What comes to mind when you think of Provence, France? I think of the lavender fields, the hill-top villages, the century-old stone houses, the cute little cafes, the hand-made baskets, the terracotta pots, the stone fountains, and the colorful farmers’ markets. They conjure up the rustic, romantic images of Provence and its laid-back way of life.
Provence had been on my bucket list since forever, but when I finally sat down and planned my trip, I was confused. That’s because there are many cities, towns, and villages that make up the area called Provence. You have to decide where you want to stay that would maximize your time and allow you to experience all the Provençal charms you’re after.
After doing some research, I decided to base in Aix-en-Provence, a vibrant city with excellent transportation options. The first time I was there, which was years ago, I had only a few days to explore the city AND the little villages in the area. No wonder I didn’t have a lot of memories of the city as I didn’t really get to explore it. I was always on the go wanting to see everything all at once, which was the exact opposite approach you should be taking. Provence represents an easy, laid-back lifestyle. Rushing through it would destroy the purpose.
Recently I had an opportunity to be in France for two weeks, and I decided to go back to Aix. What a great decision I made! I enjoyed the city immensely, and it’s now one of my favorite French cities. You must know, though, that Aix (pronounced X) is not a sleepy little village but a medium-size city that has all the Provençal charms but on a bigger scale. It has a lot of good restaurants, great night life thanks to its student population, and stunning Baroque mansions due to its past as the capital of Provence. Because of its stately architecture, chic cafés, and general elegance, it has been dubbed Paris’s 21st Arrondissement. If you’re looking for a small town where the streets are empty after the sun goes down, this is not the place for you.
During my stay, I got to do a lot of things but leisurely. Here are some of places and activities I enjoyed and would recommend. I hope you enjoy them too!
1. Get lost in Old Town
Aix is roughly divided into two parts with the main boulevard Cours Mirabeau dividing the old town in the north and the newer part of town, the Mazarin Quarter, in the south. The Mazarin Quarter is mostly residential and quiet, so all the actions take place in Old Town. By that I mean all the lively squares, enchanting cafés and restaurants, markets, shops, etc.
You can start at either end of Cours Mirabeau and get lost in its maze of pedestrian alleyways filled with shops and restaurants. Walk a little bit more and you’ll find cute little squares filled with more shops and restaurants where you can people watch and practice “l’art de vivre” – the art of living – over a cup of coffee.
2. Visit historic mansion Hôtel de Caumont and have lunch in the courtyard
Hôtel de Caumont is one of those “hotel particuliers” (private mansions) built by the rich and aristocrats when Aix was an administrative center of the government. This stunning 18th century mansion has been turned into a museum and gallery with its own restaurant. You’ll love its historic rooms decorated with gorgeous wall molding, gilded furniture, and elegant curtains. For art fans, the gallery has awesome art exhibitions all year round.
Make sure you make time to have lunch there because the pink and light blue Marie Antoinette-esque dining rooms are beyond gorgeous. It also has a terrace overlooking a manicured French garden. If you’re a garden and courtyard aficionado like me, it is simply heaven to get to dine alfresco among flowers and greenery.
So go for the architecture and art but stay for lunch or afternoon tea. You don’t have to buy a ticket for the museum/art gallery if you go there just to eat. Café Caumont is open 10 a.m.-7 p.m. They don’t take reservations.
3. Visit Paul Cézanne’s studio
World famous post-impressionist artist Paul Cézanne was born in Aix and had his last studio in the city. Like many great artists, his early works were ridiculed and not understood. Thankfully he came from a rich family and did not suffer financial insecurity like many of his contemporaries.
I love art, but I’m a real sucker for beautiful homes and gardens. Cézanne’s studio is housed in a lovely two-story Provençal style building in yellow with light blue windows and earthy reddish shutters. It has a graveled front yard adorned with terracotta pots and sets of wrought iron tables and chairs overlooking a big garden. I went there in the morning. It was so peaceful I found myself thinking that I could really wake up here, sip a cup of coffee, and enjoy the fresh air and morning light.
Inside the house, there’s a gift shop downstairs, which used to be where the artist kept his tools and canvases. His studio is upstairs. It’s a lovely place with lots of light. No wonder he picked this spot to be his studio. His belongings, painting tools and objects are scattered around the room. Everything is kept just like it was when he was there creating his masterpieces.
If you decide to go, I recommend buying a ticket online in advance from its website as space is limited.
4. Drink a Provençal Rosé at the Hôtel de Ville Square
Most restaurants are open for dinner at 7, but if you’re hungry before that, you can get some snacks and drinks at one of the cafés around town. One of the most beautiful and liveliest squares in the city is Hôtel de Ville Square where the townhall is. It’s filled with bars and restaurants – a good place to grab a glass of iced Rosé wine Provence is famous for. I also love the adjacent Place Richelme where you’ll find many cute cafés. After sightseeing all day, it’s very relaxing to just sit back and watch the world go by.
5. Shop til you drop
I’ve noticed that in France, there are so many small boutiques selling stylish clothes and accessories. Some are expensive because of the quality, but there are also many that are more affordable. One of my favorite stores is NAF NAF, a national brand selling quality pieces at affordable prices. I bought a gorgeous leather jacket and two wool coats from there. I found this store during one of my leisure “getting lost” walks around the city. There’s also a shopping center opposite the Tourist Office where you can find national and international brands.
But these shops are not Provence’s main draw. Like many Provençal towns, Aix is famous for its Provençal markets. I previously thought that Market Day was only on the weekend, but to my surprise it’s on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays! On these three days vendors set up on Cours Mirabeau, the main boulevard, and all the way to Place des Prêcheurs and Place du Verdun.
You can find all kinds of things there. On Cours Mirabeau it’s mainly clothes, accessories like scarves and hats, table clothes, napkins, pillowcases, and textiles. At Place du Vendun you’ll find pottery, wicker baskets, spices, Marseille soaps. At Place des Prêcheurs, it’s mainly produce and freshly made food like bread, roasted chicken, olive oil. I got a bottle of Rosé and some freshly made Paella, the best I’d ever had.
As you may know that the French shop for food at their local farmer’s market. There is a daily market on Place Richelme. You’ll find produce, cheese, spices, and other staples for daily meals. Maison Weibel, my favorite pastry shop, is also at a corner of this lovely square.
If you’re in the mood for flowers, head over to the Hôtel de Ville Square where there’s a daily flower market.
6. Buy a book and have lunch at Librairie de l’Hotel Boyer d’Eguilles
Books? Check. Food? Check. Architecture? Check. These three things are some of my favorite things in life, and I can find them at Librairie de l’Hotel Boyer d’Eguilles right in the oldtown.
Built in 1685, this unique historical building houses a restaurant and a bookstore. Walking through its gorgeous arch, you’ll be greeted with a beautiful courtyard peppered with chic wicker chairs and tables covered with white cloths. It just feels so simple yet sophisticated. I like this setting way more than those tables on Cours Mirabeau.
Inside, you’ll find the area for indoor dining and rooms full of books. If this isn’t a paradise for food and book lovers, I don’t know what is.
7. Take a tour of the Luberon villages
Your trip to Provence wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the charming Luberon villages, and Aix is a good base to explore the area. Prepared to be charmed by these hill-top villages as they are some of the most beautiful in all of France. For a first timer without a car, I would recommend taking a minivan group tour. That way you don’t have to worry about getting there and can focus on exploring the villages.
I booked mine online with Provence Reservation, which has been renamed À la Française. They have many small group tours to choose from, and I picked the Markets & Villages in Luberon tour, which is a full-day tour starting from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. There were about 7-8 people in our group. They took us to Gordes, Lourmarin, Roussillon, and L’Isle sur la Sorgue. Unfortunately, it was neither June nor July, so we didn’t get to stop at Sénanque Abbey for a photo op of the famous lavender field. So take note! If you want to see the lavender in bloom, go there between mid-June and mid-July.
All four villages have their own characters and charms. The colorful ochre houses in Roussillon were such a delight, but the stone houses in Gordes also took my breath away. They are my two favorites on the trip. But if you’re an antique hunter, you’ll love L’Isle sur la Sorgue, which is famous for its many antique shops. Fans of world-renowned French author Albert Camus would appreciate the beautiful Lourmarin, his final resting place.
There you have it. If you decide to go, let me know how you like it. Provence is such a delightful place, and I can’t wait to go back!