Winter is coming, but fret not: Le Sud de France is a balmy haven for travelers dreading the frigid North.
The bustling, port city of Marseille—often ignored in favor of its glitzy neighbors on the Côte D’Azur—and the quaint, Provincial town of Aix-en-Provence are located a mere 30 minutes apart, but offer completely different French experiences and pair nicely for a cultural getaway.
Marseille has been stuck with a rather unfavorable reputation, largely due to comparison with other destinations on the French Riviera. While the city might not boast the idyllic beaches of Cannes or Villefranche, its vibrant atmosphere makes it a great option for the off-season. The government has been revitalizing the city’s planning and image in recent years. Visitors can enjoy a renovated Vieux Port and nearby shopping, while Le Panier—the old city—remains quirky and maze-like.
With a large population of North African migrants and descendants, it’s no wonder that this multi-ethnic city is dubbed Europe’s Gateway to Africa. Jump into the heart of this community by visiting the Marché de Noailles, a daily fruit and vegetable market. During the holidays, the city also hosts the Foire aux Santons Christmas Market (Nov 16 – Dec 31), a traditional marché dating back to 1803 that sells traditional nativity scenes.
Take a ride on the old port’s ferris wheel—the water might be too cold for swimming, but you can soak up the vista of the city landscape and marina. For the ultimate panorama, trek up to the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Your trip would be incomplete without a dinner of bouillabaisse, a fish stew featuring local Mediterranean catch. Avoid the cheap tourist traps that sell cheap imitations: The true regional dish should be enjoyed Chez Fonfon or L’Epuisette, while overlooking the waterfront.
For fresh fish to cook at your AirBnB, visit the port’s small fish market (Daily, 8am-1pm).
If hotels are more your style, request a room with a harbor view at the elegant Grand Hotel Beauvau Marseille Vieux Port.
Where Marseille is diverse, cosmopolitan and rowdy, nearby Aix-en-Provence (35 minute train/ 50 minute bus) is boutique, high-end shops, classic architecture, and calming walks to nowhere around ever-winding streets.
You’ll find the heart of the city around the Cours Mirabeau, a gorgeous thoroughfare lined by plane-trees and dotted by cute restaurants, bars, and expensive labels. The tiny city is crawling with camera-toting visitors in warmer months: a winter visit allows a less-frenzied, local experience.
If you enjoy art, you’re in luck; Aix was home to post-impressionist master Paul Cézanne and offers visits to several sights important to the artist’s life and work. See his Atelier for insight into his studio and development—the short, guided tours provide surprisingly details about his friendships and rivalries. You can also visit Jas de Bouffon, his family’s estate, (guided tours not available in winter) and the terrific Granet Museum, a medium-sized museum featuring artists like Cézanne, Picasso, and other masters.
Aix has terrific dining options. For an upscale meal in the bustling main square, choose Le Poivre D’Ane, You might be tempted to eat at the historical Les Deux Garçons, but skip the mediocre food and opt for a leisurely café to people- watch.
For a simple but lovely stay in the center, book at Le Jardin de Marie.