With so much to see and do in southern France, avoiding the crowds often takes a bit of creativity. On your next trip to Provence or the French Riviera, consider bypassing the coastal hotspots of Nice and St-Tropez and heading instead to the quiet(er) lanes and beaches of these 10 lesser-known destinations:
Bayonne is the capital of French Basque Country at the convergence of the Adour and Nive Rivers. A leisurely stroll through the town takes you past rows of half-timbered houses, museums, chocolate shops, and restaurants serving traditional Basque fare. Wander through the Botanical Garden or visit the weekend market along the riverfront. Another great stop is the Gothic Cathédrale Sainte-Marie, which dates back to the 13th century and features Renaissance stained glass windows, soaring spires, and a red and white stone façade.
This medieval fishing town on the Mediterranean may be only 20 miles from the bustling port of Marseille, but it feels like another world altogether. Grab a pastry at one of the cafes on the cobbled lane along the waterfront. Spend an afternoon lounging on the sun-warmed sand. Head up to Cap Canaille for sweeping views of the surrounding limestone massifs. Gaze up at the 14th-century hilltop chateau that looks down on the town like a sentinel. Cassis is also a great home base for exploring Calanques National Park, which you can reach via car or bus. (Once there, you can take a boat tour or opt for a hike.)
Situated on the cliffs above the Mediterranean between Monaco and Nice, this medieval town is awash with spectacular views. A visit to the Jardin Exotique d’Èze is one of the best ways to take in these astonishing panoramas, as the garden sits 1,400 feet above the sea. (In addition to the vistas, it also hosts an incredible array of cacti and other plant species native to the semi-arid climate.) But views aren’t all that Èze has to offer. Many of the town’s residents are artisans, and you can wander through narrow stone alleys lined with perfumeries, spice shops, art galleries, and more. For a quieter exploring experience—and milder weather!—we recommend visiting Èze in the spring or autumn.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more scenic hilltop village in all of France than charming Gordes. Nestled among the Plateau de Vaucluse cliffs in Luberon, the town has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Take yourself back in time with a walk along the narrow cobblestone streets to the Château de Gordes, which dates back to the 11th century. While you’re in town, be sure to take a quick 10-minute drive to the Cistercian Sénanque Abbey with its bright, fragrant lavender field.
This fortified hilltop village in the Luberon is a wonderland of olive trees and magnificent panoramas. Pastel purple wisteria scales the stones of green-shuttered houses. A 17th-century windmill sits at the apex of the town and affords mesmerizing views of the Luberon Mountains, the Plateau de Vaucluse, and surrounding plains. Pay a visit to the 12th-century Romanesque Saint-Sébastian Church or wander through the Thursday market to stock up on local produce, cheeses, handcrafts, and more.
Art galleries, craft shops, museums, Michelin-starred restaurants, and 10th-century castle ruins—what more could you ask for in a quiet Provençal retreat? Perched on a rocky plateau in the Alpilles, Les Baux is a wonderland of historic sites and sensational views. Explore the dungeons and fortifications of the Château des Baux, or watch a catapult demonstration on the castle grounds in the summer. If you’re interested in a one-of-a-kind art experience, pay a visit to Carrières de Lumières—an audiovisual art exhibition space housed in a former limestone quarry.
Known for its beaches, exotic gardens, and burgeoning food scene, Menton is a colorful Riviera oasis near the border with Italy. Plant lovers won’t want to miss the rare subtropical plants in Serre de la Madone, while music lovers can attend the annual summer Menton Music Festival, which hosts classical musicians from around the world. The town even puts on a lemon festival every February to celebrate its rich citrus bounty. Before you head off to your next destination, spend some time exploring the 17th-century Basilique St-Michel-Archange with its baroque clock tower and black-and-white mosaicked square.
Idyllic sandy beaches, rugged cliffs, fruit orchards, vineyards, bike trails, and no cars—what more could you want in a restful French vacation? Porquerolles Island lies just a short ferry ride off the coast of Hyères, which is lies between Nice and Marseille. Hikers will enjoy exploring the steep limestone cliffs along the island’s southern coast, while those looking for a restful Caribbean-like beach experience can wade in the turquoise waters of the northern shores. A handful of medieval stone forts still remain from their days as protection against pirate attacks. The island is also home to more than 60 acres of fruit trees and vegetable gardens, as well as thousands of oak, pine, and eucalyptus trees.
St-Paul-de-Vence is an artist’s refuge, having long inspired the likes of Soutine, Matisse, and Chagall (the latter of which is buried here with his wife). The town is home to the iconic Fondation Maeght, which is a private art museum and one of the most important cultural institutions in the world. It houses a collection of paintings and ceramics, in addition to a sculpture garden, Miró labyrinth, Giacometti courtyard, Chagall mosaics, and more. You can also visit the Renoir Museum, admire the town’s medieval chapels, or enjoy a panoramic picnic from one of the town’s lookouts.
Ringed by the rugged peaks of the Alpilles and boasting more than 300 days of sun every year, St-Rémy is a vacationer’s dream come true. It also won the heart of Vincent van Gogh, who used such sites as Rue Mireille and the Trinquetaille Bridge as inspiration for nearly 300 of his works. Take a stroll through the town to see the locations that inspired his work, or hop in the car and head less than a mile and a half to the Roman archaeological site of Glanum, founded in 27 AD.
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