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Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Provence

Provence, in southern France, is technically part of a larger region in the country, maintains much of its historic regional identity. Known for its charming towns and lavender fields, scenes captured by artists like Van Gogh, Monet, Cezanne, Matisse, and Renoir, the region – which includes the French Riviera – extends from the Mediterranean Sea up into the Luberon and the Alps, with coastal Marseille as is its largest city. Visitors relax on the beach at seaside resorts like Nice and Cannes (two hours from Marseille), and explore the coastal nature reserve of the Camargue (a little over an hour). Further inland, fountain-filled Aix-en-Provence was once the capital of Provence, while Arles boasts a well-preserved ancient Roman amphitheater. Travelers flock to Avignon's main draw, the papal palace complex, the base of the papacy for most of the 14th century (all about an hour away. Meanwhile, the small towns that dot the countryside demonstrate the region’s wealth of culture and history. Half- and full-day tours brings visitors to one or more that fit their specific interests, from markets to mountain towns. Picturesque Les Baux de Provence offers a glimpse of a medieval village, and can be combined with the nearby Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine region tastings. The air around the hilltop town of Grasse smells of lavender, so it makes sense three perfumeries are headquartered there. Pause to cool off in the river running through the Gorges du Verdon, a chance to swim under the Pont du Gard–an ancient Roman aqueduct.
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Calanques National Park (Parc National des Calanques)
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Calanques National Park (Parc national des Calanques) sits in the south of France between Marseille and Cassis. The area boasts dramatic rocky inlets, azure waters and pebble beaches, making it a popular destination for tourists looking to hike, swim and sail.

The park is relatively large and composed of nearly 20 acres (8,500 hectares) by land and more than 100 acres (42,000 hectares) by sea. Visitors can spend their time keeping an eye out for some of the 140 land animal species and 60 marine species that live here. These creatures are protected in the park, which is the only one in Europe to contain land, marine and semi-urban areas. The calanques themselves are also main attractions and include Calanque de Sormiou, Calanque de Morgiou, Calanque d'En-Vau, Calanque de Port-Pin and Calanque de Sugiton.

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Palace of the Popes (Palais des Papes)
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The Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes) is one of the largest Gothic buildings in all of Europe and was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1995. Avignon became the residence of the Popes in 1309 during the period of the Avignon Papacy. It was then expanded and grew to occupy an area of 11,000 m² (2.6 acres). The papacy spent a large amount of money on the building during construction. The interiors are no less grand than the exteriors; the rooms were luxuriously decorated with expensive frescos, tapestries, paintings, sculptures and wooden ceilings.

The palais deteriorated for the next couple of hundred years despite restoration efforts and was then sacked during the Revolutionary period. The Palais was eventually taken over by the Napoleonic government for military use during which time it further deteriorated. It finally became a national museum in 1906, and most of the Palais is now open to the public.

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Marseille History Museum (Musee d'Histoire)
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Following extensive renovations back in 2013, the Marseille History Museum is now one of the largest history museums in Europe and it’s a fitting homage to France’s oldest city, showcasing a fascinating array of archaeological finds. Exploring the interactive exhibitions and multi-media displays, visitors can follow the evolution of Marseille from its founding by the Greeks back in 600BC, to the early Christian settlers, through to medieval times and the redevelopment of the city under Louis XIV.

Notable highlights include an impressively preserved 3rd-century Roman cargo boat, a remarkable collection of 13th century pottery and a series of architectural works by Pierre Puget. Also worth a visit is the open-air Jardin des Vestiges, which displays excavated remains, including a paved Roman Toad, necropolis and antique Greek walls.

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Cours Mirabeau
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The heart and soul of the Vieil Aix (Old Town) the historic Cours Mirabeau is the main thoroughfare of Aix en Provence, passing between the ring roads that mark the boundaries of the old medieval center and the new town. A broad tree-lined avenue crammed with shops, restaurants and cafés, Cours Mirabeau runs from the iconic statue of King Rene (Fontaine du Roi René) in Place Forbin, to the stately Place du General de Gaulle.

Simply strolling the wide avenue – a spacious 42 meters wide - is enough to unveil many of its charms. Elegant 17th-century mansions, walled gardens and ornamental fountains line the sidewalks and a pit stop at one of the many alfresco cafés is the perfect way to take in the scenery. Once home to the city’s elite, Cours Mirabeau boasts one-time residents like a young Cezanne and architectural highlights include the monumental entrance of Hotel de Villiers and the regal Hôtel d'Arbod Jouques.

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Avignon Cathedral (Cathedrale Notre-Dame des Doms)
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Perched between the magnificent UNESCO-listed Palais des Papes and the hilltop Rocher des Doms, the Avignon Cathedral (Cathedrale Notre-Dame des Doms) is somewhat eclipsed by its neighboring tourist magnets. While the Cathedral’s comparatively demure façade fails to incite the same gasps as the castle-like Palais, its iconic bell tower, capped with a 4.5-tonne gold statue of the Virgin Mary, still demands attention from the passing crowds. The cathedral has a history dating back to the 12th century, but the majority of the present-day building dates from the 15th and 17th centuries. Most notable are the richly decorated Romanesque-style interiors, where highlights include a 12th century marble throne, a beautiful gilded organ and a chapel dedicated to John XXII, housing an array of artifacts and religious icons.

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Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica (La Bonne Mère)
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Everywhere you go in Marseille, you'll see the golden statue of the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, the Romano-Byzantine basilica rising up from the city's highest hill, La Garde (530ft/162m). Built between 1853 and 1864, the domed basilica is ornamented with colored marble, murals, and intricate mosaics, which were superbly restored in 2006 after suffering damage from the atmosphere, candle smoke and war. Bullet marks and vivid shrapnel scars on the cathedral's northern façade mark the fierce fighting that took place during Marseille's Battle of Liberation in August 1944.

Its bell tower is crowned by a 30 ft (9.7m) tall gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on a 40 ft (12m) high pedestal. Locals see her as the guardian of their city and call her 'la bonne mere' or the good mother. Each year on August 15th, there is a popular Assumption Day pilgrimage to the church. From the dome you get a 360-degree panorama of the city's sea of terracotta rooves below.

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Abbey of St. Victor (Abbaye Saint-Victor)
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Abbaye Saint Victor in Marseille may not be at the top of everyone's to-see list, especially when the nearby, picturesque Notre Dame Basilica and its bird's-eye view are such a big draw. But there are two reasons this abbey should be added: First, it's a convenient stop on the way to Notre Dame, and secondly, it is commonly considered the oldest church in France–which is quite a claim, considering that thousand-year-old churches seem to be a dime a dozen here.

In fact, the abbey's history dates back to the fifth century, was in ruins by the ninth century and by the 13th century, when other world-famous churches were first being built, Abbaye Saint Victor was being renovated. Martyrs died here, the library was dismantled simply to please a de Medici family member, and in the late 18th century, the site was stripped of all of its finery. In short, it's had quite a history.

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More Things to Do in Provence

Calanque de Sormiou

Calanque de Sormiou

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The calanques are narrow and steep inlets along the limestone coast of southern France, the most impressive ones being located along the little stretch of coastline between Marseilles and Cassis. They are romantic, wild and, being surrounded by huge cliffs, often protrude fjord-like into the landscape. While many calanques require hours of hiking or kayaking to reach, the Calanque de Sormiou is more easily accessible and still provides a true visual spectacle for visitors.

After a 15 minute drive or 45 minute walk from the main road down the hills, a sandy beach awaits next to the bright blue Mediterranean water. A couple weekend homes dot the landscape and then there is Le Château, the modest but immensely popular bouillabaisse restaurant that requires a phone reservation well ahead of time to snag a seat. As sparse as the landscape might appear, Sormiou actually serves as a habitat for a rich flora and fauna.

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Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (Le Mucem)

Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (Le Mucem)

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The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM; Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée) is a national museum in Marseille, France. It was inaugurated in 2013, the same year Marseille was designated as the ‘European Capital of Culture,’ and is dedicated to showcasing the multifaceted history of the Mediterranean and its different landscapes, cities, and shores.

The museum is built on reclaimed land at the entrance to Marseille’s harbour. Its exhibits are devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations in the Mediterranean basin, taking an interdisciplinary approach to presenting the different societies who have called this area home throughout the ages and in modern times. It is the first museum in the world to focus entirely on the cultures of the Mediterranean, and it includes all the social sciences: anthropology, political science, sociology, history, archaeology, and art history.

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Marseille Cruise Port (Terminal Croisières Marseille)

Marseille Cruise Port (Terminal Croisières Marseille)

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Marseilles has grown from being a tiny trading port established by the Greeks in 600 BC to being France’s second largest city. Topped by the hilltop Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde cathedral, it rises from the lovely harbor front of the Vieux Port or Old Harbor out into a sprawling, modern metropolis.

Given its role as France’s major port and its proximity to Africa and the Mediterranean, it is not surprising that Marseilles is an extremely culturally diverse city with great transport links to most of the country. Marseilles is the gateway to Provence, an area famed for its cooking and its artists.

As well as being an important port and industrial city, Marseilles is also an important center for culture with the Opera de Marseille and the Ballet Nationale de Marseille housed in the historic Opera House. It has also attracted many famous artists over the years, including Renoir and Cezanne, and spawned much of France’s hip hop music.

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Palais du Pharo

Palais du Pharo

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Wouldn't it be nice to be a prince, to be able to go to seaside town, decide you liked it and wouldn't mind having a little holiday home there, then have the city give you the prime location on the waterfront to build your palace? Welcome to the mid-19th century world of Prince-President Louis-Napoleon. In September 1852, he visited Marseille, said he liked it, was given the Pharo headland overlooking Vieux Port and Ile d'If, built the magnificent Palais du Pharo, then never even stayed there. Luckily his wife seems to have had a more generous nature and the Empress Eugenie gave it back to the city.

In 1904, the city of Marseille turned the building into a medical school. This necessitated some architectural changes and the balance of the building's appearance was altered losing some of its beauty. Since then, the building has been again modified to become a modern conference centre, with many of the auditoriums skillfully concealed underground below the forecourt.

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La Corniche

La Corniche

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Winding along the Mediterranean coast along the South of France, La Corniche is a waterfront roadway that stretches five kilometers through Marseille. As both a walkway and a road for cars, it offers wonderful views of the sea and coastline. It was a particularly popular promenade for residents of Marseille in the 1920s. From there you can also see the Iles du Frioul, elegant villas of the late 19th century, and the Prado beaches. The Chateau d’If (of the Count of Monte Cristo fame) is also visible.

Along the way sits the Maregraph Building, which took measurements over thirteen years to determine France’s sea level elevation. The bench of La Corniche runs three kilometers between the Pont de la Fausse-Monnaie and Hotel Sofitel Palm Beach, making it the longest bench in the world. Part of the roadway is named after President Kennedy, who was assassinated during its construction.

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Vallon des Auffes

Vallon des Auffes

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Palais Longchamp

Palais Longchamp

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The colonnaded Palais de Longchamp, constructed in the 1860s, was designed in part to disguise a château d'eau (water tower) at the terminus of an aqueduct from the River Durance. The building of this water storage and the associated canals and aqueducts was a major turning point in the history of Marseille as it allowed the city to expand, building new districts. One of these was the Boulevard Longchamp, laid out by the city then developed by private business people who profited from providing a grand boulevard of similarly styled, gracious houses.

In the Palais itself, the 2 wings house Marseille's oldest museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle, which have extensive displays of the arts and the sciences respectively. Its lovely gardens with lakes, fountains, waterfalls - not surprisingly water features heavily! - and a children's playground and carousel are a good spot for bored children.

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Chateau d'If

Chateau d'If

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Made famous by Alexandre Dumas' classic 1840s' novel Le Comte de Monte Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo), the 16th-century fortress-turned-prison Château d'If sits on a 12 sq mile (30 sq km) island, 2 miles (3.5km) west of the Vieux Port. Political prisoners were incarcerated here, along with hundreds of Protestants (many of whom perished in the dungeons), the Revolutionary hero Mirabeau, and the Communards of 1871. In 1890 the prison was closed and the island opened to the public. Whether The Count of Monte Christo, based on real-life José Custodio Faria, was ever imprisoned there is up for debate. The records of the prison say not, but the hole Dumas described him digging in the wall is quite visible. A short distance west of the Château d'If are the barren white-limestone islands of Ratonneau, Tiboulen and Pomègues, collectively known as the Îles du Frioul.
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Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology (Musée d’Archéologie Méditerranéenne)

Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology (Musée d’Archéologie Méditerranéenne)

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The Vieille Charité in the heart of Old Town Marseille houses not one, but two museums – the Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Art (Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens et Amérindiens) and the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology (Musée d'Archéologie Méditerranéenne). Formerly a poorhouse and then an orphanage throughout its four-century history, the structure’s restoration in the mid-20th century was championed by architect Le Corbusier. The site has since served as a fun destination for fans of art and history, as well as those who simply want something a bit off the beaten path.

Unlike its sister museum, the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology focuses on the history of the immediate area and features items found in the region and specifically in and around Marseille. With that, the museum not only tells the history of Marseille, but of Mediterranean Europe in general, and can be an enlightening take for visitors from around the world.

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Marseille Museum of Natural History (Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle)

Marseille Museum of Natural History (Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle)

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Founded in 1819 by Jean-Baptiste Marquis de Montgrand, the Natural History Museum of Marseille holds over 160,000 fossils and zoological specimens as well as 210,000 botanical and mineral specimens. The museum is located in the Palais Longchamp in Marseilles, alongside the Fine Arts Museum. There are four exhibition areas on the site: la salle Safari (World Fauna), la salle de Provence (Regional Fauna and Flora), la salle d'ostéologie (Comparative Anatomy) and la salle de préhistoire, sur l'évolution (Prehistory and Evolution). There are also occasional conferences and temporary exhibitions.

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Cantini Museum (Musée Cantini)

Cantini Museum (Musée Cantini)

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Located in Marseilles, the Musée Cantini specializes in modern art and focuses specifically on paintings from 1900-1950. It has been open since 1936 in a building built in 1694 for the Compagnie du Cap Nègre. It belonged to a string of notorious men before Jules Cantini bequeathed it down to the city of Marseilles in 1916, requesting that it become a museum of decorative arts.

Today, the museum holds one of France’s largest public collections of art created during the first half of the 20th century. A highly diverse selection of artists is represented, including works by those who practice pointillism, fauvism, and cubism. The museum also has an important selection of drawings.

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Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Art (MAAOA)

Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Art (MAAOA)

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With its ancient roots, Marseille is the perfect city to host the Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Art (Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens et Amérindiens). And the Vieille Charité, with its fascinating architecture, is the perfect place to house it.

The Vieille Charité may not look like much from the outside, as it was originally a poorhouse dating back to the late 17th century. But inside, visitors are treated to a massive courtyard with symmetrical rows of beautiful arches, where light plays over the pinkish stone from nearby quarries. At the center of the courtyard is a jewel box of a chapel; all in all, it would be a worthy sightseeing destination even if it didn't house a museum.

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Maritime and Commercial Museum of Marseille (Musée de la Marine et de l'Economie de Marseille)

Maritime and Commercial Museum of Marseille (Musée de la Marine et de l'Economie de Marseille)

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Marseille's connection to the sea goes back millennia, and even today the city has one of the largest, busiest ports in Europe. While perhaps not the hottest ticket in town, the Maritime and Commercial Museum of Marseilles (Musée de la Marine et de l'Economie de Marseille, or simply the Marine Museum) should still be a stop on any visitor’s agenda, as it is dedicated to what Marseille is all about.

Housed in the Palais de la Bourse, the former Chamber of Commerce, the Marine Museum charges 2 euro per ticket, which is definitely within any traveler’s budget. The exhibits focus mostly on modern maritime history, which spans the last 500 years or so, and provide a fascinating look into what has made Marseille a major player in the worldwide maritime economy.

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