The Heaven of Red-Tiled Roofs: Provence’s Top 5 Most Charming Neighborhoods

Powerful enough to capture the imagination of Picasso and Cezanne, the sun-kissed Provence countryside makes an ideal setting for a romantic vacation in the south of France. Nevertheless, until you discover the region’s urban neighborhoods you cannot claim to know the real soul of this land. Here are a few of the most charming quarters to consider for your dream Provence itinerary.

1. Old Town (Vieille Ville) – Nice

Le Vélo Bleu by Alice (CC)

A maze of narrow streets and alleyways, Nice’s old town remains one of the French Riviera’s main urban attractions. Though packed with modern shops and restaurants popular among a trendy crowd of visitors, the old quarter retains much of its original medieval feel. Scarcely changed since the 18th century, the “Vieille Ville” boasts a treasure trove of well-preserved architectural gems, from lavish private mansions to opulent churches. You can lose yourself for days here, retracing the history of the city and discovering the hidden corners of one of France’s most colorful neighborhoods. Begin your adventure at the old town’s daily flower and fruit market, the beating heart of the city’s social and commercial life.

2. Old Port – Marseille

The old port of Marseille (“Le Vieux Port”) by Ivan Herman (CC)

Marseille’s old port provides a perfect setting for watching local fishermen unload and sell their daily catch as impatient fishmongers jostle for good positions and bargain prices. For centuries the city’s history played out in this lively area, once protected by two massive forts. Renovated in 2013, the neighborhood remains one of Marseille’s busiest sections, though with far less traffic and noise than before. Large semi-pedestrianized areas make the neighborhood popular with foreign visitors, who throng this part of the city in search of that Mediterranean atmosphere characteristic of the south of France. Soak up some history and see the old port’s major sights on a ferry tour, the best way to sightsee without tiring your feet.

3. Cours Mirabeau – Aix-en-Provence

Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence by Andrea Schaffer (CC)
Some of the largest of Provence’s emblematic fountains sit right on Cours Mirabeau, a graceful boulevard stretching nearly 500 m (1,500 ft) through the city center. Named after the revolutionary hero Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, the pedestrian-friendly avenue features wide sidewalks lined with double rows of plane trees. Laid out in the mid-17th century, it quickly became one of the city’s major symbols, whose hectic sidewalk cafes were a huge inspiration for artists like Cezanne and Zola. Just north of this street lie the irregular alleyways and elegant mansions of the old town, while to the south and west stretch the modern neighborhoods of the new town.

4. Le Suquet – Cannes

Le Suquet by Night by Tiziano L.U. Caviglia (CC)

You may know Cannes only for its film festival, yet the real spirit of the city remains hidden in the hillside Le Suquet, a dynamic neighborhood of cobbled streets and sweeping views of the sea. The city’s oldest district, Le Suquet sits on the site of an ancient Roman military settlement. Practically unchanged for the last four centuries, the neighborhood provides plenty of pleasant distractions in the form of small shops and pavement bistros, ideal for catching your breath and watching the world go by. Visit the area in the morning, when a noisy fruit market offers a glimpse of Cannes’ less glitzy side.

5. Medieval Walled Village – Tourrettes-sur-Loup

Cycle Tour of Provence 2011 – Tourrettes-sur-Loup
by velodenz (CC)

A pleasant detour on the road between Cannes and Nice, the medieval settlement of Tourrettes-sur-Loup perches on a rocky outcrop surrounded by the verdant countryside of southeastern France. Small and quiet, the walled village manages to remain unblemished by mass tourism, preserving its slow pace of life and easy-going atmosphere. The notoriously shy violets thrive here, dotting the steep streets of the village with delicate but vibrant explosions of color. Villagers honor the gentle flower each March, when they use it to decorate huge floats and stage mock flower battles. If you miss the violet festival, explore the village center’s artisan workshops and galleries, where you can learn about local art and pick up handmade souvenirs.

Where the land meets the sea

The sun may feel bigger and brighter on your Provence vacation, but it’s only when you glimpse the first few red-tiled roofs of the region that you know you’re in the south. Explore the coastline’s beaches and resorts, but don’t miss a chance to discover the region’s urban neighborhoods, soaked in history and exuding a typically French joie de vivre.

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