Once the center of the Roman Catholic world, the charming Provençal town of Avignon is now teeming with youthful energy, contemporary festivals, and trendy fashion boutiques.
Encircled by medieval ramparts and flanked on two sides by the Rhône, Avignon’s Old Town is a lovely place to wander around, admire the city’s UNESCO-protected architecture, and slow down for people watching in one of the many picturesque cobbled squares.
Palais des Papes
Dominating the city’s skyline, the impressive Palais des Papes is Avignon’s main attraction and one of the most visited monuments in France.
The seat of the papacy in the 14th century, this colossal fortress included in the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1995 is the world’s largest Gothic palace and has 25 rooms open to the public. Highlights of your visit include the popes’ private apartments as well as the Saint Martial and Saint John chapels, both decorated with exquisite frescoes by Matteo Giovannetti.
A variety of festivals, art exhibits, and cultural activities are held at the Palace throughout the year, including the famous Les Luminessences d’Avignon and the legendary theatrical performances of the Festival d’Avignon.
To see the city at its liveliest, plan your visit around the three-week annual Festival d’Avignon. Every summer, this internationally acclaimed performing arts event brings the city’s architectural treasures to life with outstanding theater, dance, and music performances.
Founded in 1947 by French actor Jean Vilar, this is one of the world’s greatest performing arts festivals, featuring over 40 shows along with film screenings, poetry readings, and exhibitions.
Both free and ticked events are held in more than twenty different venues across the city, ranging from small chapels and scenic open-air locations to grand theaters and majestic historical buildings. The most remarkable, however, is the Palais des Papes’ main courtyard, known as the Cour d’Honneur.
Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque
Founded in 1148, Notre-Dame de Sénanque is a beautiful Cistercian abbey about 50 km from Avignon, near the pretty hilltop village of Gordes. The monastery’s grounds are open to the public for recreational use, and there’s also a charming gift shop filled with handmade honey and lavender-based products.
Guided tours of the abbey and its cloisters are available, just make sure to book ahead. If you’re looking for spiritual retreat, longer stays can be arranged for as little as €30 per day.
During the summer months it is well worth hiring a car from Avignon and driving there to admire the abbey’s wonderful Romanesque architecture and see some of Provence’s most iconic lavender fields in full bloom.
One of the city’s most iconic landmarks, the Pont Saint-Bénézet – better known as the Pont d’Avignon – is a medieval bridge built in the 12th century across the River Rhone to link the Old Town of Avignon with Villeneuve-lès-Avignon . The monument enjoys worldwide fame thanks to the French children’s song Sur le Pont d’Avignon.
Unfortunately, the mighty construction has been gradually destroyed by floods, and nowadays, only a small chapel and 4 of the its original 22 arches remain. A 5€ ticket lets you walk around the ruined bridge, but you can also learn about its history through interactive multimedia films.
Les Luminessences d’Avignon
Held each summer in the Courtyard of the Palace of the Popes, Les Luminessences d’Avignon is a spectacular 3D light show that tells the story of the Avignon popes using state-of-the-art sound and image technology.
From August to October, over 100 magnificent shows accompanied by professional French and English narration are screened on the palace’s ancient walls, providing guests of all ages with a truly magical experience.