The Best Of: Avignon

A guide to one of Provence's historic centres
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The Independent Travel

From provincial town to Holy See, Avignon was transformed during the 14th century after Pope Clement V moved here. The architectural legacy is a joy: numerous buildings were erected between 1305 and 1378, including the imposing limestone palace. Today, many of these structures have been restored - a treat for sightseers and a beautiful backdrop for the arts festival in July, when half a million visitors descend on the city.

Best hotel

The sleek Clarion Cloître Saint Louis (00 33 4 90 27 55 55; www.cloitre-saint-louis.com), 20 rue du Portail Boquier, is housed in the cloisters of a 17th-century Jesuit school. Double rooms start at €130 (£90).

La Mirande (00 33 4 90 14 20 20; www.la-mirande.fr), 4 Place de la Mirande, behind the Palais des Papes, is decorated in the Regency style. Doubles start at €295 (£200), room only.

Best restaurant

Avignon suffers no shortage of eateries, from unassuming student-filled and candlelit wine bars around the rue bis des Teinturiers, to the tourist-filled cafés near the Place du Palais.

Feeding Avignon's more upmarket crowd is Restaurant Numéro 75 (00 33 4 90 27 16 00), 75 rue Guillaume Puy. The set, three-course, dinner menu features seasonal dishes and costs €30 (£20).

La Compagnie des Comptoirs (00 33 4 90 85 99 04; www.lacompagniedescomptoirs.com), 83 rue Joseph Vernet, is part of the Pourcel twins' expanding empire. A three-course meal costs around €45 (£30) and features Mediterranean and Asian fusion cuisine.

A cheaper option is Woolloomooloo (00 33 4 90 85 28 44; www.woolloo.com) at 16 rue bis des Teinturiers. A three-course meal costs around €20 (£14) and the restaurant opens daily for lunch and dinner.

Best cultural attraction

The Avignon Festival (00 33 4 90 27 66 50; www.festival-avignon.com), 8-27 July, is France's answer to the Edinburgh Festival. Theatre and concerts are staged across the city, including the courtyard of the Palais des Papes. There is also a fringe festival - the OFF Festival (00 33 1 48 05 01 19; www.avignon-off.org), which takes place from 8 to 30 July.

The Palace des Papes (00 33 4 90 27 50 00; www.palais-des-papes.com), Place du Palais, dominates the city and is the focal point (aside from the pont over the Rhône) for visitors. From 1305 to 1378 the city was home to seven popes (followed by several antipopes). The exterior is best viewed from the square in front during the early evening or on bright days, when the sun glints on the limestone façade and the gold Virgin Mary poised above it. The interior has several intact frescos adorning private chambers. The palace opens daily from 9am to 7pm, and until 9pm during the festival season. Admission €7.50 (£5.40) during low season (1 November-14 March) and €9.50 (£6.50) in high season.

The Collection Lambert in Avignon (00 33 4 90 165 620; www.collectionlambert.com), 5 rue Violette, has modern art, including works by Picasso and Nan Goldin. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, September to June, 11am to 6pm and until 7pm from July to August. Admission €5.50 (£3.90).

Best shopping

The cosmopolitan crowd heads for the boutiques along the Parisian rue Joseph Vernet and rue Saint Agricol. However, Avignon's best purchase is food. The covered market at Les Halles may be unsightly, but it is home to a lively daily food market selling Provençal goods such as olives and organic lavender honey. For Côte du Rhône wines, go to the boutellerie in the basement of the Palais des Papes, where you can also enjoy tastings.

If you have time, take a train from the SNCF station on a Sunday to the fantastic antiques market at L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. The journey takes around 30 minutes and a direct train departs at 9.30am. For train timetables go to www.ter-sncf.com.

Best sightseeing

The walled area of Avignon is small enough to explore on foot, although the narrow cobbled streets mean that flat shoes are a must and be prepared to get lost or disoriented now and again.

Numerous Gothic-style churches with impressive rib-vaulted ceilings and several frescos are dotted around the city.

For a spectacular view of the Rhône, the half-collapsed pont and the walled city, head to the vantage point at the Rocher des Doms garden above the Palais des Papes. Although the wind can be fairly strong, especially when the Mistral is blowing, the gardens have the best view across the city, up the Rhône valley and over the river to Villeneuve-les-Avignon.

Or take a boat trip up the Rhône. The one-hour Saint Nicholas tour takes visitors sous le pont d'Avignon, and past the Rocher des Doms, St André fort and Philippe le Bel Tower, price €7.50 (£5.40).

Best nightspot

There are plenty of cosy wine bars in which to sip a good Côte du Rhône, such as La Vache à Carreaux (00 33 4 90 80 09 05), 14 rue Peyrollerie, which serves an impressive number of cheeses with its wine.

La Compagnie des Comptoirsalso has a trendy bar frequented by Avignon's young élite and hosts some of France's top DJs.

The 19th-century Opera House (00 33 4 90 82 42 42), Place d'Horloge, regularly hosts concerts, opera, theatre and dance performances.

How to get there

From 9 July to 10 September, Eurostar (0870-518 6186; www.eurostar.com) operates a direct service from London

Waterloo to Avignon SNCF, departing on Saturdays at 7.09am and returning at 4.30pm.

The journey takes around six hours and returns start at £109. The best way to get around the walled city is on foot.

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