Avignon City Guide

Of all the Provençal towns, cities and villages of the Rhône, Avignon is the most captivating.

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Of all the Provençal towns, cities and villages of the Rhône, Avignon is the prettiest and most captivating of the lot. Boasting a historic timeline to rival cities four times its size and status, not to mention a café culture that Paris would fail to better; the city is the perfect place to stop, relax and enjoy a snapshot of the beauty and history of southern France on the waters of the Rhône.

For history lovers and architecture buffs alike, Avignon proves a melting pot of antique heritage buildings and charming cobblestone streets. The city is wrapped in fortified medieval walls complemented by a string of ancient bridges, and its historic centre, with its enchanting monuments, is protected by UNESCO on account of its irreplaceable heritage, beauty and culture.

All this comes before we'e mentioned Avignon's true highlight, the enigmatic Palais des Papes. As one of the largest medieval Gothic buildings in Europe, this sweeping fortified palace served as the papal residence for a string of popes in the 14th century, placing it at the very heart of Christianity in the Western world.
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History

Like so many of southern France's towns, cities and villages, the history of Avignon trails into the pages of antiquity. Occupied since the Neolithic period, the city served as a Celtic stronghold for centuries, before the Phocaeans established a Greek Emporium here in 539BC. Evidence of Avignon's prehistoric ancestry can still be admired today, with Copper and Early Bronze Age artifacts sitting in the city's Musée Requien.  

Avignon’s fate shifted in 120BC, when Roman legions arrived in the Rhône Valley. Under the dominion of the Roman Empire, Avignon became a popular trading route and one of the largest settlements in the Transalpine province. Several Roman emperors, including Hadrian (whose named was bestowed on the wall separating England and Scotland), stayed in Avignon during this period, putting the city very much on the map of the ancient world.

After centuries of Roman rule, in which several wooden bridges were built over the Rhône, Avignon’s Gallic tribes rebelled, eventually driving the Romans from the region and establishing a new civilisation throughout the Valley. It was during this time that Christianity first arrived in southern France, but centuries were to pass until the city would become the seat of Western Christianity in Europe.

The Middle Ages proved a dark and turbulent period in Avignon’s history, with dozens of battles, sieges and invasion attempts on the city. Despite this, Avignon flourished academically and within the arts, giving rise to a new era of peace and prosperity in the Late Middle Ages.

In 1309, Pope Clement V travelled to Avignon to escape the violent chaos of Rome, later making the newly-built Palais des Papes the primary residence of the Papal Curia. The original section of the Palais des Papes, which still stands today, was built on the impregnable Rock of Doms, offering outstanding protection against invading forces — the perfect venue for the seat of Christianity.

In the centuries to follow, Palais des Papes served as the papal conclave for six popes, and was expanded on several occasions to echo its significance as the world’s foremost religious structure. Today, the palace is one of Europe’s largest and most beautiful Gothic buildings, dominating the Avignon skyline with its limestone walls and imposing ramparts

After the Papacy was restored in Rome at the beginning of the 15th century, the French, under the rule of Louis XI, took Avignon in 1476. Despite several further conquests, Avignon remained part of the Kingdom of France until the dissolution of the monarchy during the French Revolution, becoming a major trading port of the Rhône during this time.

Today, Avignon stands as a testament to the history and splendour of southern France, with many of its buildings dating far back into the annals of history. The city has retained its flair for culture and the arts, and is home to a number of galleries and exhibits showcasing the work of local artists, musicians and performers.

a person standing in front of a castle with Palais des Papes in the background

What to see

Cultural Highlights
With a thousand years’ worth of history and heritage to unearth, Avignon punches far above its weight in the culture stakes. Add to that a handful of museums, theatres and art exhibits, and the city proves one of the finest stopping-off points during a Rhône river cruise.
 
Palais des Papes
Where else to begin a tour of Avignon’s famed historic wonders than the preeminent Palais des Papes, whose imposing walls have stood tall above the city since the 13th century? Originally built as a fortress, this magnificent structure became the official seat of Western Christianity, housing a succession of popes within its near-unassailable walls.

But it isn’t just the Palais des Papes’ usage which makes it so impressive; it’s also one of the most striking Gothic structures on the continent, famed the world over for its architectural accomplishments, which include tall towers, fortified walls and supports designed to withstand heavy siege warfare.

Travel with Scenic, and you’ll be given the exclusive opportunity to visit Palais des Papes for an evening of classical music in one of the palace’s great halls. This unique cultural excursion is part of our Enrich programme, and is available to all Scenic passengers at no extra cost.

St-Bénézet medieval bridge
While several captivating bridges criss-cross the Rhône in Avignon, one of the most beautiful is St-Bénézet, a medieval pont which collapsed during the great flood of the 17th century. Despite being ruinous, St-Bénézet has come to typify the historic grandeur of Avignon, and is still among the city.

a castle on top of a building

Featured Avignon Tours