Aix-en-Provence Travel Guide

Pavillon Vendome, Aix-en-Provence
Pavillon Vendome, Aix-en-Provence © Guillaume Piolle

Marseille may well be the dominant metropolis of Provence but Aix-en-Provence, just 15 miles (24km) inland, is arguably the cultural and touristic capital of the region, attracting numerous holiday visitors. Historically and socially the two cities are, however, at odds. Aix (pronounced 'Ex') is a stunningly beautiful university town whose riches are based on agriculture and academia rather than on heavy industry. The residents of Aix-en-Provence are sophisticated, regarded by their counterparts in Marseille as being as snobbish as Parisians.

Aix was founded in 122 BC by the Romans and became the capital of Provence, then an independent country. The famous King René of Anjou (1409-80) ruled during this period. He was well known as a patron of science and the arts and was very popular for his love of wine and festivities. After the union of Provence with France and until the Revolution, Aix-en-Provence remained the judicial and administrative headquarters of the region.

The town has been the inspiration to many great writers and painters including Guigou, Stendhal, Mistral and Zola. Most famous of all is undoubtedly Paul Cézanne, who was inspired by the Provence countryside to produce his masterpieces, some of which can be seen in his hometown at the Musée Granet, in the Quartier Mazarin. Visitors on holiday in Aix-en-Provence can also call at his studio close to the town.

Shopping is one of the main reasons that tourists flock to Aix-en-Provence: there is a large market every Saturday on Avenue du Cap-Pinede, and smaller ones on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The town centre is quite compact and each square seems to have its own bazaar: one is the flower market at the Place de l'Hotel de Ville; another has vegetable and fruit stalls at the nearby Marche des Capucins; another a wonderful weekend antique market. There are also plenty of shops, from department stores and expensive boutiques to wonderful cheese shops, butcheries and fish shops. Around Aix-en-Provence's old port, there are clusters of stylish shops, with the fashion boutiques that line the pedestrianised Rue St-Ferreol particularly popular. Fun stores for browsing can be found on the Cours Julien, and local designers beckon on the Rue de la Tour.

Most of the restaurants in Aix-en-Provence are centred around the old city, between Place des Cardeurs and Cours Mirabeau. Le Clos de la Violette is known for excellent Provençal cuisine, and Le Passage serves contemporary Mediterranean food in a converted 19th-century candy factory. Pizza Capri offers a cheap and delicious alternative for the budget-conscious.

There are many bars and pubs to choose from in town, and a large student population ensures that the nightlife is always lively. Aix-en-Provence has a thriving jazz scene centred on the Hot Brass Jazz Club and the Scat Club.

Aix possesses a wealth of superb architecture that has been carefully preserved and restored. Walking through the Cours Mirabeau and the Rue Gaston de Saporta, visitors can admire the famous fountains, and the private mansions with their sculpted doors and windows, and the intricate ironwork on the balconies. On the Place des Martyrs de la Résistance is the ancient Cathedral and in the neighbouring archbishop's palace is the Musée des Tapisseries. A nice way to see the city and surrounding countryside is by renting a bicycle.

Aix-en-Provence can be very crowded in the summer months (June to August) when international holidaymakers arrive and local tourists stream in from Marseilles.