If you have never heard of Aix-en-Provence (pronounced “Ex-en-Provance”), you are in for a treat. A chic little town in the South of France, Aix-en-Provence is sometimes called the 21st arrondissement of Paris.
With large beautiful boulevards, tiny cobblestone alleys, and fortressed city center, Aix-en-Provence is the wealthy counterweight to rough-edged Marseille, which is a mere 30 minutes away.
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History of Aix-en-Provence
Located in the Region of Provence, Aix-en-Provence was founded in 123 BC by the Romans, who were already in nearby Marseille, the port city on the Mediterranean. But Aix-en-Provence had something else that the Romans were interested in: natural hot springs and spa.
The thermal springs were reputed for their healing powers, attracting Romans and tourists from all over Europe.
During the Middle Ages, Aix-en-Provence was the capital of Provence, when it became an artistic center and seat of learning. Today, the city hosts several universities in the area, making it a vibrant student town (although one with more expensive tastes).
Things to do in Aix en Provence
1) Old Aix City Center and Cathedral
Wander through the narrow streets of the old city center. The ancient city wall still stand, encircling the old stone buildings and narrow cobblestone walkways. With its many fountains and small squares bathed in sunshine, enjoy a café or a pastis and watch the locals go by.
There is a cathedral you can visit, and also the city’s ancient Mairie (town hall). If you are lucky, you might just catch a glimpse of a French wedding. And if you happen to be there on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays, don’t miss the open-air markets that sell everything from flowers to vegetables to lavender oils.
2) Visit Cours Mirabeau
The large central boulevard leading to the Old Town, this is the “Champs Elysées” of Aix-en-Provence. Lined with several large cafés and green fountains (see featured photo), there is always something going on at Cours Mirabeau.
3) Atelier Cezanne
The legendary impressionist was born in Aix-en-Provence and lived there for most of his life. His studio today is open to the public for visits, having been preserved in exactly the same shape as he left it. It is about a 15-minute walk from the Old City, in a tranquil and leafy suburb.
4) Thermes Sextius Spa and thermal springs
The old roman springs no longer have their healing properties, but a newer spa still promises to offer all the modern amenities, along with age-old relaxation techniques. The spa is part of the Aquabella Hotel , so reserve your night there to make the most of your experience.
5) Musée Granet
If you would like to see a few paintings by Cezanne, head over to Musée Granet. The museum has over 12,000 pieces of art, including 9 paintings by Cezanne. There are also a couple of works by his impressionist artist neighbor in nearby Arles, Pablo Picasso.
6) Visit the nearby lavender fields
You cannot visit this part of France and miss out on the lavender fields in Provence. Visit a nearby lavender farm and learn about its cultivation and uses from a local producer. There are several tours, some which leave in the mornings or in the afternoons. I recommend the morning tours, especially if you are visiting in the summer, because it gets very hot under the sun in this part of the world.
7) Try a Calisson
If you have a sweet tooth, you cannot miss trying the local specialty, the Calisson. It is a traditional French candy made out of fruit (usually orange, melons and nuts), topped off with a thin layer of marzipan.
The recipe and manufacturing process is protected under French law, so look for the sign “Calisson d’Aix” in candy stores and gift shops around Aix.
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8) Go to a Salon de thé
Being a student town, there are many excellent Salons de thé (tea-rooms) across the city. Enjoy a cup of exotic camomile and play a board game during the traditional afternoon goûter (snack-time) that French people indulge in.
9) Take a day trip to Marseille
If you are in Aix-en-Provence, and you have not been to Marseille yet, you definitely have to make the trip. The Mediterranean city that dates back to Greek and Roman times is the 2nd largest city in France. Being a historic rival of Paris, Marseille has a grittier edge than Paris and Aix-en-Provence.
With lovely beaches and a bustling and completely renovated Vieux Port, there is plenty to see and do in Marseille.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to get to Aix-en-Provence?
There is a direct high-speed train (TGV) from Paris that will take you there in about 3 hours. Nearby Marseille also has an international airport, with connections from all over Europe and the world.
How easy is it getting around Aix-en-Provence?
The pedestrian Old town is very easily walkable. If you do have issues walking, there are also small buses called Les Diablines that run through the center of town for €1 euro per ticket.
You can also do a historical walking tour that includes a guide and tastings to the local specialties like the calisson.
How many days should you stay in Aix-en-Provence?
You can easily visit Aix-en-Provence as a day trip from Marseille, but I prefer to stay overnight. It has a lively restaurant scene, and its open-air terraces in city squares make it an excellent place to have dinner and unwind with a bottle of wine late into the night.
Where should you stay in Aix-en-Provence?
I recommend staying in the old City Center. If you enjoy the spa experience, you should definitely pick the Aquabella Hotel , I mentioned above. Otherwise, there are a lot of lovely hotels right in the historic city.
Note: One point to remember when booking your accommodation however, is that it gets very hot (35C+ or 95F+) in the summer. So check that your hotel has air-conditioning before making your reservation.
City Center: The Yellow area in the map below is the pedestrian zone in the Old City of Aix-en-Provence. If you are going for old-world charm, I recommend staying in this zone.
So have I convinced you to go on a trip to Aix-en-Provence? Comment below and let me know. A bientôt !
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