A charming town in the south of France, Aix-en-Provence is the perfect size for a short trip: it’s small enough to be easily navigated, but large enough to have plenty to do. Here are 10 ways you might want to spend your time.
1. Find All of the Fountains
Aix-en-Provence was once known as the City of 1000 Fountains. There are only about 30 left today, so you’ll have a much easier time hunting them all down — but it’s still quite a project!
2. Enjoy the Markets
You can visit an outdoor market in Aix every day of the year — even on Christmas. The daily fruit and veggie market takes place on Place Richelme (above). If you’re lucky enough to be in town on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, you can wander the streets to find other markets on the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville (mostly flowers), the Place des Prêcheurs (fabulous food), and the Cours Mirabeau (everything from hats and bags to soap and antiques).
3. Visit the Museums
There are many to choose from (the tourist office lists a total of 16 on their website), but here are three museums worth mentioning:
This museum of painting and sculpture (and a tiny bit of archaeology) is a gem that’s well worth several hours. You’ll finding paintings by Rembrandt, Reubens, Cézanne, David, Ingres, and more — including Monsieur Granet himself.
Granet XXe Collection Jean Planque
This collection of 20th century art, housed in the re-envisioned Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, is an extension of the Musée Granet. It includes works by Picasso, Van Gogh, Klee, Alex, and Garache:
Hôtel de Caumont
Part exhibition space, part house museum, part tea room, this magnificent mid-18th century mansion offers a range of exquisite entertainments. Want rooms with period harps, harpsichords, and crystal chandeliers? They have several. Want art? When I was there, they were hosting a spectacular exhibit, “Treasures of Venice: the Cini Collection,” with items largely borrowed from the Giorgio Cini Collection.
Want a tasty pastry and the best hot chocolate in town? They have that, too, served in grand style in several lavishly-decorated rooms.
4. Go on a History Tour
Wondering why there are dual atlantes (complete with pubic hair) flanking the doors of the oldest private mansion in Aix? Can’t figure out why half of the old city’s streets are higgledy-piggledy while the other half are strait as rails? Curious about man in the the town’s clock tower?
Take a history tour! Founded by the Romans and graced by the likes of King Rene, Mazarin, and Napoleon, this former capital of Provence has roots dating to 123 BC. And though you’re unlikely to see ruins that go back that far, a history tour a great way to get to know the city in ways you might not expect.
5. See the Cathedral
The unusual Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix-en-Provence was built over the course of many centuries, which means that it has Romanesque, Gothic, and Neo-Gothic features (they’re all on display above). Inside, you can also see remnants of a sixth-century church.
The cathedral has a beautiful baptistry, a great organ from the mid-1700s, and some interesting art — it’s definitely worth some time.
6. Search Out the Oratoires
For religion on a much smaller scale, look up! When the plague closed the churches of Aix many centuries ago, the townsfolk placed small religious figures in niches at the corners of buildings so that they could pray from the safety of their own windows. If you cast your eyes skyward, you can find over ninety of these tiny statues — called oratoires — dotting the city today.
7. Experience the World of Cézanne
Paul Cézanne came to this spot to paint Mont-Saint-Victoire (which you can see off in the distance at sunrise) many times. And while he was not especially popular in Aix during his days as a painter, the town has wholeheartedly embraced him now. They have created this park, the Terrain des Peintres,to celebrate their native son and his works.
Getting here — and to Cézanne’s studio — requires climbing up, up, up a long hill (or taking a cab or a bus). For an easier glimpse into Cézanne’s world, stay in town and look for studs with the letter “C.” You’ll find the church where he was christened, the place where he went to school (and befriended Emile Zola), and the cafes that he frequented with his compatriots. And yes, Cézanne was born here!
8. Explore the Doors
Doors, you ask? Yes! Aix boasts hundreds of amazing doors — some ornate, some fabulous, some modest — and woodwork, stonework, and statuary that will leave your head turning on every street. You could do a whole book on the doors here (and someone probably has), but here is just a tiny sampling:
9. Indulge in Food & Drink
Aix is not famous for its food, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find something delicious for just about every meal (what’s not to love about the pear-topped Camembert at Let Petit Bistrot?). For pastry, you can’t beat Patisserie Béchard; for a fancy night out, try the ultra-chic La Petite Ferme.
For a simple but delicious meal, stop in for a loaf of perfect bread at Farinoman Fou …
… pick up some fixings at the market, and enjoy a picnic!
10. Take a Road Trip
While I would not recommend driving within the town of Aix itself — some of the streets are perilously narrow, and much of the old city is closed to vehicular traffic — it is easy enough to rent a car or hop on a bus and explore some of the nearby towns. Possible day trips include Jouques (above, if you like village life), Les Baux-de-Provence (if you like the mountains), and Cassis (if you like the sea). And you’ll be home in time to enjoy sunset over Aix’s iconic Cours Mirabeau!