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Southern France on a Budget: Nice, Aix-en-Provence, Avignon

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When my friend and I planned a trip to the South of France last spring, we were unsure which of its beautiful cities to visit. We settled on three that all seemed to be quite different and would provide us with a range of what the South of France has to offer.

We visited the medieval town of Avignon, the university city of Aix-en-Provence, and the more urban city of Nice. I’m sharing what my recommendations are to do, see and eat in these three cities, to help you plan your next trip to Southern France.

Southern France has two main airports, one in Marseille and the other in Nice. Both airports have frequent flights between Paris, as well as other destinations across Europe. The plane ride is about 1 hour and 20 minutes long between Southern France and Paris.

Alternatively, the train is another option. Between Paris and Nice, the ride is 5 1/2 to 6 hours long. However, a high-speed TGV train between Paris and Marseille that takes a little over 3 hours is available. You can also use trains from other European cities, such as Barcelona and London, to connect you to the South of France.

Within the region, trains and buses are your best option if you decide not to rent a car. The bus is much cheaper than the train, but it usually takes much longer to reach your destination.

Related: When a Eurail Pass is Worth It and When It Isn’t

1. Take advantage of the local Tourism Offices. They can provide local maps and information on transportation, markets, etc.

2. Skip restaurants and stay on a budget. The South of France is stunning and beautiful. It is also an expensive destination. Eat local bread, cheeses, and fresh produce found at bakeries and markets. Use all the goods you acquire to cook your meals at your accommodation or enjoy al fresco by the beach.

3. Find activities with free or discounted admission. Identify museums, parks, and other public attractions that you would like to visit in the city you’re traveling to, then go online to do more research. We found that lots of the museums we wanted to visit in the South of France had specific days or time periods when admission was free.

Related: Paris City Guide for Budget-Minded Travelers

The St. Bénézet Bridge. © Maddy Wolfe

Avignon

Avignon is a small medieval city in the heart of Southern France, located next to the Rhône River. The city has lots of history, which can be experienced by visiting its Medieval monuments and simply wandering its winding, cobble-stoned streets.

Things to Do in Avignon

Make sure to visit Avignon’s two most famous attractions: the St. Bénézet Bridge and the Pope’s Palace.

During the 14th century, the papacy was located in Avignon rather than in Rome. Nowadays, the former Pope’s Palace is one of the biggest attractions of the city. The cost of admission is 11 Euros.

The medieval St. Bénézet Bridge is the other attraction that draws tourists to Avignon. There is a famous children’s song about the bridge, and I remember learning the words as a child in elementary school French class. The bridge now spans only halfway across the Rhône River, and you can pay 5 Euros to walk across the part still standing.

My recommendation instead would be to walk up the road next to the Pope’s Palace to the Rocher des Doms park. From the top, you’ll be able to see an amazing view of the famous bridge without paying the 5 euros to walk along it, as well as a panoramic view of the old town of Avignon and its surrounding area.

Where to Stay in Avignon

When you book your accommodation in Avignon, make sure to stay in its historic center. This enables you to not only be centrally located, but it also provides an ideal location for walking around the city and exploring its winding, medieval streets.

We stayed in a one-room Airbnb on Rue Banasterie, which was right next to a little square with a few restaurants and a bakery where we ate breakfast every morning.

Related: Save up to $40 with Airbnb

southern france guide

© Maddy Wolfe

Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence is home to a university, so it has the vibe of a bustling college town. The city is quite a bit larger than Avignon but is still extremely walkable.

Getting there: Aix-en-Provence has two train stations: Aix TGV, which serves the high-speed trains and is slightly farther away, and the local Aix Centre station, which is closer to the city center.

If coming from Avignon, take the train from Avignon Centre to Aix TGV, and then catch a bus straight into the city center. You can buy your bus ticket directly from the driver, and the ride is about 30 minutes, with wifi available onboard.

Things to Do in Aix

Aix has beautiful fountains located in every nook and cranny of the city. The biggest fountain is located at the end of the Cours Mirabeau, which is the main boulevard in Aix. Go on a self-guided fountain tour with maps from the Tourism Office.

A visit to Aix is not complete without visiting one of its many markets. If you are in town on a Tuesday or Thursday, browse the clothes market located along the Cours Mirabeau, and then wander the streets to browse the flower and food markets as well.

Lastly, if you like art, make sure to visit Paul Cézanne’s studio, located about a 40-minute walk from the Cours Mirabeau. Cézanne is an Aix native, and his painting studio is still open to visitors. The studio is called Atelier de Cézanne and exhibits his art space, props, belongings, and gardens. Visiting his studio was one of my favorite experiences from my trip to Southern France, and is definitely worth a visit if you want to learn more about one of France’s most famous painters.

What to Eat in Aix

Immerse yourself in the delicious French food. A popular breakfast deal at many cafes offers a croissant, half a baguette with jam and butter, orange juice, and a coffee for 5,50 Euros.

Additionally, Aix is famous for being the birthplace of calissons, which are little candies with a texture similar to marzipan, but made with almonds and candied fruit. There are entire calisson stores located around the city, so make sure to stop at one to try the regional delicacy.

Where to Stay in Aix

We stayed in an Airbnb on Rue Chastel, right next to the Cours Mirabeau. It was a perfect location and was within walking distance to almost everything. I would highly recommend booking accommodation around either the Cours Mirabeau, the Hôtel de Ville, or anywhere in between the two.

Related: 21 Budget Tips that Will Save You Money on the Road

southern france travel guide

View from Castle Hill. © Maddy Wolfe

Nice

After visiting Aix-en-Provence, we took a train to Nice. Nice was the largest city that we visited in the region, and it definitely has more of an urban feel than medieval Avignon or quaint Aix.

Things to Do in Nice

There is an abundance of activities to do in and around Nice, but I would start with walking along the Promenade des Anglais, right next to the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Walk along this boulevard with the sea to your right until you reach the bottom of Le Chateau, otherwise known as Castle Hill.

There are lots of stairs that lead to the top of the hill, but your reward is a breathtaking view of Nice as you climb. There is an elevator, with a very long line, for those who can’t make the climb.

At the top, there is a waterfall, a park, and ruins from the old Le Chateau military citadel. The park offers panoramic views of Nice and the sea, with the Nice harbor on one side and Old Nice on the other.

Related: Renting a Car in Europe: 3 Things You Need to Know

southern france on a budget

View from the Medieval Village of Eze, France. © Maddy Wolfe

Nice is in an excellent location for other day trips around the South of France. The one I would recommend visiting is the hillside town of Eze.

To get there, take bus #82 or #112 and get off at Eze Village. The two buses stop at various locations around Nice, a ticket costs 1,50 Euros and takes about 40 minutes. Take note: do not take bus #100 to Eze-sur-mer. This will lead you down to the beach, and not to the medieval town of Eze up in the hills.

Once there, visit Eze’s two perfumeries, Fragonard and Garlimard, to learn about how the perfumes are made. Also, climb the little hill to enter the medieval city of Eze, which has a stunning view of the sea from the gardens at the top.

What to Eat in Nice

As you can imagine, the food in Nice is delicious and abundant. Try socca, a chickpea flour pancake served hot and crispy right in the pan that it’s cooked in. Socca is one of Nice’s specialties, so make sure to grab some at one of the socca stands in the market along the Cours Saleya, right near the water. It has a beautiful flower market, as well as stands of lavender and fresh produce. While the Cours Saleya can be touristy, there is lots of live music at night, so grab dinner at a bistro and listen to music as you rewind from the day.

I also recommend eating at Crêperie Corentin for a very traditional creperie experience. While crepes originated in Northern France, this creperie offers traditional crepes, galettes, and hard cider that are all very typical of traditional crêperies.

gelato in france

French gelato on our last night. © Maddy Wolfe

Where to Stay in Nice

I would recommend staying in Old Nice. It is an older, quainter part of the city center that is fun, cute, and close to lots of different attractions. We found it was cheaper to stay in an Airbnb in Nice as opposed to a hostel, and the one we stayed at was on Rue Droite. The owner was an artist and had his studio right across the street from the apartment, so he was nearby if we had any questions or concerns. One morning he even brought us a fruitcake as a welcome gift!

By Maddy Wolfe

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