Firmly settled on the stunning Mediterranean coast, Marseille is one of the largest cities in France, second only to Paris. But that’s not its only claim to fame – Marseille also holds the title of the country’s oldest city. The city prides itself on its cultural diversity and rich history in the arts; this place has romanced many famous artists including Renoir and Cezanne. A city that barely sleeps, these days Marseille is known for its excellent café culture, delicious local cuisine, world-class beaches and vibrant shopping and nightlife.
Start your Marseille itinerary with a trip to one of its most prized structures, Notre-Dame de la Garde. An imposing Neo-Byzantine Catholic basilica perched on a hilltop, Notre-Dame de la Garde is a must-see attraction. Don’t just admire it from below; make your way up the hill, either on foot or by bus or tourist train. Upon your arrival you’ll be hard pressed to decide which is more beautiful – the multi-coloured stones, gold, mosaics and grand columns of the basilica’s interior, or the breathtaking panoramic views over Marseille.
Next, a trip to Musée des Beaux Arts. Taking up residence in a wing of the majestic Palais Longchamp, this stunning museum is the oldest in Marseille. Step inside and discover an excellent collection of French and Italian paintings and sculptures, which date back as early as the 16th century.
When you’ve had your fill, explore the neighbouring Natural History Museum or join the locals relaxing in the surrounding park. For a touch of history, take a trip to Fort Saint-Jean. Constructed under the order of Louis XIV in 1660, this impressive fort sits proudly on the water’s edge guarding the Old Port of Marseille. Spend an afternoon exploring the museum exhibitions and strolling through the gardens. Then find a spot to watch the local fishermen and take in views of Marseille and the Mediterranean Sea.
Eat and Drink
The specialty in Marseille is bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew enhanced with fragrant saffron, thyme, fennel and orange zest. The local drink of choice is pastis, an aniseed-infused aperitif that is diluted with water. Take a seat in any of the charming bars at the Vieux Port (Old Port) and enjoy your pastis in the late afternoon as the sun dips below the horizon. For local coffee, head to Cours Julien, a quaint city square which is lined with cafés. If you’re after nightlife take a 20-minute bus ride south of the city to Escale Borely, a beachside hotspot popular with the younger crowds.
Where to Stay
If you want to situate yourself in the centre of it all, Vieux Port, with its atmospheric surrounds, dining options, sightseeing and bars, is the place to be. Book in to one of the more up-market hotels close to the waterfront if you want to wake up to sparkling views of the port each morning. If an artisan neighbourhood steeped in history is more your style, Le Panier, with its narrow streets filled with crowded washing lines and chattering locals, might be just what you’re after.
Marseille is well known for its soap, savon de Marseille, which has been made in the city for around 600 years. It’s said that there are only a few genuine makers of this specialty left, so ask around before buying. Le Panier is great for vintage shopping and unique boutiques, while Rue Paradis and Rue Saint Ferreol serve up a dose of high fashion luxury to rival Paris. Located near the Old Port, the Centre Bourse is a huge shopping complex offering up-market fashion and lifestyle products under one roof.
Marseille Like a Local
Do something truly memorable and attend a performance at the grand Opéra de Marseille. The site of this building (the original was almost completely destroyed in a fire) has been entertaining the people of Marseille since 1787. The Art Deco architecture along with the rich and opulent multi-level auditorium of the current building (completed in 1924) will reel you in for a night of entertainment to relish for years to come.