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.


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?

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.

27 thoughts on “Is the South of France Worth the Hype?”

  1. 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).

  2. 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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. Matt, You seem to have quite a limited and altogether negative view about the South of France. I’m not quite sure why you really care if there’s a hype around such a place, but quite certainly, there is a reason for it. I suspect you’re lacking any culture and/or sense of adventure. I wonder if you’re one of those pessimistic, never happy with anything or yourself type people. It was good enough for Matisse, and quite assuredly, he was a better judge of a place than you. Reading your posts just made me angry. Get some culture, then write about places objectively.

      2. Matt, read Leslie’s post carefully. She may have a point and it depends where you grew up and how. Culture to some only grows in their fridge and so with that in mind perhaps Las Vegas may do it. I have been to Marseilles alone for 4 days and explored the city and its vibe and loved it and have been several times from St Tropez to San Remo and everything in between. We are looking to buy a house and move to Mandelieu, Valbonne, Mougins area by next July and currently live in coastal Southern California which is also beautiful but lacks culture and history. It all depends where you are in life journey and expectations. The only thing certain is change and we see it everywhere. btw…i did not mean that you don’t have any culture or anything like that, its a point of view thats all.

  8. 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…

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

    1. Mira, My family is going to come visit Southern France in late June. I am in the process of finding a hotel to stay in for five nights. There are four of us. Do you have any recommendations? We were thinking of staying in Nice and taking day trips from there. Thank you for any help you can offer.

  11. Hi Matt,
    I just discovered your blog on google by looking for tips for travellers in Croatia and I finally started reading your comments about France, where I’ve been living for a couple of years.
    Well, I think I ‘m maybe more objective than Aline since I’m not French but Brazilian but I do agree with her that the South of France worths the travel. I understand you had a very limited time and, if I understood correctly, you were sponsored by some “Office de Tourisme” of the visited cities so you had few flexiblity on your schedule. However, sorry to say this but you didn’t visit the main places that make the “South of France” worldwide famous. As Weny said, you should have gone more to the East to actually visit the “South of France”, like this you would have known the “Calanques of Marseilles/Cassis”, cities like Toulon, Saint Tropez, Cannes and Nice, villages like Bormes-les-Mimosas and others, beyond beautiful islands and beaches sourrounded by cliffs and mountais! In addition to the coast, you also missed the country-side of Provence and magnific places like the Lavanda fields of Valensole, the Gorges du Verdon and villages like Moustiers Sainte Marie, Castellane and Sisteron!
    To conclude, you should come back to France and visit the rest of “PACA region” ASAP and thanks for the tips about Croatia!

    1. Marcos . I am planning a few weeks in the “south of France” as I am learning it means different things. I want to go to San Tropez, St paul de Vence… Where else? I’d like to find a place to stay then do some day trips but in a relaxed way?? What area would you suggest to stay or should we move once and stay in 2 areas? I’m asking you because you seem to know so much! thx

  12. Arnaud de la Porte

    Poor old Yanks: you will NEVER get it. Learn to speak French fluently first, then try again. If you cannot do that, forget it. Oh, and leave your blonde hair and blue eyes at home.

    1. I’m American and I DO get it. I speak French fluently and I didn’t like the south of France. This may come as a shock to you, but just because someone doesn’t like a place you do, doesn’t mean they “don’t get it”. It just means they have a different opinion. I love Bangkok…while many other people hate it. It doesn’t mean they “don’t get it”. It simply means they have a different preference.

  13. Interesting article! I think I agree with both sides: a lot of the “wow” of the South of France can go over our heads, but only if we are looking to be wowed in the first place. Aline gets it right in that the South is about experiencing the way of life and the culture down there, and not necessarily about discovering tons of impressive things to see… it’s a feeling, not something you can really pin point, if you know what I mean. That said, I think it’s probably one of those things that’s either your cup of tea, or isn’t. I can’t imagine taking an entire trip from the US to the South of France, just for that, for example, but for Europeans I would definitely recommend it. Try going back if you ever get the chance, you might change your mind! Also, what’s with that random comment from Arnaud de la Porte ?? Lol not sure what speaking French, blond hair or blue eyes have to do with anything…

  14. I got excited when I read south western France – but – you did not get there !!
    I agree with most of what you have said about those destinations in PACA – but could I recommend that you venture further west to the real South West – Montpelier Beziers Narbonne Perpignan and the Aude as a whole ?
    The countryside is gorgeous and the area is embracing, very natural, very French and welcoming; and full of history. My favorite part of the world ! :)

  15. Hi Matt,

    I’ve been to the US about 50 times in all over 25 years; and have spent months in NYC, Chicago and the West Coast. I consider that I have a poor / patchy knowledge of a few relatively small parts of the US. I’d certainly never purport to write a definitive opinion about it.

    Arles, Avignon, Aix, Marseille – c’mon man – are you having a laugh – you think that a gallop through three marginal places and one dump – in a week(!) – justifies a title about the “South of France”? You said that: “Luckily, these are amongst some of the most popular for travellers.” Well, actually, you’re wrong; these are not “among some of the most popular”. The droves of other Europeans who keep returning to the South of France seek out places in the Haute Savoie and the Cote d’Azur. To pen an article about the “South of France” without even mentioning these places is inexcusable. To concentrate on cities and fail to mention the great outdoors is incomprehensible. When I lived in London, you’d occasionally see coaches full of dazed elderly Americans. They’d never had a decent holiday in their lives, and, now that they had retired, they were going to “do Europe in two weeks”. You’d nod politely and inwardly marvel at the ignorance that allowed such nonsensical holidays to be sold to people.

    Other than that, I’d not want to visit Australia in a fit. It’s long-haul travel for English-speaking people who don’t like foreigners, with a tediously-oppressive climate. Paris is big and ugly and full of scumbags. NYC is a great spot. So is London. I’d say you’re too young / too hip to visit the South of France, if you ever do get around to going. It’s an outdoors place and/or a semi-urban place for rich, sophisticated people to retire to, for lifestyle and climate reasons; and if you’re not yet in that bracket, you’d probably be better off somewhere cheaper and more singleton-oriented. I think Bangkok is a conservative traffic jam full of ill-tempered locals; HCMH is pure chaos in many ways, but the Vietnamese people are lovely, as warm and as welcoming as the Thais are morose and scumbaggy.

  16. The first time I heard a group of young female professors talking about their first sojourn to the south of France, my initial reaction was, What pretentious crackpots.Y’know that familiar upturned nose and tilted head letting you know that “We’ve been to the south of France and you haven’t. I happen to have spent seven consecutive summers in Europe with first’-class accommodations, so I said to myself, “Say nothing, Let them shine.” If and when they become seasoned travelers they’d look back at this and realize how ridiculous they had acted.I give them a pass.

  17. Thanks for the info, Matt. Anyone who chides you for writing a blog entry on your personal blog should get a life. What would be more helpful from your critics would be advice to see things you may have missed. I’m planning a trip to Barcelona and am going to stop through one, maybe two destinations in the South of France. I’m thinking Nice and a stop in Montpellier to see Cité de Carcassonne.

    Anyway, thanks again, mate!

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