In the heart of Provence, the Aix City Center offers leisurely strolls filled with hidden jewels in the form of elegant fountains, picturesque courtyards, and inspired architecture. In this tour, visit the city's most famous and iconic landmarks and learn about their significance as Aix has grown from an ancient Roman village to the Middle Aged capital of Provence to a modern-day center for justice and cultivation of the arts.
Tour Stops and Attractions
1) La RotondeThe most recognizable landmark in Aix-en-Provence is also the perfect place to begin your orientation: La Rotonde.
Built in 1860, this monumental fountain once marked the town’s entrance with a grand welcoming gesture that was uncommon for cities of that size; 150 years later the city expanded and the fountain now marks the center of the city and the entrance to Cours Mirabeau.
The fountain is adorned with cherubs, lions, and swans along with three graceful statues atop. These statues, sculpted separately by different artists, symbolize local pursuits: the statue representing Fine Arts (sculpted by Ferrat) faces the direction of Avignon, the statue for Agriculture (sculpted by Chabaud) faces Marseille, and the statue of Justice (sculpted by Ramos) faces Aix and the Cours Mirabeau. Like the numerous other fountains throughout Aix-en-Provence, the water springs from a plentiful source lying underground.
2) Cours MirabeauRunning east from La Rotonde, Cours Mirabeau is Aix’s main thoroughfare. Sycamore trees (or "plane trees" as they are known in Europe) line this wide, pedestrian-friendly road, splitting the town between the Old Town to your left, and the Mazarin Quarter to your right.
The planning for Cours Mirabeau began in 1649, with the Archbishop Mazarin using a garden design typical of the time period to specify that the width of the road should be one tenth of its length. Today numerous cafés, brasseries, and retail stores can be found on Cours Mirabeau, many of them occupying the façades of old grand private residences ("hôtels particulars") built in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Throughout the year, street markets and special citywide events commonly take place on Cours Mirabeau, including the Christmas market held annually. As you walk down the street you’ll see a few of Aix’s most famous trickling fountains. The first one you'll come across is the Fountain of Nine Canons (la Fontaine des Neuf Canons). It was erected in 1691. At the next crossroads you'll see the Hot Springs Fountain (La Fontaine d'Eau Chaude), built in 1734. Also known as the “mossy” fountain, it is indeed sourced from a hot natural spring. And at the end of the Cours Mirabeau is The Fountain of King René (La Fontaine du Roi René) - which will be a stop later on in the tour.
3) Place des Quatre DauphinsDetouring into the Marazin Quarter by way of Rue de 4 Septembre, you’ll find the streets to be laid out in more of a grid pattern than other parts of Aix. This district was created from the lands of the Archbishop’s Palace in 1646 to be incorporated into the town as a new aristocratic residential section. All the residences were designed to open southward into gardens and were enclosed with carriage sheds.
Straight ahead you’ll come upon La Place des Quatre Dauphins (Place of Four Dolphins). This square was built with perfect proportions and adorned with its fountain in 1667 by Jean-Claude Rambot. Four horse chestnut trees complete the square’s layout. The fountain has a baroque motif, indicating the Italian design influence on the Aix nobility of the time. The square is home to two notable private residences: Hôtel de Boisgelin, built in 1650 by Pavillon and Rambot for Louis Le Blanc de Montespahn, and Hôtel de Valori on the opposite corner, which can be recognized by the mask of a woman above the door.
4) L’Eglise Saint Jean de MalteThe Church of St Jean de Malte towers at the end of Rue Cardinale. This was the first Gothic monument built in Provence, estimated to have been constructed between 1272 and 1277 and again renovated in 1646, on the site of a former chapel built by the Knights of Malta. Its steeple is the highest point in Aix-en-Provence, reaching 67 meters. The arrow-shaped bell tower was designed in the architectural style of the Popes of Avignon. Like many other landmarks in Aix, the church’s square is completed with a small fountain, this one from the Order of Malta.
Today the church is run by the Brotherhood of the Apostolic Monks, who allow the church to be regularly open to visitors. Inside the church is quite luminous, and several religious paintings are on display.
The church shares its square with the Granet Museum, which used to be the home of the priors of St. John of Malta. The museum is dedicated to European painting and sculpture.
5) Fountain of King René (La Fontaine de Roi René)Marking the eastern end of Cours Mirabeau, this 19th century fountain depicts “Good King René of the 15th Century. Among other titles, René was Count of Provence for nearly 50 years, living in the region during his elder years and dying in Aix in 1480.
He is remembered as Good King René because of his charitable deeds. He is depicted in this statue as holding a bunch of Muscat grapes because he is credited as having introduced them to Provence. The fountain was designed by David of Angers and built in 1819. It provides a perfect spot to sit and soak in the full extent and ambience of Cours Mirabeau.
6) Les Deux GarçonsAlthough it may blend in with the other cafés and brasseries along Cours Mirabeau, Les Deux Garçons is actually a recognized historical site and the most famous brasserie in Aix.
Built in 1792 Les Deux Garçons was a hotspot for local artists, including the painter Cézanne, the writer Zola, and the poet Lamartine; it was even frequented by Ernest Hemingway. Because of these famous customers, today it is appreciated as contributing to the city’s cultural tradition.
Find a spot on the terrace for coffee and people-watching, or order one of their seafood dishes for a leisurely lunch. The richly decorated interior is worth taking a peek at: tall ornate mirrors and gilded passageways usher you into the salon. It doesn’t take much to understand how these artists found inspiration when passing the hours here.
7) Le Palais de JusticeLe Palais de Justice is one of Aix’s most notable landmarks because the city has become a leading judicial center.
The site was formerly the Palace of the Sovereign Counts, or the Palais Comptal. Built in the 13th Century as the governor’s seat, the Parliament of Provence, and the Audit Office, it later also housed the Cabinet and the Treasury in the 16th Century. At the end of the 18th Century it was torn down and rebuilt by the architect Ledoux. The new building was completed in 1832 by Penchaud and in 1998 the adjacent prison was transformed into an Appeals Court, the second most important in France outside of Paris.
The large staircase leads up to the Room of the Lost Steps ("salle des pas-perdus"), so-called as a reference to the lawyers and clients pacing between hearings. Two statues, of Portalis and Siméon, guard either side of the staircase. The space next to the Palais is called Preacher’s Square ("Place des Prêcheurs") and hosts a flea and antiques market three days a week.
8) La Place d'AlbertasLa Place d’Albertas is quietly tucked away in the Old Town of Aix, creating a charming old-world atmosphere.
This square was built in a popular Parisian style, designed by Georges Vallon in the mid-18th Century at the request of the Marquis of Albertas, who lived across the way. He bought the properties, tore them down, and sold the land with the requirement that the facades be rebuilt in the style of his request. The fountain is a more recent addition, built in 1912 and prompted by cracks in the stone spreading from the square’s center, requiring replacement. Engineer students of the Arts et Métiers school in Aix created the fountain basin while at the same time the stone foundation of the square was replicated to match the original. If you look around to neighboring façades and doorways, you'll see several examples of baroque and rococo styles dating from the 17th Century.
9) Place Richelme / Halle aux GrainsEach morning Place Richelme is alive with the sounds, smells, and activity of a local produce market. Fruits, vegetables, cheeses, jams, honey…all are fresh and locally grown. City residents come here to collect their daily ingredients and out-of-towners have the opportunity to stroll through and purchase some of the authentic selections.
The market stands in the shadow of the former Halle Aux Grains (the Corn Exchange), which is the northern building of the square. It was built in 1718 by Vallon and like many other buildings of that time period in Aix, the design was inspired by Italian architecture. In its day, the building acted as a storage facility for wheat collected from citizens as taxes.
From this side of the building, you can see how it is richly decorated with motifs of fruits and grains. Follow the building around to the opposite side, which looks onto the town hall square. When you reach the northern-facing façade, take a moment to examine the triangular allegoric impression at the top, a sculpture from Chastel. Against a background of bountiful corn and fruit, you’ll see an old man and a goddess. The old man represents the Rhone River and the goddess is Sybille, representing the Durance River. Notice how her leg is suspended outside the pediment, a gesture said to recall the overflowing of the Durance River which was a frequent occurrence. These important rivers - and the irrigation system developed from them - allowed agriculture to thrive in the region, so the building and its sculptures act as a fitting tribute. Today the building houses the post office.
10) La Place de la MairieLa Place de la Mairie is the quaint town square nestled in the heart of the Old Town, overlooked by the Town Hall (Hôtel de Ville) and the adjacent clock tower. The current town hall was built in the mid-17th Century by Pierre Pavillon, with an impressive doorway leading into the courtyard. The town square itself was built later in 1741, after several houses were torn down to create more space to reflect the classic Italian façade of the Town Hall. The clock tower rises above the square and also serves as the northern entrance upon its Roman foundations. Built in 1510, it used to be the town’s belfry and has an astronomic clock built in 1661, complete with four wooden statues representing the different seasons and appearing accordingly. Over the years and through the 19th Century ornaments have been added to the tower. The square’s fountain was built in 1755 using a former Roman Column and adorned with masks sculpted by Chastel.
11) Cathédrale Saint Sauveur (Holy Savior Cathedral)Standing in front of the Cathedrale Sauveur, take a moment to feel the eras of history around you. Not only are you now in the oldest part of Aix-en-Provence, but the site itself has been considered sacred for thousands of years: there is archeological evidence that a pre-Roman pagan temple and then a Roman temple were built where the Christian church now stands.
From beginning to end the construction of the cathedral took more than 1200 years – from the 5th century to the 17th century - due to constant interruptions including wars, supply shortages, and plagues. This resulted in several different styles being used, following the changes in Christian architecture over the time period. For example, the cloisters were built in late 12th century Romanesque style, the Gothic central nave is from the late 13th century, the bell tower is from the 14th century, and the baroque aisle is from the 17th century. A Roman wall from the city’s origins is even incorporated into the church's design, next to the entrance. The most recent renovation is the ridge added to the top of the octagon shaped tower, added in the 19th Century. During the Reformation many of the biblical statues were beheaded by Protestant militants, and other sculptures have been weathered away over the years, but the Cathedral has stood the test of time and is a testimony to Aix’s perseverance and prosperity over the centuries.