Marseille doesn’t immediately spring to mind when most people start planning a trip to France. While tourists flock to the lights of Paris, wine regions of Bordeaux and Champagne and the glamour of Cote d’Azur, any mentions of Marseille tend to draw confused looks. However, the capital of Provence and France’s second-largest city is full of surprises and reasons to visit. 300 days of sunshine a year, friendly locals, beautiful streets and fewer tourists than other south coast locations make Marseille a great city break destination. Here are my 6 top reasons to visit France’s oldest city.
Visit a symbol of the city at the Notre-Dame de la Garde
Arguably Marseille’s most famous landmark, the beautiful Notre-Dame de la Garde occupies a prime spot, perched 160 metres above the city. The 19th century basilica is built on top of the remains of a 16th century fort that can still be seen supporting the impressive church.
Check out the colourful mosaics on the walls and ceiling of the main church (you might have to crane your neck to admire the cupola!) and stick around to hear the beautiful singing if there is a service in progress. There is a crypt under the main church with statues and side chapels. The bell tower is adorned by a huge gold-plated statue of Madonna and Child.
Notre-Dame de la Garde is a symbol of Marseille and locals believe that the church protects the city. The church is easy to reach from Vieux Port by bus (no. 60) or a 1km walk through quaint neighbourhoods from the port or Castellane station. The stunning 360 degree views of Marseille are well worth the climb alone.
Explore Marseille’s maritime history at Vieux Port
Marseille’s history starts at Vieux Port. The old port has seen ships come and go for over 2500 years. While the city has undergone a transformation in recent years, improving its image and cultural standing, this area has been a constant throughout the years.
Today, yachts and fishing boats gently bobble on the water in the harbour as locals and tourists stroll along the promenade. Restaurants lining the quays offer delicious local catch and cafes are perfect for people watching. Just south of the port, Cours Honore-d’Estienne-d’Orves and nearby Place Thiars have plenty of options for drinking and dining.
Start from the Vieux Port metro station and walk along the north quay to check out the grand façade of Hotel de Ville. Don’t miss the superb views of the Notre-Dame de la Garde high up on the hill. You will eventually end up at Fort Saint-Jean and the MuCEM or you can cut right into Le Panier.
Don’t miss the fish market (Marche aux Poissons, 8am-1:30pm) right next to the metro or the Craft Market (Les Artisanales du Vieux Port, weekends in summer) which specialises in locally made wares and food.
Learn about the Mediterranean at MuCEM
If you are going to visit one museum while in Marseille, make it this one. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations has one of France’s finest collections showcasing Mediterranean history, its people and issues affecting the vast region. The themed rooms have interesting exhibits and information in English.
Opened in the 2013 in time for Marseille’s stint as European Capital of Culture, the striking building shares exhibition duties with the neighbouring Fort Saint-Jean built in the 17th century. The fort’s towers and ramparts are in direct contrast to the modern design of MuCEM’s main building.
Grab a drink on the roof terrace of the museum before crossing the footbridge over to the fort and exploring the temporary exhibitions and gardens. The views of the Vieux Port and the Notre-Dame de la Garde are superb.
Right next to MuCEM, you will find the striking Villa Mediterranee with temporary exhibitions inside.
Entry to MuCEM: €9.50. Entry to Fort Saint-Jean is free but temporary exhibitions are extra. For more info, see the official website.
Explore the historic and arty Le Panier
Le Panier may only be a few minutes’ walk away from the centre of France’s second-biggest city but it feels like it belongs in a small provincial town.
Getting lost in Marseille’s oldest quarter is a great way to explore the city’s heart. The best way to see the area is to stroll around Le Panier’s cobbled streets, past charming terraced houses and leafy squares. You will stumble upon cool boutiques and art galleries tucked away in narrow alleyways and pass quaint cafes perfect for people watching. Look out for the colourful street art adorning many buildings in the area.
Stop at the Place des 13 Cantons, a setting for a popular French TV show and walk down Rue du Petit Puits towards La Vieille-Charite, home to various museums and exhibitions. Pick up a few bars of Marseille’s famous soap (Savon de Marseille) at La Cagole on Montee des Accoules and finish your visit at the majestic 18th Century Hotel Dieu.
To reward yourself for all that walking, head to Vanille Noire for some amazing artisan ice cream. The signature black vanilla flavour is divine.
Kayak and Hike in the Calanques National Park
The stunning Calanques National Park, within easy reach of Marseille, is a fantastic way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. The calanques – natural inlets and bays flanked by high limestone cliffs – are the highlight of this beautiful part of the Mediterranean coast.
The best way to explore the area is by hiring a kayak and discovering the hard-to-reach beaches and lagoons, making stops to dive into the clear turquoise waters. Hiking is also spectacular and there are a number of trails for all abilities. The Calanques are very popular with locals so timing your visit for a weekday will avoid the crowds.
While having a car allows for better exploration, it is possible to reach parts of the national park by public transport – Calanque de Sugiton is one of the easiest to reach and also one of the most picturesque. Bear in mind that during the summer, many trails are closed due to a high risk of wild fires. If travelling during the high season, it might be best to book a day trip from Marseille.
Getting to Calanque de Sugiton: Take the metro to Castellane and get the No. 21 bus all the way to Luminy (allow 45 mins in rush hour). The trail starts a few hundred metres from the bus stop. Bus No. 24 goes to Luminy from Ste. Marguerite Dromel station. Once on the trail, you can head down to the beach at Calanque de Sugiton or head to a lookout point with stunning views of Calanque de Morgiou.
Take a day trip!
Marseille has plenty to keep you busy for a while but there are plenty of day trips available from the city too.
A short ferry ride away is the Chateau d’If, a fortress made famous as a setting for Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s possible to explore the former prison’s interior and towers. Unlike many who were incarcerated here, you can escape to other islands in the Frioul Archipelago and explore sandy beaches and rocky inlets.
Just a 30 minute bus ride away is the town of Aix-en-Provence. A bustling university town is perfect for exploring with winding cobbled streets, café-lined squares and grand mansions. There is a great selection of restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets (students are usually not made of money!) and the nightlife is great.
What: Marseille is the capital of Provence and France’s second largest city.
Where: Lying to the west of the famed Cote d’Azur (French Riviera), Marseille’s position on the south coast means it’s got a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and relatively mild winters.
Getting There: Return flights from London Gatwick to Marseille Provence Airport cost from £50. I flew with EasyJet. Flight time 1hr 50min. Buses to Marseille and Aix-en-Provence take about 25 mins and cost around €7/8 each way.