It’s understandable that many people are drawn to Paris when they think of France. Though as beautiful as Paris is, I encourage you to travel beyond the capital to discover the country’s many other incredible cities.
After-all, Parisians account for just 3% of France’s population, meaning there is much more culture and unique experiences to be found beyond the City of Lights.
One of my favorite areas of France is the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, home to the Bouches-du-Rhône with its medieval villages and castles, ancient Roman monuments and ruins, and giant citadels. Escape to the Mediterranean coast or head inland to romantic vineyards, lavender fields, and olive groves.
Two cities stand out in the region: its capital Marseille, and Aix-en-Provence.
While these two cities are only separated by a 30-minute drive, they are worlds apart, though to experience one without the other would be doing yourself a disservice as despite a long standing rivalry, the two cities complement each other nicely.
So, in encouraging you to visit these two neighboring Top French Cities, let’s dive deeper into how two cities so close together can be so incredibly different, yet equally enticing.
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Visit These Two Neighboring Top French Cities: Marseille & Aix-en-Provence
Marseille vs. Aix-en-Provence
These two neighboring cities have always had a bit of a rivalry, both believing they have more to offer. Though the truth is that they are both great places to visit albeit for completely different reasons.
Trying to choose which city is better is like being forced to pick a favorite child. Thankfully, as a visitor you don’t need to pledge your allegiance to either side and instead can simply enjoy both!
I recommend you purchase a City Pass when visiting either city as it will save you quite a bit on top tourist attractions, activities, tours, and public transport. There are several different passes available for each city including a 24-hour, 48-hour, and 72-hour passes.
Marseille in Detail
Marseille is the older sister of these two cities, having been founded around 600 BC which makes it about 500 years older than Aix-en-Provence.
Some say this global melting pot of a city can be a bit rough around the edges, but I say this only adds to its charm. Marseille may be France’s second most populous city, but you’ll find there is much more room to spread out since it stretches over twice the surface area of Paris.
Located on the Mediterranean coast, Marseille has something that Aix-en-Provence does not in its killer sea views and beaches. Blessed with both 300 days of sun per year and mild winters you can easily visit and enjoy Marseille year-round.
Marseille offers more varied cultural activities due to its multi-cultural and down to earth character. People from all over the world have been gathering in the city for 2,600 years and the city continues to lure millions of tourists each year.
It may be cut off from the rest of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur by mountains, but its secret weapon is its port on the Mediterranean which welcomes non-stop commerce, freight, and cruise ships on a daily basis. This helps Marseille connect with the entire Mediterranean.
Half the fun of the city is navigating the sidewalks and steep staircases in its numerous quartiers or neighborhoods which seem to all offer their own unique personality. The excitement only continues on the rooftops of the city, where you’ll find pumping dance parties and open-air cinemas.
Image credit: Yoan Navarro via Marseille Tourism
Aix-en-Provence in Detail
One of the most beautiful cities in France, there are many reasons to visit Aix-en-Provence. The city’s population is less than a fifth of that found in Marseille and disguises itself as somewhat of a quaint village that has a lot to offer.
A former capital of Provence, it lies about 30 km north of Marseille and offers a much slower-paced lifestyle. Commonly referred to as simply Aix, the city prides itself in being immaculate. Its clean squares are home to countless fountains and centuries-old mansions.
The city has long attracted great minds and artists including the great French Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne who was actually born in the city. Aix screams conspicuous luxury and is one of the pricier Provençal towns.
Image credit: Daniel Kapikian via Aix-en-Provence Tourism
Where to Stay in Marseille
Les Bords de Mer is a luxurious 19-room hotel that sits at the end of Catalan beach where all guestrooms are treated to exceptional views over the Mediterranean.
You can’t escape seeing the sea whether you’re enjoying the heated rooftop swimming pool or grabbing a coffee at the seaside café. You have the option of walking steps to a private beach area or hitting many of the city’s most notable attractions just a short distance from the lobby.
InterContinental Marseille-Hotel Dieu is located next to Marseille’s historic Panier district. This equally luxurious hotel offers up nearly 200 rooms and suites within a historic 18th century building.
Enjoy delicious fresh seafood from their Michelin-starred Alcyone restaurant and a spa with saunas, hammams, and an indoor pool. You will also be rewarded with great views of the Old Port.
One more honorable mention is Le Petit Nice Passedat with its 3-star Michelin restaurant Gérald Passédat and seawater pool. Once again you’ll find great sea views.
Image: Courtesy of Marseille Tourisme
Where to Stay in Aix-en-Provence
The five-star boutique hotel Villa Saint-Ange is just a short stroll from beautiful Cours Mirabeau and boasts its own Provençal garden with statues and a heated pool. It offers 35 rooms and dates back to the 18th century.
Chateau de la Gaude has an even longer history, dating back to the 17th century. It recently opened its doors to guests last fall and features impressive gardens itself which sit alongside a vineyard. The small luxury hotel offers up just half as many rooms as Villa Saint-Ange, making it seem a bit more exclusive.
The hotel already sports an impressive collection of art that’s scattered throughout guestrooms and public spaces, along with a spa, swimming pool, and brasserie which are scheduled to open up in 2020.
Other notable accommodation options include Chateau de la Pioline, Hotel Cezanne, and Villa Gallici.
Image: Villa Saint Ange
Must See Attractions in Marseille
This is where Marseille began, in the Old Port. Ever since the first Greek settlers landed here roughly 2,600 years ago, the Old Port has welcomed visitors coming into this now thriving harbor.
It is here where French author Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo was set as well as being a filming location for scenes in the beloved Christmas film Love Actually.
You’ll find the Old Port with its nice collection of bars and cafes at the end of Marseille’s main street Canebière.
Image: Courtesy of Marseille Tourisme
The Panier District is another place that dates back to the beginning of Marseille and is where many of its early and more recent immigrants have chosen to settle.
Marseille’s oldest district, Panier is a maze of narrow streets and staircases. Getting lost is half the fun and there is plenty of color in the form of impressive street art to keep you amused.
One of the few areas of Marseille to relatively survive WWII bombings, Panier has become a trendy and artsy district with lovely boutique stores. At the heart of the district is the once charitable housing known as La Vieille Charité , which has been converted into a space featuring several museums.
La Plaine and Noailles
If you’re looking for lively markets, check out these two neighborhoods east of the Old Port. You’ll find hundreds of vendors selling spices, North African crafts, kebabs, fresh produce, flowers, and more.
Don’t miss the street art and unique stores of Cours Julien. The markets of La Plaine are held Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, while those found in Noailles run Monday to Saturday.
Image: JoYana via Marseille Tourisme
Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations
Housed in a futuristic-looking honeycomb cube, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations or simply MuCEM is made up of three different sites.
The museum was only recently founded back in 2013 when Marseille was designated a European Capital of Culture. The museum cost nearly €200 million and aims to spotlight the various cultures of the Mediterranean through permanent and rotating exhibitions.
The museum’s collection includes a bit of anthropology, archaeology, history, and contemporary art. One can access the historic Fort Saint-Jean via a high footbridge that spans the water below
Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica (Rue Fort du Sanctuaire)
Marseille’s most visited landmark, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica is a 19th century neo Romano byzantin basilica that sits atop the city’s highest natural peak.
A fort once protected the city from this high vantage point, but today a 10-metre-tall statue of the Virgin Mary watches over the city from her bell tower perch.
The hike to the basilica can be a struggle for some, but you may take the tourist train or bus to reach the site instead. Enjoy incredible panoramic views over the city and take advantage of this spot offering the best place to catch the Bastille Day fireworks.
Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica is a 19th century Roman basilica that sits high above #Marseille #Choosemarseille Click To Tweet
Calanques National Park
If you’re a nature lover, you’ll definitely want to set a day aside to visit Calanques National Park. Unique in that the park features sections of land, sea, and peri-urban areas, it makes for a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
You can reach the park by road or boat, and many guided tours are offered. Enjoy secret swimming coves and colossal limestone cliffs.
The park is home to a vast array of terrestrial and marine species and recreation such as abseiling, kayaking, and hiking are readily enjoyed by visitors.
Must See Attractions in Aix-en-Provence
Vieil Aix –Old Town
Aix’s old town is one of the most beautiful spots in the city and caters pretty much strictly to pedestrians. Old Town’s charming cobblestone streets are home to fine examples of Baroque and Rococo architecture.
You’ll come across one of Aix’s famous fountains in the beautiful square known as Place d’Albertas. The square is also home to a former grain market turned library called Halle aux Grains.
Don’t miss the clock tower and town hall in Place de l’Hotel-de-Ville and on certain days you can catch the lovely flower markets.
Aix’s old town is one of the most beautiful spots in the city! #provenceaixperience #aix #aixenprovenceClick To Tweet
The most famous grand boulevard in Aix, Cours Mirabeau divides the Old Town and New Town (Quartier Mazarin). Cours Mirabeau is flanked by Renaissance mansions along with fountains and mature trees that provide shade along the wide walkway.
Lavish mansions can be found on the southern side of the boulevard, showing off their intricate and sometimes cheeky wrought-iron balconies while hiding their private gardens in the back.
Cours Mirabeau follows the original 15th-century defensive walls and was at one time a popular hangout for French artist Paul Cézanne and French philosopher Albert Camus. Be sure to check out one of Aix’s most beautiful fountains, Fontaine de la Rotonde, at the west end of Cours Mirabeau.
Other notable fountains along the boulevard include the odd-looking moss-covered La Fontaine d’Eau Chaude and the much more regal-looking Fontaine du Roi René.
You will also encounter plenty of brasseries and can enjoy a livelier atmosphere during the evening.
Image: Daniel Kapikian via Aix-en-Provence Tourism
Directly south of the Cours Mirabeau, you’ll find the Musée Granet in the Quartier Mazarin. The museum displays a large collection of 16th-19th century French paintings including a room devoted solely to Cézanne, one of France’s most prolific painters.
In addition to Cézanne’s oil paintings, the museum displays works from modern and contemporary artists such as Picasso and Matisse.
The museum dates back more than 180 years and was renamed to Musée Granet in 1949, to honor the French painter François Marius Granet who donated his art collection including many of his own works to the museum upon his death.
A lovely portrait of Granet done by painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres is displayed in the museum.
Image credit: Alexis D (CC BY-ND 2.0) via Flickr
Seeing Paul Cézanne’s is one thing, but actually having the opportunity to stand in his final home and studio is truly special experience. Now an artist’s studio museum, Atelier Cézanne allows visitors to dive into Cézanne’s private world.
It is here where Cézanne’s painted during his final years and artifacts of his life including paint-stained clothes still hang on the walls. Much of the workshop has been largely left unchanged since Cézanne’s death over 100 years ago.
While you will have to visit local museums to see Cézanne’s actual masterpieces, a visit to the Aix en Provence native’s workshop on Lauves Hill offers much more intimate experience into the artist’s life.
Image credit: Sophie Spiteri via Aix-en-Provence Tourism
Aix-en-Provence’s first agricultural-tourism site, Terre Ugo introduces visitors to the world of organic lavender farming which takes place on a site with a rich history.
Partly educational and partly just plain fun, the site offers up gastronomic workshops, perfume creation, large exhibitions of art, and the chance to walk through fields of 100% French lavender.
Just 5 kilometers outside the city center, the lavender farm covers roughly 7 acres on which it grows tens of thousands of lavender plants. Their certified organic land also produces exceptional organic honey and a range of lavender products can be purchased from their shop.
The site is accessible via city bus and open Monday to Thursday, June 03 to August 15 for guided tours and picnics. Self-guided visits are free with the City Pass.
Image credit: Terre Hugo
Food and Wine
No visit to Marseille is complete without sampling its signature dish. It is here where bouillabaisse was invented, the delicious fish stew blending several types of fresh Mediterranean fish and shellfish with vegetables and unique Provençal herbs and spices.
Stimulate your appetite beforehand by downing an aniseed-flavoured liqueur known as pastis as an apéritif. Served over ice, the drink becomes milky from the aniseed oils when it interacts with water.
Two of the best brands of pastis to try are Ricard and Pernod which ironically are two companies that merged together back in the 1970s to create the Pernod Ricard Group.
The company has gone onto become one of the world’s largest wine and spirits seller. Pernod’s Pastis 51 brand is truly exceptional and features more of a licorice flavor much like Ricard and unlike the less licorice-flavored Pernod.
In winter, Provençal beef stew known as daube becomes popular as do black diamond truffles which come in season from November to March. Truffles are shaved onto pasta dishes as well as used in omelets.
The vegetable casserole ratatouille is another specialty of the region as are sweets known as Calissons d’Aix and boat-shaped biscuits known as navettes de Marseille.
There are thousands of olive growers in Aix, so you’re bound to sample delicious olive oil in nearly every dish.
Image credit: Sophie Spiteri via Aix-en-Provence Tourism
Events in Marseille
In 2020, Marseille will host one of the foremost art events in Europe. This contemporary art festival is known as Manifesta and it’s a biennial celebration of art that is held in a different European city every time.
This year marks the first time Manifesta has come to France and it will be hosted by Marseille from June 7 to November 1, 2020.
The festival will give even more reason to visit the city, with art installations especially commissioned for the event on display as well as offering exciting exhibitions and discoveries of emerging artists in venues across the city.
For a bit more energy, catch the summer electronic and urban music festival known as Festival Marsatac happening at Parc Chanot.
Listen to electronic and urban music stars from across the globe as they take to the stage across three nights from 26-28 June, 2020. The festival is attended by thousands and has been loved for over two decades.
Image: Courtesy of Marseille Tourisme
Events in Aix-en-Provence
Aix-en-Provence is proud to host the annual Festival International d’Art Lyrique d’Aix en Provence which has become one of the most important opera festivals in Europe.
Taking place from June 30-July 18, 2020, this festival has been celebrating open‐air opera and classical music for over 70 years.
2020’s opera lineup will include the world premiere of Innocence, a new multi-lingual piece by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Look for performance to be held at notable city locations such as the Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Jeu de Paumes, Hôtel Maynier d’Oppède, Théâtre du Grand Saint-Jean, and of course the Grand Théâtre de Provence.
There will also be a curtain-raising event held throughout June called Aix en Juin which will offer dozens of other concerts and master classes. Though if you can’t make it during summer, they’ve still got you covered!
Aix-en-Provence holds another very important classical music festival around Easter every year known as the Festival de Pâques. For two weeks, the city will welcome international symphony orchestras and renowned soloists who will collectively perform a number of exceptional concerts.
You can catch the 2020 Festival de Pâques from April 4-April 19.
This post was sponsored by France Tourism as part of their Top French Cities campaign. Check out the other French cities that made the list here:
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