The Provencal harbour town of La Ciotat borders the stunning seascape of the Calanques National Park.
Whether you’re driving down a winding coastal road or seeing from below on a sea cruise, the scenery is out of this world.
The town also has a calmer side, with a string of cozy sandy beaches.
To see what’s going on at Provençal La Ciotat, they even set the rules for the iconic pétanque game here.
It’s not the only pride in the town, as it was the summer home of the film pioneers, the Lumière Brothers.
They shot one of their first films in La Ciotat, and the cinema where they showed the film is still showing it to this day.
Let’s explore the best things to do in La Ciotat:
1. Calanque de Figuerolles
Just around Cap d’Aigle and within the National Park, there is a narrow cove that goes deep into the coast.
There is a small rocky beach at the end, and the sparkling, transparent waters beckon you to swim.
If you are with young people they will be able to paddle safely here as the beach shelf is low and a large rock at the mouth of the creek smooths the sea.
This is a Calanque, the walls are high and rugged, and here they are made of a strange kind of pudding stone.
On the beach you will constantly see the bizarre Rocher du Capucin looming from the west side.
2. Île Verte
There is a shuttle bus from the port of La Ciotat to this island within the boundaries of the national park.
The ferry takes 15 minutes and takes you to a beautiful place, Calanque Saint-Pierre, with a beach served by restaurants.
Many tourists cannot pass this paradise.
However, if you want to see more, there is a winding trail around the coast that takes you to two other beaches as well as a canal that runs down to the sea.
The highest point on the island is Fort Saint-Pierre, which has been here since the 1600s but was fortified by the Germans in World War II.
3. Old Port
The old port of La Ciotat is close to what most people think of coastal Provence: the water is full of private yachts and fishing boats, and beneath the ochre houses on the marina are rows of cafés and restaurant terraces.
In the evening, the atmosphere is full of joy and conviviality, and you can stroll to one of the bars on Quai Ganteaume and watch the sun go down behind the rocks of Cap d’Aigle.
On the east side, you can continue along the harbour walls until you reach the Môle Bérouard, the 19th century lighthouse and the last part of the castle of La Ciotat.
4. Mugel Park
This botanical garden starts from the port and is dominated by the huge rock of Cap d’Aigle, 155 meters high.
This place has a double appeal, first of all you have carefully laid out gardens with cacti, roses, palm plantations and orangery.
Then there’s the nature reserve, made up of brooks and woodlands and herbs along the coast here, which run down to that huge rock in the south.
You can stroll through the forest with chestnuts, Aleppo pines, holm and cork oaks, carob and laurel trees, and stop at the observation deck to observe Île Verte.
5. The beaches of La Ciotat
Calanques is known for its supernatural rocks and sparkling seas, but on other days you might prefer soft sand and more luxuries.
The man-made beach starts north of the harbor and surrounds the bay with a series of small horseshoes protected by breakwaters.
Each has its own purpose: there is a non-smoking beach (Plage Lumière), a place where people can bring animals, a place equipped with wheelchairs.
Everywhere, the sea is irresistibly clear and shallow.
There is a stone Panasonic promenade at the back, and the bar and restaurant seats are closely spaced.
6. Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde
In summer, you can venture into the national park to visit this 17th-century chapel, which rises high above the water with a breathtaking view of La Ciotat bay.
The chapel was built in 1610, and its altar has a magnificent gilded oak sculpture from 1630, of Notre-Dame. Sailors would pray and leave the pre-vote before sailing, then they would climb the huge rocks behind to check the view and conditions before setting off.
This landform has 80 steps, which can be climbed up at night to sit and watch the sunset.
7. Musée Ciotaden
The former town hall is the town’s museum, with 15 rooms and 1,500 objects, so you can investigate many clues to La Ciotat’s story.
The most fascinating exhibits come from the turn of the century, when the Lumière brothers made their first film in 1895 at La Ciotat train station. Soon after, around 1910, the small town invented the game of bocce, which is now commonplace all over France, especially in the south.
You can go further to see artifacts left by ancient sailors and learn about the Genoese families who settled here in the 15th century.
8. Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption
La Ciotat’s largest church adds a touch of grandeur to Quai Ganteaume’s seafront.
Beautiful at night, the high transparent walls are illuminated and reflected in the water.
The church was built in the early 17th century in a restrained Romanesque Revival style without too much embellishment.
The stone for the façade, including the intricately carved south gate, comes from the ancient quarry of La Couronne, near Marseille.
Inside, see the choir’s woodwork, which was carved from walnut in 1649, and the marble high altar, hewn by Marseille marble masons in the 1700s.
9. Eden Theatre
The world’s oldest cinema reopened in 2013 after a lengthy renovation.
Whatever happens, film historians should come, just to be able to sit in the same hall where the Lumiere brothers screened L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat in 1895. The film showed a steam train pulling into La Ciotat station and claimed to have caused some viewers to run out of the hall in horror.
Cinemas are closed during the day, so the best way to see the inside is to do what people have been doing here for 120 years, watch a movie!
10. Chapelle des Pénitents Bleus
La Ciotat is dotted with chapels, the last on the list being one of the prettiest buildings in town.
It was built in the Baroque style in 1626 during the height of the French Counter-Reformation after the Wars of Religion.
The Genoese community of La Ciotat comes to the church for services, and there are small details to pay attention to, such as the gargoyle above the window, the octagonal bell and the beautiful wall sculptures.
Today, the chapel is a stately gallery for local artists.
11. Route des Cretes
From this land, the Calanques between La Ciotat and Cassis are awe-inspiring.
But as the sun sets in July and August, walking in national parks can feel uncomfortable.
Instead, you can drive the winding road towards the Cape Canaille headland, which at nearly 400 meters above sea level has the highest sea cliffs in Europe.
Every now and then there is a place to park, get out, and stare blankly at the scenery.
You can look back to La Ciotat or the Calanque Massif west of Cassis.
Along the way there are alien rocks diving hundreds of meters into the water.
One of the highest points is the signal light, built in 1791 for military maritime traffic along the coast.
12. Calanques Boat Tour
On Quai Ganteaume, there are several companies waiting to take you to see Calanques in the water.
Some parts of the national park are inaccessible by land, and on these voyages you will enter and exit these huge bays surrounded by cliffs hundreds of meters high.
Bring your camera because some of the images here are almost unbelievable.
On longer cruises, such as the one to Sormiou, south of Marseille, you’ll have time to get ashore and relax on the beach.
The new trends that have swept the Mediterranean coast in the past decade are also one of the best ways to get to the Figuerolle River.
On quiet, sunny days, the waters on the coast are mild and easy to navigate, and the shallow learning curve of paddleboarding means kids as young as 10 can get the hang of it.
By renting your own board, you’ll enjoy the feeling of independence, going where you choose and finding a quiet bathing spot away from crowded beaches.
There are also organized outings led by coaches who know the coast and take you to jaw-dropping natural beauty off the beaten track.
14. Day out
For a change of air, other beautiful towns can be seen in any direction along the coast.
After driving along the Route des Crêtes, you can continue to Cassis.
Located in the heart of Calanques, this fishing port has a lovely harbour in a small pocket between towering cliffs.
In the other direction, from around the bay of La Ciotat, the landscape is less dangerous, and in a few minutes you will reach Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer.
This resort is beloved for its beach, Les Lecques, a curvy stretch of pebbles and sand covered in shallow seas that is safe for small children.
In town, look for the mini Statue of Liberty, a small gilded replica of the New York landmark sculpted by the same artist, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.
15. Marche Nocturne
From the beginning of July to the end of August, the front part of La Ciotat’s harbour is closed to vehicles, and many stalls occupy the marina.
The market trades from 19:00 to 01:00 and is the place to buy local specialties such as honey and olive oil or various handicrafts.
During the day on Sundays, the Old Port also has a more traditional market selling fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, charcuterie, pastries, flowers and more.
Where to stay: The best hotels in La Ciotat, France
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