Museums in Provence: A Priority List
Though we can’t yet claim to have toured all of Provence (or anywhere close to it), we did range widely across Bouches-du-Rhône and the Luberon, with a slight nudge over into Vaucluse (and even the French region neighboring Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon).
If you plan to visit these regions, read my article on visiting the Bouches-du-Rhône, including the renowned Aix-en-Provence, my article on visiting the Luberon, and my article on a trip to Avignon and the Pont du Gard. (When you do, you’ll get the scoop on what else to see. And for what to eat, read my Provence food reviews!)
None of us have time to do all the museums in any area in one trip—a truth even if you plan to only visit a single city. Visiting all the main museums in even a subsection of Provence will make you need a vacation after your vacation.
So learn from our experiences (and vacation on your vacation a bit instead).
Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence: With all the opportunities to see art in the Bouches-du-Rhône, even aficionados will start to feel like all post-impressionist painting looks the same. If you want to cull just one of the major art museums in Provence, visit the Musée Granet. You’ll see all the major regional players—including home boy Cezanne, of course—while meandering a beautifully restored former Hospitallers’ prioriy, replete with manicured interior gardens.
Fort Saint-Jean in Marseille: Though the guidebooks had me thinking that this historic site held little value beyond the cultural museums built inside and around it, I found the building, its views, and its historical insights far more fascinating—and beautifully restored for a peaceful pause in the middle of a hectic city.
The Château de la Coste in Le Puy Saint-Réparade: Arnaud found this sprawling, yet still hidden, gem. None of the guidebooks we had (and we had three) even managed to mention this massive estate covered with modern sculpture and architecture. Expect to spend a full day. (At least you can eat in one of the museum’s restaurants when you do.)
The Palais des Papes in Avignon: Magnificent, towering, and fully evocative of the power of the Catholic Church in the late middle ages and early Renaissance period, the Palais des Papes has only a few rooms with any level of decoration left, yet the augmented-reality tour provided via tablet will help bring it to life for you. And even without the tour, the sheer size of the place will drop your jaw.
The Pont du Gard near Arles: You’ll realize how much you’ve underestimated the Roman Empire when you come upon this towering, three-level aqueduct over the Gard River. The museum on the park grounds shows you aspects of the aqueduct’s construction—which involved hand-cutting massive stones, transporting them across miles, and fitting them carefully—all according to a detailed engineering plan developed by master builders.
Museums Worth a Visit
While none of the below museums will bore you—and many deserve visits—I’d recommend reserving the following list of sites for people who have a specific interest in their subject matter or who have more time:
The Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix-en-Provence: If you like 18th century architecture, decorative arts, and furnishings, you’ll enjoy the building more than its art, which the museum houses in a variety of temporary exhibitions traveling to it from all over the world.
The Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée in Marseille (Mucem): This mix of permanent and temporary exhibitions highlights civilizations across the Mediterranean. On our visit, we toured a permanent installation about agricultural practices across the region and saw a temporary exhibit about islands.
The Roman Arena and Ampitheater in Arles: If you can find an English language tour to take you through these two sites, you’ll enjoy them far more than you will just walking through; neither museum has much in English (or in French, for that matter). However, you’ll rarely see such a well-preserved Roman arena—even if the restorers have fixed up part of it.
Village des Bories in Gordes: Provence has little limestone huts scattered throughout the region, which people have used on and off from the Bronze Age through the 1800s. This museum restored and presents some of these huts for you to explore, including details on the agriculture practiced there (and the hardscrabble life so many people lived).
Pont d’Avignon aka Pont Saint-Benezet in Avignon: I’d dismissed this site as something just as easily seen from ground level, yet the audio tour makes it a fun journey, and I truly enjoyed the multimedia architectural experience in the basement level.
Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon: Fans of medieval and early Renaissance art will enjoy a tour through this small yet perfectly organized museum in the site of the former archbishops’ residence. (Look especially for the room full of works from Botticelli’s atelier.)
Provence History, Culture, and Art Museums
Though everyone knows Provence for its art, not all museums in Provence feature art—as you can see from these lists.
Even if you don’t love 19th century painting, you still can’t go wrong in the land of Cézanne and Van Gogh—in fact, you can avoid them entirely. After all, the Romans came through long before the post-impressionists did, and so did the popes.
A trip to Provence means a trip for food and outdoor activity—and a trip for art and history as well. Enjoy!