There’s a reason why famous painters like Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, and Van Gogh have been fuelled by the passion to paint sceneries in the South of France. This Mediterranean region, or "le Midi", as the French call it, gets 300 days of sunshine per year. The light here, whether it’s sunrise or sunset, on the coast or on the hillside - is luminescent and ethereal. It makes for a picture-perfect painting.
And for those seeking adventure, romance, or just the beauty in travel? To experience the South of France is to be outdoors, with its nature that stands out amongst Europe’s top locales. That, on top of the provincial French lifestyle (taking it slow, unwinding, and connecting with what you eat as well as being present) pulls in travellers time and again.
This itinerary covers Marseille to Montpellier, mainly the Provence region and the beginning of the Occitanie region. For the eastern part of South of France (like Nice, Cannes, Saint Tropez), check out our French Riviera/Côte d’Azure itinerary here.
Know before you go:
Best Season and Weather:
The spring and summer months, between mid-March to September are when the South of France truly comes alive with festivals, ongoing events, and prime time for when the Mediterranean warms up for swimming. It’s also the busiest season (end of May to August) so there’s more likely to be traffic and packed beaches.
Autumn (mid-September - early November) is when things wind down, though restaurants and small businesses are still open and you’ll actually be able to explore without feeling claustrophobic from any large summer crowds. In early autumn, the Mediterranean is still warm for a beach day.
Whereas the winter months bring their own charm - though there will be sunshine, much more so than the grey clouds in most of Europe, a lot of businesses along the coast are closed for the season and in-land, the towns are eerily quiet. During Christmas time everything is lit up in the yuletide spirit but after the holidays the region is in a semi-hibernation mode until spring.
Either with your own vehicle or renting a car, driving is the best way to explore the South of France as most of these small towns in the South of France are no more than an hour give and take away from each other.
The South of France is a huge area, which includes the regions of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur and Occitania. Let this itinerary be your first bite into the South of France, with the suggested duration and time for each highlighted destination. Though as you plan your budget and own holiday time, this itinerary is completely flexible for you to adjust based on what you want to experience in the enchanting South of France!
You can connect this itinerary with our French Riviera/Côte d’Azur itinerary for a fuller South of France experience.
Stop 1: Marseille - Day 1-2
Historically, Marseille has had a gritty, brash reputation - partially due to it being a huge port city where a lot of things have been shipped in and been the first entry point to Europe, then as the city grew so did the economic gap within its society. But over time, Marseille went through a metamorphosis - donning the title of being the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2013, celebrating its diversity and investing in its infrastructure which has rejuvenated the city.
Today, Marseille is a multicultural jewel on the Mediterranean - while still being a contrast of opulence and topsy-turvey, exuberant and bristly. The city’s strong community spirit fused with cool multi-use spaces (like a tobacco factory that’s now an arts centre), has made the 2nd biggest city in France, after Paris, a destination not to miss out on.
Start off your day in the Old Port of Marseille. No matter where you look, here by the water you’ll get a good sense of the city - from the fortifications to boats docked in the marina to the surrounding historical buildings, this harbour was founded by Greek traders harking back to the 7th century. Nearby buildings notable for their architecture are the Opéra de Marseille (a historical theatre for opera) and Fort Saint-Nicolas, a fortress overlooking the waterfront.
Curious about a unique and peculiar place to visit that matches up with the city’s character? Check out Ateliers Marcel Carbone, a little workshop and store that sells miniature hand-crafted figurines from biblical to pastoral South of France landmarks like windmills and cyprus chip to create your own mini-Provence. Another unexpected find is The Marseille Soap Museum - which is only one room, that takes you through the history of soap making. With your entry ticket, you can a coupon for a free bar of soap! These types of museums may be a bit of a random theme for other cities, but for Marseille - it fits the charm of this bustling metropolis.
Marché aux Poissons (The Fish Market) is where you can experience the city waking up, as each morning invites a boisterous ambience with the shouts from fishmongers across the market halls selling their daily catch.
Then make your way to Abbaye Saint-Victor which looks like a fortress with its two castle pillars, but is really an abbey church. A must-see is a 5th-century crypt, where you can wander underground filled with a collection of sainthood relics. A close walk by, which you can already see in the distance is the highest point of the city where Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde stands. As you make your way up, the whole city comes to a commanding view from one side, while the other side is the iconic symbol of Marseille, which is the basilica itself. Spanning over 170 years old, the locals call it “la Bonne Mère”, aka the good Mother, since most prayers over the decades have been in the name of returning loved ones that were lost at sea. What also sets out this basilica from most is that you can go inside for free and take in the decorated stripes with ornate gold domes.
The Old Port area of Marseille already feels like the best of the best, with another landmark Palais du Pharo close by. A man of style, this palace was built back in 1858 for Napoleon III though it is now a conference centre. At night, the place is beautifully lit up, with views of the twinkling city lights from this hilltop too. If you’re wondering what’s the foreboding-looking castle in the distance, that’s Château d’If. A former prison on the island of Firoul, it was a setting in the classic The Count of Monte Cristo novel by French author, Alexandre Dumas.
About a 20-minute walk from the Old Port is Port du Vallon des Auffes - now if you haven’t been swooned by Marseille’s charm yet - this vibrant spot favourited by the locals would sway you. Nestled between an old arched bridge, a petite traditional fishing cove is a trove of colourful houses, restaurants for a nip or a drink and boats all around. This gem under the corniche can get crowded in the summer, so come here late in the evening or early mornings to be able to fully take in the quaintness (or take a dip!).
The second day of exploring Marseille is no less beautiful. Just north of the Old Port is La Panier, what use to be a working-class neighbourhood of the city that was started by Italian and North African immigrants. It won’t take you long to look between the narrow alleys and antiquated buildings of this neighbourhood to be surprised by tall opulent sites.
Cathédrale La Major and La Vieille Charité, are both must-see spots that add to the architecturally impressive sights of Marseille. Inside, both offer a world in themselves - with the cathedral filled with the sound of an echoing organ and the latter, a rotation art exhibition.
In La Panier, Musée Regards de Provence and MUCEM - Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean are two museums right by the sea that combines history, architecture, and art together.
These institutions are an accurate representation of the neighbourhood and the energy of Marseille. The best way to explore La Panier? Aside from taking your time through these museums, wear your more comfortable pair of shoes to take a stroll around. Walking around La Panier, you’ll see countless street art and murals everywhere. Ones of faces, inspiration, baffled with colours and covering different crannies. The graffiti you can find just by walking around various paths each tells a story, with plenty of boutiques and cafes all set up beneath them.
A few minutes outside of the centre is Musée des Beaux-Arts, the Fine arts museum of the city that’s part of the Palais Longchamp monument. This majestic architectural site is one of the most beautiful places in Marseille, and where one can truly feel the city’s glory.
Where to Stay in Marseille:
Budget - Odalys City Marseille Prado Castellane
Mid-range - Staycity Aparthotels Centre Vieux Port
Luxury - Newhotel of Marseille - Vieux Port
Stop 2: Cassis, Calanques National Park - Day 3
Heading out of the big city and into the calmer coast, a short 40-minute drive away is Cassis. Cassis is a bite-size seaside town that has the same reminisce of the Cote d’Azur (and our itinerary that we have for it). The kicker? There are fewer tourists here than on the French Riviera so that means more space for you amongst the dozen of beaches around Cassis.
In short, these are the gorgeous cliffsides and beaches where you’d want to pitch an umbrella and sunbathe as the yachts in the Mediterranean cruise by:
- Plage de la Grande Mer: Closest from Cassis, with lots of big rocks to claim your own
- Plage du Bestouan: a little beach from town, where people also go fishing.
- Plage Bleue: While it’s not really a beach, you can still jump off the cliffs here into the illuminating Mediterranean.
- Plage du Corton: a rocky beach in a hidden cove, the views of the cliffs here are spectacular.
- Plage de l’Arène: The only other place with clearer water than this is probably the Caribbean.
In the town itself, walk down the Port de Cassis where much of the action takes place, from markets that sell artisan cheeses and meats, to various restaurants serving rosé. Cassis is actually known for its wine, with wineries dotted around the region, and being the host of the Cassis Wine Festival every May.
A stretch from Cassis to Marseille that is absolutely one of the most beautiful places in the region is Calanques National Park. Carved out of a rugged limestone on the coastline, the national park is where azure waters meet rocky hidden coves, with the privilege of biodiversity all around it.
The best way to explore Calanques National Park is hiking through it, as you’ll get a great glimpse of different viewpoints of the Mediterranean, passing through each calanque. The main trail is popular with families of locals of all ages, as it’s actually very easy to do leisurely. It leads to two beaches with crystal clear waters:
- Calanque de Port Pin: One of my favourite spots, perfect to kayak, sit under a tree for shade, or just float in the water.
- Calanque d'En-vau: Feels so magical how enclosed this beach is, between two narrow geological limestone inlets.
- Calanque de Sormiou: the most popular spot due to its proximity to Marseille.
- Calanque de Marseilleveyre: a long-time favourite for hikers and climbers, this calanque is only reachable by boat or foot.
The trails are well-marked and the terrain is perfect for activities like climbing and hiking, to watersports like kayaking, swimming and boating.
Where to Stay in Cassis:
Budget - Best Western Hotel & SPA Coeur De Cassis
Mid-range - Royal Cottage
Luxury - Le Jardin d'Emile
Stop 3: Aix-en-Provence - Day 4-5
Just over an hour drive away inland from Calannques National Park is Aix-en-Provence. This is a city that has pride in its noble heritage, where Provencal markets and the birthplace of Impressionist painter Cézanne intertwin under the special South of France light.
It’s a pedestrian-friendly dream to roam through the old town of Aix-en-Provence. You can’t help but wonder what’s behind the old shutters of these pastel colour buildings, appreciating the flickering ray of sunshine through the trees that line up Cours Mirabeau. Here, you can find bookstores, bakeries, and great coffee spots, and take in how what was once a path for horse-drawn carriages is now a fully pedestrian-friendly walking street.
For the culture lovers and those who want to learn more about artists and their works that were inspired by Provence, check out these places:
- Cézanne’s Studio: Like how Matisse is to Nice, Cézanne is to Provence. Explore behind-the-scenes at Cézanne’s atelier and the space he used to create his famous pieces.
- Musée Granet: Specializing in Archaeology, sculpture and paintings - a trifecta.
- Fondation Vasarely: For optical illusions and a trip for your eyes, this spot is a must-see.
- Musée Estienne de Saint-Jean: Housed in a 17th-century mansion that showcases pieces from dolls to paintings and sculptures that take you through the history of Aix-en-Provence.
- Théâtre de l'Archevêché: if you’re here during the summer, you can catch the Aix-en-Provence Festival of opera for an outdoor performance.
- Caumont Centre d’Art/ Hôtel de Caumont: While this place is a luxury accommodation, it’s also a museum with a cafe that both have impeccable interiors as well as the art it exhibits.
Hungry from all the sightseeing? The legendary Aix-en-Provence market, open from 8:00 to 13:00 every day, is where you can participate in Provençal life. Choose from homegrown honey stalls, a wide range of olives and cheeses and of course, homemade jams. Everything here is local - even the crafts and goods that would make for a great souvenir, like pottery, textiles and Provençal soap. If you’re here during Christmas time, there’s a big Christmas market set up in the streets to get into the festive spirits too.
Throughout your time exploring the pristine streets with sights like the Town Hall of Aix-en-Provence and Cathédrale Saint Sauveur, you’ll inevitably end up in various cobblestone squares like Place d'Albertas. There, you’ll see a regal fountain in the centre which makes it one of over 1000 fountains scattered throughout the city. Another notable fountain is at Place des Quatre-Dauphins, where there’s an obelisk that has four dolphins at its foot sprouting water.
Where to Stay in Aix-en-Provence:
Budget - Hotel Restaurant Olympe
Mid-range - Aparthotel Adagio Aix-en-Provence Centre
Luxury - Aquabella Hôtel & Spa
Stop 4: Luberon, Gordes, Roussillon - Day 5
For this day, each destination is no more than around 20 minutes drive from each other. This makes it perfect for little jaunts in between each place as day trips or as one single trip.
From Aix-en-Provence, you’re now discovering more of the heart of the Provence region. The small towns of Luberon, Gordes and Rousillon are well worth the trip since they’re surrounded by unbelievable nature and are a huge part of the rural glory in Provence.
One of the most emblematic sights of Provence (and France as a country) is the waving, cool-hue tones of violet and purple rows of the lavender fields. Mostly for a few weeks of the year only (to be sure to see them - visit in July) the lavender is in full bloom starting with the Luberon valley.
Nestled here is Sénanque Abbey. Founded in 1148 and has been the cornerstone of the Cistercian monks community ever since. The abbey is built in Romanesque architecture with an inner cloister a spot for tranquil reflection. The monks here harvest and tend to their own honey, as well as grow lavender, both for their own livelihoods. The results? From the last weeks of June to the beginning of August - rows and rows of iconic lavender fields that Provence has become known for.
A traditional village that’s set high above on the hilltops of Provence near the abbey, is Gordes. This village has more of a medieval ambience to it than other places in the South of France. With its stone buildings, labyrinth alleyways and clacking of heels on cobblestone streets it’s a moment in time that has been long forgotten yet is still well preserved. While the main thing to do in Gordes is to roam around and if you’re like me, pretend you’re Belle in Beauty in the Beast - the fountains and gardens here are the quaint small pleasures of rural Provence.
The next stop is Roussilon. Roussillon is a town that’s washed over with a rustic orangey colour, a reminder of how deep the sunset is while standing on the ridge of a similar colour cliff. This specific tint of blood orange that you can also see in the landscape is ochre rock, a natural mineral that Roussillon is known for. A nearby quarry is where people had mined the ochre to be used in paint, and textiles. While the quarry is no longer in use, the Ochre Trail is a pathway that takes you through it to see what this unique reddish mineral is front and centre. You’ll then reach Roussillon’s centre where the town hall, aka Place de la Mairie looks like it’s straight out of a movie set with chic shutters and a cafe-lined square.
Where to Stay in and around Luberon:
Budget - La goutte d'or
Mid-range - Mas Val-Chênaie Gordes
Luxury - Les Rapieres Mireio
Stop 5: Avignon, Nîmes - Day 6-8
Another pillar of Provence is Avignon, known as the “City of Popes”. Curious about the moniker? You won’t be able to miss Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) - the huge UNESCO World Heritage Site in the middle of Avignon that was built as a refuge for the popes that fled a corrupt Rome back in 1309. That course of history has trickled down a ripple effect to the city’s core today, as the popes brought with them their Catholic art, architecture and legacy.
Next door is Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Dom (Avignon Cathedral), where a golden Virgin Mary statue stands on top of its bell tower. Take a peek inside, where you’ll see the grandeur of marble statues making up the Archbishop's seat.
Nearby, Jardin des Doms, is an oasis of greenery to take a break from the heat of the city. There’s a large pond and from the gardens, you can look over the Rhône River that runs through Avignon. Then walk out onto Pont d'Avignon, where you’ll be standing on top of a historical bridge that's built out onto the Rhône.
On the road trip to our next destination, make a pit stop at Le Pont du Gard, a mid-way spot not to skip over. This is a huge multi-arch Roman aqueduct that historically carried water to Nîmes. Made out of stone on three-level tiers, dating back to over 2000 years old. Guarantee this UNESCO World Heritage Site will leave you in awe (I mean, it’s standing at 160 feet tall)!
Where to Stay in Avignon:
Budget - Au Saint Roch - Hôtel et Jardin
Mid-range - Hôtel Le Bristol
Luxury - Mas de Capelou
It’s a bit of a Roman-teaser to where we’ll explore next - Nîmes. Known as the most Roman city outside of Italy, that’s because Nîmes was founded by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. You’ll see this DNA right away in the city - even though the names of places may be in French, spots like Les Arènes and Maison Carrée are undoubtedly Roman in stature. Les Arènes is a Roman amphitheatre that’s still used to this day for concerts and festivals. It’s a sight to see, knowing that the amphitheatre is over 2000 years old yet still so well preserved to this day. Similar in age is Maison Carrée, a Roman temple with majestic columns adorning the exterior.
The South of France is known for its food culture, and Les Halles de Nîmes sums the love for their delicacy and cuisine up so well. You can pull up to a stall and have a cool glass of wine with freshly shucked oysters, or have some quiché that just came out of the oven.
After your nibble, head to Jardins de la Fontaine. This is a vast park made out of Roman ruins that you can explore on multi-levels. Living up to its name, there are gorgeous fountains everywhere, with ducks swimming in them. In the park, the Temple of Diana and Magne Tower are unmissable, both tying back to what feats the Romans accomplished when they were in Nîmes.
Where to Stay in Nîmes:
Budget - Hôtel De L'Amphithéâtre
Mid-range - Odalys City Nîmes Le Cheval Blanc
Luxury - Antichambre
Stop 6: Montpellier - Day 9-10
Wrapping up our South of France trip is the final stop in Montpellier. With close historical ties to King Louis XIV, there’s a gentile and regalness to Montpellier that sets it aglow from most Southern towns. There are more stately mansions in this one metropolis than you can count on both hands, yet at the same time - the beach and nature are only a quick zip outside the city centre.
L’ Écusson is the heart of the city, otherwise also known as the old town of Montpellier. Here, surrounded by grand French architecture, landmarks such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Promenade du Peyrou that leads from it, mark the splendour of Montpellier. Walking down the promenade leads you to the highest point of the city where you’ll be able to see all the shiny buildings from above. At the end is Château d’eau du Peyrou, a dignified water tower - and where you can spot locals going about their day from jogging to doing tai chi.
In L’ Écusson is also the Montpellier Cathedral, an enormous complex that looks like it’s a cross between a castle with conical towers and a fortress. Inside is no less impressive, with gothic arches and huge stained glass windows. Nearby, the Jardin des plantes de Montpellier, started off as a medicinal garden (the world's oldest medical school, University of Montpellier, Faculty of Medicine - started in this city) and is now a botanical garden. The garden is a huge sprawling green space with ample shade to relax and enjoy the plethora of flowers surrounding you.
Within the same neighbourhood, these are other places to check out to take in French culture:
- Musée Fabre: an art museum which features works from Rubens, Renoir, Delacroix to over 800 other works.
- Pavillon Populaire: a free museum that hosts a rotation of photography exhibitions.
- La Panacée: a contemporary art centre that showcases work from local artists.
The balmy mild climate of Montpellier is attributed to being near the coast of the South of France. For locals and travellers alike, this makes it easy for a quick getaway to the seaside.
Most go to beaches like Plage Le Petit Travers and Plage du Grand Travers, which are both sandy in contrast to other pebble beaches in the South of France.
Where to Stay in Montpellier:
Budget - Kyriad Montpellier Sud - A709
Mid-range - Hôtel Ulysse Montpellier Centre
Luxury - Domaine de Biar
Map of South of France from this itinerary
Here is a map of the South of France with places plugged in from this itinerary. You can follow along for your trip or click on each destination for more information: