Aix-en-Provence is a lovely city disguised as a small village. It is a city of gorgeous architecture, lots of fountains, incredible history dating back to Roman times and sophisticated shops and restaurants to satisfy anyone's tastes. I spent two months exploring Aix-en-Provence and here are my must-do , Must-see and must-eats!
Must-Do: Shopping in Aix-en-Provence
Aix-en-Provence lies in the south of France about 25 miles north of Marseilles and the Meditteranean and it is everything you read about Provence. The city lies among the lavender fields, olive trees, goat cheese farms, honey producers and wineries that make up the agriculture of the region but, in many ways, it is the Paris of the South.
Any designer from Hermes to Agnes B. has an outpost here. So does Gap, Sephora and Apple. The shopping is fantastic and the dollar is strong, therefore, quality items that used to seem expensive, now appear reasonable. After almost two months here, I know I can reliably count on a few places, outside of the Saturday cheap “frangs” markets, for reasonable, stylish finds. One is right outside of my front door (after descending four steep flights) and is adorably named Mango.
A chain, but with a little more style and liberal return and exchange policies, both my daughter and I found several wardrobe pieces here. And, as an Amerian accustomed to being able to change my mind or return a wrong size, Mango, like San Marina shoes and a few other more progressive chains, easily refunds a purchase if returned. The French hate reimbursement and usually make it very difficult.
Local stores that I love in Aix-en-Provence are the family leatherworkers of of Vents Sauvage (wild winds) and the hip Red Soul clothing boutique. Located near each other at the intersection of Rue Rifle-Rafle (yes, the real name!) and Rue Granet, they are stores that are helpful to the customer and work with you to find the right items and fit. It is typical in stores that a salesperson will completely ignore you and I usually decide to just walk back out the door. Service is getting better in France but remember you are the customer and feel free to exerise your right to not shop!
Monoprix on the Cours Mirabeau is a unique hybrid of full-on grocery store in the basement and a department store on the ground floor and above. This is the place to buy shampoos, makeup, underwear and essentials. I also found a great pair of boots here. Caution: checkout is like herding cats so stay strong.
Unique gifts can be found in specialty shops like La Pastisserie on rue Paul Bert, where the English speaking Daivd offers artisanal pastis in the first shop of its kind in France. A very unique and Provencal gift.
Must-See: Museums of Aix-en-Provence
Aix-en-Provence is very manageable and it is completely conceivable to shop, see a museum and have a fabulous meal – or two – in a single day. My favorite museum experience is actually two museums for one ridiculously wonderful and inexpensive experience. Musee Granet is the perfect-sized museums that contains a huge collection of the works of Granet, Ingres and other early Provencal artists as well as the local favorite Paul Cezanne and those he inspired. There are always visiting exhibits, too, and we loved Olivier Bernex and his huge tableaus.
When you pay the modest 5.5 Euros to visit the Musee Granet, they automatically give you a second ticket for the Collection Jean Planque, their second museum in a converted church that will, without hesitation, take your breath away. Planque, an advisor to the government on art acquisition, became friendly with many artists, including Picasso, and bought for his own collection. This gorgeous church is heaving with priceless art that was basically the decor in a home of a true art lover. Stunning and memorable, this museum, like the Granet, is easy to navigate and you can visit both in one day or over several.
I highly suggest a morning at Musee Granet and a peak into the church next door for their santon village, then descend a short block to Rue Fernand Dol and my favorite restaurant in Aix-en-Provence. My daughter and I stumbled on La Brocherie completely by accident when visiting the Granet and Planque museums in the Mazarin Quarter off the Cours Mirabeau. La Brocherie is unique with its open hearth fireplace where everything on the menu is grilled, from the gambas to the duck breast. At lunch, it is a true bargain with a 15 Euros menu that includes a choice of a “plat du jour,” or daily special, and an hors d'ouevres buffet.
Another museum in the area is the beautifully redone Hotel Caumont with its visiting collections and elegant tea room. Although the current Marilyn Monroe photography exhibition is extremely popular (the French love Marilyn!) the real reason to visit Hotel Caumont is the film about the life of Paul Cezanne. A fictionalized account but well-acted, this overview should be one of your first stops in understanding the passion of Cezanne, his contemporaries, followers and imitators have with the region of Aix-en-Provence. At 13 Euros, Hotel Caumont is a bit pricey but a worthy stop, especially if you enjoy a peek inside a grand French home. The restaurant serves lunch and tea and I hear wine tasting jazz evenings in the summer are all the rage!
Must-Eat: The Restaurants of Aix-en-Provence
In my time in Aix-en-Provence, I have had the opportunity to eat at many restaurants and I am still discovering more. Certain restaurants that were not only welcoming and delicious but also a good value are the ones I return to most. One evening, when we were seeking out a restaurant that was highly rated on TripAdvisor for its value and escargots, we arrived only to be turned away because we had a dog.
This was the only time we were rejected because of the dog and we will never go back. Fortunately, across the street, Jacquou Le Croquant, with its rustic exterior, English speaking waiters and a beautiful owner who, peeking up from her cooking, yelled “we love dogs” made our night very special. Jacquou specializes in the cuisine of southwest France and its duck products, including the famous cassoulet. My daughter had a pasta dish I would order again and again with its pieces of duck breast, sun-dried tomatoes and thick slices of foie gras.
My first restaurant in Aix-en-Provence was actually a popular cafe on the Cours Mirabeau and I return often for the biggest club sandwich I have ever seen and well-priced salads (including my favorite salade au chevre chaud), croque monsieurs and other sandwiches. Bar Le Grillon is open from 6 am to 2 Am and serve a variety of food and drinks no matter what your needs.
Close to my earlier shop suggestions of Red Soul and Vents Sauvage is the popular Le Forum with its brasserie ambiance and fresh “coquillages,” or shellfish, that happily take up place on their terrace every weekend. One of the best white wines in “pichet” or well-priced bulk wines sold by 25 or 50 centiliters I had was here paired with succulent fresh oysters. They also have very good daily specials or “plats du jours.”
A few doors down form Le Forum is a complete hole in the wall that puts out the best cheeseburgers and Chicago-style hot dogs you will find in Aix-en-Provence. Aux Petits Oignons is literally a closet of deliciousness with excellent fries and better cheesecake than I have had in New York. Quel Surprise!
A few steps away and a few levels above my favorite burger place is L'Incontournable at the beautiful little Place des Trois Ormeaus. Excellent daily specials and a perfectly balanced selection of menu items served on beautiful china with a perfect presentation. I had beef cheeks which were excellently paired with a Rhone from the restaurant's resident sommelier who selects very good wines to be served “par verre” or by-the- glass.
People eat late in France and you won't find anyone in a restaurant before 7 pm, but you will find them in the cafes in every plaza in Aix-en-Provence. There are even happy hours and my favorite is the five euro Mojitos in all kinds of great flavors (ginger for me) at the Cutback in Place Cardeurs. Bars, as we know them, are not common in Aix but I newly discovered L'AS tapas bar around the corner form my fifth floor garret. Excellent wines by the glass, convivial professional atmosphere and really amazing food, including a grilled calamari to die for. Glasses of wine run between 4 and 7 Euros and my absolute favorite is the Chateau Cremade from the local and famed Palette appellation. Both L'AS and the wine have kicked my second month in France off to a good start!
Read more about my travels to Aix-en-Provence here!