A Guide for Things To Do In Aix en Provence Old Town
Aix en Provence, Old Town, colloquially called la Vieil Aix is known as the City of 1000 Fountains (even though there are only approximately 100). It was founded in 123 BC by the Romans when they discovered thermal springs in the area.
It soon became a thriving colony owing to its location on the trade route between Spain and Italy, attracting merchants and artists from around Europe.
Today, Aix en Provence, with its more than 300 days of sunshine and its moderate year-round temperatures is a great place to visit, even in winter, when it is protected from the mistral winds that can affect other parts of Provence.
Is there an old town in Aix en Provence? Yes, and in the old town you will find a charming well preserved centre, highlighting its historical past, in the middle of a modern city.
Highlights of Aix En Provence Old Town
Aix en Provence, with a population of just under 150,000 residents, is a University town with a growing high tech sector. Yet, Old Town Aix feels like you have taken a step back to the Renaissance with its ornate mansions, wide boulevards, lush gardens and magnificent fountains.
Spend a day in Aix en Provence Old Town and surround yourself with its wonderful culture and art.
1. Stroll the Cours Mirabeau
If Old Town is the heart of Aix en Provence, then Cours Mirabeau is its main artery. This grand boulevard is nearly 500 metres (1600 feet) long and 42 metres (140 feet) wide. It is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful pedestrian streets in Europe.
Walking down Cours Mirabeau is like taking a step back in time. This grand boulevard was built in 1651 on the foundations of the old Roman road. On either side of Cours Mirabeau are the majestic Renaissance style houses that were originally the private mansions of the rich merchants who lived here.
These beautiful dwellings are the colour of honey and olive oil, the symbols of Provence culture.
Cours Mirabeau is framed by towering plane trees also known as sycamore trees, many over 100 years old, that form a natural canopy of shade, protecting pedestrians from the heat of the midday sun. The street is accentuated by fountains that adorn its centre, including the Mossy Fountain and the 9 Cannons Fountain.
The Mossy Fountain gets its name from the thick coat of moss that engulfs the monument. This fountain was the first one built on Mirabeau and dates to 1667. It is one of only a few fountains in Aix that is sourced by a natural spring. In fact, the particular spring that feeds the Mossy Fountain is Bagniers which flows at a constant 18°C (64.4°F).
The 9 Canons Fountain was built in 1691 by Laurent Vallon. There used to be an old watering fountain on this spot before the Cours Mirabeau was built that was used to provide water for livestock passing through.
Cafés, restaurants and bars are scattered along Cours Mirabeau’s route so there is never a shortage of spots to take a break and enjoy some people-watching as locals and visitors from around the world admire the glamorous private mansions lining street.
The nice thing about Cours Mirabeau is that once you are here, you can find just about everything in Aix en Provence Old Town just a short distance away. It is just a great place to spend some time when you are in Aix.
✅ To get the most from your visit to Aix en Provence it is best to see it with a guide. Book this 5-star tour as the ideal introduction to this charming town with a local.
2. Visit Place Du General de Gaulle To See The Rotunda Fountain
Place du General de Gaulle is a plaza in the middle of Aix en Provence that is the intersection of the major streets of the city – Avenue Napoleon Bonaparte, Avenue des Belges, Avenue Victor-Hugo, Cours Mirabeau and Rue Espariat.
Better known as Place de la Rotonde, because of the magnificent fountain that highlights the plaza, it is 100 meters (328 feet) in diameter. The plaza was built between 1840 and 1850, and the fountain was added 10 years later in 1860 and marks the entrance to the city in that era.
Aix is known as the City of a Thousand Fountains (there are really about 100), but the largest and most beautiful of them all is la Rotonde. It takes up 1/3 of the Place du General de Gaulle being 32 metres (100 feet) in diameter and stands 12 metres (40 feet) tall. It is the centrepiece of the Old Town.
Since Roman times, Aix has been the water capital of the region and this is exemplified in the flowing streams emanating all around the fountain. When it was first built the water feeding the fountain came from Zola Canal. Today, the source of water for the fountain is the Canal de Provence.
La Rotonde is built in circular layers comprising 2 large basins – the first basins in the city to be cast in bronze. Surrounding the lower basin are bronze statues of pairs of lions, seemingly protecting the monument.
The upper basin is surrounded by statues of swans, dolphins and children. On top of the upper basin are the 3 Graces, female statues representing the 3 major cities of Provence – Marseilles, Avignon and Aix.
The statue of Justice (Aix) is facing the Palais de Justice opposite Cours Mirabeau. The statue of Agriculture and Commerce is facing towards the city of Marseilles. And the statue of Fine Arts is facing the city of Avignon.
3. Stop By The Historic Place des Augustins
Place des Augustins gets its name from the nearby Augustins cloister. The pedestrian plaza is surrounded by Renaissance style houses, the bottom floors of which are quaint shops, cafés and restaurants.
La Place des Augustins is located near the centre of the old downtown area, off of Rue l’Espariat and just a stone’s throw from La Rotonde. The highlight of the square is the Augustinian Fountain, a tall column sitting in a round stone basin. The column is topped with an unusual looking 12-pointed copper star.
A much older fountain, built in 1620 had been placed near the door to the Augustinian cloister. It was replaced by another fountain in 1705, but when that one went missing, the current fountain, built in 1820, was placed in the square.
The fountain is unique in that it is one of only 4 fountains in Aix that is fed by a natural spring.
4. Become Cultured At The Granet Museum
The Granet Museum is located on the eastern part of la Vieil Aix, in an 18th century building that used to be the Priory of Malta. The museum houses a collection of more than 12,000 works of art, many from the region’s most famous artists, including Paul Cézanne, who was from Aix and who also has pieces at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
The museum is named after Francois Marius Granet, who himself was a famous painter and one of the most generous benefactors to the museum.
The museum has collections from several periods dating back as far as the 1400s. It also covers the 19th century, a period rich in artistic movements from Neoclassicism to Impressionism.
The Granet Museum is open every day except Monday and takes about 1 to 2 hours to visit. So if you are interested in some of the world’s finest art, make sure to check out this fabulous museum.
5. Stop By The Eglise Saint Jean de Malte
The historic Eglise Saint Jean de Malte is considered the oldest Gothic structure in Provence. The church was built between 1270 and 1280 on the site of an earlier church that had been built in the early 13th century.
Eglise Saint Jean de Malte is designed with a single nave and an exceptionally large stained glass window behind the alter which floods the church with light.
Because the church has been entrusted to the care of the Fraternity of Apostolic Monks of Aix-en-Provence who perform monastic services, the church is often open to the public.
6. Enjoy Fresh Produce At Place Richelme Market
Place Richelme is one of the most popular squares in Aix en Provence Old Town. It is home to a daily produce market where locals have been coming for over 500 years. The square is surrounded by the traditional Aix Renaissance mansions and it is protected from the hot summer sun by its towering plane trees. This market reminds us of the outdoor market held year round in Collioure, France.
Cafés and restaurants are scattered around the square and it is the perfect place to grab a coffee, croissant or lunch during your visit to Aix.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays the larger Aix en Provence market spills out onto the adjoining streets and squares. In addition to the produce of the daily market, vendors selling clothes, books, crafts, cheese, charcuterie and prepared foods fill the streets.
✅ If you enjoy touring a city with food experiences included check out this highly rated, private tour where you can visit the major sights and enjoy some Provencal specialties. A perfect combination!
7. Relive History At Place de l’Hotel de Ville
Place de l’Hotel de Ville is one of Aix’s most significant squares. During the French Revolution it was the epicentre of the town of Aix.
Today it houses the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall), the Halles au Grains (Corn Exchange Hall), the Tour de l’Horloge (Clock Tower) and the striking fountain of the Place de l’Hotel de Ville.
The Town Hall dates to the 14th century but was built in the 17th century (1655 to 1678) by architect Pierre Pavillon with the help of sculptors Rambot and Fossé. The building was modelled after Italian palaces and features a beautiful Baroque façade with an enormous carved wooden door.
The Corn Exchange Hall dates to the 18th century and is a wonderful example of NeoClassical style. Above the top floor in the centre of the building is an avant-corps that contains an ornate Baroque sculpture by Aix sculptor Jean-Pancrace Chastal. The sculpture depicts a man and a woman symbolizing the Rhône and Durance rivers and emphasizing the importance of water to the agricultural wealth of Provence.
The Clock Tower is the visual highlight of the square and was built at the beginning of the 16th century. The tower features both at clock (near its peak) and an astronomic clock (in it middle section).
Below the astronomical clock is an arch that contains one of 4 wooden statues representing each of the 4 seasons. The wooden statues are rotated manually at the change of each season.
The fountain of Place d’Hotel de Ville is an historic monument built in 1756. The main feature of the fountain is a Roman column that was taken from the ruins of the count’s palace and sits in a polygonal basin designed by Georges Vallon.
The fountain’s decorations were done by sculptor Chastal and feature a globe at the top surrounded by a golden laurel and 4 bearded mascarons spitting water into the pool.
8. Admire The Palais de Justice (Courthouse)
Located in Place des Precheurs, the NeoClassical Palais de Justice was initially designed by the architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux and commissioned in 1787. Part of Ledoux’s plan was the reimagining of the entire area that the courthouse would be built on. This design entailed the destruction of 200 houses in the district.
While the work began in 1787, the start of the French Revolution delayed the resumption of construction until 1822. The Courthouse was opened 10 years later in 1832 after some design modifications by Michel Pechand who was the architect for the prison. This courthouse was built around the same time as the one in Lyon.
And for those not happy with the outcome of their trial, the Court of Appeals is located just around the corner!
9. Linger At Place des Precheurs
The Place des Precheurs holds a special spot in the history of Aix en Provence Old Town. This was the heart and soul of the fledgling town and the main public meeting place when it was created in the 15th century.
Place de Precheurs predates the Cours Mirabeau which eventually replaced it as the centre of social and public life.
When visiting the Place des Precheurs you will also be able to visit the Palais de Justice and l’Eglise de la Madelaine. L’Eglise de la Madelaine was built from 1691 to 1703 on the site of the former convent of the Dominicans. This church was where Paul Cezanne was baptized in 1839.
The famous Precheurs Fountain is also located in this square. Built in 1757 by the master sculptor Jean Chastel, the monument consists of a tall obelisk crowned by a globe upon which is perched an eagle. The eagle is said to have been peering down at the gallows that used to be in the square at the time.
There are four lions on the corners of the pedestal that guard the portraits that are sculpted of important figures of the time.
10. Visit Aix Cathedral – Cathedral Saint Sauveur d’Aix en Provence
The Cathedral Saint-Sauveur d’Aix en Provence, or more commonly, the Aix Cathedral is a tribute to the architectural history of Aix.
It was originally constructed in the 12th century but has been reconstructed several times since, over a period of 700 years. As a result, this amazing structure contains several architectural styles including Baroque, Gothic and Romanesque.
The Bell Tower was built in the 13th century, while the middle section of the cathedral dates to 12th century.
The cathedral is allegedly located on the site of a pre-pagan temple that dates back thousands of years. Later it was the site of a Roman temple before it was eventually used for a church.
11. Shop On Rue Marius Raynard
If you are in Old Town Aix to do some shopping, then don’t miss out on Rue Marius Reynard. This is where you will find some of the most upscale designer shops in France. Rue Marius Reynard is often called the most expensive street in Aix.
It has plenty of designer shops including Maje, Mes Demoiselles and Zadig and Voltaire. In fact, there is a popular saying among the women in Aix – “tout Sur Le dos Mais rien dans Le frigo”. This translates roughly to “We wear beautiful clothes but the fridge is empty”!
✅ If you are interested in the art of Cezanne and would love to see the sights that provided him inspiration, then be sure to reserve this unique tour that takes you for a ride in a sidecar in the countryside.
Is It Worth Visiting Aix en Provence?
This historic part of Aix en Provence is perfect if you want to spend a day or two in one of France’s most popular regions. With its beautiful plazas, artistic influences, loads of shopping and numerous spas it is a wonderful spot for rest and relaxation.
When To Visit Aix en Provence?
Aix can be visited year-round. The weather is near perfect here, with over 300 days of annual sunshine, and a moderate Mediterranean climate with mild winters. The rainy season is March and October. This leaves many other months when a visit can be planned.
Is Aix en Provence A Walkable City?
Aix en Provence Old Town is quite a small area. In fact, most of the Old Town is in a pedestrian zone and perfect for walking. The area is quite compact and can be covered in a short distance. The large trees and open plazas provide nice areas for walking and relaxing.
Aix en Provence Hotels
✦ Hotel Escaletto – this property offers 44 rooms with a great location close to many of the sights in the Old Town. Guests mention the spacious, modern rooms that have air conditioning. Onsite there is a bar and roof top patio with lovely views that guests can enjoy during the warmer months.
✦ Boutique Hotel Cezanne – close to the centre of the Old Town this hotel offers comfortable, quiet rooms. Onsite parking, breakfast and a courtyard for relaxing are all amenities that guests have enjoyed staying at this location.
Aix en Provence Old Town Restaurants
You can enjoy some unique Provence foods no matter what your budget. For example, if you are feeling especially decadent and want to try an authentic Bouillabaisse, one of the region’s fish and broth specialties, you could fork out as much as €100.
Or if you have the budget of a University student, like 30% of the Aix population, you may opt for a more frugal dish like pizza frites for a mere €2!
If you are looking for a good meal try one of the following:
✅ Mitch – fine dining serving beautifully presented, outstanding French food. Guest rave about the quality of the food, the fantastic staff and the wonderful atmosphere. It is suggested to ask for a table on the outside patio.
✅ Chez Angelina – a family-run restaurant serving authentic Provencal dishes that are reasonably priced. Diners mentioned that they felt welcome and enjoyed the atmosphere and friendliness of the staff.
The Final Word – Immerse Yourself in Roman, Gothic and Renaissance Culture in Aix En Provence Old Town
Aix en Provence Old Town is a wonderful place to visit, especially if you want to immerse yourself in some great history, culture, food and wine.
No matter what your taste or your budget, be sure to wander around this amazing Old Town. And if you are looking for a souvenir to take home with you, consider some authentic Herbes de Provence or some Calisson.
This delicious almond paste candy originated in Aix en Provence and dates to the 15th century during the reign of King René. It is said that his wife Queen Isabella never smiled until she tasted a Calisson!
So, put Aix en Provence on your bucket list – it is sure to put a smile on your face too!