Like many cities in the Mediterranean, the city of Marseille has a complex past. The city is the second largest in France and one of the largest in Europe with a history dating back to 600 BC. The city was founded as a Phoenician colony, and then the Greek, and because of the main city port is one of the most diverse cities in the Mediterranean. After World War II, the population grew even more with migrants coming from Italy, Spain and many of the then French colonies in France, but if your idea of Marseille is a sleepy village and Provencal clichés, you will be greatly mistaken.
Marseille is a city that, while baked in the Mediterranean sun, is full of life and has thriving markets and public spaces to protected areas of natural land, rugged cliffs, azure blue beaches, a thriving nightlife and incredibly delicious seafood. See some of the best places around the city of Marseille and experience the true beauty of southern France.
Explore the old port
The port of Marseille is one of the largest in the country and one of the largest in Europe. The massive rectangular port has been located there for more than 2600 years and is mainly used as a center of trade and commerce among various city-states located along the Mediterranean. The old port (Vieux Port) to this day is actually more just a neighborhood than just a landmark in the city.
The old port is also a central place for other tourists, especially during the summer months. The port is surrounded by three quays with wide promenades that are constantly teeming with merchants, shops, restaurants and cafes. Take a pastis and take a sunset or have some fresh seafood dinner and enjoy the local music and scenery of yachts and boats being towed to the docks. 18th-century warehouses that set up docks give the area a distinctive flair that adds personality to the area, making you feel like you’re traveling through time.
Jump on the boat and explore the Château d’If
The Frioul Islands are just a short ferry ride away. The island archipelago includes the islands of Pomègues, Ratonneau and Tiboulen. The Mediterranean waters are blue and the sights are some of the best because from the water you can look at the city. The islands themselves have bays to discover, sandy beaches, and the microclimate unique to the area allows the flowering of rare and beautiful flowers, plants and trees.
Among the islands of Frioul is the legendary Château d’If. The “Château” was not initially built as a castle but as a fortress to defend the city of Marseille and although it was never used in such a way, it was turned into a prison. The notorious nature of the prison continues in the public consciousness to this day, thanks to Alexander Dumas Count of Monte Cristo in which the protagonist Edmund Dantes is sentenced to, and then flees from the Château d’If. The prison on the island is similar to Alcatraz and is a popular tourist attraction with a dungeon dedicated to Dantes’ character. Marc Twain visited the site before it was open to the public, and the Château d’If is cited by the French government as an official historical monument.
Take a tour of the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
The Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is a symbol of the city. While Paris has the Eiffel Towel, Marseille has the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. The Catholic Cathedral is located on a hill overlooking the city and it is hard to ignore it.
The cathedral is located on a hill, and in the Middle Ages the place was used as an observatory. At that time a smaller cathedral was built here which was a popular pilgrimage destination for most of the medieval era. Finally, in 1853, they built the monolithic building that stands there today. Although many of Europe’s legendary cathedrals are centuries old, and Marseille is definitely an old city, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is relatively young by comparison. The church is designed in a large and luxurious Neo-Byzantine style, using light and dark marble and amazing gilded domes. The church is still an important place for pilgrimages, but also for excursionists and lovers of architecture.
Head to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde. Symbol of the city.
Explore the picturesque streets of Le Panier
Located above the Old Port area along the hillside, is the picturesque and eclectic neighborhood of Le Panier. Translated into English as “basket”, Le Panier has been the historical heart of Marseilles since 600 BC, when it was a Greek colony known as “Massalia”.
The neighborhood is known for its picturesque buildings, winding cobbled streets and narrow alleys. The area was once home to many newcomers to the country, and has historically been a poorer housing estate that often provided visitors with an insight into local life without the overly clean and “finished things” of the tourism area. Although the area has been somewhat gentrified in recent years, Le Panier has tons of lively boulevards with boutique shops, quaint cafes, museums and some of the best Algerian food in town. Le Panier also has several sights worth checking out such as Vielle Charité, La Canebiere and Cathédral de la Major.
Old charity: Situated on Place des Moulin, one of the most important sights in La Panieru is Vieille Charité. The building was built in 1640, and the city built and financed it to give the poor in the area a place to stay in accordance with the royal decree on keeping the homeless. The space became important for the founding of the city and for charity, and by 1749 the building included a three-tiered public hospital, along with a courtyard and chapel. The façade of La Vieille Charité is more modern and contains two stone engravings of pelicans that feed their young, and which is said to be a charity that takes care of poor children. Since 1986, La Vieille Charité has been a cultural institution hosting events such as art galleries and ethnographic exhibitions.
La Canebière: It’s Paris Champs Elysees and Marseille has La Canebière. The historic main street runs the La Panier district, which stretches for a kilometer from the port of Marseille to the Church of St. Vincent de Paul. The avenue was built in 1666 by order of King Louis XIV to expand the city. The name “La Canebière” actually comes from the Latin word for “cannabis” because the area around the old port was historically a hemp field, and Marseille was one of the world’s largest retailers of hemp products like ropes and baskets from the Middle Ages to the 1930s . The street was a refuge of French high society with luxury hotels, cafes, boutiques and music halls, but after the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and the collapse of the French Empire and its colonies, the street collapsed. The street has now returned to its former splendor with a multitude of shops, boutiques and culture to explore.
Major Cathedral: In the northwest corner of Le Paniera is the huge church of the Cathédrale de la Major. It sits on an eplanade overlooking the waterfront, commissioned by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte in 1852, and has two tall towers as well as a huge dome. The church was once the largest in France and is lavishly decorated with Italian marble and Venetian mosaics. Outside the cathedral is a popular square called “Les Voȗtes” which is a favorite gathering place filled with shops, restaurants and modern landscapes.
Taste the local life in Noailles
Immediately east of the old port is the district of Noailles. Although Le Panier is a historic working-class neighborhood that has since been gentrified, Noailles and La Plaine continue the tradition of the community and immigrant markets. Noailles is one of the most diverse areas of Marseille and is home to numerous French-Algerian immigrants. The outdoor market here is like a trip to Africa with lively bazaars filled with exotic spices, fresh fruits, vegetables and kebabs baked in the sun. Stylish and affordable boutiques and cafes can also be found here and provide a fun cultural insight into the world of the locals.
Explore Les Calanques National Park
Located between Marseille and Cassis is Les Calanques Park. “Les Calanques” which in English means “coves” is a coastal national park. Popular in the summer, Les Calanques offers little exploration for any type of adventurer. Cycling and hiking trails that run along the coast and over bumpy and bumpy cliffs offer amazing views and sights, or if you’re into rock climbing, head off the bottom of the cliff and climb up. Kayaking and canoeing are also popular activities, as Les Calanques bays like the fjord have incredibly turquoise waters and pools perfect for swimming.
Of course, look at the crystal clear blue waters around Marseille.
Learn about history at MuCEM
Briefly known as MuCEM, the Musée des Civilizations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée is at the same time a huge and spacious museum covering Mediterranean civilizations in a strangely designed building. The museum opened in 2013 and to access it, guests must walk along the bridge while the museum sits on an island next to the historic St. Jean.
The museum has a combination of exhibitions that include art, photography, video and historical objects, all featuring an overview and a central theme of Mediterranean history. The museum also acts as an observation center and is attached to the Fortress of St. Jean which is the second part of MuCEM. The fort is a 12th century monument that played an important role during the Crusades.
Catch the match at the Vélodrome stadium
Home of the Olympique de Marseille, the Stade Vélodrome is one of the best stadiums in Europe. The stadium has been home to the football team since the 1930s and underwent renovations in 2016 in time for the Euro tournament. Now the saddle-shaped stadium can accommodate up to 67,000 visitors and is a great place to catch a football or tour the rooms where you can learn more about the construction (including the corrugated roof), check the players ’locker rooms and even take a walk around the field.
Whether you love water activities, historic cities and buildings or just relax, Marseille will enchant you.
Our final word
Marseille is a massive and fun city. Although Parisians were able to make Paris a measure of French culture, unlike him, Marseille turned it into its own, with a combination of cultures ranging from French African to Spanish, Italian, and Mediterranean. The coast is eclectic with cafes, bars and marvelous landscapes, while the inner quarters are historic and offer even a short-term visitor and overlook the regular life of the average Marseille citizen.