There are so many things to do in Avignon, France’s little city center that it’s almost unbelievable. Within the city’s ancient stone walls you’ll find palaces, museums, galleries, markets, parks and more… and they’re all within easy walking distance of one another. Whether you have a day or a week, Avignon makes a perfect base to get to know a French city, and its surroundings, in depth.
I recently spent about two weeks in Avignon and had a chance to visit all of the city’s best attractions (and a few duds that I won’t bother mentioning in this guide). Despite the length of my stay I never got bored, since Avignon has so many unique things to do and is connected so easily to nearby towns and cities around Provence.
Most of my favorite things to do in Avignon are included in the Avignon City Pass, which you can purchase online, at the Avignon tourist information office on Rue de la Republique, or at the entrance to most of the sites listed below. I opted to buy the five-day pass that also included the attractions in Villeneuve-les-Avignon, as I knew I’d want to visit them during my visit. Whether you have a pass or not, keep reading to see exactly what is worth your time and money on your trip to Avignon!
The Palace of Popes (Palais des Papes)
The most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site in Avignon is the Pope’s Palace (Palais des Papes). It surprises many visitors to learn that from 1309 to 1377, the Pope of the Catholic Church didn’t live in Rome. Instead, he moved the papacy here, to Avignon, to escape political divides in the Vatican. Nine popes made Avignon their home, until Gregory XI returned to Rome 68 years later. That year marked the beginning of The Great Western Schism, where two, or even three, rival popes ruled and fought for control of the faith. That is more information than you’ll learn here at the Palais des Papes in Avignon, where the signage is minimal, confusing and, at times, dysfunctional.
Palace of Popes iPad Tour / Histopad
What you need to know about the Popes’ Palace in Avignon is that is an overwhelmingly underwhelming experience. The massive stone palace is essentially empty, save for the hoards of tourists who are herded through the empty rooms like cattle. Queues to enter are extremely long, and once you get inside you’re just standing in an empty room, shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists who can’t figure out where to go or what they should be looking at.
The palace has adopted an iPad app called Histopads that theoretically guides you through the 25 rooms that are open to the public. Using these iPads you are supposed to be able to virtually envision the way the rooms may have been when they weren’t completely empty, and you can learn a few random facts about the palace and its history as you progress. However, the technology barely works, everyone is bumping into one another as they stare at the screens, and there is often only one scanning station per room so you have to queue to scan the code with the information about what you’re (not) seeing. It was – by far – the worst technology I’d ever seen in a museum.
Palace of Popes Gardens
There was one part of my visit to the Palais des Papes that I enjoyed. Behind the palace there are Papal Gardens, these newly-reopened gardens are an oasis of calm and tranquility away from the busy palace interior. In the past, these gardens were accessed directly from the Pope’s chambers, allowing him quiet moments of reflection and meditation. Today, they are ticketed separately from the palace itself, and of the two I would choose the small gardens over the massive palace every time.
Le Pont d’Avignon (Pont Saint-Bénézet Bridge)
In the under-65 demographic, it’s likely that Avignon is more famous for its bridge than its papal history. Just a minute or two down the hill from the Palais des Papes you’ll find le pont d’Avignon, officially known as the Saint-Bénézet Bridge. A quick walk along or across the Rhone riverfront gives you excellent views of what remains of this iconic bridge.
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The famous song about the bridge dates back to the medieval era, but it became especially popular in the early 1950s, after the Canadian National Film Board created a short film (starring puppets!) based on the song, which you can stream for free here. Pro tip: Fast-forward to about 1:45 for the good stuff.
The bridge is open to the public. My strategy was to arrive about five minutes before it opened, and then I skipped the bridge museum and went directly to the bridge itself. I was the first person onto the pont and I had the bridge to myself for about twenty minutes, before the first few people started finishing in the museum. The caveat with this strategy is that the ticket agent told me I wouldn’t be allowed to go into the museum after already being on the bridge, but I’m not sure how strictly they follow that rule.
Collection Lambert Contemporary Art Museum
One of the best things to do in Avignon is the Collection Lambert, a contemporary art museum in the city center. Located inside two beautiful historical buildings, the Hotel de Caumont and the Hotel de Montfaucon, Collection Lambert is like a labyrinth of thought-provoking permanent and temporary contemporary art exhibits. It’s really interesting to be taking in all of this art while also feeling like you’re exploring the secrets of these beautiful old mansions, from the basements to the attics to the courtyards.
If you don’t have much time in France but still want to see works from some of the country’s most famous artists, Musée Angladon will be a must-visit in Avignon. The museum features the curated art collection of Jacques Doucet, a French fashion designer who achieved success, and wealth, in the late 1800s. The permanent collections here include paintings by Degas, Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne, Modigliani and Manet. The museum is laid out like a typical mansion of that era, and many of the furnishings throughout the building also belonged to Doucet.
Musée Louis Vouland
Louis Vouland was a French industrialist who had a passion for the decorative arts. He filled his 18th-century hotel particulier with opulent furnishings and art, and asked that his estate be converted into a house museum after his death. Highlights include rare ceramics, tapestries and timepieces, along with a collection of paintings from artists from the “New School of Avignon”. Look closely at the paintings to see which ones feature locations you’ve already seen around town!
Free Museums in Avignon (Municipal Museums)
Avignon has a collection of municipal museums that are situated in various locations in the Avignon city center. Admission to these five museums is completely free, so visiting these regional museums is the perfect thing to do in Avignon for travelers on a tight budget.
Fun fact: A lapidarium is a place where stone monuments, tablets and fragments are displayed. In Avignon, the Musée Lapidaire showcases Greek, Etruscan, Roman and Gallo-Roman antiquities. The collection includes both monumental works and items from the daily lives of citizens in those cultures. It’s housed inside the chapel of the College of Jesuits on Avignon’s main street, just a few doors down from the tourist information office.
Of all of the free museums in Avignon, Musée Calvet was definitely my favorite. The collection here focuses on both fine arts and archaeology, with most of the collection being made up of paintings, sculptures and drawings. The collection is housed in a hotel particulier that belonged to the first consul of Avignon, and the setting is as breathtaking as the collection. Look for gilded and embossed ceilings (can you find the dragon?), the suspended staircase, and a garden that was once home to countless peacocks (a few of which are now taxidermied and on display throughout the network of municipal museums).
Palais du Roure
The former family home of the Florentine Baroncelli family, the Palais du Roure is now a house museum focused on preserving and sharing the history, literature, culture and traditions of Provence. The collections here center on popular arts, with many being displayed in rooms that show how people throughout the region once lived.
Musée du Petit Palais
Called “le petit palais” to distinguish itself from the very big (papal) palace beside it, this 14th-century building houses an important collection of Renaissance artwork, including almost 400 paintings and 600 sculptures. Most tourists head directly to Botticelli’s Virgin and Child, although I didn’t… since the museum was only “technically” open on the day I visited. At the time I visited, the museum was open but the galleries weren’t. So you could stand in an empty hallway and look at posters, but not view any of the art. Reviews on Google Maps indicate that I’m not the only visitors to have experienced gallery closures, so consider asking your hotel in Avignon to phone ahead to confirm opening hours if you’re planning to visit. That being said, if you are able to get into the galleries, seeing a Botticelli for free is a pretty good deal!
The saddest of the five municipal museums in Avignon, the Musée Requien is a small natural history museum. You can breeze through this one in ten or fifteen minutes, passing through rooms on geology, paleontology, ornithology and zoology. 150 years ago the museum was founded as a “cabinet of curiosities”, and even today it’s not much larger than cabinet-sized. All that being said, if you’re in Avignon with kids they might enjoy looking at the skeletons and taxidermied animals here more than they’d enjoy looking at another painting of the Provencal landscape.
Les Halles d’Avignon Market
If you’re a foodie, one of the best things to do in Avignon is to check out the city’s famous Les Halles food market. The exterior facade of the market has been converted into a living wall, covering more than 325 square meters with greenery that moves in the wind and changes color with the seasons.
When I was staying in Avignon, I stopped by Les Halles every two or three days to stock up on food that I could quickly and easily prepare in my accommodation: fresh fruit with yogurt, bread spread with luscious butter, individual quiches and tarts, and all the cheese. If you don’t have a fridge in your hotel room you can always pick up some treats for a pique-nique and then enjoy them in one of the nearby parks, or along the river.
Avignon’s Free River Ferry
If there is a free boat you can bet I will take it. In Avignon, there is a free ferry service from le pont d’Avignon across the Rhone River to Barthelasse Island. The trip takes about five minutes and offers some of the best unobstructed views of the bridge.
The company that operates the ferry also offers traditional river tours, including short sightseeing trips )operating from May to September) and longer lunch and dinner cruises that sail as far as Arles and Tarascon. Much like Paris and Lyon, Avignon has a beautiful waterfront that is worthy of a boat trip.
Rue des Teinturiers Water Wheels
Although I always recommend taking a day trip to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, if you’re pressed for time you don’t have to leave Avignon to see some pretty water wheels. Just a few blocks east of the city center you can find Rue des Teinturiers (Dyers’ Street), which used to be heart of the city’s textile industry. There are four ancient wooden water wheels along the small canal here (down from more than twenty in the heyday of the fabric era), and the surrounding streets are lined with independent boutiques, cafes and galleries. When you’ve had your fill of pope stuff, take a break and spend an hour wandering around this cool district.
Avignon’s Historic City Center
Mostly I was just looking for an excuse to post this unfiltered photo of the sky on my last full day in Avignon! The clouds were crazy, and while it felt like a thunderstorm would start any minute, we didn’t see even one drop of rain!
The historic center of Avignon is circled by the city’s ancient stone ramparts (you’ll pass through them as you enter town, whether that is by car, train or bus). Rue de la Republique runs through the center, south-to-north, connecting the train and bus station to the Place de l’Horloge and the Palace of Popes. The center is full of old hotels particuliers (grand townhouses), historic churches and tranquil squares. The closer you are to Place de l’Horloge, the more things cater to tourists. All you have to do is walk a few blocks in any direction to find shops, restaurants, cafes and other businesses that cater to a more local audience.
Less than three kilometers from the historic center of Avignon, on the opposite side of the Rhone River, you’ll find Villeneuve-les-Avignon. Spending a day exploring this suburb of Avignon was one of my favorite things to do in Avignon, so I wrote a complete guide to taking a day trip to Villeneuve-les-Avignon. While you can just walk over, it’s a pretty boring walk, so I recommend hopping on Bus #5 instead. Once you arrive, you’ll want to explore the Fort-St-Andre (shown above), the Chartreuse Monastery, the Abbey Gardens and the rest of the quiet medieval center.
Other Day Trips from Avignon, France
Avignon is a great home base for day trips throughout Provence and the surrounding areas. You don’t need a car to explore many of the cities, towns and villages around Avignon, as most are easily accessible by bus and train. A few of my favorite day trips from Avignon include:
- L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue – A delightful small town full of water wheels and flowery riverfront promenades.
- Arles – Although the ancient Roman arena (shown above) is the most noteworthy landmark, Arles has a rich artistic and archeological history within its compact center.
- Saint-Remy-de-Provence – One of the prettiest small towns in Provence, where you can follow in the footsteps of Vincent Van Gogh
If you’re planning a trip to Avignon, you have to check out my complete guide to ten absolutely unforgettable day trips from Avignon.
Shopping in Avignon, France
Avignon has lots of cute shops and boutiques where you can pick up some typically French products and souvenirs. The highest concentration are found along the narrow streets just east of the Place de l’Horloge. Be on the lookout for typical local sweets (if you’re not planning to visit nearby Aix-en-Provence, now is your chance to buy their famous calissons), lightweight linen clothing and, like in the photo above, pretty hats to help shade your face from the summer sun. Before you buy any expensive gourmet food items, check the Carrefour City on Rue de la Republique to see if you can get the same product for half the price (or less!).
Restaurants, Dining and Food in Avignon, France
Avignon has lots of great restaurants, and dining out can be an experience in itself. Although I did some self-catering during my stay, I still had time to try out a few restaurants that I can highly recommend:
- Restaurant L’Épicerie Avignon – My favorite restaurant in Avignon is located on Place Saint-Pierre. Here, in the shadow of the church, I had one of the best “vegetarian plates” that I tried in all of France. As you can see from the photo above, it featured salad, tartines, quiche, cheese and a big slice of fresh melon. Reservations highly recommended!
- Le Gout du Jour – Recommended in the Michelin Guide (but not starred… yet…), this tiny, intimate bistro offers two tasting menus each evening: one featuring meat and/or fish, and one that is vegetarian. At other restaurants in the region you would pay double for a meal this thoughtful and innovative. Reservations required, and I do want to warn you that service can be a bit slow.
- La Table Hot – The restaurant next door, E.A.T., seems to get all the attention, but I preferred La Table Hot. In the summer four or five tables spill into the narrow alleyway near Porte de l’Oulle, and the menu is scratched onto a chalkboard on the wall.
Planning a trip to Avignon? I’ve rounded up the best hotels in Avignon (plus a few guesthouses, apartments and even a castle, too!).
And if you’re planning a trip to France, be sure to check out my complete France library, with all my travel guides to this beautiful country!
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