Is the South of France Worth the Hype?

Arles France

There are certain places in the world that everyone seems to want to visit. Australia, Paris and New York are almost always on these lists, but so is the south of France and I’m not quite sure why. It probably has to do with the weather and its ability to attract wealthy celebrities, but whatever the reason everyone seems to dream of visiting the villages and cities that comprise southern France. Last year I had the chance to explore parts of both Southwestern and Southern France and I think enough time has passed that I can finally pass some judgment.

From an American point of view, I think that we tend to look at other countries and almost always think, “Well that’s not so big.” And while this may be an accurate geographical description, it does little to reveal the true nature of the destination. France is about twice the size of Colorado yet the thousands of communities that comprise this great country are each unique, interesting and completely different from almost all of the others making it seem colossal. After spending just a week exploring several parts of the country I quickly decided it would take decades, if not a lifetime, to properly explore France. So, it is with all of this in mind that I am not going to discuss entire regions, but instead only cities I have been to. Luckily, these are amongst some of the most popular for travelers.

My first foray into what is classically known as southern France is the border town of Arles. I say border town because even though it lies in the Provence-Alps-Côte d’Azur region, I think an argument could be made that it has more Southwestern sensibilities, but that’s just me. Arles is well known for having welcomed Van Gogh during a particularly tumultuous period in his life, namely when he cut off his ear and was briefly institutionalized. It’s so much more than that though, the city boasts a history that extends to the Romans and beyond and much of that legacy can still be seen today. The open-air arena in town that is still used for events was built by the Romans, as are countless other sites still seen today. It’s a beautiful town and the colors and light that first attracted Van Gogh still bring people in droves. It’s a great place and I was sad to leave, but I was excited to visit a city that had been on my bucket list for a very long time: Avignon.

If you studied French in school, then no doubt you will remember the popular children’s song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.” I never forgot it and indeed it became sort of an obsession. I REALLY wanted to visit Avignon. I didn’t know a lot more than the song when I first arrived, but I was instantly surprised by the size and feel of the city. Arles felt small because, well, it is. It also felt touristy, which it also is. That’s not a big deal for me, Paris is touristy but I love it. Avignon was different though; it’s a prosperous city with a large student population all of which can be sensed right away. There’s just an energy, a vibe that proclaims Avignon a young city with plenty of cash. I enjoyed my time there as well, but for different reasons. I appreciated the history of the city and its urbanity. I liked being anonymous in a big town instead of sticking out like a lost tourist. Also unlike Arles though, which felt ‘southern’ to me, Avignon did not. I don’t know if I expected beaches everywhere and fields of wildflowers, but it just didn’t seem to match my expectations of what southern France should be like.

Aix-en-Provence

Then I hit Aix-en-Provence, one of the most longed after and visited towns in the south of France. Again, I’m not really sure why. It must be because it’s relatively close to Monaco making it an important pit stop on the way to the famous country of the rich and beautiful. The city’s wide avenues and endless fountains made it pleasant to walk through, the southern air warming me after several chilly days in the north of the country. The main pedestrian zone was lined with dozens of sidewalk cafes and bars, most of which were packed with a mixture of locals and tourists. Other than that, I’m not sure what the real attraction to the town is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very pleasant and I went through all of the tourist sites but still, I can’t imagine traveling there with that as my sole destination. There’s just no there there.

I am purposefully excluding Marseille for two reasons. 1) I spent very little time there and didn’t get a chance to learn more about it and 2) I really hated it. I place Marseille in the category of cities I need to visit for a second time before passing final judgment. Sorry about that.

Marseilles, France

So, in the end is the south of France really worth visiting? I think I would tentatively answer yes, but with a caveat. I don’t think an entire trip should be devoted just to the south of France and instead you should journey a bit further to southwestern France and visit cities like Albi and Toulouse. From what I could see in my admittedly limited experience I don’t think that the reasons why southern France seems to be a dream destination are necessarily there. Arles isn’t full of rich celebrities, it’s full of camera toting tourists. Avignon isn’t a cute little town known for a history that took place 600 years ago, it’s a thriving city that is very much focused on the future. Then there’s Aix, oh Aix. You are very pretty but I don’t sense a lot of substance. Like a high class hooker, you’re pretty to look at but I don’t think I’d really want to spend a lot of time with you.

I’m not sure why or even how certain parts of the world make it into our collective consciousness, but there they sit, tempting us to visit them and be amazed. Most of the time these places live up to their hype. Then there’s another category, one that doesn’t match expectations but not in a bad way. I loved touring around southern France for the most part, but in order to really enjoy it I had to dramatically shift my expectations. And that’s one of the great things about travel, isn’t it? That it’s almost never what we imagine it will be like and I personally am thankful for that.

Have you been to the south of France? What did you think?

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By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.Also follow Matt on Twitter, Facebook and

14 Responses

  1. Wendy

    Thanks, Matt, thought provoking article as ever. I think “South of France” (although correct) is a bit of an unhelpful term we’re stuck with as it describes such a vast area, which as you say, incorporates “thousands of communities”. Much of it is very nice, but I think perhaps you didn’t go far enough east along the coast to reach what the hype is about; it’s really to be found on the French Riviera/Côte d’Azur, (technically still part of the South of France). From west of St Tropez, through Cannes to Antibes, Nice, Villefranche, inland to St-Paul and on to Monaco is where it gets generally a lot more hype-worthy. It’s busier, and a lot more expensive, but has far more variety: something for everyone. Beaches, yachts, skiing, islands, huge variety of gorgeous architecture, art; you turn a corner and feel you’re walking through the set of a great movie. But it’s still very “French”, with pretty provencal hilltop villages, markets etc. It’s a bit special and packs quite a “wow”. I first went in ’94 and perhaps traced a similar route to yours. A rail strike in Italy made me stop off unplanned in Nice. That’s when I “got it”; spent an extra 10 days (later lived there 11 years).

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Great points, thank you. I am of course always willing to return to get to know it better. :)

      Reply
  2. Aline

    I may not be objective as I’m French, but I think that South of France is completely worth a trip. It’s all about the way of life, rather than the sites. Wandering the markets, taking l’apéritif, playing pétanque, staying for hours at a restaurant’s table on a plaza.

    I have to admit, visiting Marseille can be quite hard, if you’re not familiar with French or mediterranean culture, especially with all the construction going on. I won’t recommend foreigners to visit it without a local to explain it. But, have you been to creeks in the surroundings? And the lavender countryside of Aix-en-Provence? And the some cities of the Riviera? This is where you can feel the

    Reply
  3. Curt

    Aline is right on. If I had a couple weeks to go back to the South of France, I wouldn’t make it a whirlwind of sightseeing. I’d pick one destination, rent a small apartment, and go native.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      I think that’s probably right. The region seems to be less about sights and more about taking it slow and easy. :)

      Reply
  4. Andi

    So far I have not had good experiences, not every place in the world appeal to everyone and this place doesn’t call to me.

    Reply
  5. kami

    I’ve been to south of France long time ago and in the high season. now I decided to give it a second chance and I’m flying for a weekend next week – I really hope I’ll enjoy it out there!

    Reply
  6. Gina

    I’ve only been to Paris, but want to head south to do wine tasting in France. I’m sure in the process of that I’ll check out some of these towns so enjoyed hearing what you had to say about them.

    Reply
  7. dana freeman

    I think someone steered you to visit the wrong towns. What a shame. Provence is beautiful. It is meant to be enjoyed leisurely. Why do you think everything shuts down mid-day for several hours? I spent two week last summer with my family (Kids ages 10 and 13) in the South of France. Our base was the village of Eygalieres (definitely worth spending a day in). The closest large town was Saint Remy. Each day we explored a new town or village. We saw castles in Tarascon. Antiques in the canal town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue. We did visit Avignon. Although, I thought the most redeeming part about it was the Palace of the Popes. Who knew the Popes lived in France, not Italy for almost 100 years? We went a “market” which happens every day in some town, just to experience local foods and flavors. I suppose you really have to embed yourself in their culture to understand if it is worth the “hype”. And we did make it to the beach one day. Aside from being really pretty, it was cool to see where the mouth of the Rhone river empties out into the Mediterranean. I agree with you about Marseille though. It certainly doesn’t hold the same appeal as the rest of the area. I hope you go back some day and give it a second chance in the smaller towns.

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Most of the towns were fine and I grew to appreciate them (well not Marseille) for different reasons. But Provence suffers from idealism, and that never matches reality.

      Reply
  8. Charmaine

    I own 3 types of holiday accommodation right in the Bouches-du-Rhone and all our guests, from all over the world, of all different ages, absolutely love everything here and are always sorry to leave. Perhaps you chose the wrong cities (I mostly only go to the ones you mentioned to shop or for administrative/visa requirements) … There is so much more to see here, so much history, beauty and culture. I am lucky enough to live here and experience this every day, I feel like I’m in heaven.

    I would hope you return and experience the real Provence, not only the “tourist” Provence…

    Reply
  9. Shawn Rosvold

    I was looking forward to your thoughts on the Côte d’Azur. I am planning a return trip to Nice next September for my wife’s birthday. Our first trip to Nice 10 years ago was last minute and completely unplanned. My best friend and his wife were vacationing there and were crossing a busy street when they were struck by a speeding drunk driver. To make a very long story short, we got there as quickly as we could to help them negotiate the health care system and the insurance company nightmares. He was in a medically induced coma and she was very badly injured. Since the visiting hours were very limited, we found ourselves with plenty of time to fall in love with the region, and with Nice in particular. We felt guilty about enjoying ourselves during a time that was so traumatic. Our friends have since recovered, and they have forgiven us for falling in love with the place. In fact, they plan on joining us for a few days while we’re there, and we plan on having dinner with the surgeon who so expertly kept my friend alive.

    Reply
  10. Mira

    Hi Matt,
    I’m always interested to hear feedback from first time visitors to Southern France because I myself fell in love with Nice 13 years ago and now help people discover the French Riviera every day. I completely agree with Wendy, that the Côte d’Azur generally blows people away with it’s beauty, history and relaxed Mediterranean way of life. However, as with all touristy areas, it’s easy to fall into tourist traps…particularly frustrating for an experienced traveller. I would be very happy to help you discover the REAL Riviera if you make it to Nice one day.

    Have a very Merry Xmas!
    Mira

    Reply

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