Three to four times a year, I make a work pilgrimage to Southern France. Located in the hills south of the alps is where we are building a new plant. Almost every time that we make this trip, the preferred place to stay during our time in France is the town of Aix-En-Provence, well known for the landscapes and focal point for many impressionist painters.
Today Aix En Provence is the known as the judiciary city of this area of Southern France, as well as a major arts town for college bound students. Aix forms an interesting mix of a fairly young population, old architecture, and a travel destination for many foreign travelers. Since I do spend a lot of time in Aix, I've gotten to know it fairly well over the past few years.
If you goal is to purely visit Aix, then you'll want to get there by one of two methods. France's high speed train system, the TGV, stops about 10-15 minutes outside of the city at the Aix TGV Station. Your other option is to make use of the Marseille Airport, which is my preferred option. Both the airport and the TGV station are serviced by the same bus. Extra buses run to the TGV station, but you can easily grab a bus from the airport every 30 minutes. If you plan to visit more than just Aix, you may want to rent a car. In this case, I suggest going to the airport where rental cars are available.
Once arriving in Aix by bus or other means, you'll want to get settled in. The city boasts many options for lodging. Personally my preferred place to stay is the Renaissance Hotel, this is pretty much the only major hotel chain located in the center of the city. Other options exist outside the city for major chains, but are rarely have easy access to downtown where most people would like to explore. If you don't mind giving up your hotel points, there are some small boutique hotels to try.
I often stay at the Hotel Rotonde when my first option is too expensive. Hotel Rotonde is small, and wouldn't be a good option normally in my opinion. The problems start with cleaning staff who rarely are consistent on the way rooms are cleaned, or even if you get soap refilled. Secondly, and my most major grip, is that you are required to leave your room key with the front desk... though they ask for no identification when you return and ask for the key... this doesn't make me exactly feel safe about my belongings in the room. One the positive side, there is a breakfast setup every morning in the lobby.
If any of this doesn't sound appealing, there is another option in the Hotel des Augustines, which is a converted chapel. Personally I have not stayed here, but I will consider it on my next visit since the Rotonde has not been a good experience lately. Hotel des Augustines is a place many of my co-workers stay at and with the old stonework throughout the building, it is supposed to be a beautiful place to stay inside and out.
Downtown Aix is beautiful, starting at the main roundabout at the center of the city. A huge fountain graces the center of the roundabout, while busy this fountain looks amazing during the winter when water is replaced by Christmas lights mimicking the flow of water.
Surrounding the fountain is a plethora of restaurants. The French are well known for their food, and with good reason, it is incredible. Almost any option is offered in this area. Explore the side streets and alleys here as they continue on like a labyrinth, continuing off in all directions, but still full of shops and restaurants. From hamburgers in crepes, to tapas, to pizza, just walk in any direction to find amazing food.
On the east side of the foutain is a street called Cours Mirabeau. During the evening hours, be sure to get there before 7pm though, the streets are lined with wooden booths where vendors sell anything from incredibly detailed chocolate, to Russian nesting dolls. This is where you can buy from local vendors, and some very unique items. Really this is the place to go at least one night to see all of the wares.
The 7pm thing has held very true over the many times I've visited. Now I tend to go around the winter, so I'm not sure if the longer days bring later hours, but almost every store is closed by 7pm. Grocery stores stay open a little later, but make sure you check the hours since these hours are nothing like what you would see in the United States. Restaurants are also open late as French dining is filled with conversation and often stretches more than 2 hours.
Aix promises an experience for any visitng southern France. Alps to the north, museums in the city, old arcitechture and amazing back street alleys. If you are thinking about southern France, make Aix a stop on the trip, or even the place you come back to every night.