Aix-en-Provence, often simply called Aix by locals, is one of the most appealing destinations in the South of France. Richer than Marseille, cheaper than Paris, and 300 days of sunshine each year - it's perfect for romantic breaks and languid summer vacations.
It's just a short drive from the beaches of the Côte d'Azur and the ski slopes of Gap. And, of course, it's in the heart of Provence, where you're surrounded by fragrant lavender and sunflower fields and ancient olive groves.
Plus, it's the birthplace of Cézanne, and Aix-en-Provence has enough cultural and historic attractions to satisfy the keenest enthusiast. Discover the winding medieval streets of the historic center, explore Roman ruins in nearby Arles, or simply watch the world pass by as you sip coffee at a sidewalk café.
Take a walk along the Cours Mirabeau, the city's main avenue that was built along the lines of the ancient Aix ramparts, and you can't miss the famous fountains. Built from the 17th to 19th centuries, they include the Mossy Fountain, the Fountain of Nine Canons, the Rotunde, which is the largest and sits on a base of lions, and the Fountain of King René.
Aix-en-Provence is popular with artists and art fans, not least because it was the birthplace of Paul Cézanne, one of the most important Post-Impressionist painters. See the Lauves Studio where the artist worked, or visit his family home - the house and park of Bastide du Jas de Bouffan are open to visitors. You might also like to drive to the Bibémus Quarries where you'll be able to see the mountains that appeared in many of Cézanne's paintings from the same viewpoint. A guided tour of all three sites can be booked for EUR12.
Cézanne adored the timeless majesty of Sainte-Victoire Mountain and featured it in some of his best works. Now a listed Grand Site de France, its red clay base is a sharp contrast to the white limestone peak. Take a hike to the top and enjoy some of the most spectacular views of the Provencal countryside. Or, if you're visiting Aix-en-Provence in winter, head to nearby Gap for excellent ski slopes and snowboarding fields.
Taking its name from a thermal spring, Aix was founded as Aquae Sextiae by Sextius Calvinus in 122BC. Visit the 18th-century Thermes Sextius Baths that were built on the original Roman site; they were a favorite of Winston Churchill and a day pass is EUR90. During the golden age of Aix, Good King René (1409-80) introduced literature, theater, art, and the Muscat grape. Visit Entremont, an excavated Gallic village that dates from the second century, or learn more about the unique character of the region at the Natural History Museum before retiring to a cafe to see what became of the Muscat grape.
Surrounded by the Luberon massif, a rolling plane of vineyards, olive groves, and lavender fields, Aix-en-Provence is also just 30 minutes from Marseille or Nice. It's within reach of the Côte d'Azur and just minutes from the mountains. Aix is a must-see destination that appeals to nature lovers, gourmands, sports fans, and romantics.
Experience the laid-back tranquility of southern France when you visit the Quartier Mazarin. South of the well-trafficked Cours Mirabeau lies a grid plan of streets containing old "hôtels particuliers" which were originally built to house wealthy merchants and nobles of Provence. The historic area is now filled with boutique hotels and shops selling local artisanal crafts, as well as several charming cafés. The area is, however, mainly residential, adding to the aesthetic appeal when visiting Quartier Mazarin.
The long, tree-lined avenue marks a central point of commerce and entertainment in Aix-en-Provence, with many restaurants, bars, and tourist shops catering to the enthusiastic consumer. Different days showcase different markets, as locals also use the thoroughfare to do their regular shopping and to meet up with old neighborhood friends. In the middle of the Cours Mirabeau is the ancient Fontaine du Roi Rene which honors René of Anjou who died in the 15th century while holding a scepter in one hand and a bushel of local grapes in the other.
When in Paris, visit the Notre Dame Cathedral. But when in Aix-en-Provence, there's nothing quite like the commanding facade of the Paroisse Cathédrale Saint Saveur. The Roman-Catholic Cathedral is popular tourist destination and a national monument of France. The building incorporates Romanesque, Gothic, and Neo-Gothic elements as it underwent repeated re-building attempts from the 12th to the 19th century. These days visitors can enjoy precious works of religious art on the life of Christ from Nicolas Froment, Louis Finson, and Jean Daret. Make sure to check out the Cathedral's program before visiting, as you just might find yourself lucky enough to enjoy a late night organ recital or a Christmas-time choir practice.
Whether you love painting, sculpture or archeology - there are many exhibits to explore in the center of Aix-en-Provence at Musee Granet. When the museum was originally constructed, it was owned by the Church of Saint-Jean-de-Malte next door. It wasn't until the last few decades that the structure was renovated and opened as an art gallery to the public. Today you can glimpse works by famous artists like Renoir, Ingres, Cézanne, and even Van Gogh. It's central location makes it easy to slip out for a glass of local wine to chat about France's great contributions to the artistic community.
After indulging in the provincial food and countryside of Aix-en-Provence, take a moment to appreciate it's finer cultural offerings in the outskirts of the city. The Vasarely Foundation realizes the artistic conceptions of Victor Vasarely, whose colossal paintings use abstract shapes and bold colors to create contemporary masterpieces, and thus has attracted worldwide attention. Vasarely hoped to ease the world's problems through the use of squares and triangles, and indeed many of his optical illusion paintings leave the viewer spellbound.
Aix-en-Provence is a good choice at any time of year, although most people prefer to visit during the summer peak season from May to September when the famous lavender fields are in full bloom, and the sun gives the pale stone buildings a soft golden glow. However, it's worth considering a spring break when the city is blooming, or a visit in fall as the harvest comes in. Aix is also a popular winter vacation spot thanks to its proximity to local ski resorts and seasonal events like the Christmas market.
The closest airport is in Marseille, which is 20 miles from Aix-en-Provence. A shuttle bus service departs every half hour and the 30-minute trip to Aix costs EUR7.80. Taxis can be found outside the terminal building and the fare is EUR70.
Fast TGV trains are ideal for those who prefer to take the scenic route. The one-way trip from Paris takes just under three hours and a ticket costs EUR25. Trains terminate at Aix-en-Provence station, which is just outside the city. There's a regular bus connection for EUR4.30.
Aix-en-Provence is close to several main routes. Choose the A7 motorway if you're driving from Marseille or Lyon to connect with the A8 for the city. If you're coming from the southwest or Spain, follow the A9 or take the A8 from Italy, the Côte d'Azur, and Nice.
There are coach services from most large French cities to Marseille. There is a bus from Marseille St. Charles station to Aix. It takes 30 minutes and tickets cost EUR7.80. The Gare Routière on Avenue de l'Europe also serves some intercity bus conncetions.
Aix-en-Provence is a university city so you'll find lots of affordable accommodation alongside boutique-style residences and upscale hotels. Good mid-range hotels include Hotel ibis Aix-en-Provence, Hôtel Aquabella, and Hôtel Best Western Le Galice. Luxury hotels like La Villa Gallici or Hôtel Aix-en-Provence - Hôtel de Gantès are ideal for special occasion trips.
Old Town - the center is home to some of the city's most impressive buildings. Notable structures include the 17th-century Town Hall and Saint Sauveur Cathedral, where you can see the Burning Bush triptych by Nicolas Froment.
Villeneuve District - the new town neighborhood is east of the Palais de Justice, although it was given its name when it was modernized in the 16th century! Today, it's an upscale residential area of stylish townhouses.
Cours Mirabeau - the vibrant Cours Mirabeau district is one of the busiest and most popular parts of the city. Its centerpiece is its tree-lined 18th-century avenue where you can see many of the city's famous fountains and grand mansions.
Although much of Aix can be navigated on foot, there is a good local bus service that covers all parts of the city and nearby villages. Tickets can be bought at the main bus station or on board. A single journey is EUR1.20 or books of 10 trips can be purchased for EUR8.
You'll find metered taxis close to most tourist areas in Aix-en-Provence. They charge an initial tariff of EUR3.50 plus EUR1.70 for each additional 0.62 miles.
Rent a car to easily explore the beautiful countryside around Aix. A family saloon from major brands like Hertz is EUR40 per day.
The Old Town's winding streets are filled with boutiques selling clothes, books, arts and crafts, and jewelry. For high street brands try Les Allées Provençales or catch the bus to the large Carrefour shopping mall for everything from fashion and accessories to homewares and electronics.
Visit the bustling Aix street markets for the best fresh produce, or buy food and provisions from supermarkets like Monoprix and Coccimarket. 12 eggs cost EUR2.39 and a quart of whole milk is EUR0.92.
Pick up a few boxes of Calissons d'Aix to give as gifts. The lozenge-shaped sweet is said to have been created in 1454 by Good King René for his young wife. Some of the best can be found at Béchard in Cours Mirabeau, Philippe Segond, or Léonard Parli. For something more filling try Café Brasserie le Grillon, or visit Les Deux Garçons, a historic restaurant where Cézanne, Renoir, and Monet enjoyed drinks in gilded rooms preserved since 1792. Lunch in a basic brasserie costs EUR20 while dinner in a mid-range restaurant is EUR45.