Marseille, France’s oldest urban area and largest port, is arguably also France’s most underrated destination. That’s a big call to make when speaking of the world’s most visited country, home to such drawcards such as Paris, the Cote d’Azur, Avignon, The French Alps and Mont Saint Michel and I certainly don’t make it lightly. For me Marseille’s great modern infrastructure and Greek history dating back to 600BC, combine with a stunning seaside location in Provence to make the city a real French highlight.
Indeed I spent a year studying in Marseille in 2008, staying with a local family and learning French and was hugely enriched by the whole experience. (You can read more about that here.) But while I could see the potential of the city back then most of the people I chatted to from elsewhere in France didn’t sound at all enamoured with my adopted city and admittedly Marseille has long had a bad reputation among the French as being derelict and unsafe. But having experienced it all first-hand I always maintained that if you look past her imperfections and embrace the spirit of adventure you are sure to find in Massalia a diamond in the rough, bursting with history and oozing with Mediterranean charm.
When I visited my french host family again at the end of 2013, after the city had spent a year as the European Capital of Culture it was like everyone else was finally starting to see and appreciate what I saw in her. I rediscovered a city with a new invigoration and flair that has every reason to be proud of itself, its heritage and its prospects for the future. With the addition of the MuCEM, the very unique Villa Méditerranée and other new redevelopment projects on the waterfront France’s second largest metropolitan area is well and truly coming into its own and has certainly stamped its mark as one of Europe’s up and coming cities.
But don’t just take my word for it, here’s the top ten reasons why Marseille is absolutely worth your visit.
Top Ten Highlights of Marseille
The Vieux Port
The Vieux Port, or old port is at the beating heart of this lively, multicultural port city. Ships have been docking in this colourful maritime arena for over 26 centuries, while it is now mainly used for recreational and fishing boats as well as small passenger ferries it is surrounded by some amazing historical sites and is home to many animated cafés, bars and restaurants. The Vieux Port is serviced by trams, buses and the Metro.
The MuCEM for short (or Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée in long form) is Marseille’s newest major attraction, made up of the J4, an impressive latticed building which is linked to the historic Fort Saint Sean and the Vieux Port by an elevated footbridge. Built as a part of Marseille’s year as the European Capital of Culture in 2013 it is the first museum dedicated to telling the story of the Mediterranean region and its people. Tip: the exhibitions are free on the first sunday of the month!
The Villa Méditerranée is another brand spanking new, striking architectural work that has recently been completed down on Marseille’s waterfront, used as an archive and research centre it features an upper floor gallery for exhibitions that juts out over an underwater conference space, definitely one for the photo album. Nearby you can also visit the romanesque Cathédrale de la Major.
Take a wander around the winding lanes of the historic quarter, Le Panier, just up from the Vieux Port, it was initially home to the local marketplace which is why it became known as “the Basket”, it was later heavily bombed in WWII but rebuilt following the war. At its heart is the charming old Veille Charité, a complex built as a charity centre for the poor by a local sculptor and architect, Pierre Puget.
Notre Dame de la Garde
The hilltop Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, construction of this Roman Byzantine Basilica started in 1853, the 9.7m statue of Mary is famed as the protector of the Marseille and holds huge importance in the eyes of locals. A walk around the outside of the church will afford you 360 degree views of the whole city, including down into the Vieux Port and across to the Frioul Islands and Chateau d’If. If you’re up for a relatively strenuous walk you can catch the metro and walk to the top or alternatively just a bus all the way up.
Château d’If, this legendary prison, which was once a fortress was made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ novel the Count of Monte Cristo and is located on the Ile d’If, part of the Frioul Archipelago just off the coast of Marseille. It can be visited on a short ferry ride from the Vieux Port.
You may like to combine a visit to Chateau d’If with a trip to the other Frioul Islands, Ile Rattonneau and Ile Pomègues which are linked by a dam. You can order a hearty lunch of Moules-Frites in the sleepy little seaside port and then take a bit of a stroll to find a sandy Mediterranean beach to savour all to yourself. The water is generally warm enough for swimming from late April through to September.
Palais Longchamp is a water palace with spectacular fountains, columns and sculptures that also houses the Musée des Beaux Arts and the Museum d’histoire naturelle. It was built in the 1860s as the end point and celebration of a canal bringing water from the Durance River. You can get there by catching the tram from the Vieux Port as well as the Metro.
Be sure to grab a hire bike to enjoy the ride along this rocky section of Marseille’s waterfront, La Corniche; interspersed with little beaches and the Vallon des Auffes, a colourful and iconic little marseillais fishing village tucked away under a bridge. The seaside restaurants, albeit a little pricey, are also where you’ll find the best of the local speciality Bouillabaisse.
The Calanques National Park is made up of kilometres of Mediterranean coastline between Marseille and Cassis featuring towering rocky cliffs, sparkling turquoise bays, and tucked away sand beaches. From October to June you can catch a bus to take a hike down to one of the beaches, but in July and August the trails are closed so you’ll want to hop on a boat tour or hire a kayak to explore the coast. To really feel like a local be sure to stop for a refreshing swim, a midday feed and then an afternoon sieste in the sunshine.
So voilà, there you have it, 10 reasons why you have to put this city on your European bucket list. So what are you waiting for, drop everything and get yourself to this jewel in the Mediterranean Crown before the rest of the world wakes up and realizes what they are missing out on!