Mar 032015

The third day of our busy Provence trip brought us to Aix-en-Provence. As soon as we arrived on this weekday morning in December, we noticed the bustling, upbeat vibe of the city as people were shopping the markets, strolling the streets, and socializing in cafés. Off-season in Provence meant there were more locals (“Aixoise”) than tourists in the city which added to our experience.

Cours Mirabeau

Top things to do in Aix-en-Provence

Hopefully, you’ll have more than one day to enjoy Aix-en-Provence. Here are a few suggestions for things to do even if you have just 24 hours to spend there – what we saw, what we did, what we loved.

Walk in the footsteps of Paul Cézanne

Paul Cézanne is considered the “Father of Modern Painting” for many reasons, including being credited as the bridge between 19th-century Impressionism and 20th-century Cubism,  and his presence is felt throughout Aix-en-Provence.

With Mr. TWS at the Cézanne statue, apartment were Cézanne died, Les Deux Garçons

With Mr. TWS at the Cézanne statue, apartment were Cézanne died, Les Deux Garçons

Beginning at the statue of Cézanne near the tourist office, there are bronze markers in the pavement (center above) to identify 32 points of interest relating to Cézanne, including his birthplace, the hat shop where his father and mother met, schools he attended, friends’ homes, and the apartment where he died of pleurisy in 1906. On Cours Mirabeau, we briefly stepped inside Les Deux Garçons, the café where Cézanne regularly met with his friends including Emile Zola. I thought it was interesting that Cézanne chose to spend his last years in Aix-en-Provence (after periods in Paris and other Provence locations) and his feelings for the city are made clear in this quote:

“When you’re born there, it’s hopeless, nothing else is good enough.”

Les Deux Garcons

Insider tip: We heard from locals that Le Grillon (on the same block of Cours Mirabeau as Les Deux Garçons) is also a great choice for enjoying food, drink and conversation with friends.

Cézanne's Lauves Studio exterior

Atelier Cézanne

We followed in Cézanne’s footsteps up a hill outside the old town district to the Atelier de Cézanne, the same long walk Cézanne made each day during the last years of his life from his home in the city center to his studio. Many artifacts around the room led us to contemplate Cézanne’s creative process, such as his still-life subjects and objects he used in his painting, including a ladder, an easel, a potbellied stove, a sofa, three skulls, and a small cupid statue.

Cezanne studio artifacts

Still-life subjects in Cézanne studio

His hat, coat, furniture, tools, and other personal items added to the sense of really being in the presence of Cézanne’s inspired genius. In the late afternoon sun, it was easy to feel his inspiration and understand why he chose this place as his studio.

Cezanne studio window

Large window in Cézanne studio

I was impressed with the ingenuity of a door that Cézanne built in the back of the studio to enable easily moving outside and back in canvases that were too large for him to manage alone so that he could paint using outdoor light.

Cézanne's coats, hats and other artifacts; door to outside for moving large canvases

Cézanne’s coats, hats and other artifacts; door to outside for moving large canvases

We also enjoyed walking in the surrounding gardens for a few minutes to feel the serenity that Cézanne certainly must have felt here.

Stroll through the city center

The city center of Aix-en-Provence has a classic cosmopolitan ambiance as well as a vibrant university character. Bordered by boulevards, making it easy to know when you are leaving the area, this historic quarter offers much to admire with its architecture, shops, mansions, churches, squares, and more. I would have enjoyed getting lost within its boundaries for hours. From wide boulevards like Cours Mirabeau (pictured at the top of this article) to narrow alleys, and lively squares, I enjoyed window-shopping and people-watching as the Aixoise went about their daily business.

Scenes of Aix-en-Provence on a stroll

Aix-en-Provence scene


Street scenes


Woman and bicycle on a street in Aix-en-Provence


Aix-en-Provence is often called the “City of 100 Fountains”. I don’t think there are quite that many, but it would be fun to find out. Large and small, the fountains we saw are of many shapes and designs (since it was December, they were dry). One of the most eye catching of the smaller ones shown below is the “mossy” fountain, Fontaine d’Eau Chaude, was built in 1734.

Fountains of Aix-en-Provence

Fountains of Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence has the third most Baroque architecture in France (behind only Paris and Versailles). I especially loved the gates, facades, and doors of buildings we passed (some pictured below).

Doors, gates, facades of the Aix-en-Provence historic district

Doors, gates, facades of the Aix-en-Provence historic district

Browse and shop

With something for everybody and any food mood, Aix-en-Provence has some of the most enticing bakeries and food shops we saw in Provence. The fromagerie was a favorite with its large variety of wonderful French cheeses and selections of wine for perfect pairings.

Patisserie, boucherie, fromagerie in Aix-en-Provence

Patisserie, boucherie, fromagerie in Aix-en-Provence

Markets can be found in Aix-en-Provence’s old district every day (locations vary depending upon day of the week). We were able to peruse the goods at markets on Cours Mirabeau, Place des Prêcheurs, and Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. In addition to the fresh produce and fantastic spices, I was impressed with the high quality of clothing, jewelry, and accessories as we quickly strolled through the colorful displays.

We also met an intriguing gentleman, antiquarian Richard Vidal-Naquet, at one of the markets when we paused near his table.  He was clearly knowledgeable and passionate about Cézanne’s works and showed us an original drawing by Cézanne that he had acquired.

Place des Prêcheurs market: Richard Vidal-Naquet (top left), fresh fruit and spices

Place des Prêcheurs market: Richard Vidal-Naquet (top left), fresh fruit and spices

Our visit coincided with the Christmas markets, so we also visited the vendors who were selling their seasonal Provençal  products. We particularly enjoyed the decorations and the “13 desserts”. Calissons d’Aix are a key element to these traditional Christmas desserts in Provence and have an interesting story. Legend says that the calisson was created in 1454 to cheer up a 22-year-old princess who was unhappy about marrying the 45-year-old king. As the story goes, it worked! One of the vendors also told us of the 24-hour process for baking another of the 13 desserts, pompe a l’huile (an olive bread also known as gibassier).

Christmas market vendor talking about pompe a l’huile (an olive bread also known as gibassier), Calissons d'Aix pastries

Christmas market vendor talking about pompe a l’huile (an olive bread also known as gibassier), Calissons d’Aix pastries

Visit a Museum

There are many museums and other cultural sites in Aix-en-Provence for art, natural history, history, and heritage. With just a day to spend in the city, we chose to visit the Granet XX annex of the Granet Museum located in the Chapel of the Pénitents-Blancs on Place Jean-Boyer. Granet XX houses the collection (300 paintings, drawings and sculptures) of Jean Planque with works of Renoir, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Klee, Braque, Degas and other renowned artists.  It was a good choice because it was smaller and it also gave us the opportunity to enjoy the unique setting of the chapel and to appreciate its architecture. The larger Granet Museum which we didn’t visit is renowned for its fine art collections from the 14th to the 20th centuries including those of Cézanne and Rembrandt.

Granet XX annex of the Granet Museum

Granet XX annex of the Granet Museum

Take in a ballet or other performance

A highlight of our time in Provence was seeing the performance of Blanche-Neige (Snow White), a ballet at the Grand Théâtre de Provence. It is a contemporary adaptation of the original Brothers Grimm fairytale by famed choreographer Angelin Preljocaj. Based in Aix-en-Provence, his dance company has performed this ballet around the world. We were very lucky to be here for their performance at home. The dramatic sets of Thierry Leproust, the innovative and avant garde costumes designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, and Mahler symphonies produced a fantastic experience. If you have time during your visit, I would highly recommend including a ballet or other performance at one of several venues in Aix-en-Provence.

Grand Theatre de Provence and a post-performance glass of wine

Grand Théâtre de Provence and a post-performance glass of wine

Where we ate

Lunch at Restaurant La Mado  on the lively Place des Prêcheurs was excellent. The setting is contemporary and upscale, yet with a warm and friendly vibe. My beef entrée (shown below) was delicious and I especially enjoyed the La Mado’s special potatoes.

Beef entree and La Mado special potatoes at Restaurant La Mado

Hearty lunchtime fare at Restaurant La Mado

Where we stayed

The location of the Renaissance Aix-en-Provence (a 5-star hotel in the Marriott group) couldn’t have been better for these activities. It’s in the new cultural quarter (Sextius Mirabeau) near shopping and just steps away from the Grand Théâtre de Provence. Art is central to the Renaissance ambiance with a private collection named “Haut la Main” which includes 400 artworks displayed throughout the hotel. Each room has its own original art (signed by the 16 artists who created them) on the room number plaques. The calisson-patterned padded headboards are also part of the hotel’s artistic character.

Room 521 at Renaissance Aix-en-Provence Hotel, art in the hotel's Le Comptoir du Clos restaurant

Room 521 at Renaissance Aix-en-Provence Hotel, art in the hotel’s Le Comptoir du Clos restaurant

It’s a lovely, new, and comfortable hotel that I would recommend. The breakfast (included with the room) was a full buffet with delicious freshly-made entrees.

Early morning view of Aix-en-Provence from our room at the Renaissance Hotel.

Early morning view of Aix-en-Provence from our room at the Renaissance Hotel.

After breakfast, it was time to pick up a rental car at the TGV (the high-speed railway) station and head to Avignon. There will be more to come as we share our memories and photos from our trip to Provence.

Road sign to Avignon

For more information: Aix-en-Provence Tourism

Disclosure: Our Aix-en-Provence experience was made possible by Comité Régional de Tourisme Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Bouches-du-Rhône Tourisme, but our opinions and perspectives are our own — as always.

  37 Responses to “A Day in Aix-en-Provence: Top Things to Do”

  1. Looks like a winning visit despite the pace you kept. I love Cezanne’s works so would particularly enjoy following in his footsteps.For a December visit the weather seemed to be very cooperative.

  2. What a lovely write up of Aix, one of my favourite places.

  3. We’ll be there for 10 days at the end of May and we are SO looking forward to the experience!

  4. Lovely photos especially the first one – really brings it all to life

  5. I just loved this blog post…so many of our favorite places in Aix! I would love to share it on our Facebook page, La Belle Cour, about our properties in the south of France so that our Aix guests can enjoy the same things – may I?

  6. Looks like an incredibly beautiful place to visit—at any time of year!

  7. Charm and atmosphere emanating with every step. What a lovely experience! I am so taken with the objects on the crooked shelf in Cezanne’s studio. Lovely piece. Makes me really want to visit.

  8. We visited Aix on a cruise stop several years ago – we opted on a do-yourself-outing instead of the cruise tour. Your photos and narrative brought back wonderful memories. I did laugh though. . .those beautiful trees you have in your photos had been trimmed, make that CUT, back before our visit and were so bare they looked like twisted telephone posts. Nice to see the leaves on them!

  9. I love the mossy fountain!
    Thanks for sharing your tips for seeing Aíx en Provence
    It looks such a charming and understated destination, but yet there is alot to see and do.

  10. It sounds like you had a lovely visit to Aix-en-Provence! We spent a day there on our trip to Provence and it wasn’t nearly enough time. We did love those Calisson d’Aix pastries though!

  11. Paul Cézanne, fountains, Baroque architecture, markets, food, France – you have ticked all of the boxes for us. Aix-en-Provence has been on our list for a while and while we didn’t have time to get there last visit, the next one we will. Great post and photos

  12. I have yet to visit Aix-en-Provence, but you’ve reminded me I really want to! I would love to visit Cezanne’s studio, and the French food and architecture look wonderful.

  13. Beautiful place…

  14. I do love to visit places where the focus is on walking and strolling. I shall go here!

  15. Your photos really took me back! I lived in Toulon and studied in Aix for my Maitrise quite a few years ago. The town is stunning, the people more relaxed than anywhere else in France, and when people speak, it sounds like they are singing! The food is gorgeous and fruit / veg in markets more tasty than any I have ever tasted! Beautiful post #AllAboutFrance

  16. Thanks for linking this post to #AllAboutFrance, it’s such a good fit for my linky. As I said before I’m a big fan of Aix and love seeing your photos. It’s so beautiful in the winter sun. I’m really happy to have discovered your blog.

  17. Great list, thanks! There is so much to see and do in Provence that it seems we will need to keep going back again and again, and again, and again….

  18. Your room and view are amazing…that nighttime had to be just as spectacular. Sorry, I’m getting over here late…for whatever reason the email notifications on the past couple of posts have come through really delayed. Cathy, I really like what you mentioned about the off-season and having more locals. As you know I’m not a crowds person but it I have to be around a lot of people I would most definitely prefer locals versus tourists. That moving door is a cool and what a great idea! It sounds like the King got the best end of that deal in his marriage LOL. I hope you and Mr TWS are doing fantastic!! 🙂

  19. Thanks so much for this wonderful post on Aix-en-Provence. I just love visiting France but have never been here. It’s now on my list – I just adored the visit to Cezanne’s studio and of course the food and markets! Ooo-la-la.

  20. Hello, I’m popping over from the #AlllAboutFrance link-up! I’m bookmarking this post, and am going to have to go back and see where else you went in Provence. I’m planning a roadtrip in France this spring that will include Provence, and I’ve been hearing that Aix is a must-see. Thank you for all this info! Were there any places you went to that you highly recommend in Provence?

  21. We’re big champions of the bread made on Gran Canaria, particularly Ingenio’s pan de puño. But we’re equally massive fans of Provencal bread. We just love the way they incorporate olives.

  22. What a gorgeous little city! I love all the baroque details, and the cheese shop looks to die for. I had no idea there were so many museums and cultural offerings here, as I’ve had a few friends who studied here but they mainly talked about the bars. 🙂

  23. I love the idea of exploring a place based on a popular artist. I’ve done the Kafka tour in Prague, though I didn’t know it at the time. If I were to visit Aix-en-Provence, I would definitely love to follow the footsteps of Cézanne!

  24. We’ve been there at the end of June when the lavender fields in the region are in bloom. Isn’t it gorgeous? And what is it about French markets? They have the most amazing spices and things! Can’t wait to be back in France again this May.

  25. I loved returning to Aix through your images. What a lovely town. However, when I was there we had a room without air conditioning or fan and it was so hot the loveliness wore off quickly and we headed to Auvignon ahead of schedule because we secured an air-conditioned room there. Whew!

  26. I have always associated the Provence area with lavender fields in Spring/Summer. It’s great to know the off season is worth going too. It would be great to follow Cezanne’s footsteps. I love that there’s a variety f things to do and there are more locals around. Beautiful images and how nice it would be to just wander those charming streets.

  27. I’ve mostly thought of this town as a place to do French courses, so glad to hear more about it. Aix looks very appealing.

  28. What a great description of such a beautiful place! I adore the Cezanne quote about nowhere else ever being good enough. Whenever I finally get around to visiting Aix-en-Provence, I will refer back to your post here for the details! Happy to have found you on the #AllAboutFrance link-up!

  29. Aix-en-Provence looks wonderful. I’d love the art, food, shopping, museums and architecture.

  30. Outstanding post Catherine! The story about Paul Cezanne is beautiful. I’ve heard that French are excellent in remembering their artists and I really like it. It must be thrilling for tourists and his fans! Visiting the city and actually follow his very footsteps. I think this is marvellous way of entertaining and teaching at the same time.

  31. Doesn’t Cezanne’s atelier look as if he just stepped out for lunch?
    Great list, Cathy. Aix engages all five senses. I’d be stopping at every one of those strikingly beautiful buildings and fountains. Great tour of the City of 100 Fountains.

  32. The south of France is still on our list of places to visit and this post about Aix-en-Provence will be an important source for trip planning although I’ll have to keep in mind what Paul Cezanne said and hope I’ll be able to appreciate anywhere else after that: “When you’re born there, it’s hopeless, nothing else is good enough.”

  33. We had a brilliant time in Aix last June. We went on a fountain hunt and found about twenty and like you I think 100 is exaggerated. If you get the chance give my blog a spin as I have posts on there about the region. Marseille still do do though! Wilbur

  34. We had a brilliant time in Aix last June. We went on a fountain hunt and found about twenty and like you I think 100 is exaggerated. If you get the chance give my blog a spin as I have posts on there about the region. Marseille still to do though! Wilbur

  35. […] Pompe a l’huile (the oil pump), often called Gibassier, is a totally delicious flat sweet bread made with olive oil. There is an arduous 24-hour process involved in the making of it as we learned from a vendor in Aix-en-Provence. […]

  36. […] Top Things to Do in Aix-en-Provence … – Top things to do in Aix-en-Provence on a one day visit … Beginning at the statue of Cézanne near the tourist office, there are bronze markers in the pavement … […]

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