If you only have a day to spend in Marseille, you are going to want to spend it at the Vieux Port. Marseille’s Old Port has a bit of everything: a beautiful harbor, a modern new museum, a charming old neighborhood, gorgeous cathedral, restaurants, bars, hotels, and more.
The Vieux Port is has been a natural harbor and landmark attracting visitors for thousands of years, dating back to Greek and Roman times. The city of Marseille claims to be among the oldest in France dating to at least 600 BC, even older than historic rival Paris which was founded around 250 BC.
And as someone with plenty of family in Marseille and the surrounding area, it never fails to take my breath away.
For centuries, trade from across the Mediterranean sea and Africa has been pouring into Marseille’s Old Port. The strategic location also made this area a key to both Marseille and France’s defenses. Forts have been built, armies congregated, and battles fought around the Old Port.
Today, having undergone a giant renovation in 2013, with a new museum, modernized metro, and underground parking, Marseille has become a major tourist destination with the Vieux Port leading the way.
1. Hotels with a view
Whether you are spending one night in Marseille or a week, I always recommend staying near the Old Port. There are several great hotels in the area, and a number of them have excellent views of the harbor.
Hotels with a view:
- €€€ – Escale Oceania Marseille
- €€€€ – New Hotel Le Quai
- €€€€ – Radisson Blu Hotel
- €€€€€ – Sofitel hotel
Note: Rooms with a view are not guaranteed and will depend on availability at the time of booking.
Hotels near the Vieux Port:
- €€ – Ibis budget Marseille
- €€€ – Hôtel Carré (may have side view of Vieux Port)
- €€€€ – Hotel C2
- €€€€€ – InterContinental Marseille – Hotel Dieu (rooms on higher floors will have a view of the Port)
On the far end of the Old Port of Marseille, you will find the new Museum of Civilisations (Mucem – Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée). Marseille’s newest attraction opened in 2013 when the city was designated the European Capital of Culture.
It is built on reclaimed land next to the site of the historic Fort Saint-Jean, which is also part of the visit. The fort is at the entrance of the View Port harbour, in effect to protect the city, but also as a warning to the locals.
Marseille was a prosperous city even after the fall of the Roman civilization, largely due to its rich harbor. Its wealth made it a target for the Royal Kings based in Paris, a city with which Marseille has always been at odds. In 1660, French King Louis XIV built the Fort Saint-Jean in Marseille, but famously had his cannons pointed AT the city, instead of to defend it.
The modern part of the MUCEM is a square-shaped metal building made of latticework. Inside this remarkable modern art building are artefacts dedicated to Mediterranean civilisations around the bassin and the cross-pollination of cultures.
In addition, there is also a modern art section featuring various current artists and exhibitions.
There is a wonderful terrace on top, with louge chairs and expansive views where the Le Mole Passedat Café offers coffee and other snacks for sale.
It can get quite crowded, so book your Skip-the-line tickets here.
3. La Canebiére
This street is what a Marsaillais (a local, aka my OH) would call the “Champs-Elysées of Marseille”. I don’t know that I would go that far, but it is a large avenue with beautiful classical buildings that stretches several miles.
The tourist office is located on La Canebiére, but for most locals it is the place to get a jersey from official shop of the local football team Olympique de Marseille (allez OM!).
You can also admire the Grand Theater built in neo-classical style and see if there are any shows on that you can catch that evening. The street also has many monuments marking important events in the history of the city, such as the monument to the soldiers who died in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.
Interestingly, you can also see a couple of poissoneries (fish shops) selling the fresh catch of the day, keeping to the city’s historic roots.
4. Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille
If you don’t have time to visit the celebrated Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica (the one you see in all the pictures on top of a hill), the next best thing is to visit the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille, right on the Old Port.
The cathedral is directly across from MUCEM and is just as impressive. Like many of the other cathedrals around France, it stands on a site where churches have stood since the 5th century. The current building was consecrated in 1893, just 30 years after Notre Dame de la Garde, and has a similar striped interior.
5. Le Panier
Behind the western quay of the Old Port, stands Le Panier. You will see a series of stairs going up to the oldest neighborhood in Marseille. The area barely survived German destruction in the 1940s, who tore down all the other old buildings around the Vieux Port and the Hotel de Ville.
During WWII, while Paris was fully under German control, Marseille was technically in the “Free Zone”, which was managed by the Vichy Government (with their German overlords).
Marseille’s strategic position on the sea made it an early hub for the French Resistance for escape routes and safehouses. The city’s propensity for rebellion was an advantage, rather than a disadvantage. But while Hitler considered Paris was too beautiful to be bombed, he did not have any such reservations about Marseille.
Marseille was bombed several times and invaded by the German soldiers. Many neighborhoods including much of the area around Marseille’s famous Vieux Port and Le Panier were deliberately blown up with dynamite, before finally being liberated in 1944 by the Allies.
Today, what is left of Le Panier has turned into an artists’ sanctuary with small little boutiques and galleries that you can visit. With its charming cobblestone streets and narrow lanes, this is provençale charm at its best. You can read more about Le Panier here.
6. Catalans beach near Vieux Port
About a 15 minute walk away from the Vieux Port is one of Marseille’s smallest and most popular beaches. Known as the Plage des Catalans, it is a small stretch of sandy beach that is popular with locals and tourists alike.
With plenty of volleyball nets and ice cream trucks, you will have to go early to claim a spot in the sun.
7. Quai des Belges marchés (markets)
Just across from the Canebiére on the Vieux Port is where the local markets are set up on weekends by fishermen. Fresh fish brought in from the Mediterranean sea, early in the morning, and sold to make the city’s famous bouillabaisse.
The winter Christmas markets are also set up here, as well as provençale souvenir stands during the summer months for visiting tourists.
8. Musée d’Histoire de Marseille and Jardin des Vestiges
The Old Port in Marseille was completely renovated in 2012 with improved traffic circulation and a new metro station underneath. As such there is not much remaining in terms of Roman ruins.
However, a few steps away in the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille and Jardin des Vestiges are the remains of the city’s ancient Greek and Roman port. These ruins date back to as early as 600 BC, and were discovered during a construction project in the 1960s.
Since then, careful excavation has taken place in this heart of the city. Entry to the Jardin des Vestiges is included in the price of the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille.
9. Bars & Restaurants
Start your evening at one of the bars and café terraces on the Vieux Port, with the traditional apéritif, Pastis. You will notice that the area has many English pubs like the Queen Victoria, which is a classic that has survived many a generation. For tapas, try La Ruche or Le Baletti.
There are also several wonderful restaurants around the Old Port of Marseille, with a wide range of price points.
On the higher end, featuring local delicacies are Une Table au Sud and La Table du Fort. For a slightly lower price tag, try Au Bout du Quai or the terrasse at La Cigale. For a classic bouillabaisse, try one at Chez Loury.
Finish it off with a local digestif, the liquor de farigoule. You can read more about local foods and drinks to try in Provence here.
Just behind the Old Port are two large shopping areas, le Centre Bourse, which is a large commercial mall, and Rue Saint Ferreol which is a long pedestrianized street with shops along it. If you can’t find what you are looking for in one of these two shopping areas, it likely doesn’t exist Marseille!
So is the Vieux Port on your list of things to do in Marseille? Or are you more a beach and Aix-en-Provence type of person? Either way, enjoy your trip!
If you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more about day trips from Marseille. Bon voyage and à bientôt!