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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more information: Aix-en-Provence Tourism