Welcome to the city on the Rhône, once home to multiple popes. With its secret courtyards, stately museums and shaded terraces, this pretty medieval retreat has more to offer the city-breaker than just a well-known bridge and turbo-charged arts festival. Take its spectacular trompe l’oeil murals – 69 of them to be precise. Painted in faux windows, they run from iconic French actors (Jeanne Moreau, Daniel Auteil) to – more mysteriously – a trio of drunken monkeys.
Every summer, the Palais des Papes is transformed by Les Luminessences, a dazzling sound and light show. The Festival OFF is now huge in its own right, staging over 1,300 fringe shows, from circus acts and stand-up to theatre. Weekend getaways in Avignon offer a taste of Provence. Join locals for alfresco apéros and charcuterie plates, explore Gothic beauties and make a dash through tempting boutiques and patisseries – all in 36 hours.
Venture down cobbled rue des Teintures for a first glimpse of the city. Dotted with historic waterwheels and mills, it’s perfect for a pre-dinner stroll. Come apéro hour, set up on the terrace at Le Complot, La Divine Comédie’s suitably glamorous bar, amid the tree ferns and bamboo. Scope out the arty crowd and Asian-inflected menu at Le Violette, a dreamy eatery set in the Collection Lambert’s elegant courtyard. Or opt for charcuterie, beef tartare and bountiful salads at understated Bistro de Vox, which pleasingly sets up shop in a nearby garden during the festival.
Check Unesco big hitters off your must-visit list. Wander the show-stopping Gothic papal palace, built in the 14th century, or take a stroll on what remains of medieval Pont Saint-Bénézet. For more contemporary delights, head to Collection Lambert, an art museum hosted in a handsome, honeyed stone hôtel particulier. Set around a cobbled courtyard, the Musée Calvet houses pieces by Camille Claudel, Bonnard and Sisley. Don’t miss the Egyptian collection’s mummified crocodile.
When you start feeling peckish, grab a streetside table at Vivotto Caffe. Fast food is given a fresh spin here: try the seafood risotto, with tiramisu for afters. The lunchtime prix fixe at L’Agape is a steal. There’s nothing stuffy about this place, from the inventive plates to the industrial chic deco. You’ll find Les Halles, the city’s covered food market, behind a lush green plant wall. Assemble a picnic from the stalls or join the regulars downing oysters and white wine at the seafood stands.
Sizzling afternoons call for as little exertion as possible. Drop by La Compagnie des Chats for a cuddle: the up-for-adoption moggies at this cat café are impossibly cute. If you’re looking for a little douceur to take home, call in at Pâtisserie Mallard to stock up on papalines, Avignon’s liqueur-filled signature chocs. A visit to two pastry shops in one afternoon might seem excessive, but La Pâtisserie Vernet’s perfectly plump chou citron is worth the extra indulgence.
Set aside some time the next morning for a trawl through Vox Populi. Walking in here is like stepping inside a fantastical cabinet de curiosités. Gawp at ghostly silk-tulle squid, porcelain skulls and tutu-clad mouse acrobats. If you’re yearning for a little Provence to take home, florist À Nos Amours has a sideline in cool planters, jewellery and other pleasing bits and bobs. Or head to Beaucoup Store for hipster-friendly gifts and homeware: fern-printed plates, potted succulents, and Nicolas Vahé’s nattily-packaged treats.
Image credits: © Grégoire Bernardi; © Grégoire Bernardi; © Grégoire Bernardi; © Grégoire Bernardi; © Grégoire Bernardi; © Grégoire Bernardi; © Grégoire Bernardi