Why go now?
September represents Avignon's sweet spot: after the hectic weeks of the twin theatre and fringe festivals – when beds are like gold dust and the streets are heaving – but the city is still blessed with balmy evenings, food festivals and other events. Until 11 October, Les Luminessences d'Avignon (00 33 4 32 74 32 74; www.lesluminessences- avignon.com) is an immersive musical 3D romp through the city's history that lights up the courtyard of the Palais des Papes (1) – the city's raison d'être. It takes place nightly at 9.15pm and 10.15pm; €10.
Meanwhile, "Rêves d'un Collectionneur" ("A Collector's Dreams") showcases Provençal painting of the past two centuries at Musée Louis Vouland (2) (00 33 4 90 86 03 79; vouland.com; noon-6pm Tuesdays to Sundays until 26 October; €6). And "La disparition des Lucioles" ("The Disappearance of the Fireflies") fills the cells of the old Sainte-Anne Prison (3) until 25 November, with works by Cy Twombly, Ai Weiwei, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louise Bourgeois and Wolfgang Tillmans (collectionlambert.fr; 11am-6pm Tuesday-Sunday; €10).
If you can travel next weekend, take advantage of the last direct Eurostar train of the year from London St Pancras, Ashford and Ebbsfleet to Avignon Centre station (4) (03448 186 186; eurostar.com). Seats are still available at £94 one way. The return will involve a TGV to Paris or Lille and a Eurostar train from there – also the best solution if you are travelling later. Trains arrive and depart at Avignon-TGV station. which is connected with the post office (5) by regular buses (00 33 4 32 74 32; tcra.fr; €1.30).
Aéroport Avignon-Provence (00 33 4 90 81 51 51; avignon.aeroport.fr), 9km south-east of the city, is served by Flybe (01392 683152; flybe.com) from Birmingham on 6 September, and from Southampton until 20 September. Bus No 30 connects the airport with the centre in about 25 minutes. A taxi from the airport costs about €25.
Get your bearings
The lozenge-shaped old city, enclosed by 4.3km of 14th-century ramparts, is flanked to north and west by the Rhône. Cours Jean Jaurès runs north from Porte de la République, near Avignon Centre station (4) and main bus station (6), passing the tourist office (7), at 41 Cours Jean Jaurès (00 33 4 32 74 32 74; avignon-tourisme.com) before it becomes Rue de la République and reaches Place de l'Horloge (8), the café-lined central square, and Place du Palais (9) Check in
More than 200 self-catering apartments are listed by HouseTrip (housetrip.com); prices start at around £25 per night for simple studios. A charming two-bed apartment on Rue de la Campane (10), sleeping six, costs from £90 per night.
The 19th-century Hôtel de l'Horloge (11) is a central choice at 1 Rue Félicien David (00 33 4 90 16 42 00; hotel-avignon-horloge.com). Rooms range from compact to more expansive (some with terraces) but all are soothingly decked out and good value. Doubles start at €91, room only.
Hôtel d'Europe (12), at 12 Place Crillon, is accessed via a shady courtyard off one of the city's prettiest and liveliest squares (00 33 4 90 14 76 76; heurope.com). The 16th-century mansion of the Marquis de Graveson was converted to a hotel in 1799. Both décor and cuisine are timelessly stylish. Doubles start at €225, excluding breakfast.
Take a hike
From Place du Palais (1), climb the ramp and steps alongside the Cathédrale Notre Dame des Doms (13) to reach the lofty gardens of the Rocher des Doms for vistas of Mont Ventoux, the sweep of the Rhône and Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Facing the Palais' battlements, descend the steps to the left to reach Verger Urbain V (14) – gardens where that pontiff cultivated plants and kept exotic animals. Emerge and turn right to Hôtel La Mirande (15) (00 33 4 90 14 20 20; la-mirande.fr), Avignon's finest, housed in a 14th-century cardinal's palace – perfect for a cocktail or coffee.
At Rue Peyrollerie (Boilermakers' Street), peer through railings at Roman vestiges (16) before turning west beneath the palace's southern ramparts.Skip the touristy cafés on Place de l'Horloge (8) and follow Rue de la République south, via the Musée Lapidaire (17), at No 27 (00 33 4 90 84 75 38; musee-lapidaire.org; 10am-1pm and 2-6pm Tuesday to Sunday; €2), packed with Gallo-Roman relics, then turn right on to Rue Joseph-Vernet. Browse upmarket shops and museums towards Rue Grande Fusterie and the ruined 12th-century Pont St-Bénezet (18) (00 33 4 32 74 32 74; avignon-pont.com; €5; 9am-7pm September-October), immortalised in song.
Lunch on the run
Sandwicherie Rossini (19) at 4 Rue Félix Gras (00 33 4 90 82 95 71; 11am-6pm Monday-Saturday), just off Rue Joseph Vernet, looks inauspicious – but lines of locals queue for sandwiches, all named after composers, packed with sunny Mediterranean flavours – aubergine, tapenade, mozzarella and more – from €2.70.
Alternatively, grab a picnic from Les Halles (20) (avignon-leshalles.com; 6am-2pm Saturday, to 1.30pm weekdays), the covered market on Place Pie. Arrive at 11am on Saturday for cookery demonstrations.
Independent shops line the streets of the old merchants' quarter south-east of Place de l'Horloge (8), but keep heading south to reach the store of Aline Géhant (21) at 15 Rue des Trois Faucons (00 33 4 90 02 27 21; agchocolatier.e-monsite.com; 10am-1pm and 3-7pm Tuesday-Saturday). This chocolatier works magic with beans from Venezuela, São Tomé and Vietnam. Small pralines start at €2.50.
Café de la Comédie (22), at 15 Place Crillon (00 33 4 90 85 74 85), has a lovely shaded terrace facing the Hôtel de l'Europe, perfect for people-watching with a local vintage – a glass of very drinkable Côtes du Rhône is €3.50.
Dining with the locals
Le Barrio (23), at 13 Rue des Infirmières (00 33 4 90 27 00 45), blends industrial chic with classic bistro style. Locals enjoy French classics such as tournedos de canard avec girolles (duck medallions with girolles; €18) washed down with regional reds from €3.50.
Christian Etienne's (24) restaurant, in a former palace at 10 rue de Mons (00 33 4 90 86 16 50; christian-etienne.fr), is the city's finest table, where gourmets savour themed tasting menus (around €75) that transform local produce.
Sunday morning: go to church
Eglise St-Pierre (25) on Place St-Pierre (00 33 4 90 16 93 36; open 9.30am-6.30pm daily) is extraordinary, its sculpted façade graced with carved walnut doors leading into a 14th-century interior. Sunday mass is at 10am.
Out to brunch
Ginette et Marcel (26) at 25 Place des Corps Saints (00 33 4 90 85 58 70; 11am-midnight daily) is a delightfully retro-rustic café that dishes up delectable tartines – toasted open sandwiches – from €4.10 to €6.50.
Take a ride
A free Navette Fluviale (shuttle boat; 00 33 4 90 85 62 25; mireio.net; 10am-12.30pm daily, also 2-6.30pm weekdays, 3.30-6.30pm Saturdays) crosses the Rhône from the jetty east of Pont St-Bénezet on Boulevard de la Ligne (27), providing access to the Ile de la Barthelasse.
The Palais des Papes (1) (00 33 4 32 74 32 74; palais-des-papes.com; 9am-7pm September and October; €10.50 or €15 combined ticket with Pont St-Bénezet) dominates Avignon's skyline and history. If you happen to be here on a Friday you can explore behind the scenes on an English-language tour of the popes' private apartments (avignon-tourisme.com; 3pm; €24.50).
Icing on the cake
Avignon is one of two lead characters in the story; the other peers over at the papal enclave from across the Rhône: Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, the "new town" that became a dormitory suburb for medieval cardinals.
Explore the remains of La Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction (00 33 4 90 15 24 24; chartreuse.org; 9am-6.30pm; €8), a Carthusian monastery founded by Pope Innocent VI in 1352, and view the "old town" from the ramparts of 13th-century Fort St-André (00 33 4 90 25 45 35; bit.ly/F-S-A; 10am-6pm, closed 1-2pm October to May; €5.50). Bus 5 serves Villeneuve from the Porte de L'Oulle (28).Reuse content