Like many ports around the world, Marseille has long been known for being dirty and criminal. Today, the city is still sloppy, which is not a bad thing. It gives Marseille a debauched character and gives it an intoxicating vibrancy and colour.
TIP – Buy the Marseille City Pass and get free access to several museums, guided tours and free public transport
You can see it all in neighborhoods such as Le Panier, Noailles and La Paine with their shops, markets and cafés. The old port has been in use since 600 BC, and if you’re inspired by the great times of France’s oldest city, there are plenty of museums to take you back in time.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Marseille:
1. Old Port
Marseille’s huge rectangular port has been traded for 2,600 years, and it’s more of a region than a single attraction.
On three sides are quays with wide promenades, mostly old warehouses from the 18th century.
Almost every one seems to have a cafe, fish restaurant or bar on its ground floor with outdoor seating so you can enjoy pastries while watching life in this charming city.
Industry has long since moved to the modern pier to the north, and the boats in the old port are mostly for pleasure.
But at the innermost Quai des Belges, the latest catch is still brought ashore every morning and sold at the water’s fish market.
2. Cathedral of Our Lady of Garde
It’s hard to miss this monument that rises above the southern skyline of the Old Port.
It is a neo-Byzantine church of the 19th century, 150 meters above the water, with a huge golden statue of the Virgin and Child on the top of the tower, which is used to monitor the maritime community of Marseille.
La Garde has had religious shrines and watchtowers over the centuries, and the cathedral also includes the lower level of a Renaissance fortress, which also includes a chapel.
It can’t be easily climbed in summer, but there are regular tourist trains that leave from the Old Port.
Needless to say, the scenery here is jaw-dropping.
3. Calanques National Park
The southern and eastern suburbs of Marseille are complemented by natural beauty.
Calanques are rugged white limestone cliffs and creeks that reach enormous heights and descend sharply to the sea.
You can experience these rocky wonders on land or at sea.
If you’re hiking, you’ll need a fearless spirit, as the GR 98 from Marseille to Cassis takes about 11 hours and takes you into some tough country.
Of course, the scenery makes up for the exhaustion.
There are also mini cruises from the Old Port, as well as guided kayaking adventures.
If you can, try to reach the indescribably beautiful bay of Calanque d’En Vau.
Available Tours: Catamaran Cruise and Lunch in Calanques National Park
4. Marseille History Museum
Understanding Marseille’s 26th-century history can be difficult, but this superb museum near the Old Port will help.
Because of the time span involved in this attraction, it is the largest urban history museum in France.
For history buffs, this means spending half a day examining amphora, ceramics, architectural fragments, remains of ancient ships, mosaics, sarcophagi, and more.
In addition to this pile of artefacts from the ancient Greeks to the 20th century, there are maps and models showing the various stages of Marseille’s history, and the building is linked to a set of archaeological sites that include the city walls, port buildings and cemeteries.
La Corniche winds for kilometers along the coast from the old port, a long balcony by the Mediterranean Sea, past beaches and quirky little neighborhoods.
You can drive it, but the walk is just as worth it for the sea breeze and the stunning views of the Friul Islands and the towers of the Château Yves in the bay.
One of the most striking is the Vallon des Auffes, a traditional fishing port with a steep entrance surrounded by crumbling old cottages, accessible from the sea below the arches that support the road.
6. Le Parnier
This part of Marseille, north of the old port, has been inhabited since 600 BC and is home to the Greek colony of Massalia.
As the city grew, it became a settlement for waves of immigrants from Marseilles, and even today there are large populations of Maghreb and Corsicans.
It is an area with ochre walls, stone steps and long corridor-like streets that emerge from sun-drenched squares.
Until recently, it was one of the poorest districts of Marseille, as evidenced by La Vieille Charité, a 17th-century Baroque almshouse with three levels of arcade galleries around the chapel.
Now it’s an increasingly trendy area, with independent boutiques and craft shops, cafés and plenty of imaginative street art.
Inaugurated in 2013, MuCEM is a cutting-edge museum that recreates part of Marseille’s seafront near the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean.
The architecture is breathtaking, but what’s inside is actually hard to sum up: it’s an overview of Mediterranean culture and civilization, incorporating art, photographic exhibitions and historical artifacts.
Most visitors agreed that the exhibitions weren’t the most consistent, jumping back and forth between periods and themes, but they were so diverse that there were galleries to grab everyone’s attention.
Tickets include entry to the fortress built by Louis XIV, which is connected to the museum by two bridges.
8. La Plaine and Noailles
There are two blocks to the east of the old port, where you can get a feel for everyday life in Marseille.
Noailles is another area settled by generations of Africans, especially after Algeria became a French territory in 1830. The scruffy and chaotic markets here are open from Monday to Saturday, and the sights and smells may come from North African or Middle Eastern souks, where flatbreads are baked and kebabs are sizzled.
Lapland, near Place Jean Jaurès and a few streets east, is one of the trendiest places in the city.
There are trendy boutiques and bars, as well as a market on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings with a sprawling array of stalls selling everything from fresh produce to fragrances.
Even before a marvelous renovation before Euro 2016, the home of the Olympique de Marseille was one of the temples of world football.
It is now the largest club football stadium in the country with a capacity of 67,000 and is finally protected from the relentless Mistral winds by a spectacular undulating roof.
Despite being an iconic stadium, fans of the city or OM didn’t always appreciate its terraces and going courtside.
10. Avenue Longchamp
One of Marseille’s most inspiring walks can be found along the beautiful Boulevard Longchamp, with its 19th-century luxury houses and two rows of plane trees.
The best way to do this is from the Canebière station to the Palais Longchamp, where the crescent-shaped colonnades and fountains of this magnificent 19th-century complex will slowly come into view.
The Palais Longchamp and its surrounding parks and attractions were built to celebrate the completion of the Marseille Canal, which connected to the Durance River, ending centuries of water problems in the city.
The city’s natural museum and art museum are also located here.
11. Cité Radieuse
Built between 1947 and 1952, the concrete-built apartment was Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s first Unité d’Habitation, a design that would be repeated throughout Europe after the war.
The idea was to transfer a city’s homes, streets and amenities into an 18-story concrete block.
More than a thousand people still live here, but one tour will take you into one of the original restored apartments, and then to the rooftop terrace, where you can look out over the city.
Like all Le Corbusier buildings, it is now protected as a UNESCO site.
L’Estaque is now a northwestern suburb of Marseille, a fishing village that inspired Cézanne, Braque and other late 19th century painters.
Cezanne, in particular, spent a lot of time at L’Estaque, painting scenes of the village and the sea in different seasons.
If you are familiar with his work, you may be excited when you see these seascapes with your own eyes.
The Marseille artist Adolphe Monticelli, another painter associated with the village from this period, has a museum in L’Estaque with the largest collection of his works in the world.
As you stroll, pass the old port with stalls selling panisses (chips made from chickpea flour) and chichis fregis (doughnuts).
13. Roman Pier Museum
Marseille’s ancient history is so rich that one museum isn’t enough to show you everything.
The Muséedes Docks Romains are a few streets on the north side of the old port, in one of the few known Roman commercial warehouses in the world.
They were found after the war, during which the Germans blew up many streets.
What will blow your mind is the dolia, the giant ceramic pot as tall as an adult, capable of storing 2,000 liters of wine or olive oil.
Despite its Mediterranean location and 42 kilometers of coast, Marseille has never been considered a beach destination.
Although the Prado Riviera Park was created in the mid-70s, it reclaimed 40 hectares of sea and paved it with pebbles and sand.
What really makes it a view of the rough white rock at the start of the Calanques in the southeast.
Another option for you to relax by the sea is the Corbière beach in the north, next to L’Estaque.
These are also man-made and, like the Prado, are eroded by breakwaters.
Bouillon bouillon is a Marseille dish cooked all over the world.
It’s a fish and seafood stew, usually made from lean fish of little market value and better cooked, such as scorpion fish, moray eel, and sea robin.
These are simmered in wine, olive oil, and saffron, although the rest of the recipe varies from restaurant to restaurant.
Part of the ritual is rustic bread wrapped in bolognese (a spicy mayonnaise) and then tossed into the soup.
It all goes well with white wines from the Rhone Valley or Languedoc-Roussillon.
On the sweet side, you can choose from navettes, lovely boat-shaped cookies that come in a variety of flavors, from anise to chocolate.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Marseille, France
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