By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
While it's largely famous for its fourteenth-century heyday as "the other Rome," and its even older (and now broken) bridge, Avignon has plenty to offer besides history. Today it's a youthful place full of atmospheric cafés, fun shops, and numerous hide-and-seek squares ideal for postcard-writing and people-watching. Climb to the hilltop park for the town's best view, tour the immense palace that had been home to the pope, stroll the traffic-free shopping district, lose yourself in Avignon's back streets, or just find a shady square to call home.
The city's history dates back well before the ancient Romans came to town — but it was medieval Romans that really put Avignon on the map. In 1309 a French pope (Clément V) was elected. His Holiness decided that dangerous Italy was no place for a pope, so he moved the whole operation to Avignon for a secure rule under a supportive French king. The Catholic Church literally bought Avignon — then a two-bit town — and then gave it a complete makeover. Along with clearing out vast spaces for public squares and building a three-acre palace, the Church erected more than three miles of protective wall (and 39 towers), "appropriate" housing for cardinals (read: mansions), and residences for its entire bureaucracy. The city was Europe's largest construction zone. In short order, Avignon's population grew from 6,000 to 25,000. (Today, 13,000 people live within the walls.)
The Palace of the Popes was built stark and strong, before the popes knew how long they'd be staying. This was the most fortified palace of the time — remember, the pope left Rome to be more secure — and with 10-foot-thick walls, it was a symbol of power. Besides housing the pope himself, it was also built to accommodate 500 people as the administrative center of the Holy See. Today it's the largest surviving Gothic palace in Europe.
In all, seven popes ruled from here, making Avignon the center of Christianity for nearly 100 years. (Meanwhile, however, Italians demanded a Roman pope, so from 1378 on, there were twin popes — one in Rome and one in Avignon — causing a schism in the Catholic Church that wasn't fully resolved until 1417.)
The last pope checked out in 1403, but the Church owned Avignon until the French Revolution in 1791. During this interim period, the palace still housed Church authorities. Avignon residents, many of whom had come from Rome, spoke Italian for a century after the pope left, making the town a cultural oddity within France.
The palace itself is pretty empty today — nothing portable survived both the pope's return to Rome and the French Revolution. Along with lots of big, barren rooms, visitors can see a few original wall paintings, an elegant Gothic chapel, and some beautiful floor tiles. The palace's audioguide does a good job of overcoming the lack of furnishings, and gives a thorough history lesson while allowing you to tour this vast place at your own pace. You can also climb the tower for grand views.
Nearby, the Petit Palais Museum, located in what had been a cardinal's palace, displays the Church's collection of medieval Italian painting and sculpture. Visiting this museum before going to the Palace of the Popes helps furnish and populate that otherwise empty building, and gives you a sense of art and life during the Avignon papacy. You also can see bits of statues and tombs — an inventory of the destruction of exquisite Church art that was wrought by the French Revolution, which tackled established French society with Taliban-esque fervor.
Hike above the Palace of the Popes to the Parc de Rochers des Doms for a panoramic view over Avignon and the Rhône River Valley. You'll get good look at the St. Bénezet Bridge, made famous by the nursery rhyme "Sur le Pont d'Avignon." Its construction and location were inspired by a shepherd's religious vision, but it was vital to medieval Avignon — as one of only three bridges crossing the mighty Rhône in the Middle Ages, it was key to moving pilgrims, merchants, and armies into and out of town.
After suffering major damages by several floods, and each time subsequently rebuilt, in 1668 most of the bridge was knocked out for good by one particularly disastrous icy flood. This time, the townsfolk decided not to rebuild, and for more than a century, Avignon had no bridge across the Rhône. Today, you can pay to walk along a section of the ramparts and do your own jig on the bridge. Though there's not much to see on the bridge itself, the audioguide included with your ticket tells a good enough story. It's also fun to be in the breezy middle of the river with a sweeping city view.
For a close-up look at Avignon life, meander the town's backstreets — home to pastry shops, earthy cafés and galleries, and cobbled lanes lined with trees and streams. I love parsing the street signs here, revealing vivid names like "Street of the Animal Furriers," "Hosiery Street," and "Street of the Golden Scissors," all of which recall the neighborhood's medieval roots.
Along the way, step inside the modern market hall (Les Halles) for a sensual experience of organic breads, olives, and festival-of-mold cheeses. Six mornings a week, the hall is bursting with fresh produce, meats, and fish. If raw fish doesn't grab you, duck into a boulangerie for a fresh croissant or a delectable strawberry tart. With plenty of cheap cafés, bars, and good cheese shops, this spot is an absolutely wonderful place for lunch — especially if you'd fancy a big plate of mixed seafood with a glass of white wine (but come early — doors close around 13:30).
Art lovers may also want to pay a visit to a pair of small, but fine museums. The Angladon Museum offers a limited but enjoyable collection of art, from Post-Impressionists to Cubists (including Cézanne, Van Gogh, Degas, and Picasso), with recreated art studios and furnishings from many periods. And the Calvet Museum impressively displays its collection highlighting French Baroque works and Northern masters such as Bosch and Bruegel, and a handful of gems upstairs: a painting each by Manet, Sisley, Géricault, and David.
And if you're visiting in July, come prepared to experience the city's massive three-week theater festival, with about 2,000 performances, big crowds, higher prices, and sparse hotel vacancies (reserve very early, or stay in Arles or St-Rémy). There's also a "fringe" festival, called Avignon-Off, as well as a children's theater festival, with storytellers, dance, musicals, and marionettes. During the festival, every possible venue is in action as the event creates a Mardi Gras–like atmosphere: The entire city is a stage, with mimes, fire-breathers, singers, and musicians filling the streets. Most performances are in French, but many are in English…and many of the spectacles don't require language at all.
Steve Smith is the co-author of the Rick Steves Provence & the French Riviera guidebook.