Planning a Trip to Marseille
France’s oldest and second-largest city is a major port and jumping-off point for travelers spending time along the French Riviera or the Provence region. You can either fly direct into the Marseille’s international airport or arrive by rental car or train—it’s just over three hours by high-speed rail from Paris.
Many visitors choose to leave the city off their itinerary due to its somewhat seedy reputation, but it’s worth spending some time here, even if you only have just a day or two. With more than 2,000 years of history, the city was founded on the site of the ancient Greek colony of Massalia around 600 BCE. Despite all this history, Marseille is not overrun with tourists, as is the case with other French cities, and Marseille is evolving into a cultural destination in the wake of being named the European Capital of Culture in 2013. Vibrant neighborhoods, classic grandeur architecture, and modern new museums all add to its unique charm, which reveals itself slowly, in many ways. The more time you have to spend here—up to a week or more—the more you'll find it. Plus, it's central location along France's Mediterranean coast offers numerous possibilities for day-trips to villages, towns, and beaches in the Côte d'Azur when you need an urban break.
Marseille's hilly streets are best explored on foot, but to get around the city's outskirts, pick up a Marseille City Pass for free access to several museums, a guided tour and free access to public transport. The city has two metro lines (Métro 1 and Métro 2), two tram lines (yellow and green), and an extensive bus network—just be wary of pickpockets and keep your wits about you, especially in touristy areas and after sundown.
Marseille in 1 to 2 Days
Travelers pressed for time can easily see some of the best sites on foot in a day or two.
Start your Marseille adventure in the maritime center, the Vieux Port (Old Harbor)—a great introduction to the city with plazas, esplanades, and harbor views, which during summer months, is jammed with yachts and pleasure crafts. If here in the morning, keep an eye out for the Quai des Belges where fisherman delivers their latest catch to be sold at the fish market by the water.
Next, you can also follow a walkway to Fort Saint-Jean, a fortification dominating the port that was built in 1660 by Louis XIV. Look for one of the two bridges attached to the fort which leads to the cutting-edge Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM), a sleek museum dedicated to European and Mediterranean civilizations from ancient times to the present day with three floors of art, photography, costumes, jewelry, and other historic artifacts (there's even a rooftop terrace for a relaxing break). Entry to the fort is included in the ticket and offers stunning vistas of the port and bay, so you'll want to snag some photos while here.
Easily accessible from here is Marseille’s Old Town, or Le Panier—the oldest and certainly the most colorful neighborhoods in not only Marseille but also France. This multicultural area was first inhabited in 600BC, when the Greeks settled here, and later from working-class immigrants from Italy, Corsica, and North Africa. This charming enclave is now inhabited by young creative professionals and will bedazzle visitors with its narrow, cobbled streets and stairwells offering street art and cheerfully painted pastel-hued buildings, as well as boutiques, cafes, and ancient churches. It's a great place to take a long meandering stroll.
Consider returning to Marseille’s massive port in time for sunset where you can find a spot to sip a good pastis (anise-flavored apéritif) or beer as the sun goes down. Along with bars, there are plenty of fish restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating.
Check out this France itinerary that includes a full day in Marseille with other Provençal highlights.
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Marseille in 3 to 4 Days
With an extra day or two, you can easily fit in some additional attractions.
Take a morning walk to the Jardin des Vestiges, a beautiful botanical garden created by a renowned landscape architect features archeological Greek remains from the Roman Empire with remnants of the port and docks and even a necropolis. The garden is conveniently part of the Marseille History Museum, so once you’re done exploring the greenery, head inside to the museum and learn more about the garden and the city’s lengthy history (it is said to be the largest urban history museum in France). History buffs can easily spend a half-day here checking out the ancient ship hull, along with mosaics and medieval artifacts stretching from the Ancient Greeks to the 20th century. Take a guided tour or explore on your own.
It’s hard to miss the exquisite Romanesque-Byzantine basilica called Notre-Dame de la Garde, one of Marseille’s most famous landmarks, situated on the top of a hill overlooking the city and sea. Take a big walk on foot or jump on the regular transit from the Vieux Port, which drops you right up to the basilica’s entrance. Enter for free and see the glorious mosaic interior, the bell tower, numerous statues, a golden interior nave, individual chapels, and a basement crypt. Also, take some time to enjoy the stunning panoramic views of the old port and surrounding neighborhoods.
Another half-day excursion in Marseille is a walk along the Boulevard Longchamp, lined with upscale 19th-century houses, plane trees, a pretty park. Here, you'll also find the city’s beautiful Natural Museum and Museum of Fine Arts with several floors of exquisite sculptures, paintings, and drawings from French, Italian, Spanish, and Flemish artists between the 16th to 19th centuries.
In the Bay of Marseille is the Château d'If, an island with a fortress-turned-prison, which is featured in Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo. Construction of this three-story structure was ordered by King Francis I himself and finished in 1531—it later housed over 3,000 prisoners. Today, the château offers guided tours and pretty 360-degree views.
While exploring the city's dining scene (focusing on seafood and Provençal specialties), look for Marseille’s famous dish, bouillabaisse, a fish and seafood stew cooked typically with olive oil, white wine, and saffron. On the sweeter side, keep an eye out for navettes, symbolic boat-shaped biscuits in a variety of flavors, including orange blossom and chocolate.
Here is an exciting road trip itinerary that includes three days in Marseille.
Marseille in 5 to 6 Days
With this much time in Marseille, make sure to spend some quality time in Calanques National Park, only a short distance from the city. The entire 20-mile area has a specific eco-system that has been protected since 2012, and it provides an exceptional nature refuge from the bustling city. No developments here—what you'll find are white limestone cliffs plunging into the sea, inlets that resemble fjords, crystal-clear blue water, hidden beaches, and beautiful hiking trails. In fact, the park's 21,000 acres (8,500 hectares) spans between Marseille, Cassis, and La Ciotat with endless trails through pine trees and places to explore for every fitness level. No surprise, the region is hugely popular in summer.
Spend the day hiking, swimming, and kayaking on your own, or choose to take a mini-cruise or private boat tour from Cassis where you'll visit many of the prettiest inlets—many of which are only accessible by boat—as you travel through an irresistible kaleidoscope of blues that become milky turquoise and crystalline depending on the depth of the sea, with plenty of stops to swim. Following your park adventures, take some free time to explore the charming harbor and streets of Cassis, loaded with good bistros, bars and boutiques, before returning to Marseille.
Back in the city, you can check out more neighborhoods like La Plaine, one of the trendier parts of the city with a cool, underground scene. Here there are stylish boutiques, restaurants, and bars, as well as a market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings with a network of stalls selling fresh regional products. A good place to start is by walking along the pedestrian streets between the Cours Julien and Place Jean Jaurès.
Another museum to keep in mind is the Musée des Docks Romains near the Old Port. This is the site of one of the world's most historic port warehouses used by the Romans. View a number of items like giant ceramic vessels, jugs, and jars for storing wine or olive oil, as well as artifacts like coins and ancient measuring devices, which were uncovered by archaeologists after the war thanks to Germans who used dynamite in the streets. It's a neat museum to wander through, with modern light and sound installations, as it proves the thriving maritime trade business of Marseille between the 4th and 6th centuries.
For inspiration, check out this Luxury, Art, & Food in France itinerary that includes multiple days each in Paris, Marseille, and Provence.
Marseille in 7 Days or More
One of the best things about spending a week or more in Marseille is having access to the rest of the region of Provence, with a number of day-trip options. A popular place to visit is Aix en Provence, or simply "Aix", as it's commonly called. Just an hour away from Marseille, this small city is set amidst iconic villages and landscapes famous for vineyards, lavender-blanketed fields, and limestone cliffs, which have been immortalized in the works of painters such as Picasso, Kandinsky, and Cezanne. Cezanne also spent a lot of time in L’Estaque, a northwestern suburb of Marseille, where you can wander the old port and snack on panisses (crisps made with chickpea flour).
There are more beaches to explore near Marseille as well. A few miles south of the city center is Plages Escale Borely, one of the top stretches of sand near Marseille Port with a wide variety of bars, cafés, restaurants, and boutiques, as well as vendors selling watersport rentals. It's a great opportunity to sit, swim, and relax in the sun.
You can also use the extra time to further delve into Marseille's multicultural areas. Noailles, for instance, is an area where North Africans settled. Check out the bustling market that runs from Monday to Saturday, with sights and scents that could be from a souk in North Africa or the Middle East. You'll also have plenty of ethnic restaurants in the city to consider. For instance, Le Souk in Marseille’s Old Port is a Moroccan-themed restaurant where you can sample traditional North African couscous dishes, kebabs, and even a ‘tagine of the day’.
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