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The Emerald Experience > River and city guides > Avignon City Guide

Avignon City Guide

Visiting Avignon is not unlike taking a step back in time.

Visiting Avignon is not unlike taking a step back in time. The beautifully preserved medieval walls and laid back atmosphere of this commune in south-eastern France retain a sense of antiquity lost in much of the modern, fast-paced world. Emerging beautifully from the rural backdrop of rolling hills and the Rhône, the first glimpse of the town is simply unforgettable.

Characterised by the ancient walls and the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) which dominate the skyline; Avignon is one of the few towns in Europe to have truly preserved much of its medieval walls, ramparts and fortifications. Avignon’s proudest period in history occurred in the 14th century when seven successive popes resided in the town – a time known as the Avignon Papacy.

 

Today, the former seat of the popes, the Palais des Papes, is recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and hosts the Festival d’Avignon – an annual celebration of the arts. Celebrating its 70th anniversary next year, Festival d’Avignon showcases hundreds of performances over a three-week run, earning itself a reputation as one of the world’s premier performance festivals.

Although much of the Provence region of France underwent great urbanisation in the mid-20th century; Avignon within its medieval walls was, thankfully, largely left untouched. Respecting the beauty, significance and grandeur of the ancient town; workforces have allowed Avignon to retain its old world charm.

Boutique-lined streets, leafy squares and wonderful Provencal eateries now make up the majority of the beautiful walled town – creating a delightful place to explore for a day or two. Complemented by a Mediterranean climate, it’s easy to slip into Avignon’s lazy pace of life.   

If you fancy learning from the locals, the Hôtel de La Mirande holds regular cooking classes hosted by Michelin-starred chefs of the region – sharing their knowledge of the very best of Provencal cooking. Or for a relaxing drink, head over to the old Teinturiers quarter where a number of authentic watering holes are huddled close to one another – serving the most delightful local wines.    

Must See Sights

A town of modest size, Avignon is surprisingly full of wonderful things to see and do – so it was difficult for us to select just five of its best cultural must sees.

Palais des Papes – Dominating the town, the Palais des Papes is not so much of a ‘must see’, as a ‘can’t miss’. The home of seven popes in the 14th century, the palace has been wonderfully preserved – proudly serving as a performance and arts centre today. The largest Gothic palace in Europe, the Palais des Papes is recognised as one of the continent’s great architectural achievements. The splendour continues inside with delightful works of art – not least the beautiful ceiling murals of the Saint-Martial and Saint-Jean chapels.

Pont Saint-Bénézet – A widely recognised symbol of Avignon, the Pont Saint-Bénézet is a famous medieval bridge with a turbulent history. Dating back to the 12th century, the bridge took eight years to build, and only lasted 40 years before being destroyed in a siege. The bridge was rebuilt on a number of occasions over the next few hundred years, as the arches continued to collapse whenever the Rhône flooded. The Pont Saint-Bénézet was eventually abandoned in the 17th century, leaving just the four remaining arches, which survive to this day, and were thought to have been built around 1345 by Pope Clement VI.

Avignon Cathedral – Positioned next to the Palais des Papes, and the current seat of the archbishop; the Romanesque Avignon Cathedral was built between the 12th and 15th centuries. Whilst the interior contains many beautiful pieces of religious artwork, the most striking feature of the cathedral is the gilded statue of the Virgin Mary which was erected in 1859.

Musée du Petit Palais – Located in a 14th-century building, overlooked by the Palais des Papes; the Musée du Petit Palais is a museum and art gallery featuring an awe-inspiring collection of Renaissance paintings. First opened to the public in 1976, the museum features great works from Italian masters, including Botticelli’s Madonna with Child.

The building itself is a fascinating part of Avignon’s history, having served as an episcopal palace under the reign of Pope Benedict XII and later as a Catholic school.

Avignon Les Halles – The Provencal people are proud of their culinary heritage, using time-honoured techniques and fresh local produce to create dishes which have captivated for generations. Chefs from all around the world visit Avignon with the intent of learning from the best the region has to offer – and all will head to Avignon Les Halles to sample the local flavours.

A buzzing marketplace with more than 40 stalls offering the freshest, most delightful ingredients found in the region. From the vast selection of cheeses you’d expect from a traditional French city to the most comprehensive choice of peppercorns you’ll ever see; you’ll be captivated by all the aromas and sights of Avignon Les Halles. A great spot to stock up on supplies if you’re planning a picnic during your stay in Avignon.

Fast Facts

Avignon is a truly fascinating part of France, here is a handful of our favourite facts about the wonderful town.

  • On the bridge of Avignon is a popular French nursery rhyme
  • One of Picasso’s most famous cubist works was named for the town – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
  • Avignon is regarded by many as the centre of Provencal cooking
  • The town only became a part of France in 1791 following a public vote
  • There is evidence of civilisation in Avignon dating as far back as 4,000BC
  • Around 3,500 performers congregate to entertain crowds during the Festival d’Avignon