Avignon is a lively city, rich in history and monuments, considered the ‘capital’ of Provence. With its mighty city walls, it reminds visitors of the splendour of its past as a city of art and culture: in fact, Avignon was the seat of the papal court for almost a century until the schism of 1377. As many as nine popes reigned in the Provençal city: each enlarged and embellished his grandiose papal palace, today the symbol of Avignon.
Overlooking the Rhone, dotted with hôtels particuliers, winding alleyways and small Italian-style squares, Avignon centres around the marvellous Palais des Papes. With its picturesque medieval appearance, the city enchants visitors with its perfectly preserved buildings, concentration of typical shops and colourful street performers.
Known as the City of Popes, Avignon boasts a medieval atmosphere that will catapult you back in time to experience a stay steeped in history and art.
Thanks to its sudden religious and political importance, from an anonymous Provençal town Avignon soon became a centre of art and culture. The popes, who had always been great patrons of the arts, brought artists, painters, architects and craftsmen to this corner of Provence, investing capital and renewing the aesthetic appearance of the city.
The Palais des Papes in Avignon is the largest Gothic building in Europe, an imposing and majestic structure that was the residence of the papal sovereigns in the 14th century. Its mammoth and massive dimensions reveal its true nature: an impregnable fortress for the popes who took refuge here fleeing the tensions of Rome. In fact, to the attentive eye, certain construction details of a clearly defensive nature will not escape notice, such as the battlements bordering the building or the loopholes for throwing boiling oil on enemies, or even the soaring towers from which to watch over the entire area below.
The palace has been built, extended and modified many times, according to the needs of successive Popes. It actually consists of two adjacent buildings, with a total of 25 rooms used for different purposes and a series of courtyards, cloisters, reception rooms and chapels. The structure consists of the Old Palace, dating back to 1335, characterised by the Pope’s Tower towering over the city like a defensive donjon, and the New Palace, with the papal flats, the Chapelle Clementine, a long room of no less than 52 metres, and the Grande Chapelle, from which one can access the roofs of the palace to admire a beautiful view of the entire complex and the city. It must be said that the interior of the complex has not retained its original furnishings and is quite bare.
An interactive Histopad tablet is provided with the entrance ticket: visitors can immerse themselves in the historical atmosphere and discover, thanks to 3D technology, augmented reality and a powerful geolocation system, how the palace was lived in and furnished 800 years ago. A real leap into history.
Once upon a time, the Saint-Bénezet bridge connected Avignon to the town of Villeneuve, crossing the Rhone River. For its time, it was a masterpiece of engineering: in fact, with its 900 metre length and 22 arches, the Avignon bridge defied the overwhelming force of the river, many wars and several floods for centuries. The bridge was rebuilt several times until the 1668 flood, when only four arches remained standing. Since then, the structure has remained stumped and man has surrendered to the force of nature.
The bridge can be visited with a combined ticket together with the Palace of the Popes. The best time to visit it is at sunset, when the warm light illuminates its white stone and lights up the view of the city and Barthelasse Island, the largest in France.
In the heart of the old town, on the square of the Palais des Papes, is this extraordinary collection of Italian and Provençal paintings dating from between 1200 and 1400, as well as a collection of Romanesque and Gothic sculptures.
Among the most famous artists are Carlo Crivelli, Taddeo di Bartolo, Cecco di Pietro, Lorenzo di Bicci and Sano di Pietro . The most important work on display is certainly Sandro Botticelli‘s Madonna and Child.
The museum was built in the home of a wealthy Parisian industrialist, who collected many masterpieces by Degas, Daumier, Manet, Sisley, Forain, Cézanne, Picasso and Modigliani, the most famous painters between 1700 and 1900.
The most important painting in the collection is undoubtedly Van Gogh‘s Wagons de chemin de fer à Arles : of the 300 canvases that the Dutch painter made during his stay in the south of France, in Arles and St-Remy, this is the only one kept in Provence.
The cathedral of Notre Dame Des Doms is an admirable example of Provençal Romanesque architecture. Over the centuries, this great church has undergone several modifications due to its turbulent history, which included raids by Saracens, the collapse of the bell tower and looting during the French Revolution, when it was used as a prison.
As a reminder of its tribulations, deeply connected to the city’s history, you may notice inside the church the statue of the Virgin Mary, praying with folded hands to save Avignon from the plague of 1834.
Also noteworthy are the remains of frescoes by Simone Martini, an exponent of the Siena school, and the famous macabre painting known as the Meeting of the Three Dead and Three Living, in which Death shoots arrows at the protagonists of the scene. This fresco inspired a long tradition of medieval macabre paintings.
At the top of the basilica, another glittering statue of the Virgin Mary soars, blessing Avignon with one hand and protecting it with the other: at 6 metres high, she has been watching over the city since 1859.
This lively and busy square is the heart of Avignon’s historical centre and takes its name from the clock installed on top of the Town Hall.
Place de l’Horloge, with its restaurants, carousel, centuries-old plane trees and the Opera is certainly one of the most popular and photographed spots for tourists.
The covered market in Avignon is a real institution in the city. It is the right place to taste local Provençal delicacies, have breakfast or buy the necessities for a quick meal: not only fruit and vegetables but also plateaux of oysters and coquillages for a tasty aperitif, black olives from Nyons and canapés of tapenade, anchoïade, aïoli and pistou, i.e. many different and tasty pâtés.
There are also weekly cooking shows where famous local chefs prepare special recipes before your eyes, showing off their talents in the kitchen.
Every year, from August to September, all the walls of the courtyard of honour of the Palace of the Popes become the backdrop for an incredible 360° sound and light show.
Thanks to huge video projectors, the walls of the palace come alive and tell dreamy spectators the story of Avignon and its tribulations, with different animations and stylistic choices every year. An unmissable show for young and old: 45 minutes of pure wonder.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
To discover all the charm of Avignon, we recommend you walk through the picturesque streets of the old town: from Rue des Teinturiers, in the artists’ and theatres’ quarter, where bars and small restaurants teem, to Rue du Roi-René, a small street enclosed by many 17th-century palaces that will take you back in time, from Rue Joseph-Vernet, where you will find a long succession of hôtels particuliers, ancient and noble period residences, to Rue Banasterie, one of the city’s most charming alleys.
From the fortress of the Doms, set within the walls, you go up to the small Banastiers quarter, or wicker craftsmen, full of beautiful old buildings. From here, you can also admire the 4.3-km-long walls of Avignon: they used to be 8 metres high, protected by 35 large and 50 small turrets, with seven gates to the city centre.
A good solution for visiting the city’s many attractions and monuments is to purchase the Avignon City Pass.
For 24 or 48 hours, the pass allows free access to the Palais des Papes, the Pont d’Avignon, the Angladon Museum, numerous monuments in Villeneuve lez Avignon and guided tours around the city offered by the Avignon Tourist Office.
The Avignon Tourist Office offers its visitors 4 itineraries on foot around the city to discover its incredible wonders, often hidden from hurried tourists.
The itineraries last about 1 hour, following colourful routes through the city. In detail:
If you’re in town between July and August, then you can’t miss the Avignon Festival, an event that attracts a lot of visitors to enjoy theatre, music and street performers. In fact, the Avignon Festival is one of the world’s largest events dedicated to contemporary arts and each year sees thousands of spectators from all over the world attending over 130,000 with over 40 works of theatre, dance, plastic arts and music.
It is a unique opportunity to experience an unprecedented atmosphere: Avignon is in fact transformed into a theatre-city, the ideal backdrop to make the performances even more scenic. The heart of the event is the Courtyard of Honour of the Palace of the Popes, a magical place where most of the performances take place and which is able to offer evenings of strong emotions, in which contemporaneity merges with the charm of history.
But the shows also take place in the middle of the city: theatres, historical palaces, streets and churches become an integral part of the event. Moreover, at the same time as the official festival, you can also attend a parallel event, the Festival Off, a kind of alternative, less expensive and definitely more experimental festival!
If you want to visit the city during the Avignon Festival, you need to book accommodation and tickets well in advance to avoid a sell-out!
The beautiful landscapes surrounding Avignon are absolutely unmissable: this area, called Vaucluse, encompasses the surroundings of Avignon, the Luberon and the Mont Ventoux mountains. It is a triumph of flowering fields of sunflowers and poppies, villages perched on rocks, small squares with bubbling fountains in the shade of centuries-old plane trees, rows of vineyards, olive groves and marvellous lilac expanses of lavender. A true paradise for lovers of photography!
Not far from the city of the popes there is a small mountainous area of limestone rock covered with olive groves called Les Alpilles, where villages of rare beauty hide, including Le Baux de Provence, countryside framed by maritime pines and the placid flow of the Rhone.
The most convenient way to get to Avignon is to land at Marseille Airport: after renting a car, you can be in the centre in just under an hour. Alternatively, you can fly into Nice Airport, which is 2 hours and 30 minutes away by rental car. You can then leave your car in one of the many free car parks in the city and reach the centre by shuttle bus.
If, on the other hand, you prefer to travel by train, know that Avignon station is served by TGV fast trains: direct trains arrive there from Paris in 2 hours 40 minutes, from Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport in 3 hours, from Lille, Lyon, Marseille.
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