Amazing Landmarks and Monuments in Southern France, History Buff's Guide
Here's my guide to must see sites, monuments, and landmarks in Southern France, which will particularly appeal to culture vultures and history buffs. Southern France is a living history book. It's sheer perfection and just packed with some of Europe's best cultural attractions. You'll be in seventh heaven. I promise.
Because this guide is culture-focused, I've left out the glitzy Riviera beaches. That's a different kind of trip. Here, I focus on must see landmarks in Provence and Occitanie, naturally beautiful regions where the ever-present sunshine casts a luminescent glow on the historic goodies and crooked olive groves.
Two thousand years ago, southern France was part of Roman Gaul, so you'll get a heady sampling of ancient Roman ruins. It's also littered with UNESCO sites, doughty medieval fortresses, grand churches, and lavender fields, Ahhhhh! Je l'adore. Southern France is so mesmerizing I can't wait to go back for another geographical cure.
In the meantime, I'm giving you the full scoop on all the best places to go in southern France for history lovers. From Toulouse to Avignon, it could take days or week to discover southern France. Hopefully, you've got a good chunk of time to soak in the sumptuous sites on offer.
Unmissable Landmarks in Southern France
1. Albi: a UNESCO Town Covered in Brick
Albi is a serious town, with a weighty history, a wondrous must see destination in southwest France. Albi was listed as a UNESCO site in 2010 and is a strangely affecting place, despite the weight of its past or perhaps because of it.
Situated on the Tarn River, Albi is a perfect combination of medieval architecture and a vibrate urban center. Albi is an episcopal city, clad in orange-red brick and militaristic architecture. The town symbolizes the Catholic victory over the pesky Cathar rebels, a monkish religious sect that defied accepted convention (more on that below).
Albi has two truly imposing citadels, the Albi Cathedral and the Berbie Palace, that are UNESCO-listed.
The mighty Saint Cecilia Cathedral is a 13 the century masterpiece of southern Gothic style. Built by the Bishop of Albi, it's a place of superlatives both inside and out. It's knicknamed the "crucible of faith" and is one of the largest brick structures in the world. The fearsome exterior gives no hint of the extravagant art and craftsmanship inside the blue hued interior.
Like Albi Cathedral, the 800 year old Berbie Palace is an all brick affair with stout walls of extraordinary height and thickness. Aside from the Pope's Palace in Avignon, it's one of the best preserved castles in France. The palace was formerly the residence of the Albi's archbishops.
The Berbie Palace also houses a museum dedicated to an artist you've likely heard of -- Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. The post-Impressionist artist was born and lived in Albi, before decamping to Montmartre in Paris to paint dancers at the Moulin Rouge and create his iconic art nouveau posters.
But Toulouse-Lautrec didn't really leave Albi. Some of his most seminal works are there, in one of the best single artist museums in Europe. Sure, there's great Lautrecs works in Paris. But, in Albi, you get a comprehensive picture of his entire life and career, not just a snapshot.
For my complete guide to Albi, which I adored, read this.
2. Toulouse: La Ville Rose and its Basilica Saint-Sernin
Toulouse is a feast for the eyes. It's a lovely, relaxing city with infinite restaurants, blushing churches, fascinating architecture, and a delicious regional cuisine.
Definitely not your Haussman Paris. And definitely not the overwhelming crowds of Paris. Toulouse is stress free in comparison, with a laid back friendly vibe. Wrapped in pink, I ambled the cobbled streets and wandered in and out of churches and museums. Toulouse is a place to enjoy life.
While you're enjoying life there, you should visit Toulouse's UNESCO site -- the Basilica Saint Sernin. The basilica is holy ground in Toulouse and a stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela. It's a magnificent well-preserved Roman basilica and one of the greatest churches in France. Built between 1080 and 1120, it's Toulouse's most ancient and defining landmark.
Saint Sernin is a fine example of Romanesque architecture in the characteristic Toulousian red brick, designed in a crucifix. The site houses the remains of its eponymous 4th century saint, Saint Sernin. He met his death in gruesome fashion, when pagans tied him to a bull and dragged him down the Rue du Taur in 250 A.D.
While you're in Toulouse, check out two other sites perfect for history lovers, the Covent of the Jacobins (with elaborate palm tree columns) and the gorgeous Musée des Augustins (set in a 14th century convent).
Here's my full guide to Toulouse. Toulouse makes a fantastic base for exploring southwest France. I know, I was there 5 days. From there, you can easily day trip to Albi, Carcassonne, Cordes-sur-Ciel, and Gaillac, to name a few.
3. Carcassonne: France's Dramatic Medieval Walled City
Carcassonne takes your breath away. It's a 13th century fantasy world of towers, spiky turrets, stout walls, winding alleys, and moats. It's a medieval junkie's dream city on steroids. As British writer Anthony Horowitz said, much more poetically than me, "In no other city I've visited does history feel so alive."
Carcassonne has a double row of fortified walls stretching nearly 2 miles with 52 watch towers, each one crowned with fantastical “witch hat” turrets. The medieval streets are fairytale perfect. Not surprisingly, Carcassonne was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List list in 1997.
The citadel includes the Château Comtal, the central castle of the upper town dating from the 12th century with an amazing 31 towers. Cast your eyes to the roofline so you don't miss the gargoyles.
The Basilica of Saints Nazaire (Carcassonne's main church) also has lovely 12th century stained glass and stonework.
For the full scoop on this dreamy UNESO town, read my complete guide.
4. The Canal du Midi, UNESCO Site
Just across Carcassone's Pont Vieux sits the Canal du Midi, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The canal was a major 17th century feat of engineering, designed during the reign of Louis XIV to link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
You can stroll along the banks or take a guided boat tours. There's a quite nice 8 km circular walk of the River Aude, starting at the Pont Vielle in the medieval city. If you've been besieged by tourists in Carcassonne, this is your chance to escape to the peaceful countryside with only the occasional jogger for company.
5. Cathar Castle Ruins
The Cathars were a fastidiously monkish and zealously religious Christian sect. They believed that all earthly things (including themselves) were tainted and sinful. Aspiring only to the purity of early Christianity, they were outraged by the worldliness of the medieval papacy and its debauched Catholic clerics.
After a startling rise in Cathar popularity, the Catholic Church had had enough of the pesky rebels. In 1208, Pope Innocent III announced a crusade to eradicate them. Led by the bloodthirsty Simon de Montfort, cross-bearing armies laid seige to the Cathars. They fought valiantly, but had a long and agonizing demise.
Evidence of the Cathar struggle can be found in the vestiges of their castles, sprinkled throughout Occitanie. The castles are all attractively perched on hilltops.
It's hard to visualize grizzly battle scenes when surrounded by such seductive mountain scenery. France embraces its Cathar past, and you'll see signs proclaiming that "You are in Cathar Country.”
The village of Lastours boasts the best ruins, perched on a rocky spur of the Black Mountains. It's only 10 miles north of Carcassonne. You you can hike up the incredibly steep gorge via a rugged mountain trail. Access was obviously not meant to be painless. But it's well worth the hike.
6. Nimes: the "French Rome"
Not far outside Avignon lies the town of Nimes. It was founded as a Roman colony in the 1st century B.C. Nime's centerpiece, and key reason for visiting, is its fantastic Roman arena. Though to be fair, Nimnes does have a nice old town. It's just that, in southern France, you've got to prioritize your precious time.
READ: 3 Day Itinerary for Rome
The 20,000 seat Arènes de Nîmes was built in 70 A.D. It's a perfectly symmetrical two level stadium. When first built, the arena hosted gladiator fights, animal chases, and even (shudder) executions. The walls had ingenious features, like trap doors and lifts for "performers." It looks great for its age and, nowadays, hosts bullfights and concerts.
While in Nimes, also check out the Maison Carree -- a superbly preserved Roman structure known as the "square house." It was commissioned by Caesar's right hand man, Marcus Agrippa, circa 19 B.C. and built by an unknown architect. It's in the classic Vitruvian style, with elaborate Corinthian columns and decorative motifs.
7. Orange: More Roman Ruins
Located in the Rhone Valley, Orange is not in and of itself a must see destination in southern France. But for history lovers, it is and you'll need a few hours. Besides, it's pretty charming. Orange is only 30 minutes from Avignon or Vaison La Romaine. If you spend a few nights in Avignon, it's an easy day trip.
Orange has both a Roman triumphal arch and the spectacular ruins of a Roman Theater you'll just love. Because of their historical importance, they're both designated UNESCO sites. There's also an excavations of a Roman temple near the theater.
Louis XIV called the Orange Theater "the finest wall in my kingdom." Indeed, it's one of the greatest ancient Roman sites in all of Europe. For four centuries, it was the main entertainment venue of Roman Orange. There's a large statue of Emperor Augustus center stage, just to remind you of his importance.
There's an opera festival held in the Orange Roman Theater every August. Not only is it used for operas, it's also used for rock concerts. What a venue!
And you can't miss Orange's Triumphal Arch. The triumphal arch was the official entrance to the Roman town and it's quite beautiful. It was also built during Augustus' reign. It has a nice three arch bay and is decorated with military and naval themes.
8. Pont du Gard: UNESCO Roman Aqueduct
Just 20 minutes away from the adorable town of Uzès stands the mighty Pont du Gard. It's a surviving scrap of a Roman aqueduct that's a UNESCO site. The aqueduct was an engineering marvle that originally took water from Uzès to Nimes. The aqueduct soars over the Gardon River and its dramatic gorge.
The aqueduct is massive, despite taking only 5 years to build. The bridge is 48.8 meters high, 275 meters long, and sports 52 arches. Pont du Gard was the highest aqueduct in the Roman Empire. There are three tiers of arches, one on top of the other. You can only access the upper tier via a guided walk in July and August.
In late June, the temperature had soared to the mid-90s. So after our visit, we dipped our feet in the Gardon River to cool off. It's a popular place to swim as well. From the river, you have a great perspective view of the aqueduct.
While you're visiting Pont du Gard, try to stop by fairybook Uzes. It's a laid back honey pot of a village, which just oozes charm and will win your heart. It's wrapped in golden hued limestone and perfect for flaneurs. Plus, it boasts a medieval duke's palace. Stop for lunch or shop in the lovely Place aux Herbes. Here's my guide to Uzes.
9. Avignon: the Pope's Palace, Europe's Largest Gothic Structure
News Blast! The popes haven't always lived at the Vatican. I had long forgotten this little factoid until I was plotting an itinerary for my recent southern France trip. From 1309-77, the popes lived in the enchanting riverside town of Avignon, rather than in Rome. That period was called the "Avignon Papacy."
This episode in history created drama akin to an HBO mini series. In the 14th century, Rome was in chaos. In 1309, Clement V moved to Avignon to escape the mess and for his own safety. Thereafter, no pope wanted to leave. It's southern France, after all, and they liked their swishy digs. Upon the pleading of Rome, an elderly and more pliable Gregory XI finally moved "home" in 1377.
But the next pope was the mentally unstable Urban XI. The French cardinals rejected him, along with many European countries. This led to a schism between France and Italy, a standoff where there were dual popes. Then there were deaths and poisoning and all matter of infighting until, finally, a single pope was agreed upon.
Today, you can tour the magnificent Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes), where these rebellious French popes lived. Built in 1335-52, it's the largest Gothic building in western Europe and Avignon's main attraction.
The imposing facade resembles medieval fortified churches. You can gasp at the Pope’s private apartments, frescoes, and the soaring chapel. And see what it actually looked like in the 14th century on a histopad.
Parking in Avignon is a nightmare. You're forewarned. Head straight to the parking garage in the Pope's Palace. The entrance is right outside the city walls.
Be sure to enjoy the other splendors of Avignon. It's filled with charming boutiques, cobbled streets, and the famous Avignon Bridge that inspired the children's song (Pont Saint Benezet). For stunning views, head to the Jardin des Doms. From there, you can even spy Mount Ventoux, of Tour de France fame. With its amazing sites, Avignon makes a perfect city break in Europe.
10. Arles: Roman Ruins & Van Gogh Mecca
Arles is a fantastic and underrated UNESCO town in Provence, just brimming with historical treasures. To be sure, Arles is not synonymous with the languid romance and Disney perfection of Provence's tiny hilltop villages. But for the more discerning, Arles awaits, ready to wrap its tentacles around the warm blood of your heart.
Arles is beautifully situated on the Rhone River. It brims with sensuality, Rose, the smell of lavender, and Roman goodies a plenty. Throw in a huge dollop of art, two smidgeons of Mediterranean influence and a dash of Italian flavor, and you have an ideal base for Provence.
Plus, Arles is a veritable playground of ancient Roman ruins. You'll find the massive Amphitheater (inspired by Rome's Coliseum) a Roman Theater, and Constantine's Baths. You can also stroll through Les Alyscamps, a famous tree-lined Roman necropolis a short distance outside the walls of the old town that dates from 241 B.C.
Arles was also home to post-Impressionist star Vincent Van Gogh. It was here that Paul Gauguin and Van Gogh formed their "studio in the south," launching a new movement in art history.
Some of Van Gogh's best paintings were created in Arles, like Starry Night Over the Rhone, Yellow House, Sunflowers, and Cafe Terrace at Night. Van Gogh claimed that, in Arles, he painted "with the gusto of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse."
You can get your Van Gogh fix at the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh. Recently opened in 2014, it's housed in the beautifully restored Hotel Leautand de Danines, a stone mansion off the Place du Forum.
You can also follow in Van Gogh's footsteps by walking the Van Gogh trail in Arles. It's marked by 10 steel and concrete “easels” with photos of the paintings.
Here's my complete guide to Arles, with practical information and tips for visiting Arles. And if you love all things Van Gogh, check out my article on the Van Gogh murder mystery -- did Van Gogh really commit suicide or was he murdered?
11. The Camargue: Get Your Cowboy On
When I think of southern France, my mind immediately turns to enchanting medieval villages and bucolic lavender fields. I don't expect to see top notch wildlife. So imagine my surprise when I arrived in the Camargue.
I saw wild bulls and white horses galloping in the countryside and pale pink flamingos flapping their wings in the salt flats. Because of its biodiversity and natural splendor, the Camargue is on the tentative UNESCO list.
The Camargue is a river delta where the Rhône meets the sea, just 30 minutes outside Arles in Occitanie. Not only is it an outdoor enthusiast’s and birdwatcher's dream, it's a very off the beaten path destination in southern France. Visitors can hike, cycle, or ride horses in peace and quiet.
Or unwind by cruising the waterways. If you want to see thousands of flamingos, they're on the coast between Les Stes Maries and Salin-de-Girard. Boats leave from Les Stes Maries.
And don't forget the adorable villages. The fortified town of Aigues-Mortes is a must see site in the Camargue. It's a perfectly preserved example of 13th century military architecture.
After you explore this "living museum," head to the quaint town of Saintes Marie de la Mer. You can climb the ramparts for killer views over the Camargue.
12. Les Baux In Provence: Medieval Castle Ruins
Les Beaux is a popular spot, located in the heart of the Apilles Mountains and perched on a cliff. It's the second most visited site in southern France (after the Pope's Palace). But don't let that put you off. If you want to avoid tourist clogged streets, go there in off season and spend a half day. Les Baux is tiny, after all.
Les Baux is home to a great medieval castle. It's now mostly in ruins, but the stone slabs are very atmospheric. And they remind you that Les Baux once fended off mauranding bands of medieval villains.
It was eventually destroyed by Cardinal Richelieu in the 14th century, when the fortress fell into rebel hands. The population of Les Baux dramatically declined afterward.
Nowadays, Les Baux is just the castle ruins and the lovely cobbled town. There's only one main street with some side alleyways to meander down. You won't get lost and you don't need a guide.
There are souvenir shops aplenty, the best ones (I think) sell beautiful Provencal fabrics. There are also quite a number of good art galleries.
13. Senanque Abbey
Situated right near the beautiful town of Gordes, the Notre-Dame de Senanque is a Cistercian abbey in Provence. Founded in 1148, some parts were destroyed in the Wars of Religion. In 1988, a small group of monks returned. You can take a guided tour of the abbey church, cloisters, monks' cells, and the Chapter House.
The abbey offers a fascinating glimpse of the austere (yet serene) surroundings of the Cistercian monks, who led lives of asceticism, poverty, contemplation, and manual labour. Pray and work was their motto. At the time, the monks were a great counterpoint to the excesses of the catholic church.
14. Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence: a Double Dose of Roman and Medieval Splendor
Last but definitely not least is the lovely Vaison-la-Romaine. It's an ancient town made almost entirely of stone and dotted with cypress trees. Because it's in the northernmost part of Provence, it's not as visited as some other Provencal towns. It's a slightly off the beaten path destination.
But this historic stone village, seated on the Ouvèze River, should not be left off your itinerary for Provence. It's dual faceted and split in two, with an upper medieval town and a lower Roman town -- an efficient double dose of history. Vaison-la-Romaine was one of my favorite stops in Provence.
You'll need a rest between the two areas, there's so much to see and digest. We stopped for an alfresco lunch at the picture perfect Restaurant la Fontaine with panoramic views, located on Rue de l'Évêché in Vaison's medieval town.
The medieval town, fortified by double defensive walls, was blissfuly uncrowded in late June. Check out the Belfry Tower, the Count's Castle, and the Cathedral of Saint-Marie-de-Assumption.
Based in the lower city, the Roman part of Vaison-la-Romaine was discovered in 1907. It's the most important Gallo-Roman site in France. The luxuriousness of the restored patrician villas reveal the Vaison was a prosperous Roman town. Don't miss the Maison Apollon, Maison Laure, or Maison Tonelle.
The villas were once filled with beautiful mosaics, mostly in geometric patterns. The most intricate ones are from the Peacock Villa. To learn more about Vaison's roman ruins, head to the Archaeological Museum, where you can also see the peacock tiles.
I also loved Vaison's 1st century antique theater, dating from 20 A.D. It was empty, so my travel partner impulsively took center stage and sang an aria. Talk about reliving history.
You may enjoy these other travel guides and resources for France:
• Famous landmarks in France
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