48 Hours In: Avignon

The former home of popes on the banks of the Rhône is preparing to host one of France's biggest arts festivals. By Harriet O'Brien

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

The capital of Christendom in the 14th century, Avignon remains a treasure trove of architecture. On 7 July, one of France's biggest art festivals starts here. The 64th Avignon Festival (00 33 4 90 14 14 60; festival-avignon.com ) is a three-week celebration of drama, music and dance. Taking place alongside it, Le Off is the city's answer to Edinburgh's Fringe: a bacchanalian mix of street theatre and shows (8-31 July; 00 33 4 90 85 13 08; avignonleoff.com ).

Touch down

The writer travelled with Rail Europe (08448 484 064; raileurope.co.uk ). Direct trains from London St Pancras to Avignon Centre (1) start on 10 July, running each Saturday to 11 September. The station is just outside the ramparts, close to the centre. At other times, change at Paris or Lille for a train to Avignon TGV station 3km south-west of the centre; a shuttle bus (€1.20 one way; tcra.fr ) runs every 15 minutes to the post office (2) within the old city ramparts.

Avignon's Caumont airport, 8km from the centre, is served by Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com ) from Birmingham, Exeter, Manchester and Southampton; and by Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com ) from Leeds/Bradford. From Monday to Friday, bus 21 (€1.20) runs three times a day to the post office (2). A taxi costs €20.

Get your bearings

Almost everything of interest is contained within the 4.3km of beautifully preserved stone ramparts – minus original moat – of ancient Avignon. Thirteen portals give access to the busy ring road and sprawling modern city beyond, while the Rhône curves around the north and west of the old town. Dominating the skyline to the north is the enormous Palais des Papes (3), the palace where nine successive popes presided; north again and just outside the walls is Avignon's signature bridge, Pont Saint- Bénezet (4). South of the papal palace, Place de L'Horloge (5) is the hub of a maze of lanes and alleys.

The tourist office (6) is on the stately main street, at 41 Cours Jean Jaurès (00 33 4 32 74 32 74; ot-avignon.fr ; Mon-Sat 9am-6pm, Sun 9.45am-5pm). Pick up a free Avignon Pass: after a first visit to a monument or museum, you get reductions to most other sights.

Check in

The wisteria-clad courtyard at the entrance to the Hôtel d'Europe (7), 14 Place Crillon (00 33 4 90 14 76 76; heurope.com ; doubles from €195, room only) sets the gracious tone of one of Avignon's best hotels. This 16th-century mansion also has a well-regarded restaurant and a wonderful rooftop terrace.

For an elegant mid-price option head to Hôtel de L'Horloge (8) at 1 rue Félicien David (00 33 4 90 16 42 00; hoteldelhorloge.com ; doubles from €95, room only).

Hotel Bristol (9) at 44 Cours Jean Jaurès (00 33 4 90 16 48 48; bristol-hotel-avignon.com ; comfortable doubles from €82, room only) is conveniently close to the central station.

Day one

Take a hike

Start at the top of Avignon's most charming lane, Rue des Teinturiers (10), which contains four water wheels from the days of the city's calico dyers. Follow the lane to the city walls, turn left and left again into Rue Severine. At the crossroads continue up Rue Roquille, forking right into Rue Guillaume Puy. Turn left up rue Thier and right into rue Paul Sain, which offers wonderful 17th- and 18th-century architecture. Turn left into Rue du Portail Matheron, forking right down Rue de la Croix. Ahead are the great walls of the Palais des Papes (3). Turn left and right into Rue du Gal, continuing along Rue Vice-Legat to reach the back of the palace. Approaching the front is dramatic: the street passes between hewn rocks and under a massive archway (for palace details see "Icing on the cake"). Reaching the majestic forecourt you see the Petit Palais (11) ahead. Dating from the 14th century, it is now a museum renowned for its Renaissance art (10am-1pm and 2-6pm daily except Tuesday; €6). To the right is Nôtre Dame des Doms Cathedral (12) (daily 7am-7pm, free). At the forecourt's north end turn left and follow signs to Pont Saint-Benezet (4). Passing through the city's northern portal you get a great view of the bridge, known the world over from the children's song. The structure no longer spans the width of the Rhône, its diminished state a testimony to the river's power. Today you need to pay €4.50 to stand sur le pont d'Avignon (open daily, 9am-7pm).

Lunch on the run

Back within the walls, head to the tangle of pedestrian-only lanes off Place de L'Horloge (5). At 12 Rue du Vieux Sextier, Charly & Co (13) (00 33 4 90 85 08 47) offers sandwiches to eat in or take away (smoked salmon and rocket, for example, for €3.50).

Window shopping

The best of local food products – olives, fruit, honey – is in Les Halles (14), but you'll need to get to the market before it closes at 2pm at weekends (1.30pm Tuesday-Friday; open from 6am).

The pedestrian lanes are awash with small, enticing shops. For lavender, soap and olive oil make for Les Délices du Luberon (15) at 20 Place du Change. You'll find lavender and Provencal fabrics in the stalls on Rue Ferruce near Pont Saint-Benezet (4). Upscale Rue Joseph Vernet is full of designer boutiques.

Take a ride

Short cruises along the Rhône are operated by Compagnie des Grands Bateaux de Provence (00 33 4 90 85 62 25; mireio.net). Forty-five minute trips cost €8 and leave from the Allées de L'Oulle dock (16) daily at 3pm and 4.15pm - during July and August hourly from 2-6pm.

An aperitif

Learn about Rhône wine, from Chateauneuf-du-Pape to Hermitage, inside the Palais des Papes (3). La Bouteillerie du Palais des Papes is a wine shop that offers tastings (€6 for five wines) and wine by the glass from €2 (00 33 4 90 27 50 85; avignon-bouteillerie.com ). Open 10am-7pm daily; access through the palace's shop.

Dining with the locals

For a gourmet adventure head to Les Cinq Sens (17) at Place Plaisance off rue Joseph Vernet (00 33 4 90 85 26 51; restaurantles5sens.com ). Chef Thierry Baucher presents dishes such as fillet of turbot with sorrel and ginger emulsion (€33). For good value in a simple setting try Michel Peyaud (18) at 20 Rue St-Etienne (00 33 4 90 55 27 56) where starters cost €12; mains are €18.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The church of St-Pierre (19), just south of the Palais des Papes (3), is a fine Gothic building dating from 1358. Step through the doors of intricately carved walnut wood to see its glittering apse and its altarpiece depicting the Last Supper. It opens 9am-7pm daily (free); Sunday Mass is at 9.30am.

Out to brunch

Head to picturesque Place Crillon just inside the western walls. At number 15, Le Café de la Comédie (20) is a laid-back outfit with a sunny terrace (00 33 4 90 85 75 85). Its all-day menu offers goat's cheese and spinach crepe (€5) and Provence salad (€9).

Take a view

To the right of Pont Saint-Benezet, a free shuttle ferry (21) (00 33 4 90 27 51 16) takes you across the Rhône to Barthelasse Island from where there are good views of the city. The ferry runs daily 10am-12.30pm and 2-6.30pm (July/August, 11am-9pm).

A walk in the park

Join locals taking a Sunday stroll in Rocher des Doms (22). Complete with duck pond and terraces, this public park (7.30am-8pm daily, free) is set over a rocky spur immediately north of the Palais des Papes (3). It occupies the site of the earliest Neolithic settlement at Avignon. From the viewing point at the top there are magnificent panoramas over the Rhône and across to the ancient village of Villeneuve-lez-Avignon.

Cultural afternoon

The Angladon Museum (23) at 5 Rue Laboureur (00 33 4 90 82 29 03; angladon.com ) is a real gem: a striking 18th-century mansion containing the remarkable art collection of fashion designer Jacques Doucet, who died in 1929. Here you'll see the only Van Gogh on display in Provence (Train in Arles 1888), along with works by Degas, Manet and Picasso. Also on show are the rare Oriental artworks that Doucet prized. Open 1-6pm daily except Monday, €6.

The icing on the cake

Save the best until last, not least because the magnificent Palais des Papes (3) is best seen in early evening when the crowds have dwindled. It is a stunning monument to Avignon's former power and glory (00 33 4 90 27 50 00; palais-des-papes.com ). It is all the more amazing given that most of it was built in the 14th century. Due to fire and the Revolution, little of the once-sumptuous interior decoration survives. What you see today are huge bare rooms, chapels, cloisters and courtyards, which are uplifted here and there by elaborately frescoed walls. However, the excellent audio guide included with the ticket price provides a word-picture of the finery that once was. It opens daily 9am-7pm (to 8pm in July and 9pm in August), €10.50.