Avignon's Palais des Papes is the world's largest Gothic palace
Avignon is a historic city in Provence, France, which has gained UNESCO heritage status. Sitting on the banks of the Rhȏne River, Avignon is known for the impressive Palais des Papes and famous Pont d’Avignon. It is a beautiful city and a great place to visit for the day.
Avignon is known as the ‘City of the Popes’ and the impressive Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) dominates the city centre. Another famous landmark in Avignon is the Pont de Saint Bénézet, famously known as the Pont d’Avignon (Avignon bridge). You may recognise it from singing the song ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’ whilst learning French as a young child. The square surrounding the Palais has been designated a UNESCO World heritage site due to the high concentration of important, historic buildings in this area of the city.
I visited Avignon for the day whilst I was exploring the Luberon area of Provence. Avignon is much larger and more modern than the small rustic villages and rolling countryside of the Luberon, however it has still managed to retain its charm. Narrow passageways and cobbled streets lead you around the historic city centre which is full of pretty stone buildings, cafes and boutiques.
Avignon may be a city but it oozes character. It’s a beautiful place to spend the day and is a great addition to any trip to Provence. So, let's look at some of the best things to see and do in Avignon in one day!
One day in Avignon, Provence - the best things to see and do
1. Visit the Palais des Papes
The Palais des Papes is the most popular tourist attraction in Avignon and one of France’s most famous buildings. The Palais is actually two buildings joined together - the original palace which was built on the site of an old bishop’s palace and a new palace which was built in 1342. After the first pope started construction in the early 1300’s, each successive Pope made their own additions to the building. The impressive palace has ten towers and is not only the biggest medieval building in Europe, but has also earned the title of the world’s largest Gothic palace.
The Palais became a symbol for the power that the Catholic Church had at the time, housing Europe’s biggest library and attracting intellectuals, musicians and philosophers from all over the world. Over the years the palace has experienced scandals, sieges and brutality and was taken over and ransacked during the French Revolution. Eventually, in the early 1900’s restoration began on the palace and a museum was built.
Today, you can take a tour inside the palace, visiting 25 of the grand rooms including bedrooms, private chapels and the cloisters. The tour price is €12 for the palace alone but you can also buy a combined ticket which will give you entry to the palace, the Avignon bridge and the gardens for €17.
A visit to Avignon is not complete without visiting the Palais des Papes - it is one of the best things to do in Provence!
The Avignon tourist train outside the Impressive Palais des Papes
2. Visit the Petit Palais Museum
This one is for the art lovers. The Petit Palais houses a large collection of paintings from the middle ages and Italian Renaissance. It is one of Europe’s leading museums for medieval art and sculptures. The museum sits in the square in front of the Palais des Papes and is free to enter.
The Petit Palais is perhaps the most famous museum in Avignon, however the city is full of small museums. If you are particularly interested in seeing more impressive artwork, then you’ll have plenty of choices in Avignon.
3. Walk on the Pont d’Avignon
The Pont d’Avignon is officially called the Pont de Saint Bénézet and is well known thanks to the famous song ‘Sur la Pont d’Avignon’. The bridge was opened in 1135 and became the only place where you could cross the Rhône river all the way from Lyon, in the north of France to the Mediterranean sea in the south of the country! Originally the bridge had 22 arches, however it became victim to flooding on several occasions, which washed away parts of the bridge. Eventually in the 17th century, after being re-built many times, the bridge was abandoned. Today all that remains of the Saint Bénézet bridge is 4 arches and a small chapel.
For as little as €5, you can pay to walk on the remaining section of the bridge. You can also visit the Palais des papes and gardens with a combined ticket for a reduced price.
The famous Pont d'Avignon
4. Admire the Basilica of Notre Dam des Doms d’Avignon
Next to the Palais des Papes is the Avignon cathedral. The cathedral dates back to the 12th century and holds the tombs of many of the Popes of Avignon. Sitting atop the cathedral spire is a gilded gold statue of the Virgin Mary. The cathedral has been rebuilt over the centuries and was recently closed for two years, during which time a full restoration project was completed.
Entry to visit inside the cathedral is free, however it is a working cathedral, so be respectful when inside so as not to disturb worship.
5. Enjoy a coffee in Place de l’Horloge
Just a short walk from the Palais des Papes is the leafy square of Place de l’Horloge. Sitting in front of the Avignon town hall, the square is the perfect place to sit and enjoy a coffee. Children (and big kids!) will love the traditional carousel in the square. Cafes with outdoor seating spill out onto the pavement for that quintessentially French bistro feel.
6. Stroll around the Jardin des Doms
In between the Palais des Papes and Avignon bridge is the Jardin des Doms. This leafy hilltop park offers beautiful sweeping views down to the Avignon bridge, the Rhône river and across the surrounding countryside.
There are several paths through the small park, as well as a cafe and a children's play area. After strolling around the park, take a seat on one of the many benches and take a break under the shade of the trees.
The Jardin des Doms has great views over the city of Avignon, the Rhone river and surrounding countryside
7. Walk around the Old City Ramparts
The historic centre of Avignon was once a walled city and parts of the 14th century old stone Ramparts that surrounded the city still remain. You can access the fortress-like walls via a small entrance near the Avignon bridge. Here you will get views over the Rhône river. There is no charge to access the ramparts for the viewpoint.
8. Pick up some local produce at Les Halles Market
Les Halles is a covered, multi storey indoor market in the heart of Avignon historic centre. Inside the market you will find traders selling fresh produce including cheese, meat, fish, pastries and wine.
Les Halles is a showcase of some of the best food and drink in Avignon and the region of Provence, so make sure you sample some of the local produce and purchase some tasty treats to take away with you!
9. Stroll around the cobbled streets of Avignon
There’s nothing I love more than exploring a new place by getting lost in old cobbled streets and narrow passageways and Avignon certainly delivers! The whole area within the Rampart walls is full of cute streets and beautiful historic stone buildings. One minute you will be walking down a narrow nondescript alley and the next minute you will find yourself in front of an ornate gothic church, or in a leafy square surrounded by trees, fountains and cafes. There is much more to Avignon than just the main UNESCO sites around the Palais des Papes, so spend some time wandering around the rest of the city and be utterly charmed.
Avignon has some beautiful architecture
What else is there to do in Avignon?
There is so much to do in Avignon. There are multiple museums dotted all over the city showcasing exhibits from the art world as well as history and science museums. Avignon is also a great place for theatre lovers! With numerous small theatres in the city, as well as the Grand Opera House, there’s always a variety of performances to choose from.
As the day draws to a close, Avignon has a great nightlife scene. You will find everything from hidden cabaret bars to rooftop lounges, cosy bistros and lively nightclubs. If you’re staying in Avignon overnight, you won’t have trouble finding somewhere to go out.
Day trips from Avignon
If you prefer to stay somewhere a bit more lively, with a selection of bars and restaurants on your doorstep, Avignon is a great place to stay when visiting this area of Provence. From here you can easily explore the surrounding area. Some great places to visit from Avignon on a day trip are:
Arles - Arles is a city on the banks of the Rhône river, famous for inspiring many of Van Gogh’s paintings. It was also once the Roman capital of the area and many Roman artefacts and buildings still remain, including the large Arles Amphitheatre.
Nimes - Another important city in the Roman era, Nimes is well known for having numerous well preserved Roman monuments. The largest of which is the Nimes Arena - a double tiered amphitheatre which is still used to this day for events.
The Luberon - If you want to get out of the city and see rural Provence, you can't go wrong with a trip to the Luberon. The Luberon is often referred to as the heart of the Provence region and is full of quaint hilltop towns and rolling countryside. If you are visiting the Luberon you will definitely need your own transport to get around the small towns and villages. See my post on some of the best places to visit in the Luberon.
Marseille - a little further out for a day trip, but accessible by train in an hour and half is the coastal city of Marseille. This lively port city has good connections with the rest of the southern coastline of France, so is a great place for a stopover if you are planning to spend a few days along the French Riviera.
The picturesque countryside of The Luberon is a great day trip from Avignon
How many days do you need in Avignon?
This post was designed as a day trip itinerary, sharing some of the best things to see in Avignon in one day. However, if you wanted to explore at a slower pace, then you could easily spread your visit out to 2 days. Avignon is also a great choice to use as a base to explore the surrounding areas of Provence. If you decide to stay in Avignon, then 3-5 days would be a good amount of time to allow you to explore the nearby towns and villages. I would recommend that you hire a car to reach the villages and towns surrounding Avignon if you don’t have your own vehicle.
How to get to Avignon?
By train - Avignon is the capital city of the Vaucluse department in Provence and therefore as a major city, it is quite well connected. Frequent trains run from other major cities in France to Avignon. Daily high speed trains also run from Paris and Lille, and during the summer months you can even catch a train direct from London.
By Plane - the nearest airport is the Marseille Provence airport. The international airport is just 45 minutes drive from Avignon.
By car - If you are driving in France, then parking your car in Avignon is easy too. There are several large car parks in and around the main city centre. Just outside of the centre is the Les Italiens Park and Ride. Here you can park your car and catch the free shuttle bus into the city. This is a great option as you don’t have to navigate the busy one way system in the centre of the city.