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Things to do in Provence

Things to do in Provence
Avignon from above

We visited Provence this spring, a region in southeastern France famous for lavender, romantic holidays, and the good life, if North America media over the past 30 years if anything to go by. Our itinerary took us through some of the most famous villages, a town we knew from a nursery rhyme, and down to the coast. This is an overview with everything we did, where we stayed, how we got there, and what we’ve got saved up for next time. 

A gorgeous road in the Provence countryside

When to go to Provence

We visited in late April, over my son’s Easter break. We spent a full six days and that was great. Much shorter than that and you’d want to focus on only one or maybe two towns. There were tourists, but it was clear the season was not fully underway. This was good, as it wasn’t overrun, but also a bit unpredictable on the weather front. The famous Provence wind is no joke, it’s blasting away nearly all the time. Now I know why everyone builds those picturesque walled gardens! 

If you’re looking for the famous fields of lavender, you will want to visit between mid-June and mid-July, the lavender harvest happens around the 15th of July. The perfume town of Grasse has two main flower festivals: ExpoRose in mid-May and the Jasmine Festival in the first week of August. 

Where to stay in Provence

We made Avignon our homebase for most of our trip, with a night in Antibes on our way out to be close to Grasse. This worked very well for us, though I think next time we might stay in a smaller town near Apt, we really enjoyed the scenery around there. Around Avignon it is very windswept, and consequently a bit on the rocky and dry side. It’s greener over by Apt, with more little green valleys. However, if you’re mainly travelling by train, I would suggest staying in Avignon to allow for the easiest connections. 

Our Provence itinerary

Here is our relaxed Provence itinerary that takes in several different types of Provençal village. 

On the streets of Avignon
Beautiful squares for leisurely lunches in Avignon
The obligatory carousel in Avignon

Avignon

As I mentioned, Avignon was our home base. It’s a manageable size and very walkable. We spent a morning in the Palais de Papes, and I heartily recommend doing the same. The buildings dominate the city, so it’s hard to miss. When the popes returned to Rome, they took their finery with them, but there is an absolutely excellent iPad-based audio and multimedia tour that made up for it. We also did the hop-on, hop-off bus tour as we usually do, travelling with kids makes this an easy way to see most of the sites while still saving little legs, so if your mobility is at all an issue, or you just need a rest, it’s worth it. Definitely book your dinner reservations as soon as you can, because the restaurants fill up fast.

Ochre, ochre everywhere in Rousillon

Rousillon

This tiny village is perched on top of ochre cliffs, looking out over the Provence countryside. The red and yellow-orange colours of ochre come from this small area, it was mined here for hundreds of years. You can still buy ochre pigment in some of the shops. Each house is painted with a variation on this colour as well. It’s a tiny village, inaccessible except by car, and it is quickly overwhelmed by people. Visit in the morning or evening, and if you need to eat, get into one of the little restaurants early! We made that mistake and ended up having to drive somewhere else to find lunch. It has a much different feel than many of the surrounding villages, and worth a stop. 

Les Beaux in Provence

Les Baux de Provence

You will want to leave a full day for this visit, and be prepared to walk. This town is perched on top of one of the many pale rocky crags thrusting out of the flat Provence countryside. It is a popular tourist stop, so go as early as you can manage. Once everyone is up there, however, it’s not super crowded. At least, we didn’t find it so in shoulder season. Every corner of the little town is picturesque, but what makes this town special is the fortress remnants on the top of the hill. It is incredibly windy in the exposed areas, so be prepared with an extra layer, or just enjoy it if it’s midsummer and you’re dying from the heat. Check in when you buy your tickets to find out when the trebuchet demonstrations are. Everyone loves a good trebuchet demonstration.

A giant trebuchet at Les Baux

You can reach Les Baux most easily by car, but from the beginning of July through to November there is a new train plus shared taxi option from either Avignon or Marseille (in French, run it through Google Translate).

The streets of Grasse, tiny and fun to explore.

Grasse

If you’ve read the book Perfume, or have seen the film, you will know Grasse. This town is home to the worldwide perfume industry. You can tour part of the Fragonard perfume works, as well as several others. The town itself is dilapidated and beautiful in its own way. Do eat your lunch somewhere local – this town gets overwhelmed with daytripping tourists spending all their money at the high-end perfume companies. My full post on Grasse is coming soon. Without a car, you will need to take a local bus from Nice to reach Grasse unfortunately.

Antibes in southern France: beach scene lined with mid-century apartment blocks and palm trees.
Antibes beach scene – it was a little too cold for proper beach time

Antibes

The French Riviera’s glory is pretty relaxed in this little peninsula near Nice. We chose to stay here over the busier (and more expensive) Nice, so we could make the most of our trip to Grasse the next day. The beaches looked nice, but the water was still quite cold in April, so we only did a bit of wading. They were building more beachfront restaurants and whatnot, so it will definitely be a bit more lively come high season.

Things we didn’t do but have put on our list for next time…

Arles

While this was on our list originally, we had a few minor health issues that took up more time than we were expecting, so it fell off the list. To the west of Avignon, this town features a huge Roman amphitheatre in the middle of town where they still hold events. It’s also where Vincent van Gogh lived with Paul Gaugin, and the infamous ear incident happened here. 

The wind up here was intense, but it’s worth stopping on your way to Gordes to get one of these photos and marvel.

Gordes

This picturesque hilltop town is one of the most beautiful in France. We drove up to it, but as we had spent time in Les Baux the day before, and it looks similar, we decided to skip it. It is truly incredible looking, so if you’re nearby, definitely make a detour to at least see it from a distance. 

Les Grottes de Thouzon

This cave system is not too far from Avignon, and looked very cool, both literally and figuratively. Inside the caves, it’s a cool 13ºC, so if you’re visiting during the heat of summer, it may be a welcome break. There are stalactites, stalagmites, and all sorts of cool cave formations from the photos we saw. We just ran out of time, otherwise we would have visited. 

Aix en Provence

This pretty town has a reputation for art galleries and picturesque streets to stroll down. If you’re into spending a low-key day at sidewalk cafes and people watching, this sounds like the town for you. As we were travelling with a 9 year old, it wasn’t first on our list for visiting, but we’d like to at least see it on our next trip to the area. 

What to remember when visiting France

Opening hours

If you’re visiting from North America, be prepared for restaurant opening times to be later than you are used to. Particularly outside of the immediate tourist areas, restaurants will open around 1pm for lunch, close again around 3pm and not open until 6pm or 7pm for dinner. You need to have snacks on hand. Also, book your dinner restaurant as soon as you settle into your hotel on the first day. Just showing up, particularly in smaller towns, means you will have nowhere to eat. Check Yelp or TripAdvisor (and take with a grain of salt those reviews where they complain about slowness or rudeness, this is more the French style of dining – no one is going to rush your meal nor squat next to your table and be cheerful), and book a few likely looking places. Better yet, ask at the front desk of your hotel or your Airbnb host. If you do get stuck without somewhere to eat, swing by the local grocery store and pick up cheese, sliced meats, bread, and wine. Hotel picnics are one of our favourite traditions holidaying in France. 

Buying medicine

You can’t pick up any medication of any kind in a grocery store or convenience store. You will need to find a Pharmacie. You can spot them by the big green cross, often lit up, outside. There will be acres of expensive skin care, and then a counter. You will need to ask at the counter for anything medicinal, and most pharmacists will speak enough English to understand what you need if you use the generic name (ibuprofen, acetaminophen, etc). If you have an empty package, bring that along. The prices are very good, by the way. 

Grocery stores are your friend

There are lots of great souvenirs to buy at the grocery stores in France. Look for a ‘de la région’ section and pick up local vinegars, mustards, jars of terrine, and pâte. In other sections of the store you can find shelf-stable cartons of hollandaise and other sauces, cookies, honey, and tea, as well as cute dish towels, wine, and chocolate. Collecting up little food taster packages are my favourite gifts for people, and loads cheaper than anything you can get at a tourist shop. Not to mention much more fun and authentic. 

Traveling with kids

Research the playgrounds ahead of time. Unlike Germany or the Netherlands, French towns don’t put the same emphasis on building playgrounds, so you will want to plan out these pitstops specifically. Use the site Parc Equipe to find a playground near you. Dining hours can be a bit late for some smaller children (see above). If you’ve got a baby who will sleep in a buggy, try putting them to sleep first and then going for dinner. If you’ve got a squirmy toddler, try for nice lunches instead, particularly where you can dine outside and the small one can burn off steam chasing pigeons in the square. For dinner, take the hotel picnic route, and buy cheese, sliced meats, bread, and wine at a grocery store. This ends up being quite a bit cheaper than eating out every night anyway. If you’ve got an older child, you can always feed them yoghurt, cheese, and vegetables beforehand, then let them eat their way through all the bread and butter at the restaurant. That way you’re not coaxing them to eat something and you can enjoy your meal. You probably want to stick to one or two courses, as the leisurely pace of dining can really tax the patience of a small person. Though the promise of an apple tart and ice cream at the end can do wonders. 

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Provence in southern France: our itinerary including Avignon, Les Baux, Roussillon, Grasse and more.
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Day trips from Strasbourg

Day trips from Strasbourg

Strasbourg in eastern France is a great home base for exploring Alsace and southwestern Germany, and I’ve collected some of the best day trips from Strasbourg right here. This region, from Alsace all the way over to the Rhine in Germany, has shifted between France and various kingdoms of German princes and dukes. This means a glorious combination of German and French influences in everything from architecture to food. This also means there are loads of different places to visit within easy striking distance: from huge theme parks to quaint winemakers’ villages, Dostoyevsky’s favourite casino to famous castle ruins. 

Baden-Baden

This 19th-century spa town on the edge of the Black Forest has been a getaway for French and German people for over 200 years. Take a relaxing day at one of the historic thermal spas, tour the art galleries and shops, and relax. I recommend a good four hours at the Caracalla Therme spa baths, which do allow children, and even offer a childminding service if you’d rather enjoy the waters and steam rooms on your own. You can skip the clothing-free German sauna experience and still enjoy the waters in outdoor and indoor pools, steam rooms, and even a brine inhalation room. It’s a very relaxing experience. Afterwards, make sure to try some of the local food, like Maultaschen (a sort of German ravioli, often served in broth) or Käsespätzle (cheesy egg noodles topped with fried onions) paired with a local wine. A Baden-Baden day trip from Strasbourg is easy, as it’s a quick half-hour trip by train (book your train here in English Strasbourg-Baden-Baden), or you can arrange a half-day tour with a guide from Strasbourg. 

Freiburg

On the edge of the Black Forest is Freiburg im Bresigau, a picturesque university town. There are plenty of canals, and little streams that appear out of nowhere, running down specially made channels in the streets and sidewalks (local legend says if you step in one accidentally, you are destined to marry a Freiburger). The medieval old town was completely destroyed during the Second World War, but meticulously rebuilt. It’s full of sidewalk cafes, playgrounds, little courtyards, and holds the title of the sunniest spot in Germany. The city also housed a large contingent of the French army after the Second World War, so there’s a distinct French flavour to the cafes and restaurants, though you will still find it easy to get a glass of Baden wine, as there are many vineyards in this region. It takes about two hours on the train one way to get to Freiburg (book your train here in English Strasbourg-Freiburg).

Colmar

South of Strasbourg is the popular day-trip destination of Colmar. Many towns were ransacked during the French Revolution, but Colmar managed to emerge nearly unscathed, so the old city centre has buildings ranging from the 13th century to the neo-baroque early 20th century. If you’re a fan of the Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle, you will quickly notice the landscape of this animated film is heavily based on Colmar. It’s really worth booking a tour on one of the little boats in Little Venice, as well as one of the little train tours, as you see two completely different parts of the town. Remember to look up, as the houses are painted with complicated details all the way up to the eaves. Colmar is gorgeous any time of year, but it’s truly spectacular from May onwards, when all the flower boxes are out with their riots of colourful flowers tumbling down. You’re right in the middle of Riesling central here, so make time for a meal of local specialties like tarte flambée, a thin-crust sort of pizza with a creamy cheese, lardons, and onions, and pair it with a local wine. Coq au Riesling is of course a traditional dish here, which is chicken poached in the local white wine. It’s often served with potatoes or Spätzle. This is a very easy town to navigate with kids with its small scale and many courtyards. Colmar is a quick 30-minute train journey from Strasbourg (book your train here in English
Strasbourg-Colmar). 

Riquewihr

Just north of Colmar is Riquewihr. This is tiny walled medieval village right in the middle of the region’s vineyards, and it is properly picturesque – in fact it has been named one of les plus beaux villages de France, or one of the most beautiful French villages. It is almost entirely preserved from the 16th century, and every corner is an Instagram moment waiting to happen. 

We were there in February, when it’s probably at its least attractive and we still had a lovely time. You can climb the hills in the vineyards (if you’re with kids, keep them away from the vines, this is someone’s livelihood after all) above the town, and wander the streets. The restaurants here don’t really cater to budget travellers, though lunch set menus are not too bad, so I’d suggest heading back before the dinner hour. You can also check out Kayersburg Castle ruins above the town. Riquewihr is not served by the train, but it’s a 25-minute drive from Colmar. You can take a guided tour of several of the surrounding villages from Colmar, which solves the transport problem. 

Europa-Park

Europe’s biggest theme park is probably one you’ve never heard of. Europa Park is in the Black Forest, and has been run by the same family since its opening in the 1975. There are 13 roller coasters, and regions all over the 950 thousand square meter park for Russia, Sweden, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Iceland and many more. There are loads of water rides, themed hotels and restaurants for many of the regions, and endless shows and entertainment. Anyone who has grown up in the region will get misty eyed at the mentioned of Europa-Park, remembering fondly school trips and special summer holidays. The park still closes for the winter months, so check ahead for opening times. You can arrange for private transfers to and from the park from Strasbourg. 

Haut Koenigsbourg Castle

This castle south of Strasbourg was built in the 12th century, and both the Habsburgs and Wilhelm II have owned it at one point or another. Haut Koenigsbourg was restored extensively by Wilhelm II in 1900-1908 roughly to the era of the 1700s, with heavy emphasis on its Germanic roots. This was Wilhelm’s attempt to bring the newly acquired Alsace region into the German empire and make them feel included. While the reconstruction does lean a bit heavily to the Romantic idea of castles that fuelled the huge castle-rebuilding boom of the early 20th century, historians now admit it was not entirely badly done, and does reflect the lines of the original buildings and fortifications. You can tour the castle on your own with an audio guide, and unusually, this castle is open year round. There is a tavern on site, and in the summer months a snack bar with outdoor seating too. If you want to save a few Euros, pack in a lunch and eat in the picnic area, you can even book a picnic table under cover from the elements, just contact the castle ahead of time. From March to December there is a shuttle bus running from the Sélestat train station, which is a 20-minute train journey from Strasbourg (book your train right here in English Strasbourg-Sélestat). It’s worth noting you can’t take buggies into the castle, so be prepared to park it outside and carry or walk with any children. 

Heidelberg

Our gorgeous old town on the river Neckar, long pedestrianized main shopping street, and huge romantic castle ruins looking over everything make Heidelberg a very popular day trip for everyone visiting the area. Of course, as a resident I would tell you to stay for a weekend, but a day trip is lovely too. Take in the city museum first, then have a leisurely lunch before heading up to the castle – and do the guided tour! Sitting between the Pfalz, the Black Forest and Swabia, the food options here are extensive. You can enjoy Flammkuchen (the German term for a tarte flambée, it is the same dish), tender Schwarzwälderschinken (Black Forest ham), Maultaschen (Swabian ravioli type pockets served in broth) and Spätzle (tender egg noodles). It’s a little further afield than some of my other suggestions, but Heidelberg Castle is very impressive, and as we often make the journey from Strasbourg to Heidelberg with guests, I think it’s worth it if you’re keen on the history of the region. It’s a 2-hour trip by train (book your train right here in English
Strasbourg-Heidelberg
), or a 90-minute drive from Strasbourg to Heidelberg.

Black Forest Open-Air Museum

This is one of our favourite places to bring out-of-town guests in the region. While Freiburg and Baden-Baden are on the edges of the Black Forest, the Black Forest Open-Air Museum is right in the depths of it. You get a real sense of what it was like to live and farm in the forest 300-400 years ago. There are quite a few huge old houses, filled with furniture and tools of the time. Volunteers in costume demonstrate local crafts and skills, and you can greet horses, pigs and chickens. There are several exhibitions just for kids to clamber through, and a great playground with a little cafe and tables right there. The larger restaurant is great for a coffee and a big slice of the eponymous cake. It’s very different from Strasbourg and the surrounding area, so you will definitely feel like you’re seeing something new. It’s a good two hours on the train from Strasbourg but there’s a stop right by the museum that is open in the summer, but it’s an hour’s drive by car.

Do you have a favourite spot near Strasbourg?

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There's so much to do near Strasbourg: from huge theme parks to quaint winemakers’ villages, Dostoyevsky’s favourite casino to famous castle ruins, all within day-trip distance!
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