Marseille The shining city by the sea

Marseille is a dazzling city, contained by mountains on one side and a glistening sea on the other. Its character is hard to define; lacking the elegance and order of a typical French city and the languid romance of an Italian. From its beginnings as Greek Massalia 2,600 years ago, time has blended all that Marseille has lived through into something quite unique.

Don’t be intimidated by the ever-present tag line ‘France’s second city’. Marseille is certainly big, but the points of interest for the visitor are concentrated around the old port, so even on a day trip you can get a sense of Marseille, and we have our recommended Marseille-in-a-day itinerary below. The old port was considerably improved when Marseille was European Capital of Culture in 2013, at great expense, and the legacy for all is a much more satisfying visit.


“Marseille isn’t France. Marseille isn’t Provence. Marseille is the world”
Robert Guediguian

Marseille Gallery

Our Top Ten of Marseille’s Best Sights

  • MUCEM and Fort:  An invigorating mix of old and new architecture with wonderful sea views.
  • Le Panier:  The starting point for Marseille 2,600 years ago – a maze of lanes with stories to tell.
  • Le Vieux Port:  The water’s edge is lined with fishing boats and the pavement with cafes – what could be more Mediterranean?
  • View Port Pavilion:  Norman Foster’s mirrored canopy – beautiful, intriguing and fun.
  • Fish Market:  To find to what’s swimming in those sparkling waters, come to the fish market in the old port where the fishermen sell their haul every morning.

  • Notre-Dame de la Garde:  The church that keeps an eye on things from on high – called the ‘Good Mother’ by locals.
  • Cours Julien:  Trendy bohemian district where the council actually encourages graffiti!
  • Chateau d’If:  Island prison of the Count of Monte Cristo, worth taking the ferry over for the views of Marseille alone.
  • La Vieille Charite:  A restored almshouse with a beautiful galleried courtyard and chapel.
  • Le Marche de Noailles:  Lively food market with North African flavour not far from the port and open all day Monday-Saturday.

Discover Marseille

For Kids

Marseille for kids and the young at heart

  • Chateau d’If:  A brute of a prison fortress on its own island and the setting for Alexandre Dumas’s literary classic The Count of Monte Cristo, who eventually escaped (although he didn’t actually exist).
  • MUCEM:  If not the exhibits inside, kids will enjoy the wraparound ramp and bridges on the outside os this striking museum.
  • Glacier du Roi:  This was the ice cream maker to the young Louis IV. Get the royal scoop at 4 Place du Lenche, 13002 in Le Panier.
  • Vieux Port Pavilion:  A mirrored canopy at the closed end of the port that makes for an excellent, if dizzying game of chase.
  • Le Preau des Accoules:  A children’s art museum in the Panier district designed to educate and entertain, with changing themes and interactive exhibitions, games and puzzles.
  • Little Train:  Young children may not listen to the commentary but they enjoy being on board the Petit Train as you explore the highlights of Marseille.
  • Giant pots of olive trees:  Surely this was designed specifically for hide and seek? Find them just behind the town hall on the old port.
  • Hit the beach:  Marseille has a nice (and busy) sandy beach right in town (Catalan beach), but for more infrastructure take the bus to the beach at Parc Borely just to the south of town, where you will find cafes, restaurants, playground, skatepark, even a ferris wheel in season.


Marseille for foodies

  • Michelin Stars:  If your stomach is empty and your wallet full, Marseille has 7 Michelin-starred restaurants, of which Le Petit Nice has three stars.
    Le Petit Nice, 17 Rue des Braves, 13007
  • La Halles de la Major:  A new restaurant experience in which quality food stalls are grouped under one roof. You can take your goodies away but if you’d rather eat on site, a waiter will take care of you.
    12 Quai de la Tourette, 13002
  • Food Markets:  Marche de Noailles (Rue du Marché des Capucins, 13001) and Les Puces de Marseille (weekends until 2pm, 130 Chemin de la Madrague de la Ville, 13015) both have a strong North African flavour – it’s a good place to find specialist ingredients or stop for delicious flatbread or sweet Moroccan mint tea.
  • Fish Market:  If you want fish and shellfish straight out of the fishermen’s nets, go to the old port any morning from 8am, where the little boats unload onto their individual stalls.


Marseille for fans of history

If you like to get to know a place through its history, here are the recommended buildings and neighbourhoods to discover in Marseille.

  • Musee de l’histoire de Marseille:  Not far from the port, and entered via the shopping centre La Bourse. Contains a mix of artefacts, archeological fragments and ancient Greek and Roman ships. Centre Bourse, 2 Rue Henri Barbusse, 13001
  • Le Panier:  The old town is where you’ll find the roots of Marseille, amid the narrow streets that rise up from the old port. The Temple of Artemis stood at the highest point, Butte des Moulins, while the agora (market place) was at the site of Place de Lenche.
  • La Vieille Charité:  The highlight of the Panier district, is an almshouse built in the 18th century, now hosting the museums of Mediterranean Archaeology and the Museum of Art of Africa, Oceania and Amerindia. It’s worth seeing just for the architecture: a triple-decker of arcaded galleries surround a courtyard and Baroque chapel.
    2 Rue de la Charité, 13002
  • The Great Plague of Marseille:  The plague came in 1720 when greedy merchants forced the lifting of a quarantine on a ship loaded with silk, cotton and…the plague. Forty per cent of the population died and parts of the ineffective ‘mur de la peste’ (plague wall) built to protect the rest of Provence can still be seen in parts of the Luberon region to the north.
  • World War II:  As an unoccupied port Marseille became a haven for refugees and resistance fighters, tragically not escaping the attention of the Germans. With assistance from the French police, 2,000 Jews were sent to camps, while 40,000 residents were evicted and parts of the old town dynamited – it is said that the order came directly from Hitler.
  • Notre Dame de la Garde:  The church that dominates Marseille, standing high above the city on a 162-metre limestone peak. It holds a great many ex-votos offered in thanks, from paintings to model ships suspended from the ceiling. Completed in 1864 on the site of an earlier C13th church, its stripes are down to the layered stonework in green and white.
    Rue Fort du Sanctuaire, 13281
  • Fort Saint-Jean:  With foundations going back to the 12th century this group of defensive buildings at the entrance to the port includes the Knights Hospice and the 15th-century watchtower Tour de Roi René. During World War II the fort was used as an ammunitions store by the German military. Fort Saint-Jean is linked by walkway to MUCEM at the entrance to the old port.
  • Cathedral Sainte Marie Majeure:  The cathedral was built in the 1850s on the orders of Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte and is simply enormous, at 142m (466ft) long. The outside is striped with green stone from Tuscany, the inside with red from Cassis. On this site once stood a 5th century baptistry, from which a large mosaic has been preserved. Opposite MUCEM, in Place de la Major.
  • The Hotel Dieu:  Founded to care for abandoned children in 1188. Remains of the church and hospice are on display in what is now a hotel. The building you see today was inaugurated by Napoleon III in 1866 and became the city’s main hospital, the last patients leaving in 1993.
    1 Daviel Square, 13000
    (Note: A ‘hotel’ in French is not always a hotel. Hotel Dieu is a general hospital,  Hotel de Ville is a town hall and a Hotel Particular is a private mansion.)
  • And if you’re wondering about the shiny new tower that now dominates the skyline around the commercial harbour, it’s the Tour French Line from Iraqi-British star architect Zaha Hadid – and at 147m high it is Marseille’s tallest building.


Marseille for art lovers

Marseille’s art scene really moved up a gear thanks to the 2013 Capital of Culture improvements, especially in terms of the new spaces created. So far there aren’t many well-known collections or blockbuster exhibitions, and sometimes the new buildings themselves are more stimulating than their contents, but if you build it they will come…

  • MUCEM:  “The rocky bottom of the ocean, lifted up” is how architect Rudy Ricciotti describes his building. The result, with its enviable shoreline location, makes it one of Marseille’s top attractions, even if you don’t visit the hodge-podge of exhibits inside.
    7 Promenade Robert Laffont, 13002 Marseille
  • Musee Cantini:  Lovely setting in 17th century mansion right in the city centre with some serious 20th century artists in its permanent collection – Picasso, Kandinsky, Rothko, Miro and Leger – and temporary shows for more recent artists.
    19 Rue Grignan, 13006 Marseille
  • Musee des Beaux Arts:  Set within the Palais Longchamp with its magical and extravagant fountain. Contains 16th-19th century European and Provencal painting.
    7 Rue Edouard Stephan, 13004 Marseille
  • MAMO:  Modern art gallery on the designer rooftop of the infamous 1950s Le Corbusier housing estate La Cité Radieuse – also known as ‘la maison du fada” (the madman’s house). MAMO is a stunning open exhibition space with views and free entry.
    280 Boulevard Michelet, 13008 Marseille
  • La Friche:  Industrial wasteland and former tobacco factory turned community arts centre, off the tourist trail in location and content.
    41 Rue Jobin, 13003 Marseille
  • FRAC:  Panels of recycled glass glitter in the sun on this museum of contemporary art by the docks
    20 Boulevard de Dunkerque, 13002 Marseille
  • Musee de Regards de Provence:  Opposite MUCEM, a wonderfully calm and serene gallery with sheltered views across the sea. The collection is mainly of local artists. You can also skip the art and enjoy the rather lovely cafe terrace with a view on the top floor.
    Allee Regards de Provence, Avenue Vaudoyer, 13002 Marseille


Getting to Marseille

Car:  If you are driving, head for the Vieux Port, this is the hub for visitors to Marseille. The MUCEM carpark (Vieux-Port Fort Saint-Jean, Esplanade J4, Boulevard du Littoral, Marseille 13002) is a good place to drop the car and explore on foot. Alternative underground carparks around the Vieux Port area are Bourse,  and Hotel de Ville.  MUCEM  (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) is a useful landmark with its dominating sea front position and stark black latticework.

If you decide to explore Marseille further by car, you will absolutely need a GPS. Remember that the main roads and port run east to west, don’t be daunted by the long underground tunnels that help avoid the congested streets, and be prepared to get a little lost!

Coming in on the A55 highway from the north brings you straight to the Vieux Port.

Train:  Marseille’s main station, the Gare St Charles, is right in town and is the southern terminus for the high-speed TGV network. This means you can get there by TGV from any major town in France. From Paris the journey time is 3 hours. There are several direct Eurostar trains from London each week, journey time is 6 hours. And there are direct services from outside France: Brussels, Geneva, Frankfurt and Barcelona.

Non-TGV trains fan out in all directions from Marseille, for example to Aix, and east along the Riviera to the Italian border. And don’t forget the Blue Coast (Cote Bleue) line that runs west along the dramatic coastline and is worth taking just for the views.


Plane:  Marseille Airport is out of town, the best ways to get in to Marseille are taxi (about 60 euros) and the shuttle bus (called a ‘navette’) that runs every 15-20 minutes. The bus stop is by terminal 3/4, which is just to the right if you arrive at terminal 1, and 5 minutes walk to the right if you arrive at mp2 (for low-cost airlines). Buy tickets before boarding at the ticket office that says ‘Navettes’, or on the bus if the office is closed. The Marseille shuttle bus costs 8.20 euros one way for an adult, half-price for under-11s.

Marseille airport has flights from all over France and Europe; from the UK on Easyjet and Ryanair, and British Airways from London Heathrow.

Transatlantic:  The easiest route is likely to be flying into Paris CDG airport, then either an internal flight to Marseille, or the high-speed TGV train which goes from Paris CDG airport to Marseille St Charles station in under 4 hours. The only non-stop transatlantic flights to Marseille are from Montreal and Toronto on Air Transat.

Getting around Marseille

Walking:  Marseille is a big city but much of what will interest you as a visitor, from attractions to restaurants, is gathered around the old port, so exploring that whole area on foot is easily done.

Public Transport:  Marseille has a network of metro, tram and bus, as well as a city bike scheme. If you’re keen to use local public transport consider a 24-hour CityPass at 24 euros which will give you access to Marseille’s museums, the ferry and castle visit, and the little train tour alongside bus, tram and metro.


Le Petit Train:  Le Petit Train has two tours: one visits the docks and Le Panier, while the other takes the Corniche (coastal road) and stops at the church of Notre Dame de la Garde.  Both start from the port (near the Hotel de Ville) and take just over an hour, cost 8 euros. An obligatory stop is made at Le Panier (30 minutes) and Notre Dame de la Garde (20 minutes). The little train is a surprisingly efficient way to take in the key sites.


L’Open Tour:  This is an open-top bus tour following much the same route as the little train with the advantage that you can get off at any of the 13 stops then pick up the next bus that comes along. A day pass is 19 euros.


Tuk-Tuk:  A two-hour private tour (up to 6 people) on a Tuk-Tuk costs 125 euros and starts at the Tourist Office.

To Note

Things to note

  • If you drive in, head for one of the car parks near the old port, and then forget about the car.
  • Except… if you want to visit the church on the hill, Notre Dame de la Garde, you can drive up and park outside.
    Marseille is a big city, and in big cities you get pick-pockets and bag-snatchers, so be careful as you would in any city. And, as is true anywhere in the world, don’t leave valuables visible in your car. This is Provence, but there are still disadvantaged people who need your money, so don’t make it easy for them.

We Like

What we like

  • Multicultural:  Being a city on the Mediterranean, Marseille is the proverbial melting pot of all the cultures that came by sea – Marseille is anything but bland.
  • Old Port:  With all the recent investment, Marseille’s vieux port is now a tourism hub worthy of France’s second city.
  • Urban:  Marseille is more gritty and ‘real’ than other places on the coast, sometimes you miss that even in Provence!
  • Seafood:  How fresh and varied the seafood is, and how it is still brought in on traditional small fishing boats.
  • Shopping:  Marseille has great shopping, from souk-like markets to high-end brands, and everything in between.

Marseille Restaurants

Below you will find our Marseille restaurant recommendations: