Aix-en-Provence

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family travel provence
Few regions are so rich with beauty. Azure sea, silver olive groves, endless vineyards, poppy fields, lavender farms, craggy mountains, ochre villages, salt marshes, flamingos, wild white horses, Roman ruins…
No wonder artists flocked to Provence to paint the diverse landscape and capture the remarkable light.

The region Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is vast. With must-visit cities like Marseille, the gorgeous-meets-tacky expanse of the French Riviera, and the picturesque mountain villages in the Luberon, you will run out of time before your family sees it all.

We’ve put together curated inland and coastal fields trips to help, starting with Aix-en-Provence.

Don’t forget to check out our list of the best beaches on the French Riviera while you’re researching your family holiday.

When to go: Spring or fall. Spring has all the beauty without the oppressive heat that causes small folk to wilt. Plus the outdoor hiking opportunities are still open; they close in summer due to wild fire risk. Fall has the same perks as spring, plus the wine harvest. Winter isn’t ideal, because a mean mistral blows. If we inspire you to book, consider booking through our affiliates at Expedia. Our guides are always free. Our affiliates enable us to keep producing good content for you.


Family base camp: Aix-en-Provence

family travel provence

Image: Lee Ann Cafferata

Say it with us: “X.” Okay, you got it. The heart of Provence is Aix. This classy belle of a city is known for burbling fountains (they’re everywhere, to the delight of toddlers and pigeons) and its homegrown artist, the one and only Paul Cézanne.

In addition to sheer good looks and charm, we chose it for where to stay in Provence because it’s easy on families – you can tell by the number of locals with small folk who live here (instead of nearby Marseille) are out and about at the parks and cafes.

With a daily open air marché in the tangled old town, the cafe culture lining pretty Cours Mirabeau, and the Cézanne art heritage trail, there’s plenty to see and do.

Once you’ve explored thoroughly, Aix is perfectly positioned minimum 30 minutes and max two hours by car from the other essential Provence sites, both on the French Riviera and in the Luberon.

Accommodation: We partner with travel companies that we use for our family trips. You’ll find pretty Airbnb villa rentals just outside old town Aix. These are more spacious than hotels, allow you to cook with the regional bounty, and equipped with swimming pools. Book via the link above and get a travel credit through our family account. Also check out Booking.com‘s Aix-en-Provence rentals.

Field trip 1 – The marchés of Aix-en-Provence

family travel Provence

Image: Lee Ann Cafferata

If you want a proper intro to your new French town, head to the marché. Aix-en-Provence has an open-air marché every day.

Marché on Place Richelme

family travel provence

The most picturesque is on Place Richelme in the old town. Here you’ll find seasonal regional produce like artichauts poivrade, courgette and courgette flowers, bunches of purple garlic, cléry strawberries from Carpentras, heaps of salad, sweet striped canteloupe from Saint Remy and more. In addition to the produce vendors there is a fish monger, an olive/tapenade/olive oil stand, charcuterie and various producers with honey, lavender and Provençal baked goods such as fougasse. The marche runs until noon when it transitions to cafe tables for the lunch crowd.

Marché on Place des Prêcheurs and Place Madeleine

family travel provence

Image: Lee Cafferata

Our second favourite Aix marché experience is the adjoining markets on Place des Prêcheurs and Place Madeleine, which take over the parking areas there on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

You’ll find more locals than tourists shopping the substantial selection of produce. Head to the stand with the most senior citizens in the queue. They know the good deals.

In addition to fruit and veg, there are more cheese, charcuterie, bakery (sweet and savory) stalls here. Across the way in  Place Madeleine the stalls transition into trinkets and crafts such as lavender products, olive oil soap, woven marche baskets with leather straps, olive wood tableware and even vintage handbags.

Field trip 2 –  Cezanne’s Aix: Apertifs at Les Deux Garçons and art at Musée Granet

Les Deux Garçons

family travel Provence Les Deux Garcon aix

Image: Connie Ma

Cours Mirabeau is the centre of cafe culture and people-watching in Aix-en-Provence. Of the many cafes and brasseries lining the lovely boulevard, Les Deux Garcons is the quintessential experience. Frequented by big names of yore like Cézanne, his childhood buddy Emile Zola, M.F.K. Fisher, Pablo Picasso, Winston Churchill, Edith Piaf and many more, you come here to bask in history and ogle at the ornate old-school decor.

Despite the Paris prices and other tourists, the waitstaff is swift and courteous and the apertifs are unimpeachable. Come at an off-peak time. Order juice and an omelet with frites for your small folk, a dozen oysters and some Vaucluse viognier (or Cassis) for the parents, and linger.

For parents of small folk, definitely sit on the terrace rather than inside.  There will be multi-generational French families there. The lively promenade along the boulevard and ample room make it easier on you both in terms of entertainment and parking your stroller.

53 Cours Mirabeau, Les2garcons.fr

Musée Granet

cezanne provence

Image: Cezanne

We bring toddlers and babies to art museums. We stay for an hour, targeting a specific exhibit and talking about what we see together. Then we hit the gift shop for creative kids’ art supplies and books, and have a romp in the usually lovely courtyard.

We gave the Granet this treatment, targeting modern art, particularly that of homegrown talent Cézanne and the artists who made a pilgrimage to Aix to paint with him. The Granet is in Aix’s posh Mazarin quarter to the south of Cours Mirabeau. The Mazarin neighbourhood is known for mansions and fountains; the Quatre-Dauphins (Four Dolphins) is the fountain has the most kid appeal. Cézanne took painting classes at Granet. It’s incredibly satisfying to walk around in his setting and then have the chance to revisit his work immediately after.

The Granet will never live down the words of curator Auguste-Henri Pontier, who famously declared that he would never exhibit an Cézanne paintngs. Of course, he was wrong. The museum has Cézanne paintings including a small study for Les Baigneuses, a portrait of Madame Cézanne, watercolors of Mont Saint-Victoire, as well as a landscape including his childhood home Jas de Bouffan.

Musee Granet is a far more kid-friendly Cézanne experience than visiting his studio in Aix, Atelier Cézanne, where you peek over a fence to get a glimpse of his workspace. There’s nothing but trouble and boredom for toddlers at the Atelier. In Granet, by contrast, you can get up close to his work and tots can walk. You’ll also  works by Giacometti, Van Gogh, Monet, Léger, Mondrian and Klee among others.

Insider tip: don’t miss the finger-tip kids’ paint brushes in the gift shop. Parents, scoop up the English exhibition album “The Great Workshop of the Midi.” It explains how Cézanne’s presence in Aix inspired a generation of young painters (Van Gogh, Gaugin, Matisse, and even Monet) to come to the sun-drenched coast of southern France and paint. Their social interactions are documented alongside a catalog of their work.

Place Saint Jean de Malte, Museegranet-aixenprovence.fr/www/index3.html

Field trip 3 – Aix for kids: Playgrounds, Aix carousel, and sweet treats

family travel provence

Your small folk need a playground. In Aix, there are three main options: Le Pavillon de Vendôme, Parc Jourdan and La Torse.

Le Pavillon de Vendôme

family travel privence

Image: Lee Cafferata

The prettiest playground is Le Pavillon de Vendôme in the Aix old town. There’s a gorgeous 17th century mansion. Don’t go in. It’s not cheap and the staff is grumpy about small fingers. Do enjoy the (free) formal French garden with fish pond, flowers, plane trees, and petit playground with picnic tables and loo. This is where many an Aixois family comes to catch up with friends, or Aixois grandparents babysit little ones while the parents go for apertifs in the old town.

Aixenprovence.fr/Pavillon-de-Vendome-465

Other options: La Torse for a large, wild park with a stream and jogging paths a good hike from central Aix. Parc Jourdan, 15 minutes from central Aix, north of the Mazarin quarter, for the most extensive playground, and a more international set of parents and nannies.

Pâtisserie Weibel

family travel Provence
Aix has its own cookie. You need to try it. It’s an almond-shaped lozenge of joy called the calisson, invented in 1454 for King René, who needed something sweet to win over his significantly younger second wife. Who knows if it worked on her. It worked on us.

The calisson is a gooey mixture of marzipan and candied melons sandwiched between communion wafer and royal icing. Both melons and almonds are major in Provence agriculture. The cookie is served in Provence and many other regions of France at Christmas. It’s also eaten year as a year-round treat in Aix and makes for alovely take-home gift. There are many, many calisson makers in town. Pâtisserie Weibel founded in 1954 is the best.

We love to linger over lunch, or coffee and a sweet treat, at Weibel because it’s perched on the edge of the marche at Place Richelme and has excellent people watching. Aixois of all generations come here for an afternoon goûter – the equivalent of a teatime sweets craving. Their lunch options such as quiche, salads and sandwiches, are also well done. In summer they put out an ice cream cart, with house-made ice creams including calisson flavor.

Insider tip: You order calissons by weight and they come in gift packaging. They’re not for consuming “sur place.” Get a mini gateau, tarte, macaron, or ice cream instead.

2 rue Charbrier, Maisonweibel.com

Paul Cézanne Carousel

family travel Provence

Image: Andrea Schaffer

Most cities in France have a carousel. The double-decker Paul Cezanne carousel just off Cours Mirabeau by the 41-metre fountain La Rotonde, is a special one. The space behind the animals is decorated with Cezanne’s landscapes making for a gauche but fun fine art/entertainment mash-up. Toddlers are not the only age-group there for a spin and a photo opp. You’ll find plenty of post-happy-hour adults too.

Field trip 3 – Shopping, eating, and drinking

Magasin Général Plus

family travel Provence

Image: Magasin Général Plus

If you desire enduring old-school French craftsmanship, head to Magasin General Plus. The general store stocks goodies ranging from Turkish-style bath towels (ideal for French Riviera bathing and picnics), to made-in-Provence espadrilles for both genders, vintage ArmorLux maritime striped shirts from Brittany and more. It opened in spring 2015 and has been warmly welcomed by the Aix community.

5 rue Matheron, Novoidplus.com

Emilie & Compagnie

family travel provence

A creative baby and kids concept store with furniture, decor, and toys for ages 1-12. Many of the brands they stock are small, independent French labels you wont find anywhere else.

9 rue Paul Bert, www.emilieetcompagnie.com

Farinoman Fou Boulangerie

family travel Provence

Although it would be nice if to believe that all French boulangeries were wonderful, simply because they are French, this is not the case. It’s more common to find flabby baguettes and boulders of whole grain bread than you would think. Farinoman Fou Boulangerie is good at everything at which they try their hand: baguettes and more interesting pain du coin (crusty brown bread), bread studded with dried fruit and nuts, olive breads and more. The owner/baker has written his own “panifeste” in case it wasn’t already clear through tasting that this is a passion project.

Must order savory: Olives a foison or the fiorito negro – the baker’s takes on the Provencal fougasse. For sweet: choco-sourire, a smiling mini baguette stuffed with warm, dark chocolate. It’s got ten times the impact pain au chocolat.

Insider tip: No self respecting French national makes it home with a without breaking off the corner of the loaf or baguette for a snack.

5 rue Mignet, Farinomanfou.fr

Cave D’Yves Wine Bar

family travel provence

Image:
Thanakrit Gu

If you’re craving a genuine French wine experience, you must visit Yves and his wine bar and cellar. Yves is extremely knowledgeable and a tad touchy. He has an expertly curated selection of wines from the best Provencal roses to rare Loire whites and lesser-known talents from Burgundy.

Yves will tell you when you make the wrong decision about which wine to drink, when to drink it, and what to drink it with. The correction is not personal; it’s part of his devotion to his craft. We recommend coming here for early supper to dine outside with children, or get a bottle to take home. If you tell Yves your menu, he’ll assist with pairings. Otherwise, come for date night. The narrow interior is packed tighter than a sardine can most nights of the week.  It’s worth it.

Insider tip: Talk to staff before touching the bottles.

10 Rue Portalis, Lacavedyves.com

Restaurants in Aix-en-Provence

restaurants aix en provence

Image: Le Saint-Estève

We admit it. We aim high. We’re not looking for a fancy-pants dinner service. We’re after an authentic, uncomplicated, regional food experience, preferably with a short, smart wine list. We have not found our perfect restaurant in Aix, despite living there for months.

The Aix Michelin-starred restaurant L’Espirit de la Violette is too self-consciously, pretentious hotel lobby. Starters and desserts were mediocre. The mains were technically perfect. The decor and presentation with all its bells and whistles, however, was dated. The closest excellent Michelin-star experience is Le Saint-Estève in Le Tholonet, a small town 20 minutes away. The star chef Mathias Dandine crafts beautiful seasonal tasting menus starting at 95 euros. The dining room terrace has a breathtaking view of Mount Saint-Victoire. Reservations are essential.

On the other end of the spectrum, the younger French bistros in Aix (Le Contrepoint, for example) have an obsession with le burger, which is not what we come to France to eat. The established bistros are for the most part too cramped for high chairs and often without a patio. Many don’t even make all the meal components (dessert) in house, which is a deal breaker for us. We can vouch for the cuisine traditionnelle provençale at Chez Feraud, where you can sample authentic granny cooking such as pistou, house-made duck terrine, regional fish, and caramel ice cream with fresh figs.

But our lack of a stand out restaurant pick in Aix is why we’ve listed talented boulangeries (Farinoman Fou), patisseries (Weibel), wine bars (Cave d’Yves; L’epicierie), and Cours Mirabeau historic bistros (Les Deux Garcon) in this guide. For a truly memorable meal, drive to Marseille.

Marseille and Cassis

Field trip 4 – On the fountain trail in Aix

family travel provence

Fontaine D’Argent. Image: Small Folk Travel

Aix-en-Provence is known as the city of a thousand fountains thanks to a surplus of natural sprngs. There are at least 20 dating from Roman times to the 21st century. From mossy rocks to leaping dolphins and fellows making funny faces at each other, they’re worth a pause. Kids (and pigeons) adore them. This is the 18th century Fontaine d’Argent, not far from Cave D’Yves, at the intersection of Rue de la Mule Noir and Rue de la Fontaine d’Argent.

L’Epicerie d’Aix

family travel provence

Image: Lee Cafferata

When you need a moment away from the crowds on Cours Mirabeau but you’re not ready to go home, head to the hidden courtyard with burbling fountain at Place des Trois Ormeaux (built 1632). The small folk can play around the fountain while the parents choose from a well-curated, by-the-glass list of French wines. Dinner here is pleasant but neither cheap nor amazing making this is a good option for an aperitif on a day you know you’re cooking at home. You can buy wine by the bottle, tea, and olive oil here too.

Place des Trois Ormeaux, no website

Field trip 5 – Farther afield: Hiking Cezanne’s Mont Saint-Victoire

family travel Provence

Mont Saint-Victoire. Image: Small Folk Travel

Ask any Aixois what they love most about the area and they’ll describe a hike and a picnic up Mont Saint-Victoire. The peak is a 30 minute drive from Aix-en-Provence and its presence in the backdrop of the city feels as reassuring as a conversation with an old friend. Cézanne couldn’t get enough of it. He features it in over 60 landscapes. Picasso bought a house at its base.

Mont Saint-Victoire has been designated a Grand Site of France. The area covers 85,000 acres and a few villages. You can’t see all of it. Here’s how to do it right in one go.

Park at the Barrage de Bimont. Walk across the top of the dam to the trails. The perch gives you stunning vistas of aquamarine reservoir and the summit. There is no way to continue with a stroller. Folks who don’t use hikers come here just to picnic at the dam. There’s no shame in that.

For those with baby carriers, follow everyone else up the manageable gravel path. Keep left to ascend. The wider path to the right is a meandering stroll through fields of wild herbs and (in season) poppies.  It’s a three hour hike to the top. The trail, denoted with red and white paint along the way, starts easy and it gets quite challenging. So you can let your small folk test their legs before putting them in your hiker. There’s plenty to discover along the way: lizards, butterflies, bumble bees, wild flower and more.

Once on the ridge, marked by a cross, you can keep walking, or stop for a picnic. Every French family/school group we encounter has baguettes tied to their rucksacks. The views from the top are worth the burn. You can see the Luberon, Mount Ventoux, the Alps and Cap Canaille, the vertical cliff by Cassis on the coast. 

Insider tip: They sell maps with hiking trails at the book shops on Cours Mirabeau, and at the Aix tourist office. The best trail map is IGN Top 25 3244ET.

Grandsitesaintevictoire.com

Field trip 5 – Farther afield: Zoo Barben

family travel provence

Image: Taraneh Jerven

Parc Zoologique de La Barben is a wild animal park in nearby Salon de Provence which is about 20 minutes away by car. The zoo is home to elephants, giraffes, bears, wandering peacocks, rhinos, ostriches. It’s special position perched atop a rural plateau with 9km of walking trails makes it possible for the animals to enjoy large habitats, and families to get a stunning view of the Provence countryside. At the heart of the zoo next to the elephants you’ll find a massive playground and picnic area, allowing you to take a break, have a meal, and go back to learning about the animals.

 

Hidden gems: best beaches for families on the Côte d’Azur

Lead image: Henry Berger Joergensen

About author

Small Folk Travel

Small Folk Travel is a family travel site by mama and travel writer Taraneh Jerven. The Jerven family (two toddlers, one bun in the oven) travels incessantly. When researching our trips, we couldn't find the family travel coverage we were looking for. We did our own research. We wrote the family travel guides ourselves. Taraneh Jerven writes for international travel publishers including RoughGuides.com and DK Eyewitness Travel. We cover good stuff for discerning parents and their little ones. Often these overlap. If they don't, we take turns.

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