It may not be the crown jewel of the South of France but Marseille has always been one of the country’s most important cities. Not only is the second largest, it’s also the oldest city in France, founded by the Greeks in 600 B.C. Marseille was immortalized during the French Revolution in 1792 when hundreds of volunteer soldiers from this port city marched into Paris, loudly singing what would become France’s national anthem: La Marseillaise.
Unfortunately, high crime rates have stained the city’s reputation, leaving this once so glorious place struggling to attract tourists. But we’re here to show you that there’s more to Marseille than its reputation would lead you to believe. We did find beauty behind this French city’s unpolished facade. You just have to know where to look. So, are you ready to discover some of the Marseille tourist attractions? From the Old Port of Marseille to the colorful Le Panier district and the endless views from Notre-Dame de la Garde, check out the best places to see and things to do in Marseille.
We visited Marseille as a day trip during our exploration of the Mediterranean coastline between the gorgeous cities of Cassis and Saint-Tropez. You’ll find a map at the end of this post which will help you visualize the area. And for your convenience, we’ve also indicated the best places to see and things to do in Marseille as mentioned in this article.
Depending on your planning, it might be interesting to get the Marseille City Pass.
Essential things to do in Marseille on a day trip
– Explore the old port of Marseille
The city’s beating heart is, and has always been, the Old Port of Marseille or Vieux Port de Marseille. It’s guarded by two forts: the Fort Saint-Jean in the north and the Fort Saint-Nicolas in the south. This Marseille tourist attraction has consistently been the most significant economic motor. Especially since its 2013 facelift, the Port de Marseille is also one of the city’s most picturesque places to explore.
Cruises moor at the Port of Joliette, just north of the old port because the historic Vieux Port de Marseille is not deep enough to accommodate these giant vessels. And that’s actually a good things since it keeps the pretty postcard views intact. The Old Port of Marseille is where both yachts and traditional fishing boats, the pointus, harbour. Every morning, you can see the fishermen present and filet the catch of the day at the fish market which takes places at the Quai des Belges.
The mirrored sun canopy offers excellent protection from the sun and a creative selfie angle.
Dozens of cafés, ice-cream salons and restaurants line the Old Port of Marseille. The perfect opportunity to watch the lively scenes with a glass of Pastis or a bowl of bouillabaisse Marseillaise. During the summer months, the northern Quai du Port is also home to a provencal market where you can shop for that perfect souvenir. The iconic Marseille Soap adds a fragrant note to the market’s idyllic setting.
– Visit the MuCEM
At the end of the Quai du Port, right at the oceanside entrance of the city, you’ll find Marseille’s contemporary architectural highlight: the MuCEM or Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. This remarkable design by Rudy Rucciotti was built in 2013 on the port’s breakwater J4 and includes the historic Fort Saint-Jean (17th century fortress commissioned by the Sun King of Versailles).
A pedestrian bridge connects both worlds, the old and the new, and offers striking panoramic views. The exterior area, including the mediterranean garden, is open to the public and free of charge. Note that the MuCEM is closed on Tuesdays.
– Wander the Le Panier district
Le Panier is Marseille’s old town, located on the hill adjacent to the Vieux Port. The easiest way to access it, is by climbing the steps next to the 17th century Town Hall or Hôtel de Ville. This lively district features a colorful mix of pastel houses adorned with colorful graffiti and green plants dotting the grey alleys.
To add to its colorful character, bright and cheerful street art adorns the Le Panier walls.
Le Panier once has a not-so-glorious and bad reputation but managed to create a whole now, artsy identity. Perfectly imperfect and colorfully authentic is how we’d describe this pleasant, largely pedestrian, neighbourhood. It’s not only home to picture-perfect boutiques and instagram-worthy little cafés but also to some important monuments.
The Vieille Charité or Old Charity was built as a refuge for the poor. After the French Revolution, it became a hospice for children and elderly. It’s a beautiful 17th century building, with an inner courtyard and baroque chapel. The Vieille Charité now hosts temporary exhibits and houses both the Mediterranean Archeology Museum and the Museum of African, Oceanian and Native American Art.
Close to the museum, you’ll find the 19th century Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure or Cathédrale de La Major. This huge Cathedral is built Byzantine style and reflects the various backgrounds of the district’s inhabitants.
Another eye-catcher in Le Panier Marseille is the Hôtel Dieu. This 18th century building, which used to serve as a hospital, has been converted into a glamorous hotel, the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu.
No better way to end your visit to Le Panier in Marseille than with a delicious ice-cream. We loved the lavender and pastis flavored scoops at the Vanille Noire café in Rue Caisserie.
– Enjoy the view from Notre Dame de la Garde
The Basilique de Notre-Dame de la Garde, lovingly called la Bonne Mère (the Good Mother) by the city’s inhabitants, is one of the most famous landmarks in France. I towers out over the city of Marseille from atop a 161 m high cliff. Built in 1864 by architect Henry-Jacques Espérandieu, la Bonne Mère features a combination Roman and neo-Byzantine or Byzantine Revival in Italian marble adorned with stunning mosaics. Its most impressive feature is the 60 m high bell-tower topped with a 10 m monumental statue of Virgin Mary on a 14 m pedestal. This statue, considered to be the protector of sailors, is visible from both land and sea.
The esplanade around the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica offers the most impressive views over Marseille city and the Mediterranean. An orientation table points out the various Marseille attractions.
More Marseille sightseeing spots
– Marseille must-sees south of the Vieux Port
Across from the Old Port of Marseille, on the site of a former galley ship yard, you’ll find the Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves. It’s a lovely open space fringed by the typical ochre houses with green shutters. The various restaurants, bars and fancy boutiques create a lively atmosphere.
You’ll find several street markets in Marseille but the most colorful one is definitely the Noailles market with its North African touch. It’s held daily on the west side of the Marché-des-Capucins street. The other side of the street leads to Marseille’s Cours Julien district featuring street art around every corner, vintage boutiques and a bohemian vibe.
The Abbaye Saint-Victor dates back to the 5th century. For centuries, this was one of the catholic hotspots in the South of France. The Abbey’s church, rebuilt in the 12th century, is the only remaining building.
The Pharo Palace and Gardens are a lovely place for a Marseille picnic. You can find the former Pharo Palace, commissioned by Napoleon III for Empress Eugenie, at the far end of the south quay. Nowadays, the Palace de Pharo mainly hosts exclusive meetings and events but the garden is open to the public.
Vallon des Auffes is a seaside district of Marseille, mostly known for its picturesque port. But also its restaurant Chez Fonfon might ring a bell, since it’s the best place to go in Marseille to indulge in a traditional bouillabaisse. It’s the quintessential Marseille dish that consists of a fish soup starter followed by a main course of the fish itself.
A small city within Marseille City is how you could describe La Cité Radieuse or L’Unité d’Habitation. It was an avant-garde housing project intended to provide affordable yet comfortable accommodation to the inhabitants after WW II. Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier designed this communal living complex in his typical brutalist style. You’ll find apartments, shops, a hotel, a restaurant and a number of other businesses not to mention some exceptional city views from the rooftop. La Cité Radieuse isn’t located in the heart of Marseille so you’ll need to rely on public transport to reach it.
– Longchamp Palace and Park
Another Marseille park that deserves a visit is Parc Longchamp. Marseille suffered from water shortage in the 19th century. Thanks to an innovative network of tunnels and aqueducts, an engineering team was able to supply the city with fresh water from the Durance River. The Palais Longchamp was built at the exact place where the water enters Marseille. It’s an ode to this life-changing intervention. It now houses the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Natural History. The French Ministry of Culture designated Parc Longchamp as one of the Notable Gardens of France.
– Boat tours from Marseille
The sparkling Mediterranean offers some excellent opportunities to discover the Marseille coastal area. Here are the most popular options for boat tours from Marseille:
The Frioul Islands If, Pomègues, Ratonneau and Tiboulen. This archipelago offers is almost like a little paradise thanks to its microclimate, aquamarine waters, rare flowers, hidden coves, limestone formations and pristine beaches. Most tourists take a shore excursion to the island of If, known for its Château d’If. Soon after the construction of this16th century fortress, which had been commissioned by King François I, it was converted into a prison. Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo features this fascinating castle.
The Calanques National Park forms another popular Marseille boat excursion destination. You can find these rocky inlets in between the coastline’s limestone cliffs from Marseille to Cassis. With their crystal-clear waters, secluded beaches and charming restaurants, these natural wonders are tourist-magnets. Calanque de Sormiou is Marseille’s most popular one and therefore very crowded during peak season. Visiting the Calanques by boat will only allow you to see them from a distance. For the ultimate experience and a refreshing dip, we’d recommend hiking the Calanques.
Another popular boat trip from Marseille is one to the seaside town L’Estaque. This excursion, available from April to October, allows you to moor in this idyllic town and explore its well-known streets. During over half a century, L’Estaque charmed numerous renowned painters: Cézanne, Braque and Renoir to name a few. The town’s scenic location was a source of inspiration for some of their impressionist, fauvist and cubist masterpieces. You can still retrace their steps in the self-guided Route of the Painters of Estaque itinerary (Le Chemin des Peintres de l’Estaque).
If you want to venture beyond the Marseille coast line, there are two options: If you head out left along the Côte d’Azur, you’ll reach Cassis, St Tropez, Cannes and Nice. If you head out right then the lesser-known but equally gorgeous Côte Bleu, dotted with charming seaside towns, leads to the Camargues. Both sides offer plenty of options for fabulous Provence day trips.
Things to know about Marseille: Is Marseille safe?
During the 19th century, the city benefited from a flourishing marine trade and the colonialism in Algeria. But during World War II, Marseille was badly damaged and crime networks started to thrive. Soon after, when Algeria fought for its independence, Marseille welcomed a large number of immigrants. Because of underinvestment, the city had to cope with crime and poverty. Ever since Marseille became European Capital of Culture back in 2013, the city’s been trying to catch up by investing in culture. In other French cities, low-income households live in the suburbs while the bourgeoisie resides in the heart of the city. In Marseille, it’s the other way round: The poorest live in the center while rich families reside in neighbouring coastal towns. Yes, crime rates are high, especially in some neighbourhoods, but not when compared to those in most American cities.
The safest neighbourhoods are the ones surrounding the Vieux Port de Marseille (districts 1, 4, 5, 6 and 7). If you’re concerned about your safety, then consider the places north of that area (especially north o the 1st district) a no-go zone. Also, avoid to walk around the city at night. We explored the direct area around the Vieux Port during the day and not once did we feel unsafe. Although I have to admit that, when we ventured towards the railway station, we were pretty shocked by the poverty. Many houses look as if they could collapse any minute. And that’s a real threat in Marseille, where houses are so dilapidated that they often pose a security risk. Many inhabitants, too poor to have their houses renovated, blame the city for over-investing in tourism and under-investing in housing.
Getting to Marseille
When visiting Marseille by train, you’ll arrive in the Gare St Charles railway station. And just like that, you can immediately tick a checkbox: Rhe station’s monumental staircase is a work of art in itself and therefore one of the recommended things to see in Marseille. The staircase with its elegant statues, dating back to the early 20th century’s colonial exhibitions, reflects Marseille’s diverse background.
If you’ll be arriving in Marseille by car, then we’d strongly advise you to opt for an underground parking. We found the Parking Indigo – Estienne d’Orves to be very conveniently located, close to all major Marseille must-sees. We would not recommend to park your car in the street.
Getting around Marseille
You can easily walk to the most popular of Marseille’s sightseeing spots. If you want to see all there is to see, then we’d recommend taking the tourist train. It’s reliable, effortless, affordable and offers different routes. Plus, it’s included in the Marseille City Pass.
There are plans to install a cable car from the port to the clifftop.
With so many exciting things to do in Marseille, you could easily spend two days in the city. More if you want to see the surroundings or explore the beaches near Marseille. Here are the hotels we’d recommend:
- Intercontinental Marseille Hôtel Dieu
- NH Collection Marseille
- Les Bords de Mer
- Hotel Nhow Marseille
- Hôtel C2
Map of the Marseille must-see attractions
This Marseille map mentions all things to do and places to see in Marseille as mentioned in this article.
That’s it for this Marseille travel guide. We truly hope that we’ve managed to peak your interest. There really is more to Marseille than its reputation would lead you to believe. We’re confident that the city’s now on track to becoming a popular city break destination. So, next time you’re in the South of France, we hope you’ll check it out for yourself. Now, we can’t wait to read all about your Marseille experience in the comment section!
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