Considered Corsica's primary commercial and cultural hub, the largest city and regional capital of Ajaccio is situated on the west coast of the island, approximately 644 km (400 miles) southeast of Marseille, France. Founded in 1492, vestiges of ancient Corsica in this ville impériale revolve around the city's most famous son, Napoléon Bonaparte, whose family home—now the national museum Maison Bonaparte—pays tribute to the emperor's historical influence. Indeed, Napoléon takes center stage in this lively city of approximately 64,000 inhabitants, from the exceptional Palais Fesch/ Musée des Beaux Arts to eponymous street names and statues sprinkled around the town's accessible squares, gardens, and courtyards. Festivities crescendo in mid-August with a colorful three-day celebration to honor Napoléon's birth. Remnants from what was originally a 12th-century Genoese colony are still visible around the Old Town near the imposing citadel and watchtower. Perfect for exploring, the luminous seaside city surrounded by snowcapped mountains and pretty beaches offers numerous sites, eateries, side streets, and a popular harbor, where sailboats and fishing vessels moor in the picturesque Tino Rossi port lined with well-established restaurants and cafés serving fresh local fare.
Many of Ajaccio's top nightspots are 4 km (2½ miles) north of town, in the Santa-Lina District along route des Iles Sanguinaires.
The tables are always full at this popular establishment known for its traditional cuisine, fresh daily catches, and, in season, game specials such as civet de sanglier (wild boar stew), served in a bubbling earthenware casserole with cheese-infused polenta. The rustic interior has a starry sky above, antique lanterns, and stone fountain where guests pour their own water into ceramic jugs. In keeping with the familial style of service and food presentation, cutting boards with fresh-baked loaves of wheat bread are provided to start your copious meal. Three-course fixed menus are offered in two seatings at 7:30 and 9:30, and include an exquisite cheese platter with homemade fig confiture.
Corsican crafts of all kinds are for sale in this tiny souvenir shop. Of special interest is the cutlery, hand-forged with wrought-iron and wooden handles.
A large selection of leather, pottery and beautiful jewelry crafted by local artisans is available at Art'Insula. For the gourmand, there's an assortment of honeys, vinegars, and liqueurs.
This well-stocked boutique sells organic jams, olives oils, wines, and traditional dishes. It belongs to Charles Antona, who's been in business for more than 30 years.
Known for its high-quality cheese and wine, this award-winning shop offers some of the best hams on the island, including the waist-busting Coppa and Lonzu. Tasting is encouraged.
Cathédrale Notre Dame de L'Assomption
The 16th-century baroque cathedral where Napoléon was baptized sits at the end of rue St-Charles. The interior is covered with trompe-l'oeil frescoes, and the high altar, from a church in Lucca, Italy, was donated by Napoléon's sister Eliza after he made her princess of Tuscany. Eugène Delacroix's The Triumph of Religion hangs above the Virgin of the Sacred Heart marble altar from the 17th-century.
In the south wing of the Palais Fesch, the neo-Renaissance-style Imperial Chapel was built in 1857 by Napoléon's nephew, Napoléon III, to accommodate the tombs of the Bonaparte family (Napoléon Bonaparte himself is buried in the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris). The Coptic crucifix over the altar was taken from Egypt during the general's 1798 campaign. Renovated in 2012, the somber chapel officially classified as a historic monument is constructed from the white calcified stone of St. Florent and worth a visit to view its neoclassical cupola and ecclesiastical iconography.
Surrounded by a row of stately palm trees, Place Maréchal-Foch is easily recognizable by its fountain of four Corsican granite lions encircling a commanding statue of Napoléon, the work of sculptor Jérôme Maglioli. Popular as a spot to people-watch on a sunny day, this triangle is surrounded by cafés and opens up to the Ajaccio port.
Musée des Beaux Arts-Palais Fesch
This internationally recognized museum houses one of the most important collections from the Napoleonic era; it's undoubtedly one of the most significant displays in France of ancient Italian masterpieces spanning the 14th to 20th centuries. There are nearly 18,000 items, all part of an astounding inventory that belonged to Napoléon's uncle, Cardinal Fesch. Thanks to his nephew's military conquests, the cardinal was able to amass (steal, some would say) many celebrated Old Master paintings, the most famous of which are now in Paris' Louvre. The museum's beautiful vaulted corridors showcase 700 paintings, portraits, still lifes, and sculptures from the First and Second Empire from the French school. Don't miss the new gallery with engravings and drawings depicting historic Corsica. The building itself, constructed by the cardinal as the Institute of Arts and Sciences, dates back to 1837.
For an authentic view of daily Corsican life, tour this wonderful open-air food market brimming with gastronomic delights. There is an array of local cheeses, charcuterie, breads, pastries, olives, condiments, and aromatic meats for sale. Traditional indulgences like chestnut-infused beignets can be savored in an atmosphere guaranteed to be lively and local. Bring your euros—cash is the preferred method of payment.
One of four national historic museums dedicated to Napoléon, the multi-level house where the emperor was born on August 15, 1769, contains memorabilia and paintings of the extended Bonaparte family. History aficionados can tour bedrooms, dining rooms, and salons where Charles and Letitzia Bonaparte raised their eight children. Period furnishings and antiques in Corsican and Empire styles are scattered about and pay tribute to the family's bourgeoisie upbringing. Head downstairs to see the cellars and granite oil pressing mill acquired by Napoléon III in 1860, which depict the importance of rural industry for the Bonaparte's income. Visit the trapdoor room and find the opening next to the door through which Napoléon allegedly escaped in 1799. The building itself changed hands multiple times through Bonaparte heirs until 1923, when it was donated to the state of France by Prince Victor, elder son of Prince Jérôme Napoleon.
Eglise St-Jean Baptiste
At the intersection of rue du Roi-de-Rome and rue Saint Charles, you can visit the confrérie, or religious brotherhood, of St. Jean Baptiste. On June 24, the patron saint is honored with a solemn mass conducted by the city's bishop and Corsican music concert.
Hôtel de Ville
Ajaccio's town hall has an Empire-style grand salon hung with portraits of a long line of Bonapartes. You'll find a fine bust of Letizia, Napoléon's formidable mother, a bronze death mask of the emperor himself, and a frescoed ceiling depicting Napoléon's meteoric rise.