Looking for a trip filled with culture, history, great food and beautiful scenery? This South of France itinerary takes you from Lyon to Marseille.
When you think of the South of France, what images spring to mind? Provençale views of bright yellow sunflowers and the unmistakeable scent of lavender? Undulating hills lined with vineyards? Medieval towns built into the rocks? The glittering turquoise waters of the Cote d’Azur? This part of France is an incredible region to travel around as it offers so much.
I’ve just returned from an 8-day adventure which started in Lyon and finished in Marseille. There were so many highlights along the way, including wine tasting in Beaujolais, kayaking under the Pont du Gard, hiking through the spectacular landscapes of the Gorges de l’Ardèche, visiting an immersive digital art exhibition in a quarry in Les Baux, and enjoying fine French cuisine in Marseille’s old port.
Rather than figure out complex logistics, for transport, hotels and tours, I was invited to travel on board the Avalon Poetry II river cruise. Some river cruise itineraries can be quite regimented, but this Active and Discovery on the Rhône tour allowed for plenty of optional activities and tours, as well as free time to explore places independently.
You may prefer to follow this South of France itinerary as a road trip or book onto a cruise as I did. With so many gorgeous places within easy reach of one another, you’re guaranteed to have a holiday to remember.
Read more: Tempted to book a river cruise? Read my review of the Avalon Poetry II
Lyon to Marseille: The Perfect South of France Itinerary
When planning a trip from Lyon to Marseille, there are plenty of different routes you could take, but I loved this one as it followed the course of the Rhône.
South of France Itinerary Map
Lyon is often referred to as the culinary capital of France. I think Paris might have a thing or two to say about that, but it’s highly regarded all the same. A big part of that reputation comes from the city’s proximity to countryside. Around a third of all France’s food and drink is produced in this region. That’s everything from vegetables and salamis, to classic cheeses and award-winning wines.
To make the most of your time in Lyon, I’d recommend taking a food tour around the city. I found the guided tour was such a great way to get to know the history of the city as well as get to grips with the cuisine. The tour (an excursion booked as part of my Avalon river cruise) took us to a number of different shops including a traditional salami store, for a slice of the Lyon’s legendary praline pie, and to a gorgeous little viewpoint with a selection of cheeses.
One of my favourite elements of the tour was exploring the city’s many traboules. These are special passageways that were used by the silk trade. There are 500 dotted around the city, and as tourists, there’s no way we would have found them! Inside are beautiful courtyards, hidden towers and all sorts of treats! Just look at this one…
While I chose to eat my way around the city (all in the name of research of course!) there are several other things to do during your stay in Lyon. As mentioned, it’s a city famous for cuisine, and a few of my friends went and cooked up a delicious Lyonnaise lunch with a local chef. They said it was a great experience and they learned a few recipes they’d make at home in the future.
If you’re interested in history and architecture, there are also tours dedicated to the traboules and the city’s architecture.
Alternatively, it’s a beautiful city to explore on foot, so I’d recommend allowing a bit of time to see the banks of the Rhône and Saône Rivers, wander the Quartier Saint-Jean and Colline Croix-Rousse districts and perhaps visit the market Les Halles de Lyon. As ever, get lost and you never know what you might find!
Beaujolais Wine Region
If you’re looking to discover more than Lyon, the Beaujolais wine region is a short drive away. Many vineyards such as the Jean Jacques Paire Wine Estate offer tours with tasting sessions. I’d also recommend taking a drive up to Oingt, a spectacular mediaeval village which overlooks a valley filled with vineyards, and is considered one of the most beautiful villages in France.
Tain-l’Hermitage and Tournon
My time spent in these two towns was a highlight of my entire trip through France. They sit either side of the Rhône, connected by the Seguin Footbridge, the oldest suspension bridge still used in France. The views here are simply spectacular! There are steep vineyards on both sides, plus an ancient chateau and a folly up on the hill.
If you’re a wine lover like me, I’d recommend a morning walk through the vineyards. There are public paths, so you can wander freely (just respect the vines!) There are local companies offering wine tours too, so you could do a tasting within the vineyards as I did. Sipping a glass of Crozes-Hermitage next to the vines that created it – what better way to taste it?!
If you fancy something a little different, you could book a special class at world-famous chocolatier Valrhona. The brand opened La Cité De Chocolat in 2013 in Tain l’Hermitage. It’s described as a “multi-sensory interactive chocolate experience”. As well as learning more about how the chocolate is made, you could also make some of your own to take home too!
If you’re looking for an active adventure during your visit to Tournon, check out the Vélorail (rail bike) through the beautiful Gorges du Doux. This was the first time I’d heard of this activity. I’ve never seen it anywhere else on my travels!
Essentially, you sit in a small car on the old rail tracks and pedal your way along. There are slopes, hills to climb and incredible landscapes along the way. Plus remember, the more exercise you do, the more wine and chocolate you can enjoy during your trip!
Continuing down the Rhône I found myself in Viviers, another enchanting town filled with ancient monuments. I explored it at night, which seemed fitting as it has a ghostly past! I heard all about this on an after-dinner ghost tour, with live actors playing characters from throughout history.
Viviers was established in the 5th century and was once home to 30,000 people. Today, just 4,000 people live in the old stone houses. The cobblestone streets are narrow and windy – the kind of place you wouldn’t want to drive! Key places to see include the Cathedral of Saint-Vincent (which dates from the 12th century) and the Town Hall which was once the bishops’ palace.
Gorges de l’Ardèche
As Viviers is small, it won’t take long to look around, so I’d recommend a trip out to see the Gorges de l’Ardèche while you’re in the region. This is around 45-minutes by car. If you love epic landscapes, you’re going to fall in love with this place! The most famous view is of the Pont d’Arc, a 50m tall natural bridge over the Ardeche River. Just wait until you see it for yourself, it’s absolutely breathtaking!
There are lots of hiking trails, small beaches and a few cafes, hotels and restaurants close by. It’s also a great area for wildlife, with wild boar, deer, eagles, vultures, peregrine falcons and owls all living in the habitat around the river.
One of the most popular activities here is to kayak along the river, paddling right through the famous arch. However, during my trip, France was recovering from heavy rain and the water was flowing too fast for a leisurely activity! I chose to go for a hike around the area instead, while watching a few brave kayakers from the river’s edge!
I should also add that this is the location of the famous Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave. These caves were discovered in 1994 and are considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites in the world. As well as the impressive cave paintings, fossils and human remains were also discovered. Experts have placed these as being from 32,000 years ago… absolutely mind-blowing! The cave is closed to visitors for preservation, but close by is Pont-d’Arc Cavern, where you can see a replica.
This was my third time in Avignon, but the fact I’d visited before didn’t take anything away from the experience. If anything, it made it even more special as I felt like I had already been a tourist, and this time I could wander at my own pace.
If you’re visiting for the first time, there are a few places you must see, for example UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palais des Papes. This historical palace was the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century, and is a spectacular example of Gothic architecture. It’s also lovely to wander the perimeter of the city centre, following the 4.3 kilometres city walls.
Plus, you can’t miss the Pont Saint-Bénézet (St. Benezet Bridge). If you’ve ever heard the song ‘Sur le Pont d’Avignon’ (a popular French nursery rhyme) you might be familiar with this bridge already! The bridge you’ll see in Avignon today dates back to the 12th century, although only four arches and the gatehouse have survived, so don’t expect to cross to the other side!
I visited all of these spots during the trip as well as finding plenty of time to wander the skinny streets of the city itself. There’s a real charm to the long rows of terraces with pastel Provence shutters, and small shops and cafes built from the signature yellow stone. One of the most picturesque streets I found was Rue des Teinturiers, which has old cobblestones underfoot, huge sycamore trees along one edge, as well as large waterwheels once used in the textiles industry.
The other highlight was experiencing the city’s vibrant food market Les Halles d’Avignon. There are some great city tours which include a visit to the market as part of the experience. There are over 40 stalls under one roof, selling everything from fresh meat and fish, to cheese, wine and sumptuous pastries. There are even a few stalls where you can dine in!
Pont du Gard
I chose to explore Avignon in the morning and then book onto a special excursion in the afternoon to kayak under Pont du Gard. This impressive Roman aqueduct is one of the most visited historic sites in France, and wow is it magnificent! Some of my friends went on an e-bike tour across it, but I was keen to see it from the water!
I kayaked 9km downstream, with a few small yet exhilarating rapids along the route. The water was crystal clear with a turquoise hue. Seeing the top of Pont du Gard come into view was a very special moment. It’s a magical structure to see, and it seems so vast when you’re floating in a tiny kayak underneath it! This was another highlight from my week in France, and something I’d definitely recommend adding to your South of France itinerary.
Arles is a pretty Provençale city with history at its core. There’s a huge Roman amphitheatre in the centre, with narrow streets with colourful shutters fanning out from the middle.
But wait, there’s a new landmark in this city too. The Luma Arles arts tower was designed by modern architectural genius Frank Gehry and its silver structure is visible from miles away. I didn’t have the chance to go inside, but I hear the interiors are equally as boundary-pushing, with walls made from salt from The Camargue, slides through the atrium and mirrors on the ceiling!
As well as Luma, there is plenty more on offer for art lovers in Arles. Towards the end of his life, Vincent Van Gogh moved from Paris to Arles, seeking the south’s warmer temperatures. He fell in love with the beautiful countryside, light and colours of Provence. If you’re interested in learning more about the artist, visit the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles. Also, be sure to take a wander around the Place du Forum and you’ll see the inspiration for his painting Café Terrace at Night.
One of the reasons I think this is the perfect South of France itinerary is the huge variety of things to do. No matter what you’re interested in, there’s something you’ll enjoy!
I decided to go on one of the Avalon day trips from Arles to Les Baux-de-Provence which is located in the Alpilles (the mini Alps!) The village itself is built into the rock and includes a chateau, church and lots of beautifully preserved monuments. I went on a hike up through the rocky terrain to reach a viewpoint where I could look back at the village. What a view!
Next, I went to one of the most engaging art exhibitions I’ve been to in a long time. Inside the quarry here is Carrieres de Lumieres, an immersive digital art exhibition which is projected onto the cavernous interiors. Set to a soundtrack of classical and modern music, the artworks have been digitised and animated, creating a unique and captivating experience. During my visit, the visuals were based on the works of Cezanne and Kandinsky, but they change throughout the year, so check the website before your go.
I finished my Avalon cruise in Port-Saint-Louis, which is close to Marseille, at the mouth of the Rhône. There isn’t a huge amount to do in this town, but it is close to the France’s wild, marshy area known as The Camargue. Have you heard of Le Mistral? It’s the name of the wind which blasts through the South of France. Sounds scary, but it has its benefits too! It helps with the salt production, blows away air pollution and keeps Provence’s vineyards dry. The only thing is, there are about 220 days of wind down in The Camargue, so that’s something to bear in mind.
I never knew France had a place with salt flats, rice paddies and lakes, where white horses gallop across the countryside, black bulls are heralded as heroes and flocks of pink flamingos stand tall in the water. This is an area rich with nature and popular with birdwatchers. The best times to visit are in spring and autumn for the migration of the birds. With so much water around, it’s also home to a number of varieties of mosquito, so cover up!
If you’re looking for things to do in The Camargue, you could visit an oyster farm, go on a cycle tour though the unusual scenery, or enjoy a nature tour to learn more about the creatures who call the region home.
This vibrant port city is the final stop on this amazing South of France itinerary. There are plenty of sights to see here including the striking Notre-Dame de la Garde (known as la Bonne-mère) and Cathédrale La Major. It’s a great city for museum lovers too, with Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille and Mucem (Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean) both highly regarded. In fact, I’d say Mucem is worth visiting for its architecture alone!
If you have a little more time, you could go on one of the most popular day trips from Marseille to visit Calanques National Park. Don’t forget your camera, as this is a beautiful place filled with dramatic landscapes, turquoise waters and secret coves.
On my final day in Marseille I chose to wander around the Vieux-Port (old port), enjoying the views of the yachts, the glittering turquoise of the water and the hustle and bustle of the fish sellers. After a long stroll, I stopped for lunch at a cute bistro (Le Bouchon Provencal) and tucked into a delicious salmon tartare and a glass of rose. What a perfect end to my wonderful South of France itinerary!
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my South of France itinerary and it helps you plan an amazing trip from Lyon to Marseille. I travelled on Avalon’s Active and Discovery on the Rhône with Avalon Waterways. You can read more about my experience in my river cruise review, as well as finding out 17 useful things to know before your first European river cruise. You could also follow my itinerary by hiring a rental car and going on a really fun France road trip!
Looking for other places to visit in southern France? Check out my top 10 things to do in Cannes and my Cote d’Azur travel guide for lots of stunning spots on the French Riviera. For a really fun read, don’t miss my adventures in Nice and Monte-Carlo – a trip where I turned up at the airport and had no idea where I was going!
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