Aix-en-Provence is an elegant Provençal town with a retro charm, capable of surprising visitors who will have the patience to visit it unhurriedly: the wicker baskets full of lavender, the shops from which the fragrant scent of bread emanates, the many young people who animate its outdoor cafés, the pastel colours of the houses, the bubbling fountains.
Leave your car outside the centre, on the circular road that surrounds it, and stroll through the maze of narrow streets and hidden squares, savouring with your gaze the many antique shops, the shops selling Provençal handicrafts and gastronomic delicacies, but above all the riot of colours of the weekly market.
Aix-en-Provence possesses all the charm of the deepest of southern France, with the blinding sun lighting up the majestic stately palaces, their portals carved in stone. The city enchants visitors with its squares shaded by large plane trees and its many fountains, often covered with moss and in the most bizarre shapes that dot the urban grid.
All this has captivated generations of poets and painters like Cezanne, who imprinted on canvas all the magic of this corner of Provence.
Aix-en-Provence is a small town that should be discovered and savoured without haste. Its charm and beauty lie in its young and sparkling atmosphere, in the façades of the buildings, in the details of the fountains, in the unexpected glimpses that can only be discovered by walking slowly.
The most characteristic, ancient and fascinating part of the city is undoubtedly the Old Town, the area between Cours Sextius, Rue Thiers and Cours Mirabeau, a continuous succession of small, cosy squares, alleyways, restaurants and shops.
Stroll up and down the dense network of narrow streets that will surprise you at every turn. In the square of the Hotel de Ville with the Clock Tower, the colourful flower market takes place on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, a triumph of intoxicating scents. In the square teeming with stalls full of flowers, you can browse through picturesque shops, such as La cure Gourmande, taste calissons, delicious rhombus-shaped almond paste biscuits covered with white icing, and laze around sipping a coffee under the shade of the large, centuries-old plane trees.
The passage Agard, the former convent of the Carmes, is a hidden corner of Aix-en-Provence: it connects the Cours Mirabeau to the Palais de Justice while in Place de Verdun you will find a flea and antiques market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Place Ramus, with its picturesque restaurants, is perfect for a romantic dinner while Place des Cardeurs is the hub of university evenings. Continue on to Place Richelme, where every morning is filled with fragrant stalls of fruit, vegetables and spices, a lovely place to loiter and take colourful photos.
Also not to be missed is Place d’Albertas, dating back to the 18th century and surrounded by elegant Baroque and Rococo buildings: it was built in 1745 at the behest of the Marquis d’Albertas in the style of Parisian royal squares and embellished by its magnificent fountain.
With its imposing naves and baptismal font surmounted by a white dome, the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral is a historical monument not to be missed.
It is distinguished above all by the marvellous portal in flamboyant Gothic style on the façade and the enchanting Romanesque cloister inside. When the light reflects and penetrates between the columns, one can perfectly understand the great fascination that Provence had on artists and painters.
The Mazarin Quarter, designed by Michael Mazarin, Archbishop of Aix and brother of Cardinal Mazarin, is a part of the city characterised by splendid 17th and 18th century buildings, such as the Hotel de Forbin (at number 20), dating from 1656, and the Hotel de Marignane.
In this district, urban design becomes more rational and geometric than in the narrow grid of the old city, as can be seen in the immense Cours Mirabeau, the avenue built in 1651 for the passage of carriages. Cafés, restaurants and boutiques line the avenue, shaded by immense plane trees.
The most famous corner of the district is undoubtedly the Fountain of the Four Dolphins, surrounded by splendid mansions with richly decorated façades.
This very long boulevard divides the new city from the old and is one of the city’s focal points. We advise you to walk along it calmly, enjoying the typical Provençal atmosphere, relaxed and sunny: you can sit at one of the many cafés overlooking the avenue, such as the famous Café des Deux Garçons, observe the shop windows and linger over the precious details of the great aristocratic portals.
The avenue starts from La Rotonde, an immense fountain built in 1860 and characterised by three large allegorical statues representing and oriented towards the three most important cities in Provence: Marseille, symbol of Agriculture, Aix-en-Provence emblem of Justice and Avignon, embodiment of Fine Arts.
The boulevard is adorned with magnificent stately mansions, symbolising the rise of the city’s bourgeoisie, who had their residences built here to emphasise their new social position. The most famous Baroque example in the city is the Hotel Maurel-de-Pontevés (at number 38): the balcony is supported by two imposing atlases.
As you walk up the wide tree-lined avenue, you will come across other beautiful fountains: the Fontaine des Nine Cannons, built in 1691 to bring water to the Convent of Saint Ursula; the Hot Water Fountain, also known as ‘la musk’, built on a spot where thermal water gushes out at 34°; and finally, the fountain depicting King René d’Anjou, represented with a bunch of grapes in his hand, lending credence to the legend that it was the king who introduced vines to Provence.
On the hill of Lauves, on the outskirts of the town, is the refuge of Paul Cezanne, one of the most important artists of the 19th century, a famous painter hovering between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, an involuntary forerunner of the future Cubism.
The Provençal painter, after years of work in Paris, decided to return to his home town to shut himself away in this corner of absolute peace and quiet and devote himself completely to his study and art. His approach to pictorial representation required time and slowness: in order to carry out his studies on the geometricity of figures and to analyse subjects from different angles and different points of view simultaneously, Cezanne needed space and time. This is why he set up a studio bathed in light and silence, in which he could surround himself with all the objects he needed for his work.
When you enter Cezanne’s workshop, time seems to stand still and everything is there as the artist left it: in this large and bright room you will see easels and coffee pots, bottles and jugs, human skulls and wicker baskets where he stored apples, the fruit he loved most to study and reproduce endlessly. You can also see the wooden mannequin he used for canvases of female figures such as the cycle of the Great Bathers, made right here.
A large window occupies an entire wall and floods the studio with light, projecting it into the surrounding garden. A few steps outside and you have a stunning view of the Sainte Victoire mountain, one of Cézanne’s favourite subjects. The mountain on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence was his pictorial obsession, like Rouen Cathedral for Monet: Cézanne immortalised it countless times, in different weather conditions, at different times of the year, noting the changes in light and atmosphere.
The café-restaurant Les Deux Garçons is an institution in Aix-en-Provence, serving its customers since as far back as 1792. It is easily recognisable by the green canopy over the tables on the street side and is yet another good reason to thoroughly explore Cours Mirabeau.
Besides its menu of great classics and house specialities, it is above all the restaurant’s history that attracts many visitors. This brasserie was home to artists such as Cézanne and Emile Zola who enjoyed their afternoon aperitifs here together. Les Deux Garçons has also hosted Pablo Picasso, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and, more recently, many international film stars.
As you can imagine, it is quite touristy and not cheap, but always worth a visit, even if only for a coffee.
Aix-en-Provence has an impressive number of beautiful monumental fountains. Of these, Fontaine des Quatre-Dauphins7(Fountain of the Four Dolphins) in the Mazarin Quarter is considered the oldest but Fontaine de la Rotonde8 is probably the most famous. It is situated at the end of Cours Mirabeau and surmounted by three figures representing the three main activities of the city: the fine arts, agriculture and justice. Also on Cours Mirabeau is Fontaine Moussue9(Moss Fountain), which draws its water directly from one of the city’s natural springs.
A spa town since Roman times thanks to its natural springs, Aix-en-Provence is still renowned as the ideal place to relax with a spa treatment.
The Sextius spa, located inside the Aquabella Hotel and measuring 3,000 square metres, uses these natural spring waters to offer a unique experience to its guests.
A wide range of treatments is available, from classic massages to hydrotherapy, a technique that uses the minerals contained in the water to alleviate many physical ailments.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
For all those wishing to explore Aix-en-Provence in greater depth, there is the possibility of purchasing the Aix-en-Provence City Pass: the tourist card can be activated in 24, 48 or 72-hour formulas and allows free access to the most important sites in and around the city, 11 guided tours on different themes and a tour of Aix-en-Provence on the tourist train.
The card can be purchased at the Aix-en-Provence Tourist Office (300 avenue Giuseppe Verdi) or online.
To experience all the Provençal atmosphere of the city, we recommend staying near or within the historical centre: in this case, make sure you find a hotel with parking, as it is very difficult to leave your car in the restricted traffic zones.
The Mazzarin district is a quiet and very elegant residential area, where you will find the city’s most exclusive and luxurious accommodations, charming places located inside prestigious residences and noble palaces. The district is ideal for shopping, discovering historic buildings and busy cafés, but is not very lively at night.
If, on the other hand, you are looking for more liveliness, nightclubs and restaurants, you will have to move into the old town . This is mainly where rental flats and small studios are concentrated in the heart of the centre. To experience the evenings in Aix-en-Provence, we particularly recommend Place des Cardeurs, the heart of nightlife, where you can linger until late in the many bars and clubs.
To stay in large hotels, equipped with all comforts and often even spas, you need to get out of the heart of the city. In fact, most hotels and hotel chains are located around the centre.
Marseille Airport is only 25 minutes away from Aix-en-Provence and can be easily reached after renting a car locally. Alternatively, you can land at Nice Airport: with your rental car, you can reach Aix-en-Provence in 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Aix-en-Provence station is connected to the whole of France thanks to the TGV Méditerranée network: in just 3 hours you will be in Paris and a little over 1 hour from Lyon. There are connections with several European cities: Brussels, Geneva with direct, London, Amsterdam, Cologne, Milan with a change, as well as many Provençal towns such as Marseille, Manosque, Sisteron.
If, on the other hand, you travel by car, know that the city of Aix-en-Provence is at the centre of the dense motorway network of south-eastern France, a strategic access point for visiting Provence, the Côte d’Azur and the Camargue.
Passing through Aix-en-Provence are the A8 motorway, an axis linking Cannes (153 km), Nice (176 km) and the Italian border (208 km), and the A51, the Val de Durance motorway that leads from Marseilles (32 km) to Sisteron and on to the Alps (103 km).
You will also have a connection to the country’s main motorways: the A7/A6, Autoroute du Soleil leads to Avignon (88 km), Lyon (297 km) and Paris (759 km), the A52 / A50 leads to Aubagne (35 km) and Toulon (84 km) while the A54, continues to Arles (75 km), Nîmes (105 km) and Montpellier (154 km).
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The following are the most popular tickets and tours in Aix-en-Provence that we recommend you don't miss.