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It’s okay if you don’t have a lot of time to spend in “the city of Popes” because at least in the off-season, there isn’t “that” much to see and do. So that’s why a quick guide to Avignon is just what the doctor ordered. Avignon, a city in southeastern France, would forever be known to the world after becoming the seat of the Catholic popes for nearly 100 years during the 14th century. (If you’re wondering what that means, well, during that time, there was no Vatican. As in, the popes and their hierarchy of bishops and cardinals and henchmen, especially the henchmen, did EVERYTHING, ruled EVERYTHING from this little city in southeastern France.)
Avignon is totally worth visiting. But is it worth it to spend an extended period of time there? Not really. Most people travel to Provence to see those quintessential Provençale sights like the verdant fields of lavender and the remains of medieval towns and villages perched high on the hills that so captivated the artistic hearts and imaginations of Impressionist painters like Cézanne and van Gogh. Not necessarily to hang in a smallish city.
So if your time in the former papal capital is limited, here’s a quick guide to Avignon that will allow you to make the most of your visit.
Arriving via train
Avignon has two main train stations-Gare d’Avignon TGV and Gare d’Avignon Centre. The former ONLY services the country’s high speed TGV trains. The latter services all other non-TGV trains operated by SNCF, the country’s national rail provider. It’s much more convenient arriving or departing from Gare d’Avignon Centre as it’s located right in the city center and is only a 10 minute (almost entirely) flat walk to the Pope’s Palace.
The Red Headed Traveler tip: The station is on the smaller side so eat a meal/grab a snack before your train journey (especially since there’s a bevy of delicious food options available). The bathrooms were also on the grosser side. They’re not located in the main building of the station; in fact they are a bit of a walk away to the point it was a tad creepy and very deserted (a pattern I also saw in other train stations in France) so I would recommend using other facilities if you can.
What to see & do:
Attractions with an admittance fee
Pope’s Palace (Palais des Papes)
The Pope’s Palace is the reason most people visit Avignon and why shouldn’t it be considering its status as one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe. The palace itself is actually two joined buildings-the old palace and the new. Construction on the palace began in the 1330s and it would end up being occupied by seven popes and two popes of the Papal Schism before the return of the papacy to Rome.
Even if you don’t care a fig about religion, the Palais des Papes is truly one of the most incredible historical buildings you could ever visit. Because I think for most people, it’s unfathomable to think there was ever a time that the head of the Catholic Church wasn’t located in Italy, let alone in a country like France.
Really cool mentionable-All tickets come with a histopad, a digital mediation tool that allows you to go back in time thanks to its augmented reality, 3D reconstructions and interactive functionalities. This was my first time ever using one of these and I loved it. Without it, you’re looking at extremely gray Gothic interiors.
Information on visiting:
-You can book your tickets online. I would definitely recommend doing this in the warmer months
-Arrive as early as possible. As the day progresses the palace will be inundated with (usually obnoxious) tour groups
-The palace is open 365 days a year (yes, even on Christmas day)
-You can purchase a combined ticket for both the palace AND the St. Bénézet Bridge
-Children under the age of 8 are free (for both the palace and the bridge)
St. Bénézet Bridge
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond.
On the bridge of Avignon
We’re all dancing, we’re all dancing
On the bridge of Avignon
We’re all dancing round and round.
Made famous by the children’s ditty “Sur le Pont d’Avignon,” the Saint Bénezet bridge (or the Pont d’Avignon as it is also commonly known) is the most famous bridge in the world. It was built in the 12th century, washed away a couple of times during flooding from the Rhône River, and finally abandoned in the 17th century. At the time, it was the only place to cross the Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean Sea.
The bridge was originally nearly 3,000 feet long and had 22 arches. Today all that remains are four arches and a chapel but for the time it was built and utilized, it was truly an engineering feat.
Jardin Rocher des Doms
This tiny park was created during the 19th century and includes walking trails, a pond teeming with koi carp, and lovely manicured gardens. In the warmer weather there’s also a small cafe that serves crêpes and wine by the glass, as well as the Côtes du Rhône vineyard, the only vineyard in France located entirely within a city’s limits.
The park offers incredible views over Pont St-Bénézet, Île de la Barthelasse, Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, and Mont Ventoux as well as the not so clear Rhône River. From the vineyard, it’s easy to access some of the city’s old ramparts which basically drop you right into the entrance to the Pont d’Avignon.
Cathédrale Notre Dame-des-Doms
Located next to the Palais des Papes, Avignon Cathedral was built in the latter half of the 12th century and is the seat of the Archbishop of Avignon. Its special features include a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary and tombs of the Avignon popes.
People watching in the Place de l’Horloge
The heart of the city’s historic center, it’s a great place to just sit and relax for a break.
Food & drink
There is a plethora of restaurants to choose from, especially those clustered right around the bustling Place de l’Horloge. Most will offer a 3-course pre-fixe menu option. I ended up dining at Le Forum as they had a specially themed “menu provençale” and I was most anxious to try local dishes. For my pre-fixe meal (it included an appetizer, entree, and dessert), as well as a Coke and a cup of tea (I was both cold and needing to kill time), my total came to 26 euros.
Le Forum | 20 Place de l’Horloge
Drinks & snacks
Salon de Thé |
Perfect spot for a hot or cold beverage depending on the season you’re visiting (the word thé means tea in French) . There’s also a scrumptious selection of ice creams and other sweet concoctions available.
Coté Provence | 48 Rue de la Balance
I stumbled across this absolutely lovely store by chance as I was walking back to the Place de l’Horloge from the St. Bénézet Bridge. It sold all things provençale, in a beauty/skincare and culinary fashion. I ended up purchasing some olive oil, a little bag of culinary goodies, some honey, two bars of soap, and a bouquet of dried lavender that smelled divine but made a mess everywhere.
All in all, Avignon is a great introduction to Provence, especially if it’s your first foray into this beautiful region of France. Have you been? Is there something else you’d recommend for visitors to see and/or do?