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A Guide to the Best Things to do in Marseille, France

As one of the largest cities in France, second only in population size to the French capital city of Paris, it should come as no surprise that there is no shortage of things to do in Marseille. Located in the south of France, in the Provence region, here’s your ultimate guide to the best of the Southern city. 

marseille architecture

Where is Marseille located?

The sea city of Marseille is situated in Provence, Southern France. Marseille is the capital of the region and boasts the title of being the oldest city in l’Hexagone.

Why visit Marseille?

‘Marseilles’ in English, ‘Marseille’ in French, this port side town is the second most populated city in France after Paris. Third after Lyon if you count the urban areas surrounding the city. 

For years, many travelers have spurned the city, favouring a visit to nearby towns like Aix-en-Provence, and the charming fishing town of la Ciotat instead. In truth, with sometimes scary crime statistics, and a gritty exterior, the city has suffered a bad reputation for decades.

Indeed, the French city Marseilles is the opposite of Nice; there are no fancy boulevards, nor are there lots of luxury shopping opportunities. Instead, there’s a glittering turquoise sea and a whole blend of cultures and traditions to be discovered.

A postcard from Marseilles France: a photo diary of the capital of Provence.

It’s here in the big bustling city of Marseille where over 1500 years of history converge. From the Ancient Greeks, right up until the present day, the city is awash with history.

From the Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica sitting at pride of place on top of a nearby mountain to the ancient prison on a nearby island, there is something to see everywhere you look.

More recently, in 2013, Marseilles was named European cultural capital of the year. And it’s true that the place is absolutely brimming with museums, galleries, and street arts. Finally, the city’s reputation has started to change and it’s becoming more of a must-visit location along the Provençal coastline.

marseille

Best things to do in Marseille

Explore the Vieux Port

Hands down, one of the very best things to do in Marseille is to head to the Vieux-Port (Old Port) district of the city and soak up some sea air. The natural harbour has been used as a port since antiquity when it was called Massilia.

Today the area is home to beautiful sea vistas, a smorgasbord of wonderful eateries, and is easily one of the most popular places to visit in Marseille. Some of the best restaurants in the area include La Table du Fort Restaurant Marseille Vieux-Port and Restaurant Le relais 50.

vieux port marseille

Admire the view from Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica

Of all the places to get a bird’s eye perspective of the city, the very best view in Marseille can be found from the hilltop where the Notre Dame de la Garden Basilica is to be found. This Catholic building is so iconic that it’s since become a symbol for the entire city.

The Basilica is a perfect metaphor for the city; its architecture is Romanesque meets Byzantine. Quirky architecture lies side by side with the familiar Haussmann architecture you would expect to find anywhere in Paris.

The ecclesiastical building is actually constructed on what was once fortifications guarding the city and stands at a height of 149 metres above sea level. Building of the current church on site began in the latter half of the 19th century and took 21 years to build.

Today, you can walk to the top or alternatively hop on the funicular to reach the summit. Either way, admiring the natural port of Marseille and the sprawling city that has sprung up around it is easily one of the best things to do in Marseille.

Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica

Visit Marseille Cathedral (Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure)

Those wondering what to do in Marseille in terms of historical destinations need to look no further than Marseilles cathedral. The cathedral of the city can be found on the fringes of Le Panier district of the city and overlooking the crashing waves of the azure blue sea.

Built in the Byzantine-Roman revival style, there has been a church on site since as early as the 12th-century. The current cathedral was built between 1852 to 1896 and is still used as a place of worship today.

Cathedral Sainte-Marie-Majeure

Learn some history in MuCEM

A fairly new museum situated on the fringes of the Vieux-Port area of the city, the MuCEM is the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean is easily one of the top museums that the Southern French city has to offer.

Inaugurated in 2013, highlights of this cultural institution include exhibitions on Mediterranean culture and history. If you’re not able to make it to the museum, then you can also check out highlights of the MuCEM thanks to Google’s Arts and Culture project.

MuCEM museum

Discover Le Panier district

The oldest district in Marseille is Le Panier, which is characterised by its cobbled lanes, shuttered windows, and pastel hued homes. The name ‘Le Panier’ is actually directly translated into English as ‘the Basket’ and the historic area is well-known for its many winding pathways and stepped streets. Hands down, thanks to its many bars and bistros, this is the best place in the city to head to for an apéro (discover more about the art of the French apéro in my article here).

le panier district

Visit Palais Longchamp

The oldest museum in Marseille is that of Palais Longchamp, which can be found in the 4th arrondissement of the city. The former palace is actually home to two museums; the museum of natural history (musée de l’histoire naturelle) and the museum of fine arts (musée des beaux-arts).

While the natural history museum is fairly small and can be explored over the course of several hours, it’s easily one of the best things to do in Marseille for families. Otherwise, visitors to Marseille should note that highlights of the fine arts museum include old master paintings and fine sculptures.

Palais Longchamp

Take a boat to Château d’If

Just off the coastline from Marseille is an iconic fort on a little isle in the sea which can be seen from all across the city. Immortalised by Alexandre Dumas in his tale, the Count of Monte Cristo, for hundreds of years the fort was used as a prison. Today, the fort is a listed historic national monument and can be visited via a ferry.

Château d'If

Visit Fort Saint Jean

On the very edge of the Vieux-Port district of the city, Fort Saint Jean is a 16th-century fortification which was constructed at the behest of Louis XIV, i.e. the Sun King of France. Constructed so as to defend the port from invaders, today the fort is one of the most visited monuments in Marseille.

Visit Fort Saint Jean

Sample pastis

If there’s one alcoholic beverage that Marseille is known for, it’s Pastis. Though not to everyone’s taste (and certainly not to mine by any stretch of the imagination!), this drink is an anise-flavoured spirit and apéritif. The spirit is clear in colour but is typically consumed together with water, which turns it a cloudy milk-like colour.

pastis drink

Sample local cuisine

From freshly caught seafood to locally grown produce, Provence has no shortage of fantastic foodie experiences and Marseille is no exception. One particular dish of note which come from Marseille is the navettes de Marseille (little shortbread like biscuits which are in the shape of boats).

Other highlights of traditional Marseillaise food include Panisse (fries made from a chickpea base), and Madeleines (shell shaped pastries). The Marseille region has no shortage of incredible local cuisine and foodies will surely not be disappointed on any visit.

french cheese

Take a day trip to the Massif des Calanques

The Massif des Calanques is an incredible National Park which stretches along the coastline from Marseille to the picturesque town of Cassis. Calanques are a unique type of rock formation found exclusively along the Mediterranean coastline.

They’re formed when limestone is eroded away over hundreds of years to create small inlets along the cliff edges. Dotted with pine trees, these steep trails might take skill and stamina to complete, but they are also truly worth the effort. If you’re looking for an adventure day trip from Marseille, then you simply need to head out to the Calanques.

Adventure in Provence, Southern France: hiking the calanques de Cassis in a National Park: boat tour

How to get around Marseille

As one of the largest cities in France, you should note that you won’t be able to see the entirety of the city during a single visit. Much of the tourist attractions and places to visit are centred around the Vieux-Port and Le Panier districts, and as such are best seen on foot.

Visitors should also note that Marseille is one of the only cities in France, along with Paris and Lyon, to be divided into districts which are known as ‘arrondissements’. Public transport is fairly well developed and as well as buses and trams, there are two metro lines; M1 and M2 connect east to west and north to south

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Marseille Guide: Best things to do in Marseille, France

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