Best time to visit Provence

“Apart from the peace and emptiness of the landscape, there is a special smell about winter in Provence which is accentuated by the wind and the clean, dry air. Walking in the hills, I was often able to smell a house before I could see it, because of the scent of woodsmoke coming from an invisible chimney.” – Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence
French vacationmakers and international travelers descend on Provence and the Riviera like a cloud of cicadas during the summer – visit out of season, and the region is just as gorgeous and glamourous, but nowhere near so crowded.
It’s best to avoid the French Riviera, and indeed many of the most popular locations in Provence, during the height of summer. This admittedly ravishing region is just too popular and you will have a far more enjoyable time visiting outside of the peak season. The best time to visit Provence is unquestionably either April to May, or September to October, when the weather is pleasant and the crowds have largely died down. True you’ll be missing out on the lavender season and the thrills of the coast in July and August, but what you gain is a more peaceful Provence, largely untroubled by coachloads of camera-wielding tourists and celebrity glitz. Winter too, can be lovely and still sunny, if you can cope with the roaring Mistral winds.

When to go to Provence, month by month

Provence is generally thought of as a summer destination, which is only natural given the bejewelled French Riviera. But while most Provence vacations, especially small group trips, operate between April and October, the South of France is just as magnificent in winter. Snow is likely in the Luberon region, while the Christmas markets of Aix-en-Provence and other historic towns from late November through December to January are easily as picturesque as better-known ones in Europe. Naturally it’s a lot cooler in winter than summer, but it’s not unknown to see hardier souls braving the weather in a T-shirt in places such as Nice. The iconic beaches and resorts of the French Riviera are relatively empty in February and March, with most vacationmakers in France instead heading for higher altitudes for skiing. You can join a tailor made Côtes du Rhône cycling vacation in France at any time of year, but in winter do beware the Mistral wind, which sweeps down the Rhône Valley to the coast, with chilly gusts that frequently exceed 60km/h. The famous lavender fields of Provence are in bloom during the summer, usually beginning around the last week of June and continuing until early August, at their most stunning in early July.

Harvey Downard from operator Cycling for Softies agrees:
“The bold purple lavender fields around Gordes and Roussillon are beautiful and an iconic image of Provence. The best time to visit for the lavender is June or July, before they start harvesting.”
Head out early to catch the perfect shot in the Luberon before the crowds arrive and remember that many farmers depend on the sale of lavender for their income, so don’t damage the crop by walking through fields no matter how tempting it might be. Being one of France’s most desirable vacation destinations means that Provence, especially its gorgeous coast, can get ludicrously busy during the summer. We recommend visiting instead at the turn of the seasons. May and September are both ideal months for cycling and walking vacations in Provence, warm and sunny with fewer people around, not to mention the delightful colours in the wildflowers and autumnal leaves. Sunsets over hilltop villages are at their most dramatic during spring and autumn.

Harvey Downard is a particular fan of autumn:
“Riding through the vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone region is lovely, especially towards the end of the season when the leaves start to turn orange. The colours at this time of year are mind blowing and the seemingly endless vineyards paint the whole landscape.”

Provence Weather Chart

RAIN (mm)

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Festivals & events in Provence

One festival that won’t leave a sour taste in the mouth is the annual Lemon Festival in Menton, which runs for a few weeks from mid-February. Requiring around 145,000kg of the yellow citrus fruit to decorate its floats, stands and structures, it’s among the biggest events on the Riviera, attracting thousands of visitors who are never short of a fresh slice to go in their drink.

The Easter Festival in Arles is a well-attended and very sociable occasion, with a great evening atmosphere. It does, however, mark the start of bullfighting season in Provence, which we advise you give a swerve to – see our guide to responsible tourism in Provence for more details.
Also taking place in April, the Great Roman Games in Nîmes involve a weekend of gladiatorial combat and chariot races in a thrilling reenactment of ancient Rome, featuring participants from France, Germany and Italy in historically accurate dress. Events are held in the town’s spectacular Roman amphitheatre, which was built 2,000 years ago and holds some 24,000 spectators – close your eyes and listen to the roars of the crowd, and you can almost see Caesar holding a thumb up or down.

In May the Cannes Film Festival, perhaps the most prestigious event in cinema, takes over the Riviera. Official events are of course restricted to industry bods, and if you do catch sight of a celeb on the red carpet it will most likely from a big distance – it may seem the height of glamour but if you’re not in the inner circle there’s little point being in the area. Macé Beach hosts the Cinéma de la Plage, screening Cannes Classics and Out of Competition films free of charge. Bring a picnic and turn up early for a deckchair.

Every June, thousands of sheep are moved to higher pastures, a migration nowadays organised by vehicle, but in the past on foot, a journey that lasted some 10 days. The Transhumance Festival in Saint Rémy pays tribute to this tradition, and in the town center you can watch as a sea of sheep, donkeys and goats are paraded past by shepherds and their dogs. Kids will love it.

The Chorégies d’Orange, a prestigious opera festival, is held in August in the town’s ancient Roman theatre, which seats 9,000.

Any number of lavender-themed events take place across Provence in summer, but the Valensole Lavender Festival in July ranks among the best attended. Expect parades, live music and of course plenty of fragrant purses of dried lavender being liberally handed out.

Between June and September, the Soirees Estivales sees an eclectic programme of free concerts strung along the villages around Nice. Almost every village will have something on over the summer, so if you’re vacationing and fancy something a little different, check with your host to see what’s coming up.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Andrew Lawson] [Intro: mendhak] [Festivals & events in Provence: barskefranck]