Introduction to Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur

Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur

Provence is a wonderful destination at any time of the year. There are new discoveries to be made, and many hidden treasures for you to explore.

You’ll find glorious landscapes in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur: rough and wild mountains, majestic untamed seas, golden beaches, or miles of verdant vines in pristine rows, and don’t forget the sea of purple when the lavender blooms. It’s truly an inspiring corner of France.

Read on, and you’ll find everything you need to know before you go to the ‘Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur’ region.

How to get to the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region

By Road: 

Take your time getting to Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur and enjoy a timeless road trip! There are three options when leaving from Paris, but beware there are significant tolls on these routes, and it’s wise to have either a GPS or enough data on your phone for Google maps.

The major routes from Paris to Marseille:

  1. The quickest and most direct route (777 kms) takes the A6 out of Paris and takes you south via Lyon. This route takes around 7.5-hours.
  2. Second quickest at just over 8-hours (858 kms), leaves Paris on the A5 and heads towards Dijon. You’ll then join the A31, and finally the A6 as you approach Lyon and on to Marseilles. 
  3. The longest at 8.5-hours (802 kms) predominantly uses the A7/A77 and has more twists and turns than the quicker routes.

Note: Highways/motorways get crowded and slow-going over holiday periods, particularly August, when it seems the whole of France is on holiday.

By Train:

Enjoy a quick train ride to Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, via the SNCF (the French railway company) TGV from Paris’ Gare de Lyon; it takes less than 3.5-hours and is a sightseeing joy. 

Along the way, you’ll see spectacular views of the Seine and Yonne rivers as you leave Paris, get lost in the rolling green hills of the Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan, follow the Rhône river south through the Auvergne, and finally, cross through the Parc Naturel régional des Alpilles and into Marseille. 

Note: When heading to Nice or Toulon, there are connecting trains at Marseille, and will add another 1-2 hours, respectively.

By Air:

Marseille (MRS), the region’s capital, is a 1.5-hours’ flight from Paris Orly Airport (ORY), or Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) with Air France. There are also direct 1.5hour flights to Nice (NCE) from Paris Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports.

These short-haul direct flights run frequently throughout the day, 10-19 flights depending on the day, and can be a very affordable option for those needing to get south quickly. Alternatively, there are 2-4 flights per day for Toulon (TLN) from Paris Orly Airport (ORY)

Flying from the UK is only a fraction longer, with between 3-7 direct flights leaving from London Heathrow Airport (LHR) to Marseille (MRS), with either British Airways or RyanAir depending on the day of the week, and take nearly 2-hours. 

You can also fly directly to Nice (NCE) from London-Luton Airport (LTN) in around 2-hours. Or just over 2-hours from London-Heathrow (LHR). There are many interconnecting flights from other capital cities within the UK, and of course from most major US and European cities.

Getting around in the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur

Public transport is excellent in this region. For instance, in Marseille, you have both metro and bus services which can take you anywhere quickly and easily.

For example, in Marseille, there are 2 Metro lines (M1 blue, M2, red), 3 Tramways (T1, orange, T2, yellow, T3, green), and 4 Bus routes (6 orange, 12 blue, 61 green, and 73 pink). Each city’s website, Marseille is here, will have detailed guides to plan your journey, with some also having apps to download onto your phone.

Note: Public transport in France is subject to delays because of strikes. However, they’re planned and announced in advance. If you plan on using train/bus transport, be sure to check for strikes before setting off.

If you prefer to hire a car and drive, you’ll find outlets at all the major airports: Marseille, Nice, Toulon, and many larger railway stations in large cities (Marseille, Nice, Toulon, Aix-en-Provence, etc). All the major hire companies are available, like Hertz, Europcar, Sixt, etc. Some have cars onsite and others require a shuttle to a parking depot.

Private car hire and transfers are also available from these locations, as are taxis and Uber. Local drivers often prove to be reliable and knowledgeable, and can be a significant source of information!

Background information on Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region

Beloved by English speakers since the 19th century, and including the famous French Riviera, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is a spectacularly large playground with everything you’ll need for a glorious holiday!

How big is Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur?

At just over 31,000 km2, Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur covers a large area that borders two other regions of France, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes to the north and the Occitanie to the west.

Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur includes the Mediterranean coast, as well as two international borders, the principality of Monaco and Italy.

Departments of the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur

Despite its expansive area, Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur only contains 6 departments; Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Alpes-Maritimes, Bouches-du-Rhône, Hautes-Alpes, Var, Vaucluse. As you’d expect, these departments vary marginally, from the more arid mountainous Vaucluse, to the alpine Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, and the coastal Var. 

The region is expansive and culturally diverse, owing to its rich history of habitation, and it’s worth spending time in each department to better understand its unique personalities.

Cities in Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur

The capital of the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region is Marseille, which is also the second most populated city in France. Greek settlers from Phocaea (modern-day Foça in Turkey) settled here in around 600 BC, which also makes it the oldest city in France.

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur has four metropolitan centres; Marseille, Nice, Toulon, and Aix-en-Provence. It’s also popular for the city of Cannes, and the annual film festival that draws thousands of visitors.

Nice

known for being the capital of the Alpes-Maritimes, with ancient Roman ruins in the suburb of Cimiez, and a stunning shoreline at the Baie des Anges, it was also home to artists Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.

Toulon

predominantly known as a naval base, the harbour is home to both warships and submarines. The city has a dramatic backdrop of rugged limestone mountains, and a cable car that carries visitors up to Mont Faron.

Aix-en-Provence;

is an atmospheric university town; the birthplace of Cézanne, and littered with walking trails and contemporary artists’ studios. For many, it is the image of Aix that pops to mind when they hear the phrase – the south of France.

History, culture, and everything you need to know before visiting Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur

History of Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur

Provence-Alpes

Two millennia ago, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur was called Provincia Romana when Roman forces first gave it this iconic name. Under the control of the Counts of Provence, it was a feudal state for much of its history, until in 1481 it became the property of the Kings of France.

The region has seen great hardships and devastation, brought on by the Black Plague, the Hundred Years’ Wars, right through to the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. During the First and Second World Wars, the area suffered badly and is still recovering in the 21st century.

Côte-d’Azur

Continuously inhabited since prehistoric times, owing to its rich agricultural properties, and with excellent weather and wide-open spaces, it’s easy to see why the Côte d’Azur is so popular. 

From the 7th century BC, Greek sailors from the ancient Ionian city of Phocaea settled the area, the Romans followed in the 1st century BC, before eventually being invaded by Saracens in the 9th century, and incorporated into France’s territories from the 11th century; together they have helped to form a melange of cultures and personalities.

Culture in Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur: 

You’re right to think there is a lot to see and do in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. You can explore Roman ruins, like Théâtre Antique and the Arc de Triomphe, which are both in Orange, or the Arènes d’Arles, all of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites. 

If you love museums, there’s the Musée d’Histoire in Marseille, which holds several permanent and temporary exhibits, like ‘From Port to Port; Travel in the Roman Mediterranean between Arles and Rome’, or ‘The Marseillaise’.

Do you enjoy scenic and majestic drives? Then you’re going to love the Via Alta; a combination of history, heritage, and gastronomy as you travel from Avignon towards Italy’s Turin. Take in the architecture of the Cathedrale Notre-Dame du Réal in Embrun and then stop for a delicious alpine dinner in a village bistrot.

What’s Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur weather like?

Known for sunny summer days, with blistering heat, golden sandy beaches and stunning azure waters, Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur also offers visitors a colder side; it’s a region with many faces. 

From April to September you can expect to see blue skies, but in April, and September to December, you’re also likely to get your fair share of rain, with October usually the wettest month. 

May – August is the ‘peak season’ and also the warmest months. July is usually the driest month, and August the hottest, with an average daily temperature of over 27˚C/80˚F. The alpine areas are slightly cooler, whilst the coast is ideal for soaking up some rays and developing your tan.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, winter starts from December through to February, with an average daily temperature of 6.4˚C/43˚F. The biggest concern to visitors and locals alike is the Mistral wind, known for bringing terrible storms and plummeting temperatures. It usually occurs during winter and spring, with the worst winds appearing during the transition between the two.

Why you should visit Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur

Provence Alpes

Whether you seek an alpine escape, exploring quaint villages, people-watching from street-side cafes, or perhaps taking in some museums, art galleries or ancient historical sites, the Provence-Alpes is the ideal place to do all these things, and so much more!

Côte-d’Azur

in most places, it’s known as the French Riviera or the Blue Coast. This stunning location is what many people dream of when they imagine the Mediterranean coast of France; luxurious seaside resorts, picture-perfect sandy beaches, and rubbing shoulders with the famous and infamous alike. I still associate this area with great movies like ‘To catch a thief’ with Cary Grant and ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ with Michael Caine, and ‘And God created woman’ with Brigitte Bardot’, all so evocative of the famous ‘Sud de France’ cool.

Best time to visit Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur:

If you plan on spending your days on the beach or in the water, then late April through to mid-September is the way to go – these two months are slightly cooler and drier, with July and August being the hottest months.

But if you want to hit the slopes, stay in alpine villages with roaring fires, and drink in the romantic scenery of snow-covered forests, then you’re going to need to book from December to February. The days are shorter, but the nights are glorious, with lots of mountain chalets, authentic bistrots, and freshly powdered slopes to explore.

Come spring, the blooms are at their peak from March to late May. April is cooler during the daytime, but remember the sage advice: “April showers bring May flowers”. 

Although not as widely appreciated, there can be stunning autumn colours in Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur. The window is usually short and occurs from late September to October.

Top 9 ‘Must-See’ Cities in the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur:

If you only have a limited amount of time in this spectacular region, then here are the top 9 cities you really ‘must-see’ before you leave!

  • Marseille; History, culture, and lifestyle all combine here; check out ‘Mucem’, the Museum of Central Europe, and the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Gare to start.
  • Nice: Find everyday life in this seaside city. Take a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais, and get caught up in the vibe of yesteryear.
  • Toulon; With the National Maritime Museum, a busy harbour and plenty of local beaches, it’s a thriving port city.
  • Aix-en-Provence; As romantic as it can get; cobblestone streets, boutique stores, classic bistrots and cafes. It’s everything you ever wanted, all in a classic French village.
  • Briançon: High in the alps, with an altitude of 1,326 metres, it’s filled with sunlight and history. From here, you can explore the ancient streets of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and take in some of the purest clean air in the nation.
  • Avignon: the crossroads of culture and lifestyle run through the streets of this UNESCO town. Famous for more than just bridges, Gothic architecture, and modern art, you’ll fall in love with this town’s passion for gastronomy and wine.
  • Cannes: Famous for beautiful beaches and bodies, the town is the epitome of Hollywood-like glamour, but with quintessential French flair. Start in the old town (Vieux Port) and make your way along the La Croisette for a remarkable walk.
  • Arles: A hub of history and artefacts. There are 8 UNESCO monuments here, including the Roman Arena, Theatre and Thermes de Constantin baths.
  • Saint-Tropez: Known for its 3 Bs; Bars, Beaches, and Bodies, this is where you’ll get your best people-watching practice.

The essential ‘Must See/Do’ activities in Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur

Marseille

A 5-hour boat cruise amongst the iconic coastal Calanques; enjoy a swim and marvel at these incredible rocky formations.

Aix-en-Provence

Is there anything better than wine and art together? Enjoy beautiful wines from the countryside that inspired the works of Cezanne.

The Luberon

The perfectly preserved heart of Provence; dozens of small villages perched on hillsides with stunning landscape views.

Avignon

Wine and cheese tasting tour, with stunning views from Bonnieux and of the Luberon Valley.

Lavender fields

Departing from Marseille for Valensole, the stunning lavender fields bloom from early June with hypnotic shades of purple.

Eating out in the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region

Local markets in Provence-Alpes:

There is an abundance of markets in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. You’ll find one in every other village on different days. There are daily markets at Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, and it’s wise to go in the morning for the best deals and freshest produce. 

Try these smaller markets to get you into the local shopping scene:

  • L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on Sundays, 
  • Coustellet on Sunday morning, 
  • Bonnieux and Lourmarin on Friday morning, 
  • Apt on Saturday mornings, 
  • Cucuron on Tuesday, 
  • Forcalquier on Monday, 
  • Vaison la Romaine on Tuesday, 
  • St Remy de Provence on Wednesday, 
  • Arles on Wednesday or Saturday.

What to eat in the Provence:

Provence-Alpes has a reputation for rustic and cross-cultural cuisine. Start your gastronomic experience with a Pastis. It’s the national drink and originated in Marseille. It’s an anise-flavoured liqueur diluted in water and aids digestion.

Also, look out for Panisse (a polenta or Italian chickpea flatbread), Navettes (orange blossom biscuits), Fougasse (a flatbread stuffed with olives and herbs de Provence), Tartiflette (cousin to the Savoy region’s potato gratin), Fruit de confits (candied fruit), and Socca (savoury pancake).

Other famous and familiar dishes also appear on menus, like Ratatouille, Boeuf Daube (beef stew), olive tapenade, nougat with pistachios, Salade Niçoise, and the unforgettable Marseillaise seafood soup, Bouillabaisse.

Where to eat in the Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur:

Marseille: La Delicatesse – 7 boulevard de la Liberation, 13001. Excellent contemporary presentation with a focus on fresh local produce.

Nice: Chabrol – 12 rue Bavastro, 06300. Michelin Guide listed for its simple yet enhanced ingredients to create unforgettable dishes.

Toulon: Racines – 9 rue Corneille, 83000. Also featured in the Michelin Guide for its historic cobbled street location, and the delicious seasonal recipes.

Aix-en-Provence: Villa Gallici – 18 bis avenue de la Violette, 13100. Pricy, but with an incredible sun-drenched courtyard and immaculate views. It’s also an amazingly baroque style hotel.

Where to stay in Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region

Why waste time trying to find a place to stay? We’ve done the homework for you!

Marseille: Apartment in Les Chutes Lavie – Great central location in Saint-Charles, near the railway station.

Nice: Mont Boron Mountain – Have the time of your life, and feel like you’re a riviera player, in this iconic and authentic apartment, and be only a stone’s throw away from Old Nice.

Toulon: Seaview Villa – Only 300-metres from the beach, this apartment is a classy blend of beach-chic and city convenience.

Aix-en-Provence: Historic 4th floor apartment – Feel like a local with this Centre-ville apartment. Everything you could want or need is at your fingertips.

Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur region conclusion

All you need to do now is pack your bags and complete your bookings, and you can be on your way to the stunning Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. With this guide in your digital pocket, you’ll know exactly where to go, what to see, and where to enjoy the best dining experiences this iconic French region offers.

Nick Garnett
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I've been travelling since the 70's and have visited over 30 countries, but, and it's a big but, my heart has always been in the French countryside. So much so that 15 years ago, my wife Charlotte and I bought a little hamlet house in central France and haven't been anywhere since, except for the odd trip to the Polish steppes (don't ask why, it's complicated). FiftyFrance is an expression of our deep and abiding love for France and her people.

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