glass of wine, or typical French cuisine in a distinctive French atmosphere. If you are a fan of wine, make sure to book one of the many wine tour visits of the French Riviera here. Some of the most famous wines of the region include Châteauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, and Vacqueyras. Read our article on typical food from the Provence region here.
The Nature around Nice
If you're more about open spaces than a city person, do not worry, Nice is close to some of France's most famous parks. The Parc naturel régional des Préalpes d'Azur will amaze you with its picturesque hiking trails and thousands of different plant species. You can also discover the Gorges of Daluis and the Vallées des Merveilles in the Parc National du Mercantour. This park situated close to the border with Italy has attracted nature lovers for years. This is thanks to its countless outdoor activities and the colour range that can be found there whether in Summer or even in Winter.
The fourth-largest city in the region is Aix-en-Provence, with a population of approximately 150.000 inhabitants. Aix is a 40-minute drive from Marseille. The easiest way to reach the city is via Aix TGV, connected to Marseille and the rest of France. Among many other things, this city is known for being a hotspot of art and culture. The small-town atmosphere of Aix has drawn people for decades. You will find what you are looking for in terms of food, wine and activities.
What to do in Aix?
You can visit the studio where famous French painter Paul Cézanne lived and worked. Cézanne was a member of the impressionist movement and often painted people, landscapes or food items. Another Must-Do in Aix is the musée Granet. The museum consists of paintings, sculptures and archeology findings, and the architecture of the museum itself will amaze you. Do you remember our article about the calisson? You can visit the official Roi René museum, where you will be shown how Calissons are made. It is also the ideal place to taste the most authentic calisson you can find on the globe.
When it comes to the city centre, make sure to walk through the little streets of the old town. Are you starting to get the gist of it? Many French towns have a 'vieille ville.' It would be best if you also visited the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur. The cathedral is made of Romanesque, Gothic and Neo-Gothic architectural styles and was constructed and reconstructed between the 12th and the 19th century. The cathedral was built on the Roman forum of Aix, said to date from the 1st century. A roman forum used to be a public square during the Roman empire as a marketplace.
Walking along the Cours Mirabeau in the centre of Aix-en-Provence may well be the activity you will prefer. This 440-kilometre long pedestrian avenue is where you will find the most excellent cafés and restaurants and a surprisingly varied ecosystem of plants and trees. The Cours Mirabeau has been a famous filming site for many movies and TV shows, both French and international. Taste a typical 'pain au chocolat' at the Patisserie Bechard or buy a book in the adorable Librairie Goulard.
The remainders of World War II
France is a country that has experienced two World Wars in its history. There are countless sites in France that people can visit or discover to commemorate the tragic incidents of the 20th century. Whether it's an internment camp, a battle site, a museum or a graveyard, there are various ways to pay respects to the fallen. The Camp des Milles is 10 kilometres out of Aix's city centre and is the only remaining internment camp in France that can still be visited today. The base was built in 1939 and operated throughout the war. Such as in Auschwitz, the Camp des Milles was, for many, the end destination, or merely the final stop before being sent to the showers of another camp. The camp was turned into a memorial museum in 2012.
Explore hikes outside the city
If you want to take a small break from the city, take half a day to climb the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. This limestone mountain ridge is 1011 metres high, extends over no less than 18 kilometres, and offers some of the best scenery the region has to offer. The mountain can be found in many paintings by Paul Cézanne as he could see the hill from his studio's garden. The hike is relatively steep and requires a minimum of hiking expertise. At the foot of this mountain, Pablo Picasso lived and found inspiration between 1959 and 1962.
Parc naturel régional du Luberon
The next must-do I want to talk to you about is 185,000 hectares large. Have you ever heard about the Parc naturel régional du Luberon? Even the French can't get enough of Luberon's picturesque villages. It is in this area that you can find some of France's 'most beautiful villages.' The park, protected by UNESCO, is known for its medieval 'villages perchés' (villages on hillsides), its ochre pathways, scenery, and wine. Roussillon is one of these villages. Picture-perfect and the subject of many paintings and photographs, Roussillon is a village on the top of a small mountain and is famous primarily for its red-coloured ochre houses. Another such village is Gordes, 10 kilometres away from Roussillon. A walk through the village and a visit to the Chateau de Gordes will stay with you for much longer than you can anticipate. A short ride away is the village of Fontaine de Vaucluse, where you can see the clearwater spring feeding the river Sorgue.
Other parks, castles, and villages in Provence
The Castles and villages
There are many more places to visit in the Provence region. You can see the ruins of the medieval Chateau des Baux, which offers a splendid view of the Parc naturel regional des Alpilles, discover the magnificent Château du Barroux or explore the Château de Tarascon, a Gothic and Renaissance style fortress. Other famous coastal villages include Toulon, Cannes and Saint-Tropez. You have all heard about the Festival de Cannes, haven't you? Toulon is also the place of France's most extensive military harbour, and Saint Tropez is known for its luxury. It's not impossible to come across Leonardo DiCaprio or Beyoncé in the streets of Saint-Tropez, or instead on the yachts. The town from the famous French song 'le Pont d'Avignon' is also worth visiting. In Avignon, you will discover the historic Pope’s Palace, just another French monument listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. No less than 650,000 visitors come to the palace every year.
Underrated Parks in Provence
Finally, two other parks are worth visiting. The Parc naturel régional du Verdon is famous for its hikes and its meandering rivers through which you can float with your boat or canoe. Transparent water, orange rocks, reflecting sunshine; you will get all of that in this park. Another park close to the border with Italy is the Parc naturel régional du Queyras. If you have ever wanted to be in two countries at the very same time, this park is for you. The Queyras is famous for its unique ecosystem of short grass and pine trees.
Visiting the Provence region is a guaranteed success. Nobody comes back from a trip to the area feeling disappointed. Nostalgic and sad that it is over; yes, but not unhappy. Make sure to read our article about typical Provence food and wine, and do not wait any longer to book your flights to this great region.