Welcome to our South of France Road Trip itinerary guide, taking in the best of both Provence and Occitanie.
Driving in the South of France enables you to see far more than public transport does. You can get off the beaten path, seeing some of the most beautiful scenery in France along the way.
This road trip itinerary is packed with suggestions, and if you have a few more days available, there are plenty of possibilities for discovering even more amazing places.
I’ve devised this southern France road trip itinerary to include some of the best of Provence and the region to the west, Occitanie. The latter, covering southwest France, used to be known as Languedoc & Roussillon.
Provence is perhaps better known than Occitanie – but over several trips I’ve found both are equally compelling. This itinerary is an amalgamation of two of the south of France road trips I have done. It also takes you around six UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The first few days are spent driving short distances around the west of Provence before heading west. You eventually return via the fascinating city of Albi, enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery in France along the way.
South of France Road Trip Itinerary
Day 1 – Avignon
Avignon, my suggested starting point for this south of France vacation, is one of the best cities in France to visit. It’s best known as the City of Popes – six Popes presided from there in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The Palais des Papes – the Popes’ Palace – is one of the highlights. The immense fortified palace is one of the greatest Gothic buildings in France, and still dominates the whole city.
Avignon is also renowned because of the famous song, Sur le pont d’Avignon. The Pont Saint-Bénézet is named after the local saint who claimed he had a vision telling him to build a bridge on the site. The location was unsuitable: the original 12th-century bridge was destroyed by floods, and just four arches of its replacement survive.
I suggest sticking to one day in Avignon, simply because there is so much to see elsewhere. It may well be worth considering a guided walking tour of Avignon, which will cover the main sights I’ve mentioned and the Notre Dame des Doms Cathedral near the Papal Palace.
There are also several more churches to explore, including those of St Didier and St Pierre, and the formidable circuit of town walls.
Also take a walk to the Rue des Teinturiers, one of the prettiest streets in Avignon. It’s set along a canal in an area once lived in by the city’s dyers and tanners, and one of their waterwheels is still preserved.
Places To Stay In Avignon
Hotel d’Europe: 5-star luxury on one of the loveliest squares in Avignon
La Mirande – 5-star elegance next to the Palais des Papes
Les Jardins de Baracane: gorgeous 17th century guesthouse
Day 2 – Around Avignon – Pont du Gard, Orange And More
I suggest using Avignon as a base for the first part of this south of France road trip as there is such an abundance of day trips from Avignon.
One of the best things about staying in Avignon is that so many of the best places to visit in Provence are within reach by public transport. That said, a great many places to see in Provence can only be reached by car.
The drawback of using public transport in the south of France is that you’re limited to seeing one place a day. Driving allows you to cover more ground more quickly, and on the second day of your South of France vacation you can easily reach two World Heritage Sites and explore some of the best of Côtes du Rhône wine country.
Start the day by heading west along the N100 from Avignon, continuing to Remoulins and following the D19 towards the Pont du Gard. It’s one of the most iconic bridges in Europe, a triple-layered arched aqueduct built in the 1st century AD. The Romans built it to supply the nearby town of Nemausus with water.
It’s remarkably well preserved, among the outstanding Roman monuments in Europe. The Aqueduct is a few minutes’ walk from the car park and small museum devoted to the Pont.
After a couple of hours at the Pont du Gard, return to Remoulins and then join the A9 motorway (toll applies) for the short journey (around 30 km from where you join the motorway) to Orange. Follow the signs to the centre of Orange, a provincial town to the north of Avignon.
Here you’ll need a couple of hours to visit two more amazing Roman sights (which make up another World Heritage Site). The Arc de Triomphe d’Orange is beautifully preserved, especially its exceptional bas-reliefs. It’s believed to date from the reign of the first Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, and there is also an inscription dedicated to his successor, Tiberius.
The other unmissable sight in Orange is the Théâtre Antique, or Ancient Theatre. Again, it’s incredibly well reserved, with an intact stage wall. The statue in the stage wall is of Emperor Augustus, during whose reign it was probably built. The Theatre has been used to stage productions again since the 19th century.
The stage is an astonishing 60 metres wide, and dramas and comedies would have been performed on it in ancient times. Nowadays it’s used for opera performances, especially during the summertime Choregies d’Orange festival.
You can return to Orange via the backroads around the famous wine village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Alternatively, a more scenic route takes you east via Violes to the Dentelles de Montmirail, Beaumes-de-Venise and Carpentras before swinging south-east to Avignon.
Day 3 – Avignon to Arles
We leave Avignon behind on the third morning of our South of France road trip, gently making our way a short distance down to the Rhone to the gorgeous World Heritage city of Arles.
Begin the day by driving the 10 miles (16 km) south from Avignon to the gorgeous little town of St Remy de Provence. I’ve stopped here numerous times over the years, and always found something new to intrigue me.
It’s mainly known for its connection to Vincent van Gogh, who made several of his most famous paintings there, including Starry Night and Olive trees with the Alpilles in the background. He produced these while a patient at what was then known as the Saint-Paul Asylum, on the southern edge of the town.
This is now known as the Centre Culturel Saint-Paul de Mausole, and is next to the same groves of olive trees van Gogh painted. These are, in turn, next to the ancient Roman city of Glanum. Two of the best-preserved monuments – the Mausoleum of the Julii and Triumphal Arch – are on the west side of the road, while the rest of the city is on the other side.
The settlement pre-dated the Romans, who occupied the site until it was ransacked around 260 AD by the Alemanni. The ruins of the main town are substantial, including part of a temple, a well-preserved main street, baths and a spring.
Head south over the jagged hills of the Alpilles range, from which you emerge with a view of the vast coastal plain. The D5 road continues around to Les Baux de Provence, one of ‘les plus beaux villages de France’.
It’s certainly one of the most dramatically sited villages in France, occupying a limestone outcrop with superb views in all directions. The village is huddled below the ruined medieval castle, which ruled over more than 70 villages before the line of succession ended in the 15th century.
Most of the old village is given over to tourism, with many of the houses now used as galleries or gift shops. But don’t be put off. I’ve visited the village three times, and most recently loved the walks around the Val d’Enfer (the Valley of Hell) to the north of the village.
The views there are superb, and if you have time I also suggest visiting Les Carrières de Lumières, a series of underground caverns that hosts some amazing art installations. At the time of writing they have a Dutch theme, with Vermeer, van Gogh and Mondrian featured.
The village also gave its name to bauxite, an aluminium ore quarried to exhaustion until the end of the 20th century. Your day is almost done. It’s a 20-minute drive – around 8 miles (14 km) south-east to the wonderful city of Arles, where I suggest staying two nights.
Where To Stay In Arles
Hotel de l’Anglais: wonderful guesthouse in the heart of Old Arles
Hotel de l’Amphitheatre
Hotel Spa Le Calendal
Day 4 – Arles
Arles may just be our favourite city in Provence. I’ve visited several times over the years, and it’s a great base for a day – even several. It’s the gateway to the Camargue, the wetlands of the Rhone delta, and like Avignon, makes a great base for day trips in the south of France.
Some of you may prefer Arles to Avignon – it’s more vivid, bright and colourful than its more austere neighbour to the north. Arles, another UNESCO World Heritage city, has two main draws for its visitors: its Roman sites and Vincent van Gogh association.
The Roman amphitheatre, which holds crowds of 25,000, was completed a few years after the Colosseum in Rome. It’s in excellent condition, and like its counterpart in Nimes, hosts bullfighting (but no killing), and concerts. It’s an awesome venue for events like this, and an absolute must-see if you visit Arles.
The Roman Theatre is a short distance away. It would have been of similar size to the Roman Theatre in Orange, but is in worse state of preservation. The most intriguing of the Roman sites in Arles is Les Alyscamps, a Roman-era necropolis that continued to be Arles’ principal burial ground a thousand years after they had gone. Roman burial grounds were traditionally outside the city walls, as was the case here.
Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles in 1888, and though some of his time there could be described as turbulent, it was also one of the most productive of his lifetime. Arles undoubtedly inspired him. It was where he produced the likes of Starry Night Over the Rhone, The Yellow House, Café Terrace At Night, L’Arlesienne and some of his famous still-lifes and studies of chairs.
He left Arles for St-Remy in May 1889, having spent time at the Hospital (now L’Espace van Gogh). If you have an interest in van Gogh, you should also make time to visit the Fondation Vincent van Gogh, which usually has a small collection of his paintings on display.
Aficionados of modern architecture should also seek out Luma Arles. It’s an arts and cultural centre, the distinctive work of Frank Gehry. The architect of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and Dancing House Prague completed this commission in 2021, and it’s one of his best. I love the description of the Tower in the Guardian just after its completion – ‘Bacofoil scrunched by an invisible fist’.
Day 5 – Arles to Carcassonne
The fifth day of your South of France road trip is really down to you. It’s a two-hour drive, mostly along the A9 autoroute, to your next stop, Carcassonne. You may wish to see more of Arles. Or perhaps you may wish to get to Carcassonne as early as possible.
On the other hand, there is the option of heading south to the fascinating Camargue, or visiting some intriguing seaside towns very close by. I spent a couple of days of my first south of France road trip, back in the summer of 1988, in this area and have always meant to return.
We meandered around the Camargue for a while, camping near the beautiful old seaside town of Le Grau du Roi, on the western edge of the wetland area. Le Grau is a few miles along the coast from La Grande Motte, a resort built in the 1960s and 1970s.
I wrote in my journal at the time that it was ‘a seaside resort for aliens’. Many of the buildings – designed by Jean Balladur – are pyramid-like constructions. They were supposedly inspired by some of the pyramids of Central America, but always struck me as being more futuristic.
The medieval fortress town of Aigues-Mortes is a few miles along the coast on the D62. The town walls are superb, the architecture of much of the small town likewise. It’s on the shore of the Camargue, on the edge of a vast expanse of salt flats. I haven’t returned there since the ‘80s, but would recommend anyone intrigued enough to go exploring.
Head for the A709 and then the A9 autoroute south of Montpellier. La Languedocienne takes you past the splendid old cities of Beziers and Narbonne, and at the latter take the A61 to your next stop, the fortified town of Carcassonne.
Places To Stay in Carcassonne
Hotel de la Cite & Spa MGallery: stunning 5-star hotel in the medieval citadel
Sowell Hotels Les Chevaliers: fine 4star in the Ville Basse, with some of the best views in town
Day 6 – Carcassonne
Carcassonne is one of the great icons of France and most beautiful castles in Europe. The city – close to the Mediterranean and trade routes – has been fortified to some degree since Roman times.
The Visigoths took over the city, and the Carolingians, under Pepin the Short, took over in the 8th century. The city was also renowned as one of the main refuges of the Cathars, Christians with what the Catholic Church considered heretical beliefs. As part of the Albigensian Crusade, thousands were brutally expelled from Carcassonne.
I’ve visited Carcassonne on three south of France road trips, and each time the initial sight of it has blown me away. The Cité de Carcassonne – the Citadel – encompasses the Old Town and Castle (Chateau Comtal), its 50 or more towers and turrets and immense walls visible from many miles away.
It’s an amazing sight from the Pont Vieux – the long medieval bridge across the river Aude – and from the vineyards that surround the town. The Cité is quite small and only takes a few hours to explore, including its gateways and ramparts and the Basilica of St Nazaire.
Each time I’ve visited I’ve ended up spending more time in the Ville Basse – the modern lower town – than the Cité. A restored medieval citadel isn’t really conducive to day-to-day modern life, and this is where you’ll find more Carcassonne restaurants and hotels.
While there, don’t miss the Cathedral of Saint-Michel, which replaced the Basilica in the Cité as the region’s mother church in 1803. Also take a drive into the surrounding countryside to appreciate some of the amazing views of the Cité. Some of the best are from the vineyards surrounding the town.
Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is on the doorstep of another – the Canal du Midi. This amazing feat of engineering was completed in the mid-17th century. The 240-kilometre waterway links the city of Toulouse with the Mediterranean Sea, and Carcassonne is near the mid-point of the Canal.
Day 7 – Carcassonne to Albi
The drive between these two World Heritage cities takes you over the unheralded Montagne Noire (Black Mountain). It also crosses from the Aude departement to Tarn, of which Albi is the capital.
The Montagne Noire is a vast upland forest area, and the D118 winds its way up and over the top. It takes you as far as the outskirts of the fine town of Castres, a name familiar to rugby fans around Europe. I only stopped for lunch for an hour or so, with just enough time to admire the quirky tanners’ houses above the Agout river.
A few old friends from Wales have visited to watch rugby there, and are very enamoured with the town. I’d be inclined to press on towards Albi, but there are plenty of other things to see in Castres, including a Goya Museum.
Continuing northwards, you eventually pass the turnoff for the gorgeous medieval village of Lautrec. If the name is familiar, it’s the ancestral village of the family of artist Henri de Toulouse—Lautrec, more on whom shortly. There’s a beautiful square surrounded by characteristic local brick and timber houses, and a fine 17th century windmill on the hill above the village.
Eventually you reach the red-brick wonder of Albi, long one of my favourite cities in France. Park, check in and head straight for the most striking building in the city, the extraordinary Cathédrale Ste Cécile.
Its exterior looks more like a forbidding fortress than a place of worship. This was the intention of Bishop Bernard de Castanet, who began the Cathedral in the aftermath of the 13th-century Albigensian Crusade.
This campaign had seen the defeat of the Cathar heretics, so the new Cathedral was all about projecting Bernard’s power. Although he did cut costs somewhat by using brick rather than stone. Albi Cathedral is said to be the biggest brick building in the world. I’m pretty sure that it isn’t (mighty Malbork Castle in Poland is bigger) but it’s a hugely impressive edifice.
I strongly recommend taking a walk down the hill to the River Tarn to admire the view of the city with the Cathedral looming above. It’s particularly striking at sunrise, when the first light of the day glances across the red-brick buildings. Albi Cathedral is so different inside. I remember expecting a bare, austere interior, like a vast empty hall in a Castle. Not at all. It’s positively lavish and extravagant.
I was particularly struck by the beautifully painted vaults, which run the length of the church. This would have been done in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The walls are also beautifully decorated, with the 15th-century Last Judgment mural at the west end of the nave the oldest surviving work.
Places To Stay In Albi
Hotel Alchimy: 4-star with luxury suites in the historical centre
Hostellerie du Grand St-Antoine
La Voute du 26 – amazing apartment in medieval house in the historic centre of Albi
Day 8 – Albi and Albigeois Region
There are enough things to do in Albi to keep you there for two or three days. It’s one of the most underrated cities in France, a place rich in medieval architecture. Other cities (Toulouse) and towns in the region also have the distinctive red brick houses with timber frames – as does Lautrec, from the previous day of this South of France itinerary.
Start the day at the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, housed next door to the Cathedral in the Bishops’ Palace, the Palais de la Berbie. The superb collection of Toulouse-Lautrec’s works was donated to his home city in 1922. He was famous for his Parisian posters and also drawings and paintings, and some of his best-known works are included in the collection, including the Moulin Rouge Masked Ball poster.
Spend more time exploring the less-known Albi sights, including the Maison du Vieil Alby (House of Old Albi, open afternoons only) and the Saint-Salvi church and cloister. I was fortunate to have allowed myself three days in Albi, leaving time for a short drive north into the Albigeois, the countryside north of Albi.
The main draw in the area is the gorgeous hilltop town of Cordes-sur-Ciel. It’s a beautiful rambling medieval town built on a steep hill, its cobbled streets full of galleries. It seemed to be pitched towards curious visitors, but when we visited, in April, there were very few of us around.
If Cordes is busy in summer and you really want to step back in time, head around 10 miles west to the village of Penne. It’s somewhere I yearn to return, an extraordinary village crowned by a wonky medieval castle. It’s in my personal most beautiful villages in France list, for sure.
Day 9 – Albi to Millau
With great reluctance, we bid farewell to Albi to head east towards the southern end of the Massif Central. On this day we visit one of the great modern famous landmarks in France. And there is the option of visiting the home of one of the best blue cheeses in the world, if your tastebuds are so inclined.
We suggest following the D999 east from Albi into the Aveyron department, a journey of around 60 miles (100 km). ass through the pretty town of Saint-Affrique before you reach the cheese mecca of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
This small village is paradise to blue cheese fiends like us, and I ate one of the best sandwiches of my life there. The contents were no more than a very large chunk of bread and a huge helping of Roquefort cheese, but this was my food paradise.
The story goes that a shepherd left a piece of cheese in the high pastures, retrieving it months later to find it covered in mould. He supposedly tried a bite, and so one of the most famous cheeses in France was born.
See Also:What Is France Famous For?
It’s a half-hour drive from there through the Grands Causses Regional Natural Park to Millau. These days it’s best-known as the nearest town to the Viaduc de Millau – or Millau Viaduct.
This magnificent bridge is the tallest in Europe, 270 metres above the Tarn valley floor at one point. One of its piers is 1143 feet (348 metres) high – which is considerably taller than the Eiffel Tower.
From Roquefort, I suggest rejoining the D999 and turning right, heading east to the nearest junction of the A75 autoroute (motorway). Join the autoroute, heading left (north) where you enjoy astounding views of the bridge and landscape below.
Turn off the A75 at the next junction, and follow the road around to the rest area (Aire du Viaduc de Millau) and viewpoint. From there you get a stunning view, with the piers of the bridge very close to each other. I also suggest driving around the Tarn Valley below the Viaduct to seek out more views of it.
One of my favourites is the beautiful village of Peyre, roughly a mile west of the Viaduct. This is where our dusk image of the Viaduct was shot.
Hotels In Millau
Couvent de la Salette: the best luxury bet in Millau, beautiful rooms in a centuries-old former convent
Domaine des Ondes – great guesthouse with wonderful mountain views
Day 10 – Millau to Avignon
Before the Viaduct was built, Millau was best-known as the gateway to the Gorges du Tarn. The upper reaches of the river flow through this spectacular narrow gorge on its way west, where it eventually meets the broad Garonne river.
Follow the D187 north out of Millau, continuing north-east to Le Rozier. From there, you have the option of heading 10 miles north to the best viewpoint in the Gorges du Tarn, the Point Sublime, which commands a breathtaking view of the valley.
From there, double back to Millau or head south via minor roads via Nant, to join the D7. This becomes the D999 a few miles to the east, and from here you continue into the Cevennes. briefly stopped) and Saint Hippolyte du Fort. The D999 takes you all the way to Nimes, home to of the greatest Roman monuments in France and an enchanting old centre.
You could overnight in Nimes or continue to Avignon – entirely up to you. I’ve stayed in Nimes twice, both times for one night, and would gladly do so again. The Maison Carrée, a 2nd century AD Roman Temple, is one of the best-reserved ancient buildings anywhere in the world. It’s an astonishing sight, especially at dusk when the floodlights give it a magical aura.
The Temple is on the same square as the Carré d’Art, a contemporary arts centre and museum designed by Norman Foster (who also designed the Viaduc de Millau. Even if a little Roman monument fatigue is beginning to creep in, the Arènes of Nimes is a must-see. Like that of Arles, this amphitheatre is in superb condition and still used for concerts and events.
Getting To The South Of France
If you’re flying long-haul to France, from North America or Australia, it makes sense to fly to Paris, then catch the TGV (fast train) south to Avignon. You can then pick up your hire car from there. We recommend discover cars, who we use ourselves to find the best car rental deal in the area we’re exploring.
If you’re flying to the south of France from elsewhere in Europe, there are a multitude of airports in southern France to choose from.
You don’t necessarily have to start this south of France road trip from Avignon – you could easily do so from Carcassonne, which has a small airport that is a hub for budget carrier Ryanair.
I’ve flown into several other airports across the region, including Nimes (another Ryanair option), Marseille and Nice. You can also fly to Lyon (less than two hours’ drive north of Avignon) or even Grenoble, in the heart of the French Alps.
South of France Road Trip – Final Thoughts
I hope this south of France road trip itinerary gives you some inspiration. It’s an astounding part of the world, and this mixture of Provence and Occitanie will encourage you to delve deeper into one, or both, of them.
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David Angel is a Welsh, photographer, writer and historian who has been travelling and photographing Europe for over 30 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, Condé Nast Traveller, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.