The French port city of Marseille is fascinating in its own right. It's got a mythical, centuries-old port, lovely beaches and markets, a vibrant culinary scene, and interesting neighborhoods worth exploring. But it's also an excellent starting point for exploring some of the prettiest beaches, fishing villages, and jaw-dropping towns in Provence. These are some of the best day trips from Marseille.
The cheerful university town of Aix-en-Provence is a short train ride away from Marseille, and one of the prettiest spots in the region. Famous for its warm facades, bustling market whose stalls overflow with colorful produce, and sunny skies, Aix is also a center of art and culture. French painter Paul Cézanne lived and worked in the town, rendering streets and natural landmarks such as the Mont St Victoire from his studio here. It's certainly worth a visit.
Getting There: Aix is just 16 miles from Marseille and easily reached by local train or buses. You won't need a reservation for the train, and fares are reasonable.
Travel Tip: Make sure not to miss the "Grand" market on Place de Verdun and Place des Prêcheurs for excellent photo opportunities and a taste of local life. The market is open Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
The postcard-perfect Mediterranean port town of Cassis makes an ideal day trip when you're looking for clear blue water, a historic waterfront, and a slower pace than you'll find in Marseille. Cassis is easily explored in a day and affords plenty to do: have lunch at the port and admire the picturesque boats, before taking a dip in the sea and enjoying the sun on the beach. The area is also known for its natural beauty and hiking opportunities. And like Aix, it's the subject of numerous paintings, including a pointillist masterpiece from Paul Signac.
Getting There: Cassis is situated roughly 15 miles southeast of Marseille, and can be reached in less than 20 minutes by local train. Trains depart regularly from the Marseille Saint-Charles station.
Travel Tip: Try taking a boat tour to the famous calanques, maritime creeks and beaches where the water is extra pristine and the natural landscapes are simply stunning. The Calanques National Park is potentially worth a whole day in its own right, especially if you're a fan of the great outdoors.
Nestled along the Rhone river about an hour northwest of Marseille, Arles is a city that's brimming with artistic and cultural history. The city's roots go back to the 7th century B.C.; the Phoenicians called it "Theline." It was later an important Gallo-Roman town, and the presence of ruins around the city attest to that rich heritage. It's little wonder that it's become a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Arles is also an important site for fans of the expressionist Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. He produced many now-iconic paintings here and in nearby St. Rémy de Provence, including a café with a striking yellow awning and cheerful terrace. The cafe was renovated in the early 1990s to reproduce its guise in the 1888 painting.
Getting There: You can get to Arles in about 50 minutes by taking the train from Marseille. Driving is also a possibility, if you'd rather rent a car and explore nearby attractions such as Avignon (see below).
Travel Tip: Try going during the summer, when a variety of film, photography, and music festivals turn the old Roman town into a vibrant open-air fair of sorts.
Like Arles, Nîmes is one of France's most important and well-preserved Gallo-Roman cities, established in around 40 B.C. at the border between the Provence and Languedoc regions. It harbors some of Europe's most impressive Roman ruins, including the first-century colosseum (Arènes) and nearby Pont du Gard, the tallest and longest Roman aqueduct to remain intact.
Modern architecture fans, meanwhile, will appreciate the more recent addition of buildings from the likes of Philippe Starck and Jean Nouvel. The local university and a dynamic arts scene contribute toward a relaxed, creative vibe in the old city.
Getting There: The fast train service from Marseille St-Charles to Nimes takes about an hour and five minutes. You can take the slower trains, but this might eat into your time a bit too much for a day trip.
Travel Tip: Consider buying the Romanité Tour Pass for combined entrance to the city's main attractions and museums, including the Roman Arena and Museum, Magne Tour, and access to the Pont du Gard.
For many, Avignon is the crown jewel of Provence. It's a picturesque walled city and UNESCO World Heritage site whose history as the medieval seat of the papacy makes it a major draw card.
Between 1309 and 1377, seven French popes ruled from the formidable Palais des Papes that looms from the north end of Avignon, and overlooking the Rhone river. This is the world's largest gothic palace, and one of the best-preserved.
In addition to exploring the old city and palace structures, Avignon hosts a wonderful and vibrant summer festival that fills the streets with live music and theatre. It can also be magical in the winter, when traditional Provence Christmas festivities, lights, and markets add warmth to dark evenings.
Getting There: You can take the TGV (high-speed train) from Marseille St. Charles to Avignon in around 35 minutes, while slower trains take about an hour. Several trains depart to and from Marseille daily.
Travel Tip: Make sure to allocate three or four hours to fully explore the Palais des Papes, since it's made up of many rooms and different buildings.
It's in the outskirts of Gordes that you can get a glimpse of one of the most famous scenes in Provence: the medieval Sénanques Abbey surrounded by fragrant fields of what the French call "blue gold:" lavender, of course.
The town itself, poised atop a rocky bluff, is as picturesque and historic as they come in Provence. Narrow cobblestoned streets, white stone and pink-roofed houses that seem to emerge from the hills, and a medieval castle are only a few of the charms.
Getting There: For a day trip, the best way of reaching Gordes from Marseille is to rent a car and drive (around 70 minutes each way) or take a guided coach tour such as this one. Alternatively, head to Avignon from Marseille and take a coach to Gordes. (around 40 minutes).
Travel Tip: Make sure to explore the old town center of Gordes, with its imposing medieval fortress and chateau, old cobbled streets, and views over the Luberon Park.
Nestled at the foot of the Castéou mountain range east of Marseille, Hyères is a scenic French Riviera town that's popular both for its beautiful coastal areas, numerous islands surrounded by azure waters, and historic center. The Old Town boasts a colorful farmer's market, as well as a 12th-century tower called the Tour Saint-Blaise, the only remains of a former residence of the Knights Templar order.
Gorgeous beaches, pristine islands teeming with marine life, medieval churches and monasteries, and striking 13th century houses are among the other charms that await in this regal Provencal town.
Getting There: Hyères can be reached in as little as one hour and 20 minutes via train, with a high-speed (TGV) train leaving daily from the St-Charles station.
Travel Tip: Consider visiting in late May or early June, when the area is less crowded and you're more likely to enjoy space and calm on the beaches around Hyères.
The rustic Provencal town of Sault has as much storybook charm as you can fathom. Perched atop a craggy clifftop, the town is well known for its surrounding lavender fields, which burst into vibrant blue-purple bloom in the summer and leave a delicious fragrance on the air. Humans have occupied the area since preshistoric town, and Sault also boasts an interesting medieval history. Come to admire the fields of "blue gold," visit the lavender distillery, and sample local products, from soap to cheese and honey.
Getting There: Sault is around two hours from Marseille by car or bus; the best way to enjoy a day trip there is probably by embarking on a "Guided Lavender Tour" with companies such as Viator. Trains are less feasible for a day trip since there's no direct service between the two.
Travel Tip: Get there as early as possible to enjoy a full day exploring the lavender fields and town. Make sure to try to go on a sunny day for the best perspectives and photo opportunities.
Technically the capital of the Languedoc-Rouisillon region in southwest France, Montpellier has plenty of quiet charm. If you want to experience another city on France's Mediterranean coast-- one that boasts unspoiled, quiet beaches, pretty architecture, and tons of history, head here on a short excursion from Marseille.
A center of international trade from the 12th century, the town has long been a place where merchants from around the world convened to sell spices, textiles, and other goods. Its magnificent squares dotted with bars and cafés, numerous museums, shopping streets, and vibrant student life make it a draw card for young people. Make sure to see the Old Town, with its handsome buildings dating from the medieval period to the 19th century and beyond.
Getting There: You can take an "Intercités" (inter-city) train from Marseille to Montpellier that gets you there in around 90 minutes. There's also a TGV (high-speed) service to Montpellier, but it requires changing trains.
Travel Tip: To taste how students and locals live, head the to the Place du Marché aux Fleurs and Place Jean-Jaurès. Sit out on the terrace of one of the many cafés and restaurants that spill out into the square, and enjoy an al fresco meal.