Aix-en-Provence, often simply shortened to Aix and pronounced “X,” is a perfect small town in the heart of Provence in the south of France. Some 21 miles inland from Marseilles on the Mediterranean coast, it lies along the TGV fast train connection from Paris.
Aix is so archetypically Provencal that it nearly slides into being a travel cliché: The buildings are painted a burnt orange or dusty yellow with windows displaying shutters and window boxes filled with fragrant flowers; pretty doors have more often than not a picturesque bicycle leaning next to it. There are markets selling lavender and woven baskets, tiny squares filled with the chairs of cafes, and then there is art. Everywhere. This is the home of Cézanne, one of France’s best-loved artists, and following his footsteps around the town is a must.
The town is small and a perfect size for a weekend with most sights within easy walking distance from the center, or a simple bus ride away. But you won’t want to do too much, because just sitting on a terrace, chilled drink in hand is all you need to do in Aix: people-watching, relaxing, and soaking up the atmosphere.
I love Aix for being so photogenic that you cannot take a bad picture. I also love it for its laid-back vibe, its student atmosphere, and all things Cézanne. Follow me around, and you’d be certain of a perfect weekend.
Things To Do In Aix-en-Provence
Little Aix has a little bit of everything — from grand historic buildings, beautiful churches, pebbled streets, shopping, and colorful markets — but it excels at art.
In the Steps Of Cézanne
You might as well search out all things Cézanne as soon as you arrive, as you will keep coming across him at every corner. Download the walking guide and either follow it or simply look up what you have happened upon whenever you see a golden “C” plaque on the ground. From his home to his school, you can follow the painter’s life in detail.
Hôtel De Caumont
Not a hotel as we know it now, but a splendid former townhouse or palace, the Hôtel de Caumont is a dedicated art space, just off the main drag of Cours Mirabeau, and holds regular international exhibitions. While the exhibitions are great, the building and its garden are just as interesting, allowing you to step into the splendor of its former life of the Haute Societé in Provence in the 1800s with many rooms left as they were originally, allowing you a glimpse at life in luxury.
Musée Granet, just around the corner from Hôtel de Caumont, is a superb art museum, holding one of my favorite Cézanne pictures: Les baigneuses (the female bathers). This grand building is a purpose-built museum for art collections, and it does its purpose proud: from numerous Cézannes to Picasso, Rubens to Giacometti, plus visiting exhibitions, let’s you indulge in examples of art by the best.
Dating to 1846, this small, partially covered passage is easily missed. Just next to Les Deux Garcons (see below) this small corridor connects the Cours Mirabeau with the Place du Palais de Justice, the square holding the impressive-looking Appeals Court of Provence. Inside you’ll find the superb Fromagerie du Passage (see below) and small individual shops. Coming out of the passage, you’ll find a warren of small lanes filled with shops, and small squares. It is a delight to get lost in this quarter, all the way to the town hall and the smaller museums nearby, such as the Museum of Old Aix with its eclectic mix of the town’s history.
L’atelier De Cézanne
Cézanne’s Studio is a magical place. This was his hideaway, where he painted in the light-infused studio. The small house, designed by Cézanne himself and the plot chosen for its seclusion and views, is set in a lovely garden with seductively placed benches perfect for daydreaming or becoming inspired. The views through the trees show Aix and its surroundings, and that special light is always present. The inside, the studio where he created between 1902 until his death in 1906, has been left just as it was and is a perfect time capsule. Even to an untrained eye, many of the artifacts can be recognized from his paintings.
The Vasarely Foundation is a large modern building on the outskirts of the town, dedicated to the large, modern pieces of art by Victor Vasarely. Visual art, optical illusions, geometric displays ranging from 3D to paintings, Vasarely’s art is all on an enormous scale and worth a side trip from the center.
Terrain Des Peintres
The Terrain des Peintres, the Painters Ground, is a viewpoint across the landscape dominated by the Sainte-Victoire Mountain that was one of Cézanne’s favorite subjects to paint but also inspired other painters. In this lovely garden, you will find a selection of replica paintings featuring the surroundings, allowing you to see exactly the view in a different light, time of day, year, or angle.
Carrièrs De Bibemus
If the garden has given you a taste of the surrounding countryside, I suggest a walk around the Carrièrs de Bibemus, a former quarry, with great trails and views. Embark on a guided tour to not only walk through stunning natural beauty spots and wild locales but also to learn more about Cézanne while you are there.
The Cours Mirabeau Provençal Market
Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday the main street in the center of Aix bursts into color and life with a huge market selling everything from lavender, summery clothes perfect for the beach, woven bags for picnics, knickknacks, and of course, fresh local produce. Spilling over into connecting lanes, this is the place to pick up some souvenir herbs or fresh food for a picnic in the countryside.
Best Restaurants In Aix-en-Provence
Aix is filled with restaurants and cafes, offering a mix of food ranging from typical Provencal food to student fare that is cosmopolitan as well as affordable. From fine dining to café terraces, from street food to market stalls, you could eat all day, if you wanted to. For typical Provencal cuisine, try the soupe au pistou, a bean and pasta soup; ratatouille, or anything with aioli, the delicious garlic mayonnaise.
Les Deux Garcons
Les Deux Garcons is really the only address you need. Located on Cours Mirabeau in the heart of the town this is a café that was frequented by Paul Cézanne and his best friend Emile Zola, by Picasso and Pagnol, by Piaf and Camus over the years. The terrace is perfect for people-watching, be it over a morning coffee or an afternoon aperitif. You can also dine well (try the rabbit in mustard sauce), and even stay the night.
Book In Bar
Book in Bar, opposite the Hôtel de Caumont Arts Center, is one of those magic places where not only do they sell (English) books but also serve coffee and cakes, so you could spend hours here, browsing and nibbling on treats.
Fromagerie Du Passage
Located in Passage Agard, steps away from Les Deux Garcons, this gem is a deli selling fabulous selections of cheese, with a roof terrace restaurant offering you the best cheesy food, together with a superb wine list.
Le Poivre d’Ane
Fine dining in a burnt-orange building with a terrace on a pretty square, Le Poivre d’Ane is as lovely as it gets. The menu changes constantly according to what is fresh that day and depending on the season, so I suggest going for the tasting menu, which is affordable and always spectacular.
Best Hotels In Aix-en-Provence
Hotel des Augustines is located in an old Augustine convent, parts of which date back to the 12th century. Over the years, part of the convent was turned into a hotel in 1892, and not only is it a gorgeous old building but also right in the heart of old Aix.
Maison Dauphine offers lovely grand apartments on the quieter side of Cours Mirabeau, but still in the center. Part hotel with apartments, part art gallery, the décor is fresh, colorful, tasteful, and, yes, artsy, with entire walls given over to expressive wallpaper.
Le Pigonnet is a beautiful Provencal villa complete with slender Cypress trees and good-sized swimming pool, allowing you to taste Provencal countryside life within easy walking distance of Aix-en-Provence’s delights. The building is gorgeous and so is the garden, part of which is turned into a restaurant where you can sample the house specialties while sitting under the shade trees.
Pro Tip: With Aix being in the south of France, the best time to visit is in late spring or early fall, when the temperatures are pleasant and the crowds are not too overwhelming. Remember that in August, the whole of France is on vacation, as well as most of Europe, and people descend on Provence in droves. That said, should you find yourself in Aix at the height of summer, don’t miss the Night of the Pianists, an annual festival taking place between the end of July and the beginning of August.
There are many interesting and colorful destinations to visit in the south of France: