There are many clichés about Marseilles: the city is chaotic and noisy, the Olympique Marseille fans are fanatical ultras, you have to watch out for pickpockets, the stench of fish permeates the air of the narrow alleys, you eat well on the cheap, there are no special things to see.
All of these statements tend to be true, except the last one. Although Marseille does not boast any internationally renowned attractions, the ‘Naples of France‘ holds interesting treasures of culture, history and archaeology.
Thanks to its experience as Capital of Culture in 2013, the Provençal city initiated a redevelopment project in the most critical areas such as the port, redeveloping and revitalising city districts that had long been abandoned and left to neglect and decay.
Since then, tourist flows to Marseille have increased considerably and the city has been able to show Europe its value and all its beauty.
The natural inlet where the ancient Greeks landed is today the most important focal point of Marseille: a succession of bars, restaurants and terraces, full of life and people, as well as the fishing boats that dock in the morning and the yachts that arrive from all over the world.
The old harbour is nestled between Fort Saint-Jean (used as a prison during the French Revolution) on the right bank and Fort Saint-Nicholas (built by Louis XIV to quell revolts) on the left bank. Thanks to the pedestrianisation project, the port has been fully redeveloped for the use of its inhabitants and embellished by the miroir ombrière, the bizarre work of architect Norman Foster: it is an enormous roof, 46 metres by 22, made of mirrored stainless steel that allows unprecedented views of the city, as well as providing shade and shelter on torrid summer days.
Don’t miss the bustling fish market, every morning from 8am on Quai des Belges, where you can wander among noisy hawkers and stalls overflowing with squid, octopus and sea bream. Also interesting is a trip on the Ferry Boat that goes around the harbour, offering beautiful views of the forts overlooking the sea.
If you have time, head to the Lighthouse Gardens to admire the beautiful sunset over the Vieux-Port.
Located right at the mouth of the Vieux-Port inlet is the MuCEM, or Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, entirely dedicated to the civilisations of the Mediterranean basin.
Awaiting you are 45,000 square metres of in-depth information on the history, culture, archaeology, art and anthropology of the thousand souls that have made up the Mediterranean for centuries: the permanent collection of the MuCEM boasts no less than 200,ooo original artefacts, 135,000 prints, 355,000 photographs and 150,000 books. An incredible project if you think that it is not just a museum: in addition to the classic exhibition halls contained in the J4 building also known as the perfect cube (72 metres by 72), you will find a library, an immense children’s area, an auditorium, a restaurant with a panoramic terrace and a suspended footbridge that allows you to easily walk to Place d’Armes, where the Saint-Jean fortress is located.
The environment is made captivating thanks to the futuristic glass and steel structure, clad with an ultra-performing cement fibre designed by architect Rudy Ricciotti: the atmosphere becomes even more atmospheric in the evening, when the lighting effects created by conceptual artist Yann Kersalé are switched on.
A stone’s throw from the Old Port is La Major, as the Marseillais call it, the church built at the behest of Napoleon III between 1852 and 1896.
The Cathedral of St Mary Major is immediately recognisable, thanks to its black and white marble and its imposing height of 146 metres, which stands out against the city. In reality, the majestic building is made up of two separate churches, some seven centuries apart: in fact, theOld Major, which dates back to the first half of the 1100s, was split in two by the construction in 1850 of the New Major, which can now be seen and visited.
During work to lay the foundations of the new church, the remains of a splendid early Christian baptistery, one of the largest and most beautiful in all of Europe, were brought to light: however, the incredible discovery was buried again, in a truly inexplicable manner.
Le Panier is the symbolic district of Marseille, for its downhill streets, picturesque little shops, the mixture of languages and cultures (Italians, Maghrebians, Corsicans, Armenians) but above all for its artistic vocation. The atmosphere is truly authentic and here you will find the true spirit of the city, with multi-ethnic shops, laundry hung out in the middle of the street, noisy chatter and all the Mediterranean charm that has come with the many waves of immigration throughout history. It used to be the most infamous area of the city, but after the experience of Marseille Capital of Culture, the neighbourhood has changed its face and rid itself of trafficking and crime.
Alongside its popular character, Le Panier has also recently acquired a hipster vocation: more and more designer hotels, trendy restaurants, ateliers, boutiques and vintage shops are springing up. To discover the varied essence of the neighbourhood, you have to get lost and let yourself be guided by the colours and views. However, we advise you to start from Place Daviel and from there walk up the Accoules slope, then turn to the Place des Moulins and reach the Maison du Refuge (once a convent-prison for bad girls who entered from the Rue du Dishonour and exited from the Rue des Pentite) and finally Rue du Panier up to the Vieille-Charité.
If you love crib figurines, you cannot miss a visit to a workshop of santons, made exclusively of hand-painted terracotta: it is a craft tradition of great artistic value, born in Marseilles itself towards the end of the 18th century. The most famous? Marcel Carbonel‘s atelier.
The Church of the Vieille Charité is an admirable example of civil architecture, in pure French Baroque: built in 1640 to house vagrants and people in distress, in the course of history it was used as a barracks, left to decay and finally restored and saved from neglect thanks to the intervention of Le Corbusier.
The building is one of the most beautiful architectural complexes in Europe and consists of four wings of three-storey buildings facing an inner rectangular courtyard where the chapel is located. In a peaceful and quiet setting that leaves out the hustle and bustle of the city, you will find the Museum of African, Oceanic and Amerindian Arts (M.A.O.A), the Marseilles International Poetry Centre (C.I.P.M), the Cinémathèque Le Miroir, the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology and several rooms for temporary exhibitions.
Exactly opposite Le Panier, on the other side of the inlet of the Vieux Port, is the Rive Nouveau, a very old area indeed: an area of unhealthy marshes until the 15th century, in 1660 Louis XIV decided to reclaim it and have the arsenals built there, where more than 10,000 galley slaves lived, those who were embarked in the galleys of war and led terrible lives in indescribable conditions.
Today, it has become a meeting place for the people of Marseille, full of bistros, restaurants and elegant neoclassical buildings.
Many say that a visit to Marseille should start here, at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de La Garde: the church is located 150 metres above sea level, a privileged position from which you can enjoy an incredible view of the entire city.
The view becomes even more extraordinary if you climb to the top of the 60-metre-high bell tower, passing the gilded statue of the Virgin Mary that the people of Marseille affectionately call Bonne-Mére. Also of interest are the interiors decorated with polychrome marble, gold mosaics, sumptuous frescoes and numerous votive offerings, testifying to the great popular devotion to the Virgin.
Strongly desired by Louis XIV in 1666 and built on the ashes of a field and a hemp factory, the Canebière, also called the Champs Élysées of Marseilles, is the main artery of the city, linking the Vieux Port to the Réformés quarter.
At the time of the Belle Epoque, this elegant city street was lined with Marseille’s finest department stores and hotels, as well as cafés frequented by artists, travellers and eccentric characters.
Today, the Canebière remains the liveliest and busiest shopping street in the city: cafés, restaurants, cinemas, large hotels in memory of the good old bohemian times parade here, as well as monuments and buildings of great value such as the Opera House, the Music Kiosk and the former Palais de la Bourse.
It must be said that Marseille’s most famous avenue represents a sort of dividing line between rich and poor, Marseillais and immigrants. In fact, next to it is the Belsunce neighbourhood, left abandoned despite several renovations: located right in the centre of the city, this area represents the beating heart of multi-ethnic Marseille. If you love diversity, colour and popular authenticity, this is the place for you.
From the Vieux Port, a wonderful 5-km-long promenade called the Corniche leads to the Parc Balnéaire du Prado.
Built in 1848 to provide work for 8000 unemployed workers, it has become over the years the favourite seaside promenade for the people of Marseille who come here in their spare time to stroll, chat and bathe. Or treat yourself to a seafood lunch in one of the many little restaurants in the Vallon des Auffes, a tiny postcard-perfect seaside village. Don’t forget to try the bouillabaisse, an exquisitely Provençal fish soup.
In the following map you can see the location of the main places of interest mentioned in this article
If you want to relax a few hours on the sand and take a dip in the turquoise waters of the bay, we recommend a few beaches.
This is the beach closest to the centre and consequently the liveliest, mainly frequented by youngsters playing beach volleyball.
Created in the 1970s to develop the kilometres of unexploited coastline, the Prado beaches have now become a must for many tourists. The bathing park consists of five consecutive beaches, all equipped and served by cafés.
Each beach attracts a more or less different audience, but most are regulars, families and young people. The huge lawns surrounding the sea are a paradise for Sunday football, children and adults alike, happy to be able to enjoy a vast green area near the sea. Epluchures Beach is popular with surfers and windsurfers.
Immediately after the Prado Marine Park is the beach of Pointe Rouge. Close to the small harbour, this bay offers many water activities such as sailing, diving, rowing and kayaking.
It is the largest beach in Marseilles, with sand, shallow turquoise waters, protected from the winds and popular with families. There are many restaurants, bars, pubs offering food and atmosphere.
La Plage de l’Estaque consists of a series of three beaches that follow one after the other: clean even in summer, easy to access, fairly large and with a magnificent view of the Marseille panorama.
City Card allow you to save on public transport and / or on the entrances to the main tourist attractions.