Wind your way through Provence’s fairytale villages and lakes, and you’ll quickly realize why this region has captivated everyone from Brigitte Bardot to Vincent van Gogh. Sure, you could make the drive from Nice to Avignon in just a few hours, but why skip over those iconic fields of lavender and scores of medieval châteaux? This week-long itinerary will help you uncover some of Provence’s best-kept roadside attractions—just don't forget to stop and swirl some rosé along the way.
After spending one final morning basking on Nice’s legendary beaches, it's time for a change of scenery. Pack your bags, hop in an Auto Europe rental car, and set your GPS for the village of Grasse, a hilltop village where the French perfume industry got its start in the 16th century. The hour-and-a-half-long drive follows the A8 highway, also known as La Provençale, which traces the French coast from the Côte d’Azur to Aix-en-Provence. Your first stop: a glamorous lunch at La Bastide Saint-Antoine, a manor house turned Michelin-starred restaurant surrounded by bougainvillea and chestnut trees, whose menu features decadent dishes like poached foie gras with turnip and coriander and potato gnocchi with truffle.
After fueling up, it’s time to get back on the road—this time bound for Castellane. In the heart of the Verdon Natural Regional Park, this Provençal mountain town is a perfect base for exploring the surrounding trails. Get your bearings during a walk to the top of the town’s defining feature—a large limestone rock that looms over the village, which supports the Notre-Dame du Roc chapel. From this vantage point, you’ll have sweeping views of the town's rooftops and towers all the way to the valley of Verdon in the distance.
Of course, there are plenty of other great viewpoints from the summits surrounding Castellane, but save your strength and take the hour-long drive instead over to the village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie and La Bastide de Moustiers, a 13-room country inn owned by culinary legend Alain Ducasse. Spend the rest of the afternoon napping in your four-poster bed, taking a dip in the pool that overlooks a vineyard, then dining at the Michelin-starred restaurant, where set-menu courses are delivered in a room awash with natural light.
Be careful not to fill up on too many croissants at breakfast the next morning. You’ll want to save your appetite for lunch, which the hotel can prepare before today's day trip to Gorges du Verdon, the deepest and arguably most beautiful river canyon in Europe. One of the two main options for exploring by car is the Route des Crêtes, or “road across the crests.” The drive, which can take anywhere from an hour and a half to three to complete, follows a loop as it skirts around the top of towering cliffs.
Ready to take a dip? Point your GPS in the direction of the Lake of Sainte-Croix, famous for its signature turquoise water, located smack in the center of the park. Plop down on the shore and dig in to a gourmet picnic (think zucchini from Ducasse’s garden topped with summer truffles) prepped by the team at La Bastide de Moustiers. After your feast, spend some more time exploring the lake—be it by pedal boat or more swimming— before doubling back to La Bastide de Moustiers.
While it might be tempting to sleep in, this morning's destination is worth waking up early for. Just 40 minutes away lies the village of Valensole, or “Valley of the Sun"—the very definition of Provence. Pastel-colored houses covered in antique shutters and wrought-iron balconies line the town's streets, but the real draw here is lavender. Expect to make plenty of stops along your drive through the fields in order to snap photos and sample the area's signature lavender honey from small roadside producers. JP Tip: Go in July, when the flowers are in full bloom, to see those purples really pop.
Next up: the tiny town of Cotignac (population: 2,000), a little over an hour’s drive along the D13. Back in the 60s and 70s, it was known as the “Saint-Tropez of the Haut Var” because celebs would hole up here after partying along the coast. Now, you'll find most of the energy on Tuesdays at the weekly market on the Cours Gambetta. Stroll through the stands, linger over a long lunch at one of the restaurants lining the square, like Café du Cours, then spend the rest of the afternoon on a walk through the old quarter, whose chapels and buildings date back anywhere from the 12th to 18th centuries. Back in town, the airy Mirabeau boutique is worth a visit for its award-winning rosés. Snag a bottle (or three) before heading up the hill to dinner at La Table de Fanette, a pale, stone-covered farmhouse surrounded by olive trees where curly-haired truffle-hunting dogs greet you out front. Feeling decadent? Go for the six-course truffle tasting—you won’t regret it.
Tonight’s bed lies just 30 minutes away near the town of Brignoles in another one of Alain Ducasse’s lodgings, Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle. The chef gave new life to this 12th-century Benedictine abbey, reopening it in 2011 as a 10-room hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant. The grounds, made up of vegetable gardens, vineyards, and cypress trees, are worth a stroll, as is a dip in the outdoor pool, which was built on Roman ruins and overlooks the abbey. If you can, request the Lucrèce de Barras Suite, which was a favorite of Charles de Gaulle's.
Say your goodbyes to the abbey. This morning, it's off to Toulon, a town 45 minutes south known for its naval port, traditional “pointu” pointed fishing boats, and beaches shaded by pine trees. Take to the water on a boat tour of what’s been called “Europe’s Finest Bay,” or stay on land and soak up the views during the six-minute cable car ride up Mont Faron. Are you a sucker for vistas? Lunch is the best time to enjoy the picture-perfect views from the garden terraces at Les Pins Penchés, a Mediterranean restaurant nestled on a hill overlooking the sea.
One of Provence’s most famous wine regions, Bandol, is just a 25-minute drive west from Toulon and home to some of the best rosé in France. Get a crash course on the regional wine at Maison des Vins de Bandol, a boutique known for its variety of rotating vintages, before setting off to explore the vineyards yourself, pausing for tastings at wineries such as Domaine Tempier (the most famous in the region) and natural wine “pioneer” Château Sainte-Anne, a fifth-generation winery.
Today’s final destination is the tiny fishing harbor of Cassis, a 30-minute drive west from Bandol, where 120-million-year-old limestone calanques (steep-walled inlets) skirt the coast and vineyards wind their way down to the sea. Nobel Prize winner Frédéric Mistral once wrote, “Anyone who has seen Paris, but hasn’t seen Cassis, hasn’t seen anything." After witnessing the mind-bending landscape and colorful fishermen’s village huddled around the mouth of the harbor, you'll understand why.
Get a feel for the village vibes at À Table, a tucked-away restaurant on a narrow street near the port that's become a local favorite for its small and seasonal menu (think shrimp risotto with vegetables and pan-fried squid with garlic and parsley). Bonus: your bed is just a 10-minute stroll away at the beach house-inspired Hôtel de la Plage Mahogany, where rooms look out onto the Mediterranean and guests have access to a private stretch of sand.
One of Cassis's biggest claims to fame is its proximity to Calanques National Park. It's the only park in Europe that spans both land and sea, so you’ve got plenty of terrain to explore. Mini fjords and natural coves line the rugged coastline, and one of the best ways to see the most of them is by boat or bike tour. If you’d rather explore by foot, the most famous of the cliffs, the Calanque d’En Vau, is a two-hour trek from town. When you arrive back at port, take a seat for dinner in the intimate courtyard at Restaurant Angelina, where Chef Jean Marchal whips up revamped Mediterranean classics like fish soup and roast lamb.
After soaking up the beauty along the coast, head inland to Aix-en-Provence. Home to France’s third-largest collection of Baroque architecture, the city looks more like Paris than Provence, with terraces that spill out along the streets and boulevards lined with still-standing cafés that once attracted masters like Cézanne. Two must-dos for any first-time visitor include trying the city’s specialty, calissons (an almond-shaped candy crafted from candied melons and oranges), at one of its sweets shops and visiting the Hôtel de Caumont, an 18th-century mansion and art center whose historic rooms offer a glimpse into Aix’s gilded past.
For lunch, take a slight detour to Château La Coste, a vineyard and 28-suite villa (complete with deep-soaking tubs and private plunge pools) with a South American-inspired restaurant headed by Argentinian celeb chef Francis Mallmann.
Another hours' drive will get you to Arles, another city that inspired artists—particularly van Gogh. The provincial capital of ancient Rome still shows signs of its former life through UNESCO-listed monuments like its Roman amphitheater, Constantine’s Roman baths, and remains of the Roman circus. After you’ve gotten your fill of history, hop back in the car for the 30-minute drive to Les Baux-de-Provence, considered one of France’s most beautiful villages, where you can take in panoramic views over Arles from the remnants of a medieval castle that crowns the town’s rocky plateau. On your way out, pop into Moulin Castelas, an olive oil mill and shop at the foot of the château that supplies many gastronomic restaurants in the region.
Your bed for the night lies just 10 minutes away at the 20-room Hameau des Baux. Equal parts art gallery and boutique hotel, it's modeled after traditional Provençal architecture and makes for a great place to zen out while practicing yoga in the pine groves.
For your final stop of the trip, set your sights for Avignon, a 40-minute drive from Arles that follows roads that hug the Rhône River. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you reach the Pont d’Avignon, the city’s iconic medieval bridge. The only way to see the city is to get lost walking along its impressive 14th-century walls and maze-like streets paved with river stones. After working up an appetite, pay a visit to Les Halles, a sprawling indoor food market marked by a vertical garden, where you can taste and buy all manners of cheese, breads, fish, and freshly picked fruits and vegetables. Afterwards, take a seat at 83. Vernet, a former 14th-century cloister turned restaurant and one of Avignon’s most fashionable addresses. Lingering over a coupe of champagne in the courtyard (be warned: it's a weekend hot spot, so get there early) and admiring the space that’s become as much of a legend as the city itself is a perfect way to conclude a week living la bonne vie.