Peter and I arrived in Avignon mid-day on a Thursday and stayed three nights at a hotel located outside the city walls.
We had two full days in Avignon. Our itinerary was as follows:
Arrival day: Get acclimated to the lay of the land; drink some wine
Full day 1: Wine tour in the morning and sightseeing in the afternoon
Full day 2: No plan
We kept day 2 open in the event we felt like taking a day trip to Nimes, Arles, or to the Luberon, a massif in the heart of Provence with a bunch of medieval villages. Or maybe chill in the sunshine and drink sangria al fresco somewhere.
In retrospect, a day trip was more of a lofty goal than anything else. Our trip was packed with sightseeing in two cities, three half-day tours, a transfer day/Sunday, and a semi-public holiday.
Note: A semi-public holiday in France is almost the same as a full-public holiday. The city shuts down almost completely.
That’s enough to do for five days.
Our first impression of Avignon was that it was hot!
The average temperature during our stay was 93°F (34°C), and having lived in Seattle and London for the past 11 years, we are not acclimated to high temperatures.
High temperatures are fine when we’re lounging at a pool, but it is a different story when we’re sightseeing, especially in a city enclosed in tall stone walls that block the breeze.
Our trip to Avignon and Lyon was to visit the Rhône wine region. This wine region flanks the Rhône River, stretching from Lyon to Avignon.
City sightseeing was secondary to wine touring. And although Lyon is known as the “gastronomic capital of the world,” we certainly were not there for the food.
Snails? No thanks.
Pizza Hut and KFC flavored chips? Sure, I’ll give it a go.
As far as the cities go, Lyon was architecturally pleasing and super-duper clean.
On the other hand, Avignon was smaller and more subdued than Lyon, though we did stick to the old town area inside the city walls.
Avignon was too chill and sleepy for us. I expected more from Avignon, like a cute old town, and it fell flat in that regard. Yes, it was quaint, but the old town in Lyon had more charm than all of Avignon.
Options for accommodation in Avignon were tough even though we booked well in advance. We ultimately decided on the Novotel Avignon Centre.
The upsides to the hotel were that it was located a 5-minute walk from the Avignon Centre train station, and the bed was comfortable.
Note: The only room types at this hotel that guarantee a king-size bed (super king in the UK) are suites. The hotel’s top floor is reserved for suites and a conference/meeting room.
The biggest downside with the hotel was that the hallway on our floor smelled like sewage (our room did not).
Skimming through Google reviews for the hotel, the sewage smell problem dates back at least seven months. It seems that the other three hotel floors have not had this problem.
As a side note, the smell of sewage was present throughout Avignon, but I think that’s a different problem than what was happening in the hotel.
The suite was almost too big, and overlooked the pool, which was in the courtyard of the hotel. There was a big balcony with fake green grass and separate rooms for the shower/bath and toilet, which was a nice touch.
Location-wise, the hotel was convenient regarding the train station but was less so when it came to the city center. Most of our walking was to and from the city center, not to and from the station, making this hotel not necessarily convenient for tourist purposes.
We used the pool on our second full day in Avignon. The pool area is compact, with approximately 16 sun loungers and a dozen chairs around the pool deck. It is too small for the demand of hotel guests.
The pool was not an oasis by any means; however, it was quiet until 3pm, when families descended on the area. It went from quiet to absolute mayhem in a blink of an eye.
At the end of the day, the hotel was fine. The pillows need to be replaced and the sewage smell problem fixed. After that, I’d give a rating of 7/10.
Avignon city center
The walk from the hotel to the city center was 10-15 minutes, depending on the destination. I’ve mentioned this before, but we think 15 minutes is too long, especially in less desirable weather destinations.
There is no public transportation or taxis inside the city walls. In fact, there are almost no cars inside the city walls, save for a few resident-owned cars and delivery vehicles.
Oh, and the tourist train. It should be electric but is not!
Cycling and walking are the primary modes of transportation for getting around the city center.
The streets were a patchwork of tile, cobblestone, and asphalt. Most streets were wide enough for only one car. Others were pedestrian-only.
A thoroughfare runs from the Avignon Centre train station to [almost] the square in front of Palais des Papes. This road gets a little sketchy at night, so be aware.
As we wandered around Avignon, we saw small tiled art installations near street signs. This packman-like one was the first one we stumbled upon.
We did not know what the miniature art installations meant or who the artist(s) was. I later learned that multiple artists are installing these creative pieces worldwide. One of the most popular is @invaderwashere, who recently installed his 4,000th installation in Bolivia.
Another artist, @mifamosa, creates art that is a cheeky play on the street name. In the photo below, Place PIE translates as Magpie Square.
There are two big attractions in Avignon city centre: Palais des Papes and Pont Saint Benezet (aka Pont d’Avignon).
The Palais des Papes is one of Europe’s largest medieval Gothic buildings and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Construction began in 1335 and was completed less than 20 years later – an amazing achievement given its size (161,000 sq ft / 15,000 sq m).
Seven successive popes lived in Avignon between 1309 and 1377, hence the Palace of the Popes.
We had no interest in touring the palace, but we found ourselves in the massive square in front of the palace a couple of times. Birds like it there.
A couple photos of the palace would have been nice, but between the scaffolding and the sheer size of it, I didn’t even attempt a photo.
In the late-1100s, a wooden bridge was built to connect Villeneuve-lès-Avignon on the west bank of the river to Avignon on the east bank. The wooden bridge stood for 40 years until it was destroyed in 1226 when Louis VIII of France took over Avignon.
Eight years later, the construction of a new 22-arch stone bridge commenced but was plagued with bad luck, or maybe bad design, or probably both.
Long story short, the arches would collapse when the river flooded. They’d rebuild the arches only for them to collapse again and like any sensible human being, they eventually said f**k it.
Only four of the arches remain today.
There are two ways to go about visiting/viewing the bridge.
Option 1 – Pay a 5€ admission fee to walk on the bridge; the sunburn is free.
We paid the admission, walked the bridge length, and concluded it was a waste of money. I found a cool lizard-bird chilling on the railing, though.
Option 2 – Hike (more of a long uphill walk than a hike) to Jardin des Doms for a bird’s eye view of the bridge.
Although I was dripping in sweat by the time I was done taking photos of the bridge, the hike was worth it for the view.
As a bonus, there’s a cafe in the garden where you can enjoy a cold glass of something to celebrate your achievement of reaching the garden!
Protip: There are tall chainlink fences around the perimeter of the garden. Due to this, photos can be tricky, but luckily, a few cutouts in the fence are large enough to stick a camera lens through.
Other than visiting the bridge and the garden, walking around the city center, and briefly stepping foot in Les Halles (food hall/market), we did not accomplish any other touristy things in Avignon. We were there for the wine and sunshine, after all.
Our desire for wine brought us to a few wine bars and on a wine tour of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC. And our desire for sunshine brought us to the hotel’s pool, where two bottles of wine accompanied us at our sun loungers.
Between the wine tour, the minimal sightseeing, and the day at the pool, we had a perfect mix of wine’ing, learning, and relaxing.
Avignon and Lyon restaurant culture
French food culture. Ugh.
Food in France is a struggle for me. The menus in Avignon and Lyon were in French only, the al fresco dining is filled with smokers, and, in general, the dishes are complicated.
It’s amazing how fast brains can memorize words in a different language. By the third day of our trip, I could look at a coffee shop’s menu and know what milk alternatives they offered without consulting Google Translate.
On top of those things is the set course menu culture where diners can choose a starter + main or main + dessert or all three. This leads to large quantities of food consumed at lunch and dinner.
Then there are the restaurant and cafe opening hours or, should I say, closing hours?
The majority of restaurants close between 2pm and 6pm. This would not have been a problem under normal circumstances, but our tours got us back to Avignon/Lyon around 1:30pm, putting us in the lunchtime danger zone. One tour got us back to Lyon at 2:30pm.
Two of our three tours did not serve food; by the time we returned to the city, we were starving and left with limited dining choices.
Complicating matters was that one of our days in Lyon was a semi-public holiday (Monday), and the city was more shut than it was on Sunday!
As with most countries, the food in France is regional. I’ve visited four regions, and all four were strikes, though Lyon was probably the closest to a hit that I’ve had. Then again, I haven’t exactly ventured out into proper French food territory during any of our trips.
We mostly stuck to cuisines we knew and loved in Avignon and Lyon. It sounds weird that we traveled to France and ate empanadas and TexMex, but it is what it is!
Except for l’entrecote (steak with a butter-based sauce served with matchstick fries) and a couple other French dishes, I find French food too complicated.
There’s too much pomp and circumstance with what’s on the plate. Do I need three different sauces for my fish? I don’t think so.
Admittedly, some of the dishes in France are too adventurous for me, though I did not hesitate to insert a piece of sausage made of pig’s liver in my mouth in Avignon. It tasted like sausage and was 7,000 times better than the donkey sausage we unknowingly ate in Puglia, Italy.
Our dining experiences in Avignon and Lyon were similar in many ways. A basket of free bread was always delivered to the table.
Tap water was free and was sometimes automatically poured at cafes, bars, and restaurants. When it wasn’t automatically poured, we asked for tap water, but we almost always ended up with bottled water. I don’t know why. Probably because we were tourists.
Service was surprisingly efficient in most of our dining experiences.
Getting the bill was a matter of waiving down the server, who would sometimes hand us the bill and other times tell us our table number.
Payments were always done inside the restaurant at the hostess stand, which was a little surprising but appreciated because we never had to wait for the server to bring the credit card machine to us.
Tipping. I’m still confused about tipping.
Based on what we’d read, tipping was appreciated but not expected in France, so we did not tip. That’s the thing when paying with cards in Europe, there’s usually no way to add on a tip during payment, and we never had small enough bills or coins to leave behind even if we did want to leave a tip.
On one of our tours, we were told by a British couple that France is a tipping culture like in the US. I disagreed with this statement. Articles stated the opposite, and I didn’t get a tipping vibe anywhere we went, not even on our tours.
If any place is turning into a tipping culture like the US, it is the UK, where a 12.5% service charge is automatically added to restaurant bills.
What we’d do differently
What would we do differently if we were to stay in Avignon again?
We would reduce our stay from three nights to two nights.
Our itinerary would look something like this:
- Day 1: Arrive mid-day and get acclimated
- Day 2: Go on a wine tour in the morning and sightsee in the afternoon
- Day 3: Depart in the morning
Eat, drink, and tour recommendations
Here are a few recommendations for Avignon for non-French food lovers.
|Moloko||Breakfast restaurant/coffee||Avocado on toast!|
|Tulipe Cafe||Breakfast restaurant/coffee||Avocado on toast!|
Protip: Check out the neat homeware shop behind the coffee shop
|Le Carre du Palais||Restaurant||Reservations recommended|
|La Canoa||Restaurant||Excellent ceviche|
|Come a Roma||Takeaway restaurant||Great Rome-style pizza but limited opening hours|
|Tapis Rouge||Wine bar|
|17 Place aux Vins||Wine bar|
|Provence & Wine||Wine tour||Wine tours of Southern Rhône|