How to discover Marseille, France's most underappreciated city

Marseille, France
Discover how to spend a weekend in Marseille - vichie81/vichie81

Marseille is going straight – cultured, even. New museums and galleries sprout. Trendy restaurants and bars abound. Hotel openings bang into one another. The 21st-century city is recapturing the trading grandeur of the 19th century. It’s got a sophisticated swagger as it aspires to regain world city status.

Yet it remains Marseille, where the staring sun casts shadows enough for skulduggery. There’s an edge to the place – which is precisely why you should go. If you wanted just museums and hip restaurants, you could go anywhere because everywhere has them. You travel to Marseille for the new-found culture, certainly, but also for the brawling beat of a big port city, picaresque and seductive for the last 2,600 years. For the music, the bombast and football, the Med roots and 50 shades of humanity living life loud. Marseille changes continually but remains its boisterous self; the most overwhelming city in France.

Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do. For further Marseille inspiration, see our guides to the city's best hotelsrestaurants and nightlife and things to do.


In this guide


How to spend your weekend

Day one: Morning

Start your morning at the Vieux Port, or 'Old Port', the city's focal point for 2,600 years. Commercial shipping went round the corner decades ago, so the VP now bobs with pleasure craft, and a few small fishing boats that deliver their daily catch to fishwives on the Quai de la Fraternité. Early morning, they’ll be beheading sea bream – under the vast, reflective stainless steel awning designed by Norman Foster for the quay.

Vieux Port, Marseille
Marseille's port is lined with yachts and fishing boats - Xantana

Now take the hop-on, hop-off Colorbüs (which begins at Vieux Port; colorbus.fr). Colorbüs has one or two-day tickets (£19/£26) and provides an effortless way of getting around some of Marseille’s greatest hits. Hop off at Vallon des Auffes, an unlikely fishing village entirely engulfed by the city.

Hop on again for the long pull up to Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica (Rue Fort du Sanctuaire), topped by a golden Madonna and Child. The golden Virgin is the Bonne Mère who oversees and protects the Marseillais while allowing them to do pretty much as they like. That’s why she’s so revered. Note the ex-votos (including those bearing thanks for the Olympique de Marseille’s soccer victories), the crypt and the extraordinary views over city and sea, then eat at the basilica’s on-site restaurant, the Restaurant de Notre-Dame de la Garde, which recently replaced L’Eau Vive. It’s slightly classier but operates a similar policy of simple, inexpensive food, with a two-course lunch formula from £13.50. And the views over Marseille are first-class.

Marseille, France
Stop by Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica, the most distinctive landmark in the city - Daniiielc/Daniiielc

Afternoon

After lunch take the bus to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM). It’s new, right by the water and appears to be wearing a mantilla. Inside you'll find challenging coverage of Euro-Med cultural themes, taking in art, industry, agriculture, politics and more.

Mucem, Marseille
The architecture of the MuCEM is just as much worth a look as the exhibits inside

Trot across, past the cathedral and up into the Panier district, where Marseille was founded by incoming Greeks. Subsequently, its steep streets and suspect stairways filled up with huddled masses and hoodlums. It’s now gone bourgeois, or so they say. But there’s still a whiff of roguery about the place.

I usually intend to visit the museums of the Vieille Charité – the classically-designed ex-workhouse – but get ambushed by the Bar des 13 Coins. The huge terrace was HQ to Jean-Claude Izzo, poet and crime writer, than whom no one ever wrote better about Marseille.

Le Panier, Marseille
The colourful Le Panier quartier is the perfect neighbourhood to get lost in - Chalffy

Late

Take an aperitif up above the St Victor abbey over the Vieux Port – at, say, the Café de l’Abbaye where smart young professionals spill out onto the pavement.

Have dinner nearby at La Poule Noire, a chic bistro now overseen by new chef Thomas Fridlund. the city-centre HQ of one of Marseille’s brightest young talents. Fridlund has an enviable reputation for his contemporary take on Mediterranean cooking. Try the smoked and marinated lamb, or sea-bream fillets. We recommend this for a weekend dinner, with three courses at £42.

Or come back to the Canebière main drag and, at N°125, nip up to the rooftop Les Réformés. Dinner is a sharing-plates affair, and you’re looking at around £35 a head.

Later, the enormous, funky Palmeraie at 90 Blvd Rabatau will keep you occupied  from midnight till dawn, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It’s called l’Elysée off season, becomes La Palmeraie in May – and can host 1500 boppers a night.

Day two

Morning

Onto La Canebière, Marseille’s monumental main drag running back from the Vieux Port and now regaining the imperial grandeur first established during the port’s trading heyday. Sheer off towards the all-day Capucin market, and associated souk zone of open-fronted spice emporia, stalls, rai music, bazaars, halal butchers and hole-in-the-wall cafés. All nations are here and trying to get a word in edgeways.

Pause for coffee, mint tea or a snack lunch – salad, omelette, sandwich - at the Café Prinder. It’s the oldest in Marseille, in the same Italian family since 1925, and the meeting place for local tradespeople. For more suggestions of the best restaurants in the area, see our guide.

La Canebière, Marseille
La Canebière is Marseille’s emblematic avenue, lined with stately historic buildings - CAHKT

Afternoon

Returning to the Vieux Port, pause at Maison Empereur, the most venerable hardware store in France, dating back to 1827. It’s a sort of Aladdin’s cave of a shop of the sort we all thought had died out in our grandparents’ day – selling pretty much everything you need for the house, the garden or anywhere else in your life. There’s so much to see, you’ll struggle to be out before closing time.

Now, to boat: from the port, take the Frioul-If-Express to the isles. In 20 minutes you’re at If, almost entirely covered by the château-prison in which the future Count of Monte Cristo was gaoled. You’ll be shown his cell, but maybe not reminded that he was, in fact, fictional. The Frioul isles are 20 minutes further on and offer cliffs, creeks and beaches for stirring strolls. The views back to Marseille are outstanding (£9.50 return).

If, France, Marseille
Château d'If served as the fictional prison for The Count of Monte Cristo - stevenallan/stevenallan

Late

You mustn’t leave Marseille without tackling bouillabaisse, the feisty maul of sea-creatures expressing the city’s turbulent spirit in fish stew form. It should come in two servings: first the broth, then the scrum of four to six different fish. Try it by the Vieux Port at Chez Madie Les Galinettes for £40.

Not far away, La Caravelle on the first floor of the Hotel Belle-Vue has been a jazz bar since the inter-war years. There’s live music on Wednesdays and Fridays, October through May. For more suggestions of the best nightlife in the area, see our guide.

Chez Madie Les Galinettes, Marseille
You shouldn't leave Marseille before trying bouillabaisse - Oxana Medvedeva

Insider tips

Neighbourhood watch

The St Victor district, round Rues Sainte and Endoume, seems darkly unpromising, but in actual fact it throbs with hip bars, restaurants and pubs. At 1 Rue d’Endoume, the Repaire de la Poissonerie: it’s the same place) is a lovely oyster and shellfish bar. Stop by on your way back from the Vieux Port.

Attractions

English-language guided visits of Le Corbusier’s ground-breaking Cité Radieuse – a 'machine-for-living' housing development – take place every Saturday morning at 10h30 during school holidays. Tickets must be purchased from the tourist office or online.

City hack

A Marseille City Pass costs €29 (£25) for one day; €39 (£33) for two and €47 (£40) for 72 hours. It affords free access to museums, ferries, public transport and much besides.

Did you know?

Prepare for your trip by reading one of Jean-Claude Izzo’s crime novels, chronicling older, tougher Marseille. Start with Total Chaos (2019).


When to visit

Marseille is an anytime destination. As France’s second city, it never shuts. In winter, the weather may be mild enough for shirtsleeves and lunch on a terrace. Spring and autumn are generally perfect for further outdoor moments – say, walking along the glorious Calanques (limestone creeks). Meanwhile, summer in the city might involve the south-side beaches followed by an al fresco evening until whatever hour you deem is bedtime.


Where to stay

Luxury Living

Centuries of history get a creative modern makeover in one of Marseille's most beautiful landmarks, a palatial 18th-century hospital exquisitely restored to the Intercontinental Marseille Hotel Dieu. The main Michelin-starred restaurant, l’Alcyon, has now closed, but the Les Fenêtres brasserie provides very decent dining, and comes with what may be the loveliest, and biggest, terrace in Marseille.

From

£ 180

pn

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Intercontinental Marseille Hotel Dieu, Marseille
The five-star hotel has a cool, contemporary, marine-themed décor

Boutique Bolthole

Step straight from the crowds and bustle of central Marseille into Hotel la Résidence du Vieux Port, a warm, colourful sanctuary with fabulous views of the harbour and top transport connections. This four-star, family-owned hotel belies its stark exterior to offer a boutique, welcoming, slightly quirky experience.

From

£ 152

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Hotel la Résidence du Vieux Port, Marseille
The atmosphere of Hotel la Résidence du Vieux Port is lively, original and a little eccentric

Budget Beauty

The Marseille member of the fast-growing Mama Shelter clan rocks this mini-chain’s popular formula of low(-ish) prices and light-hearted, high-concept urban chic. Zesty public areas and minimalist bedrooms combine to offer a pleasurable cocooning experience in an outlying district of the city.

From

£ 78

pn

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Mama Shelter Marseille, Marseille
Phillipe Starck is behind Mama Shelter's bright and playful décor

What to bring home

Marseille runs on pastis at the aperitif hour and, indeed, most other hours too. Rather than the big, famous brands, try the herbier Henri Bardouin from the Maison du Pastis.

The soap of Marseille has been known for centuries as useful for those who are allergic to other soaps – and equally wonderful for de-staining and washing clothes. Get the soap and learn its story at the Musée du Savon de Marseille.

Soap of Marseille, Marseille
The gentle soap of Marseille is great for the skin, as well as laundering clothes - valeale2014/valeale2014

Essential information

  • British Consulate in Marseille: (00 33 491 157210; gov.uk), Les Docks de Marseille, Atrium 10.3, 1er Etage/1st Floor, 13002 Marseille. Open Mon, Wed, Fri, 9.30am-12h30, but available for emergencies by phone 24/7.

  • British Embassy, Paris: 00 33 144 513100

  • Emergency services: Dial 112

  • Marseilles Tourist Office: (00 33 826 500500; marseille-tourisme.com), 4 La Canebière

Local laws and etiquette

  • French law requires that you always have personal ID about your person, so keep your passport on you.

  • If driving, you must have a fluorescent yellow bib in the car. It’s to be put on should you break down on a busy road and need to be visible to other motorists – and it’s a legal requirement.

  • When introduced to someone, shake him or her by the hand. All that cheek-kissing comes a little later – and, these (post-)covid days, increasingly rarely.

  • Note that, when offered something (a fill-up of your wine glass, more bread, a minor treat), simply saying “Merci” indicates refusal. If you want more, say: “Oui, s’il vous plait.”

  • Round-the-clock snacking is far less common in France than in the UK – as is eating or drinking in the street. French practices are loosening, but you’re still unlikely to draw admiring glances if you’re walking along at 4pm with pizza in one hand, a can of beer in the other.

The basics

  • Currency: Euro

  • Telephone code: Dial 00 33 491 for Marseille numbers from abroad, 0491 from inside France

  • Time difference: +1 hour

  • Currency: EuroTelephone code: Dial 00 33 491 for Marseille numbers from abroad, 0491 from inside FranceTime difference: +1 hour London to Marseille is about two hours


About our expert

Anthony has several decades' experience of Marseille: he’s seen it open to the 21st century – contemporary museums, fast trains, the chic blast of smart hotels and restaurants – while retaining its boisterous essence. 

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