Disclaimer: Our visit to the South of France was hosted by Atout France. The opinions expressed in this piece are strictly our own and are based on our experience.
One way to enjoy the culture, scenery, and cuisine of the South of France is to take a driving tour of the towns that most appeal to you. We took a weeklong driving tour with stops in the Occitanie and Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur regions. Some stops only took part of a day, while others required a full day or two to explore.
Here are six excellent destinations to visit on a driving tour of the South of France.
Narbonne is easy to reach by train whether you’re coming from Paris or Barcelona. Once you arrive at the train station, you’ll be greeted with a charming city that’s buzzing with activity. We recommend spending the day exploring downtown.
Les Halles is marketplace of stalls filled with pastries, candy, prepared foods, wine, cheese, gourmet products, and more. It’s open every day from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. On Thursdays and Sundays, there’s also a huge outdoor market selling clothing, accessories, toys, and handmade items. For a tasty meal, we recommend the excellent small restaurant A La Table du Marché just behind the market.
You could spend the night downtown or splurge and head to the gorgeous Ile du Gua Suites. We loved the spacious accommodations on the grounds of the UNESCO World Heritage site le Canal de la Robine, the charming gardens, the duck pond, and the outstanding cuisine at Brasserie du Moulin. After enjoying breakfast at the hotel, we hit the road toward our next destination.
The large port town of Marseille is the second most populous city in France (after Paris). We spent a couple of days exploring this major hub.
Although it’s a bit touristy, a ride on the Petit Train provides a great overview of the city. Tickets cost 8 euros or less, and you can choose from two routes. The first goes through Old Marseille and picturesque Le Panier, the oldest neighborhood in Marseille, full of shops, art, and restaurants. The second is longer and goes from the Old Port to the town’s highest hilltop and the impressive Notre-Dame de la Garde. We chose the second route for its amazing views of the city.
When we returned from the train ride, we took the large stairway across the street to Le Panier, where we shopped, looked at street art, and had a bite to eat. For a special treat try Schilling, a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant.
At the whimsical and modern Nhow Hotel, our oceanside room provided a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean. The hotel offered a ton of amenities, including a pool, spa, restaurant, cocktail bar, and extensive breakfast buffet. We enjoyed the fun artwork, which included a tall red giraffe, pink plastic flamingos, pop art paintings, and a playful neon tunnel.
The Old Port (Vieux Port) area has a lot of shops; some are kitschy tourist traps, but others are classic Marseille. Check out the boutiques selling authentic Savon de Marseille, traditional soap blocks with a 600-year history. The ultra-modern Mucem highlights the diversity of Mediterranean culture through art and photography. It’s a reinvented section of the waterfront connected to Fort Saint Jean, which was built by Louis XIV. Your admission ticket will get you into both.
Marseille is a seafood lover’s dream and the birthplace of bouillabaisse. Locals love Miramar for this famous dish.
It’s hard to think about Provence without thinking about lavender. Aix-En-Provence is an elegant town closely associated with lavender products. We stopped by Aix for a brief visit on our way to Arles. We saw beautiful buildings with trendy shops, lots of cafes, and, of course, lavender products.
While shopping is certainly a favorite pastime here, Aix also boasts plenty of art on the streets and in museums. The city was a favorite of Paul Cezanne, whose studio is now a museum, Atelier Cezanne. Le Musee Granet houses major works by Rembrandt, van Dyck, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir, Monet, van Gogh, and others.
Place de l’Hotel de Ville, the town square, and Le Cours Mirabeau, a scenic boulevard lined with trees, cafes, and shops, are both worth strolling through. Le Chatelard 1802 is a great place to pick up some of the town’s famous lavender products.
With its ruins and picturesque scenery, Arles offers inspiration to artists and travelers alike. We stayed at the utterly charming Le Calendal hotel, perfectly situated near the amphitheater, restaurants, and shops. The breakfast buffet was great, and there’s a lovely non-smoking garden to enjoy. The hotel also sells scrumptious gourmet goodies to take on your daily excursions.
Arles, a UNESCO World Heritage site, features ruins such as the Arles Amphitheatre, Roman Theatre, and the Alyscamps. You can explore the monuments on your own or choose from several passes and tours.
Art lovers can follow in the footsteps of van Gogh on a free self-guided walking tour. Various locations display the paintings they inspired. Museums worth visiting include the Musee Reattu and the Fondation Vincent van Gogh.
A highlight of our visit was Camargue Natural Regional Park, a nature preserve about a 20-minute drive from the town. As we drove toward the park, we saw some of the few remaining wild white horses of Camargue. Ardent birders, we loved the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau, where we saw many bird species, including flocks of flamingos. The park is open year-round, and admission costs 7 euros. We walked several trails and recommend wearing comfortable shoes.
We drove a few miles farther to the charming seaside resort town of Les Saints-Maries de la Mer. It’s quite busy when the weather is good, so rather than fight the crowds, we headed back to town for a special dinner at L’Arlatan, an ornate, eclectic Mediterrranean restaurant inside a boutique hotel. For something more subdued, we recommend the fresh local fare at Esperluete. For a glimpse of a starry night, enjoy a drink at Le Cafe La Nuit.
5. Les Baux-De-Provence
From Arles we drove to the tiny town of Les Baux-de-Provence. It was a lovely change of pace, and we saw quite a bit in half a day.
The main attraction for us was the Carrieres de Lumieres exhibit, an immersive multimedia display of artwork projected onto every surface of a stone quarry.
This remarkable experience alone is worth a stop in Les Baux. The shows change from time to time, but no matter what is playing, you can avoid the long wait by ordering your tickets online. We recommend arriving by 9 a.m. to get a parking spot in the free lot. It fills up quickly, and finding other parking is challenging. You can go to see the exhibit first and then visit the town. Wear comfortable shoes and bring a jacket, since it can get cool inside.
Afterward, we strolled down the narrow cobblestone streets and explored the unique Museum of Santons with its figurines depicting Christmas and other holidays and traditions of the area. At the top of the hill, the Chateau des Baux-de-Provence, the village’s medieval fortress, provided a lovely view. The winding village streets featured specialty shops selling truffles, cheese and charcuterie, lavender products, oils, soaps, cookies, hats, artwork, and more. Numerous little bistros offered lunch, but we opted to purchase some salami, cheese, olives, and bread to take with us on the road.
Our final destination was the booming city of Montpellier in the Occitanie region. It’s a rapidly growing, youthful city, but in parts of it, you’ll feel as though you’re back in Paris.
The Place de la Comedie is a large pedestrian square sometimes called l’Oeuf (the Egg) because of its unique oval shape. Montpellier also has a version of the Arc de Triomphe. Although somewhat shorter, it’s familiar enough to provide a sense of tradition in the midst of the contemporary, expanding city.
On the more modern side, The White Tree is an architecturally unique apartment building that, from a distance, resembles its nickname. Our hotel, the Golden Tulip, was brand new and in an extremely convenient location — it was literally across the street from the train station. Breakfast included a tiered tray similar to a tea tray that offered morning bites, pastries, and a poached egg.
There’s plenty of art in Montpellier, including unique street art. A street artist known as BMX managed to embed a bicycle into the side of a building, providing mischievous social commentary on the city’s rapid expansion. The Musee Fabre is a favorite in Europe and features impressive collections of art, sculpture, and ceramics from the Renaissance to the modern day. It’s open daily except on Mondays.
The food hall and marketplace Halles du Lez is packed with stalls selling everything from seafood platters to pizza. Naked offers only fresh cocktails and egg dishes. We sampled its egg foam cloud, a unique and popular treat. Outside is a food truck area with live music. The busy market is also home to vendors selling clothing, crafts, and other items. For a delicious meal in a quiet garden setting, try the gourmet bites at Restaurant Le Petit Jardin.
We enjoyed discovering Montpellier’s hidden gems like the Mikve, a ritual bath once used by the Jewish community. There are some things you can only see with a guide, so check with the tourist office if you’re interested.
Driving through the South of France is a wonderful way to explore this beautiful area. With a little planning, you can have quite a fun and memorable experience.