The area that most people consider to be the South of France is the area closest to the Mediterranean from Collioure in the West to Menton in the East going inland and covering the regions of the Languedoc Roussillon and Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur. This is the area we will be covering in this guide with a snapshot of the major cities and towns and the most popular tourist spots.
Starting in the South West of France then next to the Pyrenees you have the Pyrenees-Orientales department in the Languedoc Roussillon which borders Spain and is known for its Catalan culture. The best known seaside towns/villages are Cerbere, Banyuls-sur-Mer, Port Vendres, Collioure, Argeles-sur-Mer, Elne, Saint Cyprien, Canet en Roussillon and Le Bacares. Slightly inland you have the city of Perpignan with its 13th century Palace of the Kings of Majorca and its international airport. Locations of particular interest here are the long beach at Argeles sur Mer and the Medievel castle in Collioure. Inland you have the Catalan Pyrenees National park, the hilltop Abbey of Saint Martin of Canigou and the Canigou Peak itself. Having the beaches and mountains in such close proximity to each other makes this a particularly beautiful and sought after area of the South of France and allows you to ski in the morning and be on the beach in the afternoon.
Further eastwards along the coast is the Aude department, sometimes referred to as the Cathar country with the seaside villages of Leucate and Gruisson. Inland you have the famous Castle at Carcassonne and its largest city of Narbonne. The area is home to the Narbonnaise en Méditerranée Natural Regional Park which is a protected area of vineyards, lagoons, beaches and wildlife and is an excellent area to explore on foot or by bike.
As we continue along the coast line we arrive in the Herault department which has some of the most popular coastal towns and villages in the Languedoc Rousillon such as Valras-Plage, Sete, Cap d’Agde, Lattes, La Grande Motte and Palavas-les-Flots amongst others. Around Sete is the Etang de Thau lagoon where there are a number of charming fishing villages such as Marseillan and Meze and is an area popular for oyster beds. Montepellier with its Musee Fabre art museum and 14th Century Cathedral is nearby which is quite a lively and young city due to its University.
The Gard has just a short coastline where the only significant sized town on the coast is Le Grau du Roi/Port Camargue with its very large harbour and long sandy beaches. The attractive medieval town of Aigues Mortes is slightly inland from here and has canals which take you to the sea if you are lucky enough to own or rent a boat. The department is surrounded by no less than 5 national parks that include the Camargue with its flamingos and wild horses, the Alpilles, Monts d’Ardeche, Cevennes and Grands Causes. It is known for the Pont du Gard which is a Roman aqueduct on the Gordon River and the Roman arena and Maison Carre temple in Nimes. Uzes with its arcaded town square and Ales are also attractive towns in the area and worth visiting.
Moving into the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region this French department is one of the most rich and diverse to be found in France with its two national parks of Camargue and the Alpilles but also the Parc national des Calanques. Along this stretch of Coast you have many pretty seaside towns and villages such as Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer, Martigues, Carros, Cassis and La Ciotat. The dynamic university town of Aix-en-Provence which is slightly inland is a real highlight too with its traditional Provencal architecture, fountains, gardens and spacious squares. Saint-Remy de Provence is a very charming town situated next to the Parc naturel regional des Alpilles and of course Marseille, being the capital of the region is worth visiting particularly around the old harbour.
The Var rarely needs much of an introduction as it is such a highly sought after area of the Cote d’Azur. There are almost too many attractive seaside locations to mention here but the most popular start with Bandol, Hyeres, La Londe Les Maures and Le Lavendou in the West and extend to the famous Saint Tropez, Grimaud, Sainte Maxime and Cavalaire sur Mer as we go further East. Saint Tropez in particular is known for its glitzy lifestyle, shopping and nightlife while most of the other seaside locations are very charming holiday destinations. Hyeres is a good spot to be based out of both because of its medieval castle but also because from here you can explore the “Golden islands” which includes Porquerolles forming part of the Port Cros National Park. Inland you have the Sainte Baume national park and the charming town of Draguignan.
Even more famous than the Var perhaps is the Alpes-Martimes department which is the most international of all the departments in France. Here you will find the well-known seaside town of Cannes with its yearly film festival, upmarket bars, cafes and restaurants and plenty of beach bars along the sandy stretch of the Croisette. Nice is the capital of the Alpes-Maritimes with lots of galleries and museums and the most sought after part is usually the Promenade des Anglais which follows the pebbly shoreline. Other interesting spots are Antibes with its super-yachts and charming old town centre, the incredibly expensive and exclusive St Jean Cap Ferrat and the hillside town of Beausoleil from where you can walk into the glamorous city of Monte Carlo in Monaco. Eze, just next to Beausoeil is a picturesque medieval hilltop village with outstanding views of the beach below and Menton, Roquebrune Cap Martin and Cap d’Ail and lovely seaside towns close to Monaco. If you’re looking for something more rural and inland for long walks and beautiful scenery then the areas around the Parc naturel regional des Prealpes d’Azur and the Parc national du Mercantour are good spots to visit.
Alpes de Haute-Provence
As we venture inland from the Cote d’Azur we come to the equally well known and sought after area of Provence. Here you can avoid the busy streets of the seaside towns and enjoy the more relaxed and simple life whilst still having excellent weather, food and being surrounded by the scents and views of the Provencal countryside. While here why not also visit the Verdon national park or pop into the towns of Digne les bains, Manosque, Castellane or Barcelonette.
The Vaucluse department is also very much a part of traditional Provence and is of great historical interest with the 14th century Palais de Papes and Medieval Pont d’Avignon in Avignon, the ancient theatre and triumphal Arch in Orange and the picture postcard medieval hilltop town of Gordes with its spectacular views. Market towns like Vaison la Romaine, Isle sur la Sorgue and Gigondas are worth seeing too as is the Luberon national park.
This is a pretty and natural but somewhat less well known area of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region but is great as a rural getaway and is home to some of the ski resorts in the Southern Alps such as Risoul, Vars, Montgenevre and Les Orres. Collectively the ski resorts of the Hautes Alpes make up 1536km of slopes which are certainly not to be sniffed at and generally are less expensive than the other better known French ski resorts. The department has two national parks: Ecrins and Queyras.
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