Founded by the Romans, birthplace of Cézanne and City of arts
Birthplace of renowned artist Paul Cézanne, the university town of Aix-en-Provence is a vibrant place with the arts firmly at its heart. Aix, (pronounced Ex) as it is more commonly known, is referred to as the city of art and lights and has been the favoured haunt of artists in their many forms, from painters and musicians to dance and film for centuries. But its history goes much further back.
Aix was founded in 123 BC by the Roman Consul Sextius Calvinus and called Aquae Sextiae due to the warm springs discovered on the site. Later it was renamed Narbonesis Secunda and the citizens shared in the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, enjoyed by all the citizens of Gaul.
However, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire during the 5th Century AD, the town was subject to raids by Franks, Lombards and Saracens and it was not till the Middle Ages that things settled down somewhat.
Statue of Good King René, Count of Provence, on the Cours Mirabeau at Aix-en Provence
Good King René
During the early 13th century Aix became the capital of the County of Provence and seat of the ‘so-called’ Aix Parliament. Its ‘Golden Age’ was during the latter half of the 15th century under ‘Good King René’. However, the City did not become French till 1487 along with the rest of the County.
Nowadays Aix, is a charming and graceful city with 17th and 18th-century buildings, squares and magnificent avenues.
The most well-known of these avenues is the Cours Mirabeau, named after the Revolutionary politician, right in the centre of town and lined with magnificent plane trees. Constructed on the old ramparts, the Cours Mirabeau is really the hub of Aix with many cafés including the famous Café des Deux Garçons (see below).
Things to do in Aix-en-Provence
Packed with museums, markets, stately boutiques and terrace cafes, not to mention fountains (it didn’t get its name as ‘city of a thousand fountains’ for nothing), Aix is a wonderful medley of contrasts – buoyant and laid-back, ancient and modern.
It’s perfect for those who love whiling away the days soaking up the many local and varied treasures. And if that means kicking back on a shady terrace, lazily watching the crowds scurry past as you sip a pastis or tuck into a hearty Boeuf Provençale, this is certainly the place to do it.
Art galleries & museums
Any city with a 2,000 year-old history and a firm artists’ following is bound to have its fair share of museums and galleries. And Aix is no exception.
The city is packed with museums, historical sites and art galleries. Among the best of the museums is Le Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) on Rue Espariat. Located in the beautifully ornate Hôtel Boyer d’Eguilles, the museum dates back to 1838 and features a wonderful collection of prehistoric bones and fossils found around the Sainte-Victoire mountain. Also you can view the fossilised remains of fish, insects and plants found in the wider Aix region by local scientist Gaston de Saporta.
Artifacts from Old Aix
The Musée de Vieil-Aix (Museum of Old Aix) on Rue Gaston de Saporta is another favourite. Here you’ll find a curious collection of artifacts telling the story of the town’s Provençal heritage, Garments. uniforms, paintings, earthenware and even puppets gracing the display cabinets. Another museum regaling the town’s recent history is Le Musée de Tapisseries (Tapestry Museum) in the Archbishop’s Palace, featuring tapestries and furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries. Last but not least, le Musée Paul Arbaud is renowned for its pottery collection.
There are many more museums dotted around the city but of all of them, Le Musée Granet is a must-see. Located on Place Saint Jean de Malte in the old Priory of the Knights of Malta, you’ll find a wonderful collection of fine arts spanning the 16th to the 20th century. A number of original Cézanne paintings are housed here in a room devoted to the local artist, along with the works of many French artists and the schools of Dutch, Flemish and Italian art. Other names include Rubens, Rembrandt, Giacometti, and a little-known Spanish artist by the name of Pablo Picasso. The museum itself has recently undergone extensive renovation and expansion works – now, around 600 paintings, sculptures and archaeological pieces are on proud display.
Music, art, spas and Picasso’s favourite brasserie
Celebrate la musique
In June and July, the town comes alive with music festivals and street parties. The Festival d’Aix-en-Provence is a major opera festival which began in 1948. It takes place annually in late June and July in various venues across Aix, such as the outdoor Théâtre de l’Archévêché – located in the former gardens of the archbishop’s palace, no less. Moreover the beautiful 18th century Théâtre du Jeu de Paume and other venues outside of Aix such as the outdoor Théâtre du Grand Saint-Jean also have performances. Other musical highlights include ‘Musique dans la Rue’ – a week of street music covering various musical styles including jazz, classical and pop. This takes place in June as part of the national ‘Fête de la Musique.’
Follow in Cézanne’s brushstrokes
You can’t miss the rugged and majestic Montagne Sainte-Victoire. This magnificent landmark of Aix is not just an attractive addition to the skyline, it was also the favoured haunt of artist Paul Cézanne. He would spend time exploring and painting the landscapes and scenery of the region, often making use of a windmill in the village of le Tholonet, or a mountain hut, known as ‘Cézanne’s refuge’. Walkers keen to explore the Sainte-Victoire mountain can reach the area via the wooded footpath of Escrachou Pevou to the plateau of Bibemus. There are plenty of footpaths around the mountains, leading to such beauty spots as the Croix de Provence and the roman viaduct above le Tholonet.
Les Deux Garcons café on the Cours Mirabeau at Aix-en Provence
Clink glasses at Les 2Gs
This renowned Aix institution is located where else but the Cours Mirabeau. With a decor, largely unchanged since it opened in 1792 it could have come straight from an Italian film set!
Les 2 Gs is a haven for the locals who love to sit and people-watch from the terrace shaded by ancient plane trees. It was here that Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola met every afternoon. Who wouldn’t give a great deal to have been in the company of these giants of art and literature? More recent customers have included Churchill, Cocteau, Delon, Belmondo and Piaf. So you never know who you might bump into here.
Les 2 Gs is also a Brasserie Restaurant offering a variety of seafood, bouillabaisse and steaks as well as a good selection of entrées.
Please note: Les 2Gs suffered a serious fire during late 2020 and will not reopen till 2022
Wallow in hydro luxury
Famous for its underground springs, which the Romans made use of by building stony thermal baths over 2,000 years ago. These days Aix still draws many a weary soul to its plush spas and revitalising hydro treatments. The modern Thermes Sextius on Avenue des Thermes was built over the old Roman baths, which are still visible through glass panels. Enjoy the likes of a hot stone therapy, a warm mud wrap or head for the heavenly hydrotherapy cabins.
Tues, Thurs and Sat – Place de Verdun
Daily – Place de l’Hôtel de ville, Place des Prêcheurs (flower market)
Daily – Place Richelme (local produce)
Regular markets held in various town quarters
First Sunday of each month – Place de l’hôtel de ville (books)
Our selection of restaurants in Aix-en-Provence
32 rue Espariat
04 42 27 08 31
Set in a stunning 15th century vaulted cellar, this relaxed and friendly restaurant consistently receives rave reviews. It’s an intimate place with a high quality of food covering various French classics, inspired by the flavours of Provence and often with an innovative twist. Prices are reasonable, ranging from €22 for lunch (set menu) to €40-€75 (à la carte menu).
Le Poivre d’Ane
40 place des Cardeurs
04 42 21 32 66
A bustling little place in a prime tourist area on a busy square. Modern cuisine that’s reasonably priced and comes highly recommended from past visitors. Prices typically range from €41 – €51.
11 Petite rue St-Jean
04 42 20 58 26
Les Allées Provençales – 300 avenue Giuseppe Verdi
F 13 605, Aix en Provence
Telephone: 33 (04) 42 16 11 61
Why not explore more of Provence while you’re in Aix?
Aix is located just off the Autoroute (A8) and is a great base to explore the rest of Provence – check out my other pages Things to do in Provence, Travel Guide to Nice, Travel Guide to Marseille and 10 Best Provençal Villages
Driving distances from Aix-en-Provence to nearby Provençal cities
Other articles featured in this Provençal series are:
Words & Images © Paul Shawcross
More information on Aix and the rest of Provence can be found in Paul’s App Provence’s Best the ideal travel guide to France’s sun-drenched traveller’s paradise. It details key DESTINATIONS; outlines several ITINERARIES; and suggests great places to EAT and DRINK. All content (200+ points-of-interest and 400+ pics) is original & independent; no recommendations are ads.