We’re often asked how to make the most of a brief opportunity to see Europe’s cities. Here’s a detailed answer for one of the most interesting cities in the south of France, Aix-en-Provence. (say “X,” not “ay” as you might in “paix” or “Roubaix”).
A little history and geography of Aix-en-Provence
With approximately 150,000 inhabitants, Aix-en-Provence is well known as a charming University town with a rich history. Aix is also considered the “intellectual” capital of Provence as compared with nearby Marseille with its busy port and heavily trafficked industrial areas.
Aix is far from the Mediterranean and does not benefit from the glamour associated with the “French Riviera” or the “Côte d’Azur”. It represents, rather, the ancient heart of what Provence once was.
3 p.m. – Check into your hotel and get ready to explore Aix
We assume you’ve done your research in advance and have booked your hotel so all you have to do is check in, drop your bags and maybe grab a quick shower to get the road dust off of you before heading out on the town.
4 p.m. – A walk through Aix-en-Provence
We propose a leisurely “stroll through history” which will take you from the medieval era to the end of the 18th century, while you make your way through the busy streets of this attractive town. Read the self-guided walk here.
8 p.m. – Time for Dinner: Where to eat in Aix?
You probably have a long list of places you want to try this evening. All along the streets you have seen so many restaurants it is hard to choose! If you don’t have plans, we suggest you come back to Place des Précheurs/Palais de Justice and settle comfortably at the La Mado They have an excellent chef, the outside terrace is wide and comfortable. Enjoy your meal under the stars!
As a nightcap you can certainly go back to the Cours Mirabeau, the heart of Aix. Maybe you want to stroll down to the large “Rotonde” area and its huge fountain, created in the mid-19th century. This large plaza marked the opening of Aix toward the West and toward modern times with the bus and train stations just beyond. There are plenty of Cafés, along here too, for a last drink before bedtime or for an ice cream. As for coffee – remember that in the South of France – and Aix in particular – a “normal” coffee will be an Italian style espresso. Waiters won’t even ask you if this is what you want. If you do not like espresso, then you may ask for a “café crême” – with a little milk – and this one can be “petit” or “grand”!
7:30 a.m. – Breakfast
This time you can ask for a “grand café crême” or even a “café au lait” which will generally be a real “French” style coffee in a large bowl or cup and with more milk than coffee! Either at your hotel or in a café down the street, the chances are that you’ll be served a “petit déjeuner continental” with jam, bread and a “croissant” but not much else. Your hotel might be used to travelers from the U.S. and offer an “American breakfast” with orange juice, yogurt and cheese, or even a “Buffet Breakfast” (but don’t count on it!). In a café of course you can order more and pay accordingly.
9:00 a.m. – A plan for the day
Don’t miss out on a visit to the open air market! If indeed you are in Aix on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday morning you’ll be treated to the “Grand Marché” held on Place des Précheurs (the Court House). If these days are not on your schedule, every weekday there is a small but lovely fruit and vegetable market on the Place Richelme, and a flower market in Place de la Mairie, both near the City Hall.
If it is a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday market day go back to the grand place (Place de Verdun on the map but also known as “Place des Precheurs”) that you visited yesterday: You will hardly recognize it as it is completely filled with merchant stalls offering just about every thing you have ever dreamed of finding in an open air market and more! There are extraordinary displays of fruit and vegetables of course, but also food of all types: “charcuterie” (pork sausage and related products), assorted cheeses, old style baked goods such as “pain de campagne” (country style bread often from wood-fired ovens), spices from all over the world, small “bouquets” or little bags of Provençal herbs or lavender, honey, local olives and olive oil.
Next to the large commercial displays are the individual merchants where one person will sell his or her handmade products: honey from her own bee hives or goat cheese from his or her own small herd! You’ll also find more durable goods such as carved olive wood items, small kitchen trinkets or larger ones such as salad bowls, and cheese platters. Polished olive wood makes great gifts, which will not break in the transport — but watch out if you take them to very dry climates like Colorado, where they can crack! In the same category are the many displays of colorful Provençal table cloths, place mats, napkins and more. They will brighten your home for a long time just as they brighten the homes of many of us here in Provence (and, they are are easy to pack!)
11:00 a.m. – Shopping on or near the Cours Mirabeau
Who knows how long a visit to the market will take you? This is entirely up to you and the enjoyment you are getting out of it. Before looking for a lunch place though, you may well use this time for a more “serious” shopping: all the streets leading to this side of Cours Mirabeau are crowded with shops. Be forewarned, clothes are elegant but expensive and you will find other clothing stores elsewhere. A special souvenir of Provence will be one or two “santons,” the delicate clay figurines used mainly to decorate the Christmas “crêche” or Provençal Nativity scene. Every “Souvenir Store” will have a little display, but if you really want to see some of the best, go visit the shop of one of the best known “santonniers” in town: L’atelier Fouque, 65 Cours Gambetta, where the Fouque family will give you a personalized guided tour.
On the sweet side of your shopping, there is one “sweet” specialty you will find only in Aix, the number one Aix candy – the “calisson”. This little oblong candy is a fine mixture of ground blanched almonds and candied melon covered with a fine coat of white icing. You’ll recognize them easily as they are generally packed in (different size) boxes of the same shape as the candy! You will find them just about everywhere but the following are the most famous: Confiserie Parli, Béchard, and Calissons du Roy René. In the same shops you will find also the other Provençal specialty, “les fruits confits” or candied fruit unlike any you have ever tasted (including whole candied melons, and whole apricots or even clementines.) We are not talking bits and pieces for a fruit cake here! And, of course, while you are making the rounds you might want to indulge in some “petits gateaux” (small pastries) for your pre-lunch snack!
12:00 p.m. – Lunch anyone?
For a lunch today we suggest you stop at one of the café–restaurants on or near the Cours Mirabeau and perhaps order a “salade composée,” a large single plate salad with greens but also duck, chicken, ham, paté and/or cheese. Be sure to order carfully so you get the salad you want as there will be several of these “mixed salads” on the menu, each with a lengthy list of ingredients. If you care for a light dessert, try one of the many fruit sherbets or “sorbets” which are very tasty and quite pleasant.
This afternoon may be the perfect time to visit the Vendome Pavillion (“the Pavillon Vendome”). This is a rare gem you don’t want to miss: a small, lovely castle-like pavillion located right in the middle of town.
This is a pure 18th century gem with all of the architectural decorations that you have seen throughout Aix, including the classical front, the richly decorated door with its Titans bravely supporting the balcony, the fine sculptures running along the façade -everything is there for you to enjoy at your leisure, without the crowds rushing past you. Why is all this beauty so carefully hidden? Maybe there was a practical reason: the Duc de Vendome had the mansion built in 1655 for his mistress, a beautiful lady known as “la Belle du Canet” and discretion was a must for a man of his stature.
The Pavillon is a Museum now so you can buy a ticket and visit the inside which is well worth it. Different exhibits rotate through the Museum but even without a special event, the mansion is always a pleasure to visit since it is furnished with lovely 18th century furniture and decorations that give you the impression that you are visiting a real “home” – a very fancy one of course!
6:00 p.m. – Walk through the Ancient Roman Baths and Relax before Dinner
When you leave the Pavillon Vendome, go up the Cours Sextius, keep going to your left until you see the very large building housing the Thermal Baths and Hotel. Walk down the little alley way that will take you to the front entrance of the main building. Go in if you wish and ask for a visit of some of their newly remodeled facilities. Or ask, at least to see the original Roman Thermal pool, on the right side of the building. It is enclosed behind large glass panes. Even though you can’t go inside you can have a look at the birth place of Aix-en-Provence over 2000 years ago. From the baths go up Rue du Bon Pasteur. Almost at the top of the street, notice the intersection of a small street on your left called Rue des Guerriers (on your right is Rue Vernet). Stop for a minute and glance right and left: see how narrow and curved those tiny streets are? You are looking at the site of the medieval walls here: if you go down Rue Vernet you arrive in front of the Belfry, right where you had noticed the worn bases of those ramparts.
You are back in the middle of the city. If it is not quite time for dinner, find a café for a rest and an aperitif.
8:00 p.m. – Time for Dinner
Once again, it depends on how much you want to eat and how much you want to spend! If you want a full menu, you won’t be disappointed by Le Bistroquet. If you can’t resist one last dinner outside under the plane trees, then take your time: all the Cafés-Brasseries announce their menus and prices outside.
We recommend a stroll and a last drink, herbal tea (“tisane”), or coffee and ice cream in your favorite spot. This is what the Aixois do every evening all summer long!
8:30 a.m. Breakfast
It is time for breakfast and a little planning for the last hours of your stay.
9:30 a.m. – Mont Ste. Victoire? Or a little more shopping?
If you have the time, and the use of a car, you should drive around Mountain Ste Victoire, the wonderful limestone fault block mountain which so inspired Cézanne. You should plan on at least three hours with stops for photographs.
If you stay in town then the choice is yours: there is nothing wrong with a leisurely amble along the streets. You’ll surely notice interesting details which escaped you yesterday – the funny faces on a frieze, the impressive bronze knocker on that door, and many more we are sure! This is also a good time to visit one of the museums you passed by earlier. All museums are open on Sunday except Musée d’Arbaud (special ceramique display, Rue du 4 Septembre.) So follow your personal preference: Musée des Tapisseries, Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, Musée du Vieil Aix, Musée Granet etc… Note: this last museum just underwent a long and thorough renovation; it now ranks among the best regional museums in France both for its modern displays and for its wealth of materials, including archeological finds from Celtic and Roman times,“primitive” paintings, and at least eight of Cezanne’s works.
As you’re here, you may not want to miss out on visiting Cezanne’s atelier.
Aside from the museums, here is a special suggestion if you are in the mood: Go back to the cathedral for a last visit. Since it is Sunday morning you’ll have to plan your visit carefully not to disturb services (hours are posted at the door). If you don’t care to attend the Catholic mass but are just looking for a peaceful, uplifting moment, wait for the end of the service, and then just sit quietly in the back of the church: close your eyes and listen to the extraordinary sound of the 18th century organ, vibrating from wall to wall What a way to say Good bye to Aix! But, by now, perhaps you already know that this is only “Au Revoir!”
1:30 p.m. Time to go
Grab your snack for lunch in one of your favorite cafés and don’t forget to take time to shop for that one last item you decided you can’t survive without!