Bouches du Rhône Department
Like other departments, the Bouches du Rhône combines large urban centres and unspoilt countryside. Visible traces of Roman history weave throughout the region, which is one of many reasons to visit Arles and its monuments. Beautiful Aix-en-Provence and seaside Marseille, the second-largest city in France after Paris, both have top-quality cultural events, art exhibits, festivals, and vibrant culinary scenes.
The Rhône and Durance rivers are fluid boundaries of the Bouches du Rhône (mouth of the Rhône) while providing irrigation for the department’s agricultural lands. After an 800 km journey from its source, the Rhône Glacier in Valais, Switzerland, the Rhône River yawns lazily into the Mediterranean Sea. For many visitors, the Bouches du Rhône is their arrival point in Provence, whether they arrive by plane at the Aéroport Marseille Provence in Marignane or by train.
The easy access to the Bouches du Rhône natural environments outside the urban centres attracts outdoor enthusiasts. The Alpilles, Mont Sainte-Victoire, and Sainte-Baume mountains are waiting for exploration on foot or mountain bike. Just south of Arles, the mighty Rhône River divides into two branches, the Grande Rhône and the Petit Rhône and creates a large delta that is rivalled only by the Nile delta in the Mediterranean. This wetland, the Camargue, is home to white horses, black fighting bulls and hundreds of birds.
Here are some of the top attractions in the Bouches-du-Rhône:
Magnetic Aix-en-Provence is one of France’s wealthier cities, with a long history of civilization and a roster of distinguished inhabitants. However, visiting the city of art and water can be challenging. Here are some ideas for your Aix-en-Provence visit:
Roman Baths: The Romans understood the need for freshwater for a settlement to thrive and survive. As such, the hilltop oppidum of Entremont, established by the Salyens, a Celtic-Ligurian tribe (180-170 BC), was abandoned (after conquering it) in favour of the easily accessible water sources down the hill. In 122 BC, a new community was named Aquae Sextiae, the waters of Sextius, a tribute to the highly respected Roman consul Caius Sextius Calvinus. Strategically located, this new city had ready access to natural water sources, including les Etuves and les Bagniers, which supplied warm water for the Roman thermal baths. The remains of these ancient pools can be seen today at the site of a modern, luxurious spa, the Thermes Sextius. Read more about unearthing the treasures of Aix-en-Provence.
Fountains: Known as the city of water, Aix-en-Provence is where the Romans settled due to ready access to natural springs. As the town began to take shape during the Middle Ages, there were hundreds of fountains for domestic use. Today, about 30 fountains remain; although beautifully ornamented, they no longer serve practical functionality. These fountains are at intersections, in squares and even in some hidden corners of Aix. La Rotonde, the largest fountain, dates from 1860 and once marked the city’s entrance. Even today, La Rotonde is one of Aix’s most recognizable and photographed sights. Take a walk through the streets of Aix and admire the fountains.
Markets: There is a market every day of the week in Aix-en-Provence. French language teacher Virginie writes that larger markets occur every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning. Shop for pottery, Provencal tablecloths, linens, food, spices, clothes and even soap at Cours Mirabeau and Place du Palais de Justice markets. Other fruit and vegetable stalls can be found on Place Richelme, next to the Post Office, which is in the old grain market. A flower market also occurs in the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville three times a week. Susan Gish shares her local’s tips for shopping at the markets of Aix-en-Provence.
Art & Culture:
As the birthplace of master painter Paul Cèzanne, Aix-en-Provence has several museums and exhibition spaces worth visiting.
Visible from the Autoroute A8, the Fondation Vasarely is a contemporary glass structure with black and white cubes. Designed by the artist, he inaugurated the gallery in 1976. Sadly, capital building improvements were delayed for years due to a lack of funding. However, in recent years the Fondation Vasarely had an infusion of funds for much-needed building infrastructure. There are 42 monumental works of Victor Vasarely on display and some smaller installations. The Fondation is well worth a visit.
Hôtel de Caumont Art Centre once a Baroque-style mansion that had no equivalent in Aix-en-Provence. It was the largest private property, the only residence with a gala entranceway and a Versailles-style private garden. Hôtel de Caumont pays homage to the legacy M. Réauville constructed, with his cursive initials “RR” found throughout the property and his family’s coat of arms on the facade. The doors to the Caumont Centre d’Art opened after 26.6 million Euros (10 million for land acquisition and 12.6 million for construction) and an 18-month restoration project. The attention to detail and historical relevance are unmistakable in each of the rooms refurbished under the direction of Mireille Pellen (Architecture du Patrimonie).
Musée Granet is a Fine Arts and Archaeological museum located in the building previously used by the Priors of St. John of Malta. The museum is home to a few paintings by Cézanne and drawings and engravings, including The Bathers (1865) and The Portrait of Zola (1863). In addition to its Cézannes, the Musée Granet also exhibits 600 paintings, sculptures, and archaeological artefacts, including images from the 17th-century French school, as well as paintings by Giacometti, Picasso, Léger, Klee, de Staël, and collections from the French, Italian and Dutch painters like Rubens and Rembrandt.
Office de Tourisme d’Aix-en-Provence (website)
Les Allées Provençales
300 Av. Giuseppe Verdi,
Amazing Roman Arles
Arles was an important trading centre on the Rhône River during the Roman Era. Cargo from all over the Empire travelled along the Rhône to Avignon, Tarascan, Arles, and beyond. Imports such as tapestries, fabrics, spices, and grains from other Mediterranean ports moved up the river on low-hulled wood boats. In addition, commercial trade of local products such as almonds, wine, and olive oil was active. Today, the Roman presence in Arles remains evident in its well-preserved arena, Alyscamps (burial ground), theatre and even a Roman barge on display, the Musée départemental Arles antique.
Imagine arriving in Provence for the first time on February 20, 1888, after two years of struggling to make a living in Paris. For Vincent van Gogh, who grew up in Holland with its muted colour palette and luminosity, Provence’s radiant light was a stark contrast. This profound change spurred his creative abilities, some might say to obsessive reaches. Vincent van Gogh spent over a year in Arles, where he painted and sketched. During his two years in the South of France, van Gogh produced over 200 paintings and drawings. Plan to visit Fondation Van Gogh in Arles.
Luma Arles, a project commissioned by local philanthropist Maja Hoffmann and designed by Frank Gehry architects, opened in June 2021. Parc des Ateliers, the old SNCF railway grounds, now includes a gleaming, aluminium-clad tower. In contemporary structures, there are probably equal numbers of fans and critics in this one-time Roman town.
It took eleven years to complete the Muséon Arlaten renovation, but with the input of a leading architectural agency and the fabulous Arlesien designer Christian Lacroix, it certainly has style. The 15th-century mansion – Hôtel de Laval-Castellane – required a complete renovation and restoration. The project cost 22.5 million Euros, including relocating an archive of 40,000 objects. Organized by timeline, your first glimpse is a return to 1 AD and the remains of a Roman forum. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the museum displays archival material from the Romans to the Arlesians.
Office de Tourisme Arles Camargue (website)
9 Boulevard des Lices
Cassis is a picturesque village tucked into a curve along the Mediterranean Sea between the calanques. The town with 8,000 inhabitants is about 20 km east of Marseille. It’s a fishing port on a steep hillside with vineyards and pastel-coloured houses that tumble down to the seaside. Bordering the marina are more pastel-coloured houses, shops and restaurants. Fishing boats, yachts and charter boats for trips to the calanques fill the port. According to Michel, Chez Gilbert is a terrific choice for lunch.
In the 16th century, Cassis became renowned for white wines, a unique distinction in a region that mainly produced reds. The wines of Cassis have made this tiny seafaring village tucked right next to vibrant Marseille one of the references for white wine in France and the world. Today, the Cassis AOC remains unique within Provence, with white wines accounting for 67% of production. Rosé, which constitutes about 90% of the output of Provence, in Cassis, accounts for 30%, and reds account for only 3%. Cassis might be the most beautiful AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) in France: the vineyards cling to the slopes of a magical amphitheatre that plunges towards the shimmering Mediterranean. The Phocaeans (ancient Greeks from Asia Minor) must have been enchanted with these slopes when they first saw them 2,600 years ago.
Don’t miss the Routes des Crêtes drive from Cassis to its coastal neighbour to the east, La Ciotat. The D141 – Routes des Crêtes – runs along the cliff tops joining the two towns. The driving distance is roughly 15km and should take about 30 minutes. However, the views are stunning, and there are plenty of opportunities for photo-ops along the way. The road passes by Cap Canaille, the highest cliff in France at 364m/ 1290 ft. This road is subject to the occasional closure on days with an elevated fire risk or extreme winds.
Cassis Tourist Office (website)
Quai des Moulins
Open daily, but the hours change through the seasons.
Hilltop Les Baux-de-Provence
Fortifications have long existed in the Alpilles because the cliffs and rocky outcroppings made perfect defensive positions. Plus, the high places made it easy to spot signs of danger. Unfortunately, these fortifications built of wood or earth for much of human history did not last, so little or no trace remains today. But in the 10th century, what we now call chateaux were made of stone.
Perched on an outcrop are remains of the medieval fortress of Les Baux. This castle was once one of the most powerful in France. Today the old village is a pedestrian-only zone, and all vehicles must park outside the ramparts. Visitors to Les Baux enjoy magnificent views of the Alpilles, vineyards, olive groves, and the Mediterranean on a clear day. Today, the once-fortified village, with its permanent population of roughly 400 people, has some 22 monuments classified as historical, including the impressive ruins of the château.
The village caters to tourists with its boutiques, galleries, and restaurants. Tiny, cobbled streets meander through the town at odd angles, but in the end, most of these routes lead to the castle at the top of Les Baux. A ticket is required to enter the Château les Baux and can be combined with the Carrières de Lumières multimedia show for a slight discount.
Once inside the castle walls, follow the map for a self-guided discovery tour. The climb to the highest point requires sturdy shoes and some stamina. There are demonstrations of ancient weapons such as catapults and trebuchets for additional entertainment.
Here is a guide to the villages of the Alpilles.
Office de Tourisme Les Baux de Provence (website)
Rue Porte Mages
Maison du Roy
13520 Les Baux-de-Provence
Big City Marseille
France’s second-largest city – Marseille – had an image problem, not helped by its setting for gangster and crime movies. But ask a local, and they will tell you that this city is pure magic. Situated on the Mediterranean, Marseille residents can swim at their favourite beach before work and watch the sunset at another with a glass of pastis in hand. The culinary “home” to bouillabaisse is a gastronomic paradise with city markets carrying a cross-section of exotic and local food.
Marseille is a rough diamond of a city; its diversity comes with a big heart. Beyond the bravado, you’ll experience a uniquely warm and diverse culture in France’s oldest city. The town has rough edges, but take the time to look closely, and you’ll discover urban charms you won’t find elsewhere. In addition, Marseille is the gateway to the continent of Africa.
You can’t visit Marseille without a visit to the top of the hill to the Basilique Notre Dame de La Garde. Set high up on the hill overlooking the city and the sea. Notre Dame’s views are spectacular over Marseille’s entire bay, and you get a perspective of this sprawling Mediterranean city.
Do not miss Fort St-Jean and the MuCEM museum, and wander through the old fort’s top-level public gardens. Along with the MuCEM rooftop, these gardens are public spaces, so you’re free to enter and walk around. Fort St-Jean once guarded the city entrance, and the gardens have stunning views over the old port, Le Panier, the old town looking towards La Joliette and the newer part of the city.
Discover the Underwater Museum of Marseille (Musée Subaquatique de Marseille) recently opened its doors, so to speak, with ten newly-created sculptures near a famous city beach. Admission is free, and guided tours are also available.
Escape the city heat and head to les Îles de Frioul – the Frioul archipelago. There are four small islands in the group Pomègues, Ratonneau, If and l’îlot Tiboulen du Frioul. The island is the site of an old prison part of the Château d’If and the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’ novel “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Visit the islands for hiking, sitting at the beach, some casual dining restaurants and a few historical military installations.
Try the Navettes de Marseille, these sweet biscuits from the region found at markets and some pastry shops. These dull, cream-coloured cookies are almost hard enough to break your teeth. The navettes are the culinary representation of the modest boat believed to have transported St Lazarus and the two “Marys,” Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Martha, to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer some 2000 years ago. Or, in contemporary terms, a cross between a canoe and a rowing boat.
Marseille Office de Tourisme (website)
11 La Canebière – CS 60340