755km (469 miles) S of Paris; 80km (50 miles) SE of Avignon; 32km (20 miles) N of Marseille; 175km (109 miles) W of Nice
One of the most alluring aspects of Aix is its size. Frequently guidebooks proclaim it the very heart of Provence, evoking a sleepy town filled with flowers and fountains, which it is—in certain quarters. But Aix is also a bustling university town of nearly 143,000 inhabitants (the Université d’Aix dates from 1413), which packs manifold museums, sights, and restaurants into a compact city center.
It was founded in 122 b.c. by Roman general Caius Sextius Calvinus who rather modestly named the town Aquae Sextiae, after himself. Aix’s most celebrated son, Paul Cézanne, immortalized the Aix countryside in his paintings. Just as he saw it, the Montagne Sainte-Victoire still looms over the town today.
Much more recently, local boy turned superstar soccer player Zinedine Zidane recently opened his Z5 sports complex (www.z5complexe.fr) in Aix. In 2014, rumors were rife that actress Jessica Alba was planning to settle down in the nearby town of Éguilles. But there are still plenty of decades-old, family-run shops on the narrow streets of the Old Town. A lazy summer lunch or early evening aperitif at one of the bourgeois cafes on the cours Mirabeau is an experience not to be missed.
Things to Do
Stroll cours Mirabeau, where fountains ripple and waiters waltz between the tables where Emile Zola and Paul Cézanne once sat. Or lose yourself amid the 18th-century mansions of the Mazarin quarter, where muscular atlantes (statues of Greek gods) support intricate, wrought-iron balconies. At his last workshop, Atelier de Cézanne, the artist's coat still hangs on the wall.
Nightlife & Entertainment
Sophistication is the name of the game in Aix, where a highbrow crowd flocks to the Grand Théâtre de Provence for top-quality classical music performances. On weekends, however, beer and cocktails rule for Aix's large student population, who colonize bars along rue de la Verrerie. This narrow, cobblestoned street is also a jazz hot spot. At Le Scat Club, DJs and live bands entertain into the wee hours.
Restaurants & Dining
Sun-ripened tomatoes, olives, peppers, almonds, and herbs fresh from the surrounding Provençal hillsides are signature ingredients in Aixoise cuisine. Cours Mirabeau has its fair share of Belle Époque brasseries. On a balmy evening, head to place des Cardeurs for a laid-back meal on a restaurant terrace. Whatever you eat, save room for calisson d'Aix -- the city's tear-shaped almond cake, supposedly invented in 1473 by Good King René to win the affection of his inexperienced wife.
The Montagne Ste-Victoire, Aix's iconic limestone backdrop, cries out to be explored. Hike along its stony paths to the rhythm of cicadas, past sun-baked olive groves and emerald cypress trees. The mountain inspired more than 60 of Cézanne's works, and its contrasting colors make you feel as though you're roaming through an oil painting. When you can walk no more, soak at Thermes Sextius, a natural spa in Aix's Centre Ville, which has been soothing tired muscles since the Roman days.