Avignon: A pocket guide

Ringed by well-preserved 800-year-old stone ramparts, Avignon was the seat of papal power in the fourteenth century, and it is known for its splendid art and architecture. “It is the most beautiful place in all my kingdom,” said Louis XIV, and many today would agree. The magnificent Papal Palace is the largest Gothic palace in Europe, the Palais Vieux and Palais Neuf stuffed with fabulous frescoes, paintings, and objets d’art that give a fascinating portrait of a medieval seat of power. Successive popes transformed Avignon from a sleepy provincial town to a glittering city renowned throughout Europe. A private zoo, songbirds in golden cages, and a steam room were just a few of the popes’ treasured possessions.

Avignon’s walled Old Town is a warren of cobbled streets, lantern-lit passageways, and architectural treasures. Bathed in the brilliant Provençal light, this former papal enclave has long attracted artists and painters, as well as those in search of cultural diversion. Place de l’Horloge is the heart of Old Town; every visitor should see the City Hall’s medieval clock tower and ornate opera house before continuing into the huge nearby square. Here, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-des-Dom’s golden Virgin Mary soars above elaborate angelic marble statuary; interior artworks include Pope John XXII’s carved mausoleum, a fourteenth-century masterpiece.

Avignon is remembered in the French children’s song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” (“On the Bridge of Avignon”), which describes folk dancing. The bridge of the song is the Saint Bénezet Bridge, built in the twelfth century over the Rhone River. The missing part of the bridge collapsed during a flood in 1660.

Avignon is nicknamed the Paris of southern France, maintaining its claim to fame as a city of high European culture with dynamic and world-class summer drama, music, and dance festivals. The legendary Festival d’Avignon attracts every summer the world’s greatest performers of modern theater, music, and opera, who dazzle large audiences in the medieval Cour d’Honneur of the Palais des Papes.

The Popes' palace and the St.-Benezet bridge in Avignon, France view from the Bartelasse Island

Meet the Experts for Avignon