When you think of the south of France, you might imagine the glitz and glamor of Cannes and the luxury boutiques of Nice. While these can be fun to experience, we also like to recommend less well-known places away from the tourist crowds. We want to give you a feel what it’s like to be a local in this region - a real authentic taste of southern France!

So, from the rolling hills of purple lavender in Provence to the crystalline waters and hilltop villages of the French Riviera, these are some of our favorite things we recommend in the south of France.

If you feel inspired by this post, you may like to browse our Provence tours and French Riviera tours.

Travelers Jonty & Felicity from New Zealand in Nice. In the background, the blue sea is on the left and the city of Nice is on the right
Travelers Jonty & Felicity from New Zealand in Nice
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Jonty & Felicity

Admire the sweeping views of the French Riviera

The French Riviera, also known as the Côte d'Azur, runs from the border of Italy, through Monaco, to the beach resorts of Nice, Cannes and St Tropez. For me, the most beautiful and authentic parts of the Riviera are found away from the glitz and glamor of the big resorts. 

Venture into the hills and villages overlooking the Mediterranean and you’ll enjoy some gorgeous views of this part of the south of France.

The villages of MouginsTourrettes-Sur-Loup and Gourdon have lovely views of the hinterland and the Mediterranean in the distance. 

Closer to the coast, there are beautiful views from the gardens of Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, the Exotic Garden of Monaco and the Exotic Botanical Garden in Èze.

A view from higher up of the exotic botanical garden in Eze. You can see cactuses and succulents in the garden, and in the background there's a view of the sea and the French Riviera.
The Exotic Botanical Garden in Èze
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Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, CC-BY 2.0

Travel back in time at Provence’s Roman ruins

It’s not only in Rome that you can see impressive Roman ruins. In fact, one of the best preserved Roman sites in the world is in Orange, just half an hour’s drive from Avignon in Provence. Orange’s Roman theater dates back to 25 A.D, with remnants of Augustine architecture and a remarkable 330-foot-long façade. 

South of Orange, the town of Arles has a Roman amphitheater, arena and underground galleries that are more than 2,000 years old. Arles’ amphitheater has been adapted to accommodate open-air theater shows, so if you book tickets, you may imagine what it might have been like as a spectator during the Roman times.

The Pont du Gard, half an hour’s drive west of Avignon, is a Roman aqueduct dating back to the first century A.D. and built without mortar. This three-story structure and feat of Roman engineering is one of the most popular sites in France.

We love the little town of Vaison-la-Romaine, named after its Roman amphitheater, which was discovered in the early 20th century. Located between the Rhone Valley and Mont Ventoux, the river Ouvèze flows under the village’s 2000-year-old Roman bridge, which is still used today. The two main archeological sites are the Puymin site, with its 6000-seat Roman amphitheater, and the La Villasse site where you can see excavated Roman streets, houses, and baths. There’s a museum at the Puymin site, where you can find more information and context about the remains.

Roman ruins at Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence, France
Roman ruins at Vaison-la-Romaine in Provence
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France Just For You

Hunt for truffles with the experts

Many of our travelers who book one of our Provence tours enjoy going truffle hunting with the experts (and their owners!). In France, truffles mainly grow in Dordogne, Burgundy, and Provence. 

The guides who lead the truffle hunts have specially-trained dogs who recognise the scent of the truffle and signal to the group when they've found one. The guides and the people on the hunt then dig them up. 

When you go on a truffle hunt as part of one of our self-drive tours of France, you’ll get to enjoy a meal with the truffles you've found after the hunt. This is a very nice experience for foodies and gourmet travelers!

We invite you to browse our gourmet food tours.

Travelers Carol and Bruce with truffle hunters and their dogs in Provence
Travelers Carol and Bruce truffle hunting in Provence
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Carol & Bruce, USA

Try Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse is a traditional Provençal seafood dish originating from the southern city of Marseille. You may enjoy it as a soup appetizer or as a main course with a whole fish, croutons and the classic rouille sauce (made from crushed red chili peppers, breadcrumbs, garlic, and other ingredients, blended with stock). 

There are lots of different varieties of fish in the dish (often about a dozen), so it can be quite expensive (about 50-60€ per person). But if you want to try a classic dish from the south of France, this is a great one to try if you like seafood!

Bouillabaisse, a traditional seafood dish from Marseille
Bouillabaisse, a traditional seafood dish from Marseille
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cyclonebill, CC-BY SA 2.0

Stroll through the village markets and stock up for your picnic

French locals tend to prefer buying fresh produce from farmers’ markets over shopping at grocery chain stores. The south of France has some wonderful markets. As well as farmers’ markets, there are also markets specializing in antiques, handicrafts and textiles, where you may find some authentic souvenirs from your trip to France. 

Here’s a market for every day of the week if you’re exploring Provence: 

Monday: Bédoin

Tuesday: Aix-en-Provence, Vaison-la-RomaineGordes

Wednesday: Arles, Saint Remy, Cassis

Thursday: Villeneuve-les-Avignon

Friday: ​Eygalières, Carpentras

Saturday: Uzès, Apt

Sunday: L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

Keep in mind that some of these markets are only open in the morning until about 1pm, so be sure to check beforehand!

You can find out more about each market from our blog post on the best markets in Provence or you may like to browse our French towns and villages tours.

Baskets of fresh cheese, meats, nuts, and dried fruits at an open-air market in Aix-en-Provence, France
Baskets of fresh cheese, meats, nuts, and dried fruits at an open-air market in Aix-en-Provence
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Unsplash

Wade across Provence’s lavender fields

Think of Provence in southern France and you might imagine endless fields of purple lavender. The best time to visit Provence’s lavender fields is from May to July, when they are in full bloom, and before the harvest. 

We love the Luberon Valley, which is famous for its Bandol rosé wine, lovely villages, olive oil and, of course, its lavender fields. One of the most famous and picturesque lavender fields is in front of Sénanque Abbey, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery. 

Another stunning area is the Valensole Plateau, covering over 300 square miles in southern Provence. As well as being one of the best places to buy lavender products, Valensole is also a great place for hiking and cycling. The best time to visit Valensole is in late June/early July, just before the lavender harvest, when you’ll see the fields are in full bloom.

The lavender fields on the Sault Plateau bloom a little later than the fields in the other parts, so plan to visit these if you’re in Provence in late July, August or early September. The fields aren’t as  'manicured' as the Luberon and Valensole but are still worth a visit if you’re too late for the fields in the Luberon or Valensole.

Senanque Abbey with purple lavender fields in front of it
Senanque Abbey, Provence
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Marcia & Damaris, USA

Visit the most beautiful gardens in the south of France

One of our favorite gardens in the south of France is the exotic botanical garden in Èze, which overlooks the French Riviera. It’s a 30-minute drive from Nice and stretches across the hills above this part of the French Riviera, with gorgeous views along the Mediterranean coast. The garden is famous for its cacti and succulents, and is worth a visit if you're traveling between Nice and Monaco.

We also highly recommend visiting the gardens at Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild. There are nine themed gardens surrounding the pink and white villa, which banker Maurice de Ephrussi built for his wife Béatrice de Rothschild in the early 20th century. These include French, Florentine, and Japanese-style gardens. As you explore, you might feel like you're crossing the border from one culture and country to another. The villa and gardens have gorgeous sea views.

The pink and white Villa Ephrussi with manicured gardens and fountains in front
Villa Ephrussi in the French Riviera
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Pixabay CC0

Hike to the gorgeous creeks of Cassis

Cassis’ famous creeks, or calanques as they’re called in French, are just outside of town at the Parc National des Calanques and have the best beaches in this area.

If you enjoy walking, we recommend the hike from La Presque Ile de Cassis to the calanques Port-Miou and Port Pin. Arrive early if you want to park in the parking lot ‘Parking de la Presqu’Ile’ on the western side of Cassis on Avenue Notre Dame. It’s a 45-minute walk each way along the GR98, marked by red and white sign, to the creeks. In our opinion, Port Pin is the most beautiful of all the creeks.

If you don’t feel like walking, go to the kiosk at Cassis harbor in the morning to book a 45-minute boat tour to the creeks for the same day. This will allow you to see the best of the calanques and get some lovely photos. There will be anywhere between 12 and 80 people on each boat. Sit on the right-hand side of the boat for the best views and avoid sitting right at the front, as it gets very windy.

Calanque de Port-Miou near Cassis, provence
Calanque de Port-Miou near Cassis, provence
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Nrocks75, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY SA 4.0

Explore charming off-the-beaten-track villages

When you’re on one of our Provence tours or French Riviera tours, we’ll help you explore beautiful little villages and hidden gems away from the tourist crowds. Many of these have beautifully preserved medieval featuresstunning hilltop views, and handicrafts and local products which make ideal gifts and souvenirs from your trip to France.

Some of our favorite off-the-beaten track villages in Provence, which are less well-known and therefore have fewer tourists, include Seguret, Lourmarin, Bonnieux, Menerbes, and Maussane les Alpilles. Other lovely villages include Les Baux de ProvenceArlesSaint-Remy de ProvenceGordes, and L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, but these are very popular with tourists.

In the French Riviera, some of the villages we recommend are MouginsGourdon,Tourrettes-Sur-LoupSaint-Paul-de-Vence and Menton.

Les Baux de Provence Ruins
Les Baux de Provence Ruins
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Pierre Selim, CC-BY SA 4.0

Escape to these beautiful islands just 30 minutes from Cannes

Just fifteen minutes by boat from Cannes are the Lérins Islands, Sainte Marguerite and Saint Honorat. A trip to one of the islands is a great option if you want a break from the Riviera's tourist crowds. 

Sainte Marguerite is the larger of the two islands, and the Fort of St Marguerite is famous for containing the cell where the 'Man in the Iron Mask' was held. The museum also contains archaeological relics from shipwrecks off the coast.

If you were to compare the two islands, you might say that the smaller island of Saint Honorat has more charm than Sainte Marguerite. It receives fewer visitors and a community of monks has inhabited the island for more than 1,500 years. You can visit Lérins Abbey and the 15th-century fortified monastery, and you can buy honey and wine produced on the island from the gift store. Both islands are lovely, unspoiled natural settings with walking trails and secluded creeks that are ideal if you want to stop for a picnic or go for a swim.

Lérins Islands, Ile Sainte Marguerite
Ile Sainte Marguerite, with the mainland of the French Riviera in the background
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France Just For You

If you’re interested in exploring the south of France by car at your own pace, we invite you to browse our tours including the French Riviera and Provence. Trip planners Emilie, Laura and Clelia can customize any of our tours to suit your personal preferences. 

Or, we can create a custom France itinerary from scratch - just for you!

France Just For You

Experts in self-drive tours in France

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