As part of our series of Green Traveller's Guides to European cities, here we focus on Avignon, the gateway to Provence in the South of France.
Ancient cobbles, gothic church spires, arched bridges sweeping over the Rhône, medieval ramparts (still intact) encircling the old city: it’s easy to see why people flock to Avignon. But alongside all this historical splendour – of the Palace of the Popes and the Place d l’Horloge – Avignon is a modern, living, breathing city, with a vibrant theatre scene (the city is transformed during July’s annual Theatre Festival), an extraordinary gastronomic legacy, and a relaxed pace of life befitting a city which basks in sunshine 300 days a year.
Quietly respectful of its historical past, Avignon is also making great efforts to plant itself firmly on the environmentally-conscious map, catapulting this UNESCO world heritage site into a new, greener era. The city’s eco-conscious attitude has even influenced the city’s main annual attraction, the Avignon Theatre Festival: ‘Acting for the Environment’ is an environmentally-aware campaign designed to minimise the festival’s impact by reducing energy consumption and waste, providing electric shuttle services, and promoting responsible tourism.
This guide aims to highlight some of the city's greenest places to stay in Avignon, including a fabulous hotel with cookery school and Michelin-starred chef, a lively hostel serving great regional wines in the downstairs bar, and a welcoming B&B, just a stone's throw from the train station. We've also included some recommendations for places to eat, from laid-back cafés where you can curl up with a book and a cuppa and a generous slab of cake on the side, to a bright and fun restaurant specialising in cheese: try the goat’s cheese herb gratin for starter, or the roasted duck with Manchego sauce for afters. There are also some fabulous wine cellars to explore. Plus we've included a sprinkling of local attractions in Avignon, from markets housed in the famous Les Halles where you can pick up wonderful local produce, to fascinating museums and lovely green spaces. We've also selected a handful of activities in Avignon such as walking tours, wine tasting, and festivals and events.
Getting to Avignon: See our guide to How to travel by train from London to Avignon (year round) and How to travel by direct train (summer only) to Avignon
Getting around Avignon by public transport
Avignon is a relatively small city so it’s easy to get around. If you arrive at the SNCF Avignon Centre station on Boulevard Saint-Roch, which is just outside the city’s medieval walls, so you can walk in just a few minutes from the train’s arrival platform right into the heart of the city. If you’re travelling down on the high-speed TGV from Paris or Lille, you’ll arrive at the TGV Avignon station, which is a few miles out of town, but there is a shuttle bus that takes about 15 minutes to get into the Avignon town centre and costs just a couple of Euros.
The main bus station is a few minutes walk from Avignon Centre station and has about 60 services that link with the surrounding towns. You can also pick up a bike from one of 17 of the city’s self-service bike hire scheme ‘Vélopop’ - they're free for the first half hour, then it costs a Euro for every hour. You can also hire bikes at Provence Bikes (website is in French only) on Boulevard St Roch (tel. +33 (0) 490 279 261) or Day Tour. You can also pre-order to pick up bikes at the TGV Avignon station (3km outside of the town) from Holiday Bikes (tel +33 0810 808 609).
Onward Travel: Avignon is the gateway to Provence: from Avignon TGV station, high speed trains run south to Aix en Provence, Marseille, Toulon, St Raphael (for St Tropez), Cannes, Antibes, Monaco-Monte Carlo, and Nice.
Where to eat in Avignon
100% organic, 100% homemade, 100% chic, Theias is part restaurant part deli part tea rooms and is worth a visit at any time of day: stop by for morning brunch, a refreshing afternoon cup of tea (there are 30 different types to chose from) and a slab of cake, or enjoy a more serious gastronomic experience after dark. The owners are utterly committed to respecting the environment by using only the highest quality, freshest natural ingredients and products whilst providing a relaxed, stylish atmosphere to enjoy it all in. Curl up with a book in an armchair or people watch from the terrace. It’s centrally located, too – just opposite Les Halles.
Le Vache a Carreaux - as the cow in the name would imply - is a small, characterful restaurant has a menu dedicated to cheese. Hidden in a cellar down a cobbled backstreet it’s not an obvious address, but it’s close to the centre of everything, and inside it’s bright and fun, with attentive staff and a lively atmosphere at all times of the day. Try the goat’s cheese herb gratin for starter, or the roasted duck with Manchego sauce for afters. The staff are understandably proud of their impressive 300-strong wine list and are happy to recommend and talk through some options with you.
Eating at Planetalis won’t play on your environmental conscience – a contribution from each purchase goes towards organisations helping to protect the environment. With the motto “Experience the original taste”, it’s no surprise that everything at this restaurant is organic and sustainably sourced from local growers – from ingredients to decor. Food is tasty, uncomplicated and good value – try the Planetalis burger with crispy pancetta, Fontina cheese and truffle aioli, or a classic Caesar salad. The atmosphere is unfussy and the décor is as simple as the food: green walls and neat tables and chairs on wooden floors give a fresh, easy feel to the place. Burgers aside, eating here could be one of the healthiest choices you could make during your stay in Avignon!
Le Grande Café - you can’t beat the location, at the foot of one of the towers of the Palais des Papes. The restaurant’s former life as a warehouse life has been gently disguised – and to great effect. Huge mirrors hang on exposed brickwork, big open spaces are broken up with low-hanging lights. Come for simple, Provencal-inspired food, with hints of the Mediterranean. A popular choice with sightseers and locals alike, buzzing at all times of the day.
Things to do to in Avignon
OK, so the 1970s building of Les Halles isn’t the most romantic market venue in Provence, but that matters little – here it’s most definitely all about the food. And there’s plenty of it. Around 40 producers and suppliers set up stall every day, showcasing the best of local, seasonal food and drink – cheese, olives, wine, organic breads, tapenades, meats and seafood, the list is endless. Catch cookery demonstrations from leading local chefs, enjoy a spot of wine-tasting any day of the week, or sample tasty morsels and soak up the atmosphere. A lively place, not to be missed.
For a slice of museum culture, head to the Museum Angladon, a beautiful townhouse which is home to a collection of works by some major artists from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including Van Gogh, Picasso and Cezanne. Both the collection and the house were donated to the public by the owners, Jean and Paulette Angladon-Dubrujeaud, who inherited the collection from Jacques Doucet (1853-1929), the well known collector and supporter of the arts. It’s a small, intimate setting, with some interesting sketches that give you a real insight into the lives of the artists.
Stock up on local goodies from the markets and head to one of the city’s loveliest green spaces: Ile de Barthelasse is Avignon’s ‘green lung’, a little piece of Provence countryside just a stone’s throw from the busy city centre. Jump on a boat (free) which ferries people to the island (5 mins) – it’s the perfect place to while away an afternoon with a blanket and picnic hamper. If you’re feeling energetic follow the towpath along the banks of the island for some spectacular views of the Palace of the Popes and the Pont Saint-Benezet (of Sur le Pont, d’Avignon fame), explore the myriad pathways that crisscross the island by bike, or go horse riding and soak it all up from the saddle.
Visiting a venue dedicated to celebrating the humble vegetable might not seem an obvious thing to do when visiting an historical city, but Epicurium – Europe’s first fruit and vegetable museum – is a fascinating, educational and fun way to spend an afternoon. There are impressive vegetable gardens, nature trails through the orchards, and exhibits demonstrating man’s use of fruits and vegetables in agriculture, food and industry, promoting values such as health, education and respect for the environment. There are year-round cookery classes and gardening workshops, too.
What better way to round off a tour of the Palace of the Popes than by enjoying a local tipple in the Pope’s wine cellar. There’s a variety of different options available to you, from wine-tasting for novices, to wine and chocolate tastings for the more adventurous. The friendly, helpful staff will help you get to know 55 different wines from the region.
Get to know the local way of life in Avignon on a Daily Life walking tour, which takes in some of the shops, cafés, bakeries, and lesser-known monuments and parks that you won't find on the tourist maps. It’s a great way to get away from the swarms of sightseers and chat with some of the locals whilst you sip a coffee, jostle for space in the queue for baguettes, or stroll around the park. If you cherish the simple things in life, this is an excellent way to see the real Avignon.
If you're in Avignon in July, don't miss being part of ‘Festival Off’, Avignon’s legendary Avignon Theatre Festival’s lesser-known sister event. Hundreds of theatre and circus troupes, performing artists and dancers, both amateur and professional, (with some very famous names amongst them), take over the centre’s cafes, chapels, pavements and courtyards in a colourful explosion of theatre, music and dance, with thousands of performances - many impromptu - across the city centre.
And finally... get your hands dirty and enrol on a cookery course against the backdrop of Avignon’s bustling food market Les Halles. Local chef Julian Charvet has spent the past four years working on Concept Chef which aims to combine traditional local produce with exciting new recipes. The course kicks off with a ‘Discovery Workshop” exploring the market food stalls picking up ingredients, then it’s back to the Concept Chef HQ to concoct recipes, and prepare and taste your dishes under the guidance of Julian. Morning courses are also available for children.
Where to stay in Avignon
Just a stone’s throw from the train station is La Violette - a lovely homely B&B. Rooms (one with balcony) have pastel-coloured walls, pretty floor tiles, antique lace, and family pieces dotted around. Expect a warm welcome from Isabelle and family – they are a wealth of information on the surrounding area and will happily help you plan your itinerary. Isabelle will leave breakfast for you outside your door, too (there’s space for you to prepare your own if you prefer). A comfortable, relaxing place to stay, and only 5 minutes walk from Avignon’s buzzing centre. Address: 26 avenue de la Violette; +33 (0)4 90 86 12 83; www.avignonlaviolettebb.fr
Escape the heat and bustle of city life amid fountains, hammocks and century-old plane trees at Lumani - a little pocket of peace in the centre of medieval Avignon. Owners Elisabeth and Jean have stamped their creativity – beautifully – all over the place: there are piles of art and architecture books and walls covered in art, and musicians will love the soundproofed workshop. Rooms are simply furnished, breakfasts are organic – there’s even a working organic mill on site. Expect to pay up to €170 during high season; not the cheapest B&B in town but worth every cent. Address: 37 rue du Rempart St. Lazare; +33 (0)4 90 82 94 11; www.avignon-lumani.com.
La Mirande is for serious foodies: there’s the Michelin-starred chef (whose culinary delights mix tradition with an environmental conscience), an award-winning cookery school, tea rooms serving organic pastries, and gastronomy events for guests: one ‘theatre-inspired’ evening combines cookery demonstrations, storytelling and a game of petanque! The hotel, at the foot of the Palace of the Popes, is one of Avignon’s most distinguished, so expect luxury and top class service at every turn. Spacious rooms have beautiful wallpaper, the finest linen, antique pieces, piles of fluffy towels, heavenly smellies in glistening bathrooms. It's quite pricey, but a great choice if you want to splash out. Address: 4 Place de l’Amirande; +33 (0)4 90 14 20 20; www.la-mirande.fr.
All images provided by Avignon Tourisme.