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.
Known as “la ville aux mille fontaines“, meaning the “city of 1000 fountains”, the city was built to balance Marseille’s economic power as the port on the Mediterranean. Free running water was a sign of prosperity; and the fountains scattered all over Aix-en-Provence are meant to display that wealth.
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 in Aix (and nearby Gréoux-les-Bains) 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 typical of the region that sell everything from flowers to vegetables to lavender oils.
2. 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 reputed healing properties, for that you will have to head to Aix-les-Bains.
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. Wine tastings
The Côtes du Rhône and Côtes de Provence are one of the top wine regions in France, and so there is plenty of excellent wine tasting to be had in the area.
The most popular wines in the area are reds and rosés, but there are some white wines in the region as well. The vineyards around the Rhône river have existed since Roman times, using age-old techniques that have existed since then.
The area uses a majority of Grenache rouge and Syrah grapes for red wines and Grenache blanc and Viognier grapes in white wines and rosés. You can read more about Côtes du Rhône wines here.
Several wine tasting tours run from Aix en Provence as well as nearby Avignon, that you can see here.
6. 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 who happened to be visiting Vincent van Gogh. You can read more about Cezanne, Picasso and other French artists here.
7. 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 that you can see here.
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.
8. The Calissons
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. You can read more about other local foods and drinks to try in Provence here.
9. Day trip to Gorges du Verdon and Moustiers-Saint-Marie
About 62miles (100km) away from Aix-en-Provence lies the Gorges du Verdon. It is gorgeous natural river canyon about 15 miles (25km) long. If you are a nature-lover who enjoys hiking, kayaking, and swimming, you will not want to miss this beautiful protected natural park.
Perched on a hill, near the canyon is the charming town of Moustier-Sainte-Marie which has been voted one of the “most beautiful villages in France”. The village was founded by a group of monks in the 5th century, who built a church there, high on the hillside.
People from all over flock to this beautiful part of Provence, which has managed to retain its charm and village feel in a fast-paced world.
10. The 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.
11. Visit 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.
12. Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix-en-Provence
The Cathedral of Aix-en-Provence was built in the 12th century on the site of the 1st-century Roman forum of Aix. Like other impressive cathedrals from that era, it is mostly in Gothic style but includes Romanesque and Neo-Gothic elements, as well as parts of the baptistery from a 6th-century Christian church.
According to the Christian tradition, the first church on the site was founded by Saint Maximinus of Aix, who arrived in Provence from Bethany, a village near Jerusalem, with Mary Magdalene on a boat belonging to Lazarus.
The local legend is that from there Mary is said to have gone to Marseille, eventually being buried in nearby Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume.
Her sister Martha is said to have gone on to Tarascon to perform miracles there. Lazarus went on to become the first bishop of Marseille and Maximin became the first bishop of Aix-en-Provence and one of the most well-known saints in France.
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?
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?
You can easily visit Aix-en-Provence as a day trip from Marseille. It has a lively restaurant scene, and its open-air terraces in city squares make it an excellent place to have lunch or dinner and unwind with a bottle of wine.
There are several tour options from Marseille to Aix that you can see here.
Where should you stay?
There are several wonderful hotels in the center of Aix-en-Provence. 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.
So are you ready to visit Aix-en-Provence? If you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more about day trips from Aix-en-Provence. A bientôt !