Avignon – An Active Holiday Guide
Avignon is a bustling walled city overlooked by the majestic Rocher des Doms park and host to the annual Festival d’Avignon, one of the most important performing arts events in the world.
With its spectacular monuments and museums, ancient churches, chapels and impressively decorated buildings, Avignon is a feast for culture vultures. But the rivers, canyons and limestone pinnacles of the surrounding area also make it a great destination for an outdoor activity holiday.
Our guide covers Avignon’s highlights and outdoor sports activities, plus where to stay, eat and party. One thing’s for sure, Avignon should be high on your list of places to visit during your trip to Provence.
Avignon’s most interesting attractions are within the oval walled city, which is surrounded by 4.3 km of ramparts built in the 14th century. The city’s classiest shopping streets, Rue Saint Agricol and the northern part of Rue Joseph Vernet, are just west of Place de l’Horlogue.
Palais des Papes
The Palais du Papes is a huge Gothic structure built during the 14th century as a fortified palace for medieval popes. The colossal structure looms imposingly over the cobbled Place du Palais complete with its stone vaults, battlements and sluices for pouring hot oil on attackers. The building was ransacked during the French Revolution and later used as a prison and barracks. Now Avignon’s leading tourist attraction, it makes a superb backdrop for the Festival d’Avignon, held each July.
Rocher des Doms
Just up the hill from the cathedral is Rocher des Doms, a delightful bluff-top park with great views of the Rhone, Pont Saint Bénézet, Villeneuve-les-Avignon and the Alpilles mountains. A semicircular viewpoint indicator tells you want you’re looking at. There’s also a playground for children, a duck pond and a place to get a drink and an ice cream.
Pont Saint Bénézet
The 12th century Pont St-Bénézet originally reached right over to Villeneuve-les-Avignon, and was the only place to cross the mighty Rhone between Lyon and Marseille. Now though, with only 4 of its 22 arches surviving, it just about reaches halfway to the Ile de Barthelasse and makes for a picturesque ruin. The bridge has been immortalised in the song Sur le pont d’Avignon written for 19th century French operettas depicting the merriment of locals as they danced on Ile de Barthelasse on feast days.
Place de l’Horlogue
Lined with cafés and restaurants, Place de l’Horloge is buzzing year round and it’s here you’ll find Avignon’s grand Hotel de Ville and clock tower, as well as the Opéra. Around the square, famous faces appear in windows painted on the buildings.
The Festival d’Avignon
The annual Festival d’Avignon starts in the second week in July and runs for three weeks. Regarded as one of the most important performing arts events in the world, the focus is on theatre but you’ll also find dance, lectures, exhibitions and classical music. The city’s historical buildings and monuments make a spectacular backdrop to the performances. Everything stays open late and the city is heaving, so getting around or finding a place to stay can be tricky to say the least.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape 17 km north of Avignon produces wines that are amongst the most famous in the world. The Fête de la Véraison held over the first full weekend in August celebrates the ripening of the grapes, and the village erupts with free wine tasting, parades, dances and folklore floats. At other times of the year you can try the wine at the Musée du Vin on Avenue Pierre-de-Luxembourg, or pick up a list of producers at the tourist office and visit the local vineyards.
Marseille (54 min)
Grande Pharmacie Gregoire, 7 Rue de la République 84000 Avignon. Tel +33 (0)4 90 80 79 79
Centre Commercial Cap Sud, 162 Avenue Pierre Semard, 84000 Avignon.
Taxis Radio Avignonnais, Cours Jean Jaurès, 84000 Avignon.
ParkingThe cheapest and easiest parking options for day-trippers are two free car parks connected with the town centre by free shuttle buses: Ile Piot and Parking des Italiens. Otherwise parking within the city walls is expensive and spaces are scarce. If you're staying overnight, your hotel may offer free or discounted parking.
Driving around inside the old city walls can be quite a challenge even outside of festival time. During the festival many roads are made one way or closed altogether. A better option is to leave your car in one of the free car parks just north of the old city walls and take advantage of the free shuttle bus (although the distance is walkable without luggage). There’s also a paid car park under the Palais des Papes accessible from the perimeter road, which is very central and also very secure.
Avignon’s train station (gare SNCF) and bus station (gare routière) are located just outside the city walls on the south side. The TGV station, 2 km south, is connected to the centre by a shuttle bus service which runs between 6am and 11pm.
Avignon-Caumont airport is 8 km southeast of the centre and connects Southampton and Birmingham on Flybe, and London on City Jet.
A free ferry service crosses the river from just east of Pont St-Bénézet to the Ile de la Barthelasse, an island off the middle of the Rhône where the city’s campsites are located.
Provence Bike rents hybrid bikes, mountain bikes, road bikes and kids bikes, and also scooters and motorbikes. You can reserve your bike online at provence-bike.com.
7 Avenue Saint-Ruf, 84000 Avignon, France. Tel: +33 (0)4 90 27 92 61
Activities around Avignon
Rock Climbing in Les Dentelles de Montmirail
50 minutes north of Avignon in the Gigondas range you’ll find Les Dentelles. This region of jagged limestone pinnacles is home to some exceptional rock climbing. More than 500 mainly single-pitch routes from grade 3a to 8b are peppered across a number of sites, notably the Chaîne du Clapis, Cascade de Lafare and the Rocher Saint Christophe. The Dentelles also has some excellent hiking trails and the area is well known for the quality of its wines. From Avignon take the road to Suzette via Carpentras.
Mountain biking in Les Alpilles
Just 24 km south of Avignon you’ll find the beautiful Alpilles mountains. Les Alpilles is a Regional Park roughly 25 kms by 10 kms made up of forested limestone pinnacles criss-crossed with a network of mountain bike trails. There are nice 20+ km XC loops starting in Les Baux-de-Provence and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. The terrain is dry and rocky on mostly well-maintained tracks covering a vertical drop of 300 m.
You need to have a good level of fitness to tackle Mont Ventoux. The climb is legendary among cyclists and is frequently included in the Tour de France. Infamously, on a blazing hot day in July 1967, Tommy Simpson died of exhaustion on the Mont Ventoux climb. Despite the grim tales, from the end of April to November, you’ll still find plenty of cyclists willing to test their mettle on the Mont Ventoux climb.
Canoeing in the Ardèche
Just over an hour north of Avignon, the 125 km long Ardèche river carves a 300 m deep gorge through forested limestone. The area is an outdoor sports hotspot with canoeing, canyoning, climbing, via ferrata and even skiing on offer. The best way to experience the gorge is by paddling the river in a canoe. There are a number of bases where you can rent gear including Vallon Pont d’Arc in the heart of the Ardèche gorge and Peyroche Labeaume further upstream.
Where to stay
Even outside festival time, finding a room in Avignon can be difficult. Rooms in cheap hotels disappear fast, so if possible book in advance. Another option is to stay just across the river in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon which may have rooms when Avignon is full. Between the two, the Île de la Barthelasse is an idyllic spot for camping.
The Hotel ‘d Europe is situated just inside the city wall near the river. There’s no parking on site, but there is a car park just outside the walls. A charming courtyard leads to the front door and reception area. The rooms are comfortable and clean with modern bathrooms. The rates are reasonable considering the quality of the breakfast and that you are within easy walking distance to Avignon’s main attractions. The hotel’s restaurant, La Vieille Fontaine is pricey but has a good reputation.
12 place Crillon, 84000 Avignon, France. Tel +33 (0)9 77 55 05 76
Where to eatAvignon has a huge number of very good gastronomic restaurants but also plenty of cheap snack options and takeaways. The large brasseries in Place de l'Horloge and Rue de la République will serve up a standard three-course 'menu', while the old pedestrian lanes are packed with possibilities for a good feed. [caption id="attachment_5630" align="alignleft" width="150"] © Fou de Fafa[/caption]
Restaurant Fou de FafaRun by British couple Russell and Antonia Coughlan, Fou de Fafa has a loyal customer base of locals and also attracts tourists from around the world. Locally sourced, seasonal produce is given an international makeover with classic French dishes served alongside Asian inspired flavours. It's a popular spot so make sure you book ahead. Evenings only. 17 Rue des Trois Faucons, 84000 Avignon, France. Tel: +33 (0)4 32 76 35 13. Email: email@example.com [hr]
Although Avignon saves a lot of its energy for the festival, there are plenty of nightspots to choose from, mostly in the Place de l’Horloge or the Place Pie areas. For an upmarket wine bar, try the Caves Breysse (41 Rue des Teinturiers), or join the younger crowd at Pub Z (58 Rue Bonneterie), a student oriented bar with DJs at the weekend. You can get dressed up and dance all night at Le Bokao’s (9Bis Boulevard Saint-Lazare) or at Les Ambassadeurs (27 Rue Bancasse).
For live music, the AJMI (Association for Improvisational Jazz Music) Jazz Club on rue Escalier-Ste-Anne is regarded as one of the top 3 jazz venues in France and hosts live jazz every week, including some major acts. More live music can be found at Le Bistroquest on Ile de la Berthelasse, the Red Zone on rue Carnot, and La Tache d’Encre. At the fun, popular Piano Bar Le Blue, on rue Carnot, the atmosphere is a bit more low-key and the guests are a bit more dressed up. Entertainment ranges from live rock and jazz bands to karaoke.
For up-to-date information, check the tourist offices and hotels for Rendez-Vous, a free bi-monthly calendar, or Cesar, a free music magazine.
Please leave a comment below if you need specific advice for your trip to Avignon, or if you have any recommendations to help us improve this article. Happy holidays!