Marseille is as diverse and exciting as Paris but with one big difference – people are friendly! Stop on the street peering at a map and someone will ask if you need directions, while dinner in a restaurant is every bit as likely to end with a embrace goodbye from le patron.
A £6bn facelift when Marseille became one of the European cities of culture in 2013 went a long way to dispelling the city’s reputation for all the reasons you wouldn’t want to visit.
Now it’s a fantastic mix of old and new, edgy and trad, from the cobbled streets winding up to the 19th-century Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde overlooking the port to the glass cube that is the MuCEM building on the end of the pier in the 17th century setting of Fort Saint-Jean.
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What to see and do in Marseille
Get a feel for the city before you go
Watch the recent Netflix series Marseille starring Gerard Depardieu as the larger-than-life mayor of the city. It’s a familiar tale of corruption, political intrigue and –drug deals. But don’t take it too seriously: enjoy it for the views and the city itself – which steals the show from Depardieu.
People watch at Cours Julien
The Cours Julien – Cours Ju’ to those in the know – is an bohemian pedestrianised area with streets lined with vintage clothing shops, restaurants, bars, cafes and extraordinary street art that stops you in your tracks. Stock up with bargain bags of bay leaves and pink peppercorns plus blocks of Marseille’s famous olive oil soap at Wednesday’s farmers’ market.
Go weak at the knees at the thought of Yves Montand in Let’s Make Love with Marilyn Monroe? In nearby Place Jean Jaures there’s a bronze bust of Yves Montand, one of the gods of French cinema and one of Marseille’s most famous sons – despite the inconvenient truth that he was born in Italy.
See the beautiful Vieux Port
It’s a short stroll from the Cours Ju’ down to the Vieux Port and its sheltered marina full of yachts and fishing boats. Sit in one of bars lining the quays and picture Gene Hackman shooting Fernando Ray as he sails out of the harbour on his yacht in the denouement of French Connection II. Or Gerard Depardieu surveying the scene as the larger-than-life mayor in the recent Netflix series Marseille.
Pay the MuCEM a visit
The busy coast road separates the seaside Fort St Jean from the quays before plunging into a tunnel below the marina. Spanning it is a high walkway that may make vertigo-sufferers think twice.
Then from the battlements of the fort you can walk across another unnerving bridge that shoots out over the water, linking the 17th century to the 21st – the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation or MuCEM. This futuristic glass cube with screening of pierced concrete to mimic fretwork screens of north Africa – just across the Med after all – sits at the end of the old pier.
Explore Notre Dame de la Garde
Across the harbour on the highest point of the city, Notre Dame de la Garde, fondly referred to as La Bonne Mere, has the best 360 degree view. Inside, the sanctuary is crammed with votives on behalf of sailors and ships that avoided shipwreck thanks to the virgin’s protection. Some are model ships hanging from the ceiling, others lettered plaques set into the wall or framed paintings.
Explore the cobbled streets leading down from La Bonne Mere for offbeat cafes and bars. Le Comptoir Corse, 18 boulevard Vauban, serves only Corsican food – charcuterie and cheeses – and Corsican wine, and inbetween taking orders and pouring wine le patron Matthieu picks up his guitar and serenades diners.
Closer to the Vieux-Port another Mathieu – this time a coffee roaster – runs Kulte Cafes Debout, 46 rue Francis Davso, where you can sample brews from more than 20 different beans. He also stocks 40 types of tea, plus honey, jams and cakes, of course.
Find out about the best food markets in France
Buy Christmas decorations
While you’re in Marseilles, stock up on Provence’s famous santons – hand-painted terracotta nativity figurines – at Santons Marcel Carbonel on rue Neuve Sainte-Catherine. As well as classic Christmas story characters, you can widen your crib scene by including Provencal figures such as olive pickers, water dowsers and bakers, not to mention donkeys, cats and chickens.
You can visit the workshop to see the whole process, from the original moulds to exquisite painted detail.
Try a traditional biscuit
Follow your nose to Four des Navettes, voie Sacree. Navettes are traditional Marseille pastries, boat-shaped and scented with orange-flower water and this bakery has been making them for more than 200 years. They’re associated especially with the festival of Candlemas on February 2 but are irresistible at any time of year. If you get hooked, you can even order them online once you’re back home, at foursdesnavettes.com
Explore the arts scene at Friche la Belle de Mai
Back inland, not far from the mainline station, Friche la Belle de Mai has the raw energy and excitement of an up and coming art quarter – a former tobacco factory transformed into exhibition space, studios, theatre, plus playgrounds and skate park and a very hip restaurant – Les Grandes Tables, serving straightforward traditional food, plus wood-fired pizzas, from €9-16 a dish.
You can’t go home without some of Marseille’s famous olive oil soap
Place des Huiles, 28 place aux Huiles.
Originally Marseille olive oil soap came in one shape only – a distinctive grey-green embossed cube. Place des Huiles stocks it in all its current forms and fragrances, from manufacturers including the famous Marius Fabre brand from its savonnerie (soap factory) in Salon-de-Provence, about 45km or 50 mins drive north of Marseille.
Not all the modern architecture dates from the city’s 2013 revamp. Le Corbusier’s La Cite Radieuse is his radical modern housing estate of the late 1940s – guided tours ensure you appreciate every aspect of his vision.
Visit Château d'If and the islands of Frioul
To get away from the city, head for clifftop walks at Les Calanques or take a 25 minute boat ride to the islands of Frioul, including a visit to If, home to to Château d'If, the fortress prison where the Count of Monte Cristo was incarcerated. It’s as though the €7bn refurb never happened.
Besides If, with its infamous chateau-prison, there are three other islands. The boat stops at Ratonneau where there’s a small sandy beach and an underwater wildlife trail marked by buoys – you’ll need a snorkel! Connected to Ratonneau by a causeway, Pomègues island is wilder and good for birdwatchers and botanists. Find out about the Frioul If Express.