Last updated on August 26, 2019
Discover the best things to do in Marseille and find out what makes this atypical French city so compelling – in just 2 days!
Founded by Greek sailors in 600 BC, Marseille is the oldest city in France and the country’s largest port city.
It remains a ‘city of the sea’, a city of sailors and fishermen, where life still revolves around the Vieux Port (Old Port).
But although at first glance this pastel-hued Mediterranean metropolis appears carefree and sunny, its cultural diversity and chequered past lends it a certain depth and grit. This is a city unlike any other in France, and that’s what I really like about it.
If, like me, you prefer destinations that are intriguing as well as beautiful, a little off-beat and edgy, Marseille certainly won’t disappoint.
Understand Marseille – The Rebel of the French Riviera
Marseille the Cultural Mosaic
As the main port and link between the historic French colonies in North Africa and Corsica, including Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, Marseille is not entirely what you might picture when you think of France.
Much like New York City, Marseille is the creation of immigrants and its unique blend of cultures makes it one of the most interesting cities in France. And certainly one of the best places to eat in the country!
Marseille may often be described as a gateway to Provence, but Avignon this is not. And though you will certainly stumble upon countless pastel-hued scenes that look like they belong in lavender-carpeted villages, you’ll also find plenty of market scenes where African, Islamic and Italian influences pervade.
Marseille the Controversial
Tell anyone of an older generation that you’re going to Marseille and it’s likely you’ll be greeted with a warning. The city has a history of being dangerous and politically volatile.
When its named was mentioned in the past, it was often in relation to its issues with crime, corruption and poverty – all of which features heavily in the Netflix hit series, Marseille.
But things have changed…
Marseille the City of Culture
Marseille’s fortunes changed when it was named European City of Culture in 2013.
Many areas still have an air of decaying grandeur, where potentially #instaviral nooks of beauty remain unloved and un-invested in by the government. But overall it feels safe and affluent, as if its newly found popularity as a tourist destination is actually working out.
I imagine today’s Marseille as being somewhat similar to how Barcelona might have been following the 1992 Olympics. Hopefully the people of Marseille can learn from Barcelona’s rapid ascent and current issues with over-tourism, gentrification and crime.
Things to Do in Marseille
Visit fish market at the Vieux Port (Old Port)
Vieux Port is undeniably the physical and cultural heart of Marseille – the perfect place to orientate yourself.
It is a hive of activity at any time of day, but to see it at its best I suggest getting there early to see the local fishermen’s wives (the only men I saw were on the boats) selling the daily catch.
You have arrived.
Hike up to the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica
Perched atop a hill overlooking the city, the Notre-Dame de la Garde is a gorgeous Catholic basilica and offers spectacular views over Marseille.
Its design is quite unlike any other church I’ve seen and is heralded as one of Europe’s greatest examples Neo-Byzantine architecture. Don’t miss the huge gold statue of the Virgin Mary that stands at the top of the bell tower and watches over the city to keep it safe.
Tip: We enjoyed walking up to the church and exploring more of the city en route, although you might prefer the small tourist “train” that departs from the port if you’re not a big walker or short on time. If you’re a more adventurous traveller then you may prefer to join a Segway tour or this “City & Seaside” e-bike tour, both of which visit the Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Sip Plenty of Pastis
Those of you who, like me, raided your parents/grandparents drinks cabinet and polished off their Pernod as a teenager may already be familiar with this potent little number.
Pastis actually originates in Marseille and is an essential element of daily life in Provence.
The flavour is bold and intense, a heady blend of anise and liquorice. At around 40% alcohol, the locals mix it with water (5 parts to 7) and ice, but let me tell you that it still packs a punch.
Where to drink pastis in Marseille: The real question is not where, but when. Pastis is typically enjoyed as an apéritif before lunch or dinner – ideally with a tapenade of pureed capers, anchovies, black olives and garlic with a few crusty croutons. Ideally you want it on a cafe terrace in the sun overlooking the port. You may also want to pay a visit to La Maison du Pastis, a sort of bottle-shop-cum-tasting space that stocks almost 100 varieties.
Enjoy a Fisherman’s Feast of Moules Marinière
Thinking back on our trip to Marseille, the highlight was by far the time when we escaped a sudden downpour by running into one of the many restaurants on the quayside.
We started with pastis – Rosana didn’t like it so I had double – and finished with a mound of fresh moules marinière with fries. These fresh mussels are served with plenty of garlic, onion and herbes de provence, and when you wash it all down with the local La Cagole beer you can really understand why this is the preferred feast of Provençal fishermen. I’ll never forget it.
Where to eat the best moules marinière in Marseille: I would argue any of the brasseries in the Old Port are decent. Keep an eye on the a-frame menus out front and you’ll soon work out which specialise in the dish. We literally ran into La Chope d’Or to escape the rain and had a grand old time.
Foodie Tip: If like me you travel to eat, I highly recommend taking a food tour – like this one – and learning about Marseille and its history through its food.
Eat Marseille’s Emblematic Bouillabaisse Fish Stew
Sometimes food and culture overlap in such a way that they become indistinguishable. Point in case: Marseille’s signature bouillabaisse fish stew.
Like all the best dishes of today, bouillabaisse was originally made by local fishermen using the fish they couldn’t sell. The recipe calls for several varieties of fish (rockfish being most notable) and saffron. It’s then bulked up with potatoes, croutons, a rich rouille (a sort of ‘rust’ coloured mayonnaise) and aioli.
Where to Eat the Best Bouillabaisse in Marseille
It’s surprisingly difficult to find bouillabaisse in Marseille and even harder to find it for anything less than €45 per person. As we discovered the hard way, you need to be well organised to make sure you get your fix.
A few restaurants that are said to serve the best bouillabaisse in Marseille include Chez Michel and Le Petit Nice Passedat, the latter of which being where the great Anthony Bourdain discovered the dish.
However, I would argue that the best place to eat bouillabaisse in Marseille is at Chez Fonfon. It has been around for well over 50 years and needless to say is legendary for its bouillabaisse. But more than that, it is located in the charming Port Du Vallon Des Auffes, a tiny fishermen’s port that’s been around for donkey’s years.
The Michelin-starred L’Epuisette is also located near the port and I should imagine is quite spectacular, should you really want to push the boat out.
Tip: Book your table as far ahead of time as possible – almost all of them have serious waiting lists.
Foodie Tip: Take a food tour like this one to learn about Marseille’s culture through its food.
Guzzle the Local Wine
Marseille is situated near the wine making regions of Cassis and Bandol, which are famed for their delicate whites and rosé. And of course, this being France and all, almost all cafes, bars and restaurants have a decent selection of wine from across the country.
Another very happy memory for me was, once again, escaping the rain and sitting with the (rather jovial) locals at a dive called Bar Tabac (I can’t even find it on Google Maps but it’s next door to L’entrecôte). The surly barman smoked cigarettes while shuffling between the bar and terrace area and was surprisingly happy to help when we asked for restaurant recommendations.
Tip: If you have time then I would highly recommend taking a wine tasting tour out to the famous vineyards near Marseille. Explore Cassis and Bandol, Avignon and Chateauneuf du Pape, Aix en Provence and Luberon.
Ramble the Sun-Bleached Streets of Le Panier
Annexing the old port, Le Panier was built by the immigrants who sailed their way to a new life in this city by the sea.
Today you can tell that it’s one of the main tourist areas, but it definitely still feels alive in an authentic way. Parents huddle outside schools at hometime. Locals loiter outside little cafes with cigarettes and glasses of pastis.
The streets harbour all sorts of independent boutiques, restaurants and gift shops, although I’d argue that the best thing to do here is simply wander aimlessly, seeking out the narrow pastel-hued streets.
Le Panier, you are reminded that you are in fact in Provence.
Get there: Just stroll up Rue de la Prison, which juts of the old port, and allow yourself to get lost.
Hit the Best Beaches in Marseille
I hadn’t thought of Marseille as being much of a beach city, so I was quite impressed when we discovered Plage des Catalans. It’s walkable from the city centre and not terribly far away from the Port Du Vallon Des Auffes (where you might be going for your bouillabaisse).
However, for some serious coastal beauty you should definitely take a day-trip to the famous Calanques de Cassis. These paradise beach coves are located some ten miles away from Marseille and accessible only by boat (or via pretty hefty hike).
We didn’t go on this particular trip but I have been many years ago and I can still picture the impossibly clear waters and pine-scented cliffs in my mind’s eye. It really is pure heaven.
Tip: Rather than hiring a car, I’d definitely recommend joining one of the day-trip tours, such as this tour which includes transport from Marseille the the village of Cassis and a boat trip to see the famous Calanques. I also really like the sound of this 5-hour catamaran tour which departs from Marseille and sails to the Calanques where you can swim, snorkel and enjoy lunch (included).
Talking of day-trips…
Take as Many Day-Trips as Possible
One of my biggest regrets is that we didn’t stay in Marseille long enough to take any day-trips. It is after all slap bang in the middle of Provence and there’s tons to see right on its doorstep.
A few day trips from Marseille I wish we’d done:
This lavender field tour through Sault, Roussillon and Gordes.
This tour of Avignon and the villages of Lubéron – Isle sur la Sorgues, Gordes, the Sénanque Abbey and Roussillon.
This Vincent Van Gogh inspired tour through the Alpilles countryside, including stops at the ancient city of Arles, the medieval village of Les Baux-de-Provence and the Roman relics in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.
This tour to Aix-en-Provence, the former capital of Provence.
This French Riviera tour, stopping at Nice, Eze and Monaco.
Visit the Soap Museum
Soap is a big deal in Provence and there’s no better place to learn about its production and cultural significance than at the Savon de Marseille soap museum in the Old Port. Pick up a few bars and take a little slice of Provence home with you.
Visit Marseille’s Game-Changing MuCEM Museum
Housed in the storied Saint-Jean Fort, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations opened in 2013, the same year the city was awarded the title of European City of Culture.
The building itself is a work of art, a shimmering glass cube that reflects the Mediterranean Sea. The rooftop offers some of the very best views over the city, with a spindly bridge that connects old Marseille with new Marseille.
This important cultural space played a huge role in helping the city depart from its previous reputation as something of a dangerous rebel and is now one of the most visited museums in Europe.
Expect everything from paintings and sculptures to photography, audio recording and more.
Tip: Buy a skip-the-line entry ticket here (€10) – but also be aware that entry is free on the first Sunday of each month.
Soak Up the Street Art in Cours Julien
Known locally as the ‘bobo’ (bourgeois bohemian), the neighbourhood of Cours Julien has been turned into a masterpiece by France’s finest street artists.
We also spotted a million little bakeries, cafes, stores and bars that called for our attention – definitely not to be missed.
Gasp in Awe at the Cathédrale La Major
Marseille’s colossal Cathédrale La Major genuinely impressed me. We visited in the rain and I imagined it as a giant tiramisu drenched in amaretto.
Its 40-year construction began in 1852 and, apparently, the first stone was laid by Napoleon III, the first President of France (1848 to 1852).
Make it Happen
Where to Stay in Marseille
Hostel Vertigo Vieux-Port: A great budget option located just 200m from the Old Port.
Les Appartements du Vieux Port: Luxury apartments with spectacular views over the Old Port.
Hôtel Hermès: Excellent 2-star hotel right on the quayside – impressive rooftop terrace.
Hôtel Maison Montgrand – Vieux Port: Charming 3-star boutique hotel well located for exploring the old town.
Grand Hotel Beauvau Marseille Vieux Port – MGallery: Spectacular 4-star hotel overlooking the Old Port. Plush rooms decorated with Empire or Napoleon III furniture. Excellent dining facilities.
InterContinental Marseille – Hotel Dieu: 5-star all the way.
How to Get to Marseille
Train: Whenever possible I always travel by train (or even bus/coach) instead of plane. Not only is it drastically better for the environment, but it’s also a great pleasure – especially in France! I use Omio to find the fastest and cheapest train/bus tickets.
We took the RENFE SNCF fast train from Barcelona to Marseille and had a fantastic experience. If you have time then I highly recommend combining your rail trip to Marseille with Montpellier, Paris, Sète, Nice, Aix-en-Provence, Lyon and/or Avignon.
How to Get Around Marseille
Marseille is perfect for exploring on foot (we didn’t even consider getting on the bus, metro or tram), although there was one day where we both had blisters.
Tip: If you think you’ll use public transport – including the tourist train up to the cathedral – and want to visit the MuCEM museum then definitely consider getting a Marseille City Pass. It includes unlimited rides on all public transport and free access to the museums.
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