Sunrise over the Avignon bridge

From Lyon to Arles: Explore the Iconic Architecture of Southern France


It’s impossible to take your eyes off the banks of the Rhône – such is the beauty of its fragrant lavender fields, rolling vineyards and inimitable heritage architecture.

To cruise the Rhône River in southern France is to take a journey through history. The Celts, Romans, Franks, Burgundians and Revolutionists have all left their mark on this spectacular region, and this is reflected in the magnificent architecture which lines the river from Lyon in the north to Arles in the south.

Join us as we take a trip along the Saône and Rhône rivers, unearthing the architectural highlights which await on this unforgettable north to south passage. Beginning in Beaune, we travel through Lyon, Tournon and Viviers, dipping into Provence where the timeless wonders of Avignon and Arles await.

Hospices de Beaune

hospices de beaune architecture
Decadent architecture meets rich local heritage at Hospices de Beaune, one of France’s most prestigious historic monuments. Established in 1443 by Chancellor Nicolas Rolin, this architectural marvel served as a hospital for 500 years, originally treating those affected by the plague and the aftermath of the 100 Years War. With its blend of Gothic and French pastoral architecture, the hospice draws hundreds to the charming commune of Beaune, whose surrounding vineyards are among the finest of the Rhône region.

Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière

image of Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière
Designed in the 19th century by architects Pierre Bossan and Sainte-Marie Perrin, Lyon’s Basilica Notre-Dame de Fourvière is a prized architectural gem, blending Byzantine, Gothic and Romanesque influences. Its symmetrical towers and ornate façade make it a striking addition to the Lyon skyline, and an unmissable stop on your tour of the city. Wander inside and discover a rich décor, complete with illustrious materials including Italian granite, Savoy marble, and an attractive union of ebony and ivory.

Château de Tournon

Image of Chateau de Tournon in the sun
Built between the 14th and 16th centuries, Château de Tournon is a striking example of how medieval French castles were influenced by Italy’s Renaissance movement. It’s among the most beautiful castles in the region of Ardèche, which covers a large area of the Rhône Valley. Complete with a medieval keep and heavy studded doors, the castle began life as an important river defence, but was later updated by the lord of Tournon to reflect the changing architectural and decorative styles of the time.

St Vincent’s Cathedral

Cathedral of Saint Vincent
Known to be the smallest cathedral in France, St Vincent’s is the jewel in Viviers’ illustrious architectural crown – a 12th-century stone monolith lifted from the pages of the Romanesque rulebook. Imposing in its scale and stonework, the cathedral was partially destroyed during the religious wars which rocked France in the 15th century, but was later restored and improved by master architect, Jean-Baptiste Franque in the 18th century. Today, St Vincent’s is a must, blending flamboyant Gothic and Romanesque architecture with ancient stonework that tells of Viviers’ extraordinary heritage.

Château de Grignan

picture of French castle chateau
Choose to take a DiscoverMORE excursion to the pretty commune of Grignan, and you’ll be welcomed by the sight of the town’s principal castle, the Château de Grignan. Built on a rocky headland overlooking the village, this striking castle is a masterpiece of Renaissance and Classicist architecture – a combination which sets it apart from other historic châteaux in the region. A fortified castle was first mentioned in Grignan in the 11th century, but historians believe the current structure was erected in the 17th century, probably by the Marquise of Sévigné. The château was decommissioned during the French Revolution, but later rebuilt brick by brick at the beginning of the 20th century.

Palais des Papes

image of Palais des Papes
An exploration of the Rhône’s iconic architecture wouldn’t be complete without mention of the illustrious Palais des Papes, an early Romanesque and Gothic masterpiece in the heart of beautiful Avignon. Originally built in the 11th century, Pope’s Palace hosted the Papacy of Rome for much of the 13th and 14th centuries, with each pontiff expanding and refining the building. Today, the Palais des Papes forms part of historic Avignon’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Site, and stands as one of the foremost architectural wonders in all of France.

Pont du Gard

image of pont du gard
Spanning the Gardon River close to the town of Vers-Pont-du-Gard, the Pont du Gard is a dramatic example of Roman architecture. Among the best-preserved Roman-age structures in the world, the aqueduct was originally built in the 1st century AD, and was used to source fresh water for the Roman city of Nemausus, now Nîmes. For its age, Pont du Gard is remarkable in its complexity and design, standing 49 metres high and weighing 50,000 tonnes.

Roman and Romanesque Monuments of Arles

image of arles amphitheatre in the sun
With the Mediterranean on its doorstep, Arles has long been a significant destination for trade at the mouth of the Rhône, and this is reflected in its depth of heritage and architecture. Among the many structural wonders to see in this charming French city are the Roman and Romanesque Monuments of Arles – a collection among the finest outside of Italy. Unearth the spectacular Arles Arena, the Necropolis of Alyscamps and the Roman Baths of Constantine, as well as the majestic medieval buildings which make up the heart of Arles’ historic centre.

Discover Southern France with Emerald Waterways

The architecture and natural beauty of the Rhône are yours to fall in love with on an Emerald Waterways river cruise. Click here to explore our collection of upcoming Rhône river cruises or call our team today on 0808 159 7556.