Set on the western bank of Étang de Berre lake – Europe's largest inland sea if you please! - Istres has upheld its traditions through the ages and forged itself a solid identity.
This Provencal village's maze of steep old lanes, alleyways and secret passageways pans out around the ancient Château des Baumes and church, inviting holidaymakers to stroll and explore.
Offering museums, craft workshops and boutiques specializing in local produce (olive oil, honey, wine, etc.), Istres is also a buoyant cultural hub, home to the Palio Arena, Théâtre de l’Olivier, cinemas, etc. and paradise for outdoor leisure lovers, with a great choice of parks, water sports centres and walking tours. The Istres events programme features medieval fairs, various festivals, firework displays and traditional ferias. What's more, far from the madding crowds, the banks of Etang de l’Olivier lake, Romaniquette and Ranquet beaches (Etang de Berre) and Mediterranean gardens are genuine havens of peace to be savoured without moderation. Whatever the season, it's always holiday time in Istres!
More than one heritage!
Before visiting Istres, it's interesting to know that although human occupation of the site dates back to the Magdalenian era, the village – then referred to as Ystrio - truly came into its own from the 10th century onwards. In other words, an impressive 11 centuries of history lie between these walls! Begin your tour with a stroll through the winding streets of the medieval quarter, set under the powerful Romanesque silhouette of Notre Dame de Beauvoir church.
From this lookout point, you will spot two other exceptional buildings that have marked the village's history: Chapelle Saint-Sulpice, ranked among Provence's finest examples of Romanesque architecture and Pavillon de Grignan, the annual venue for the Festival des Nuits d’Istres.
There are plenty of options available for visiting Istres: simply pick one of our tour itineraries or book a guided tour with the Tourist Office, enjoy a bicycle ride along Etang de l’Olivier or rent out a jyrobike with Gyrobike Provence. If you're a sailor at heart, hop on board the Mentor, a small schooner ideal for a tour of the lake.
The art of having fun
What to do in Istres? As you'll be spoilt for choice, we recommend checking out our faves for your holiday in Istres! Contemporary culture buffs will love the Centre d’Art Contemporain: set inside a magnificent mansion house in Istres' historic quarter, this forward-thinking modern art centre promotes young talents and artistic education. Its exhibitions - including paintings, drawings and illustrations - raise questions on the role of art in society today. And after sunset, when the time is ripe for a night out in Istres, what could be better than a good concert? The top venue is L’Usine: this combined concert hall and music café is also a regionally-renowned hub of musical creation.
Holidaying with the family
Istres has plenty of attractions for kids too, with a variety of fun outings for all the family.
Take a dive back into the Jurassic Period during your stay in Istres at the Dinosaur’Istres theme park, set on an authentic archaeological site and featuring lifesize dinosaurs! Then you can take your little ones off to L’Art Zoo, a very novel park dotted with extraordinary works of art...
Fancy a gourmet tour?
From the vibrant colours of the traditional market to the surrounding farms, Istres is an ode to Provencal gastronomy. Just follow your nose to visit the fragrant Halles de l’Olivier, welcoming around a dozen impassioned producers and shopkeepers every day – you'll find plenty of delicious local organic goodies there. And if you fancy savouring some more fruit of the soil, don't miss the extraordinary olive oils produced by Annie and Philippe Lambert and Domaine Saint-Véran. Wine buffs will enjoy visiting the Cave Viticole de Sulauze wine cooperative and Brewery, producing acclaimed beers. And if you're guilty of a sweet tooth, don't miss the honey delicacies by reputed local beekeeper Jean Hagopian and hand-made chocolates by Yves Thuriès, twice winner of the 'Best French Artisan' title.
… Or an invigorating walk?
Istres and Etang de Berre – and its adjacent little lakes – are intrinsically linked. So you won't be surprised if most of the town's outdoor activities are on the water theme! If you want to take a walk along the banks of the lake and drink in the scenery, start with the GR 2013 long-distance footpath, running from Ranquet to Heures Claires. Something a little shorter? Enjoy a stroll around the Jardins de l’Étang, where you can learn lots of fascinating facts about the local Mediterranean flora. An ideal outing for all the family.
You'll love seeing the colourful sailboats on the water all year round. And if you're visiting in summer, makes the most of Ranquet beach (free Tuk-Tuk shuttle) and Romaniquette beach, where tow tubes, jet skis and flyboards await you for thrills, spills and plenty of laughs!
If you head just slightly inland, you can enjoy a walk in Massif de Sulauze. Very popular with the locals, Istres forest is so enchanting one could almost believe the many legends surrounding it...
Shopping, arts & crafts and designers...
Time for a shopping spree? You've come to the right place! Simply follow the 'Ma Cigale est Fantastique' Istres shopping guide to get straight to the point! Alternatively, head off through the lanes and you may well come across a car boot sale. And if you'd like to see what's trending, push open the door to Entrée Libre, a boutique showcasing around ten local designers.
If you want to see just how lively Istres is, take a look at the istres's events programme. The Festival Les Élancées at Théâtre de l’Olivier is ideal for warming up the winter days if you're visiting in February. In June, it's time for the Feria, attracting huge crowds with its flamboyant Spanish atmosphere.
Summer time is concert time, with the Nuits d’Istres at Pavillon Grignan. Star-gazing is on the agenda too, with the fabulous Jeudis Étoilés lighting up the banks of Etang de l'Olivier. Last but not least, the year ends with the Fête des Bergers in November – a wonderful tribute to Provence's traditional Transhumance (the translocation of herds to their winter pastures) and the fertile soil of La Crau -, followed by the superb Istres Christmas Market.
Where to sleep in Istres?
Meet with the locals during your stay in Istres by booking at a B&B. You will love spending a night or week at the Mas du Bras d’Or with its pool out in the meadow, or Cabanon de l’Olivette with its fish pond tucked away among olive trees. If you're seeking a family atmosphere, head to the Résidence de Vacances les Heures Claires, offering gorgeous views over Étang de Berre lake, coupled with very-practical full board packages. And if camping is your thing, check out Camping le Vallon des Cigales for a back-to-nature holiday in the shade of oaks and pine trees.
Where to eat in Istres?
Oh, the joys of fine wining and dining! Le n° 7 by Gaelle & Stéphane is a definite must for demanding foodies. Shaded by plane trees, this gastronomic restaurant promises an exciting range of herb-scented local produce from the Halles de l’Olivier, topped with a superb contemporary decor for an unforgettable culinary adventure!
Time to eat outside
Picnics are a great way to escape from routine and spend some quality time with friends, family or your partner. Whether you opt for the seaside, a park or vineyard, they are an ode to simple pleasures and sharing.
Time to row
Fancy grabbing your paddle and swishing off to the translucent waters of En-Vau fjord? Test your biceps with a kayak tour of the myriad of fjords dotted along the coast between Cassis and Marseille.