Marseille: 16 Delightful Things to do in the Phoenician city

Visit Marseille, the phoenician city on the Mediterranean sea, with its rich history and culture. With advice from locals, uncover the top things to do in Marseille, how to get around, where to stay, and much more.
Marseille: 16 Delightful Things to do in the Phoenician city
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Marseille is a city with a reputation, even within France. But in recent years, it has undergone a transformation. The ancient Greek city on the French Riviera, near the rolling hills of Provence, has so many things to see and to experience.

Now, you might think that I am biased since I have family in the area, but rest assured that the city was even crowned the European Capital of Culture in 2013. With plenty of things to do in Marseille, this guide delves into the best attractions, how to get around, things to do, and more.

☞ READ MORE: Paris vs Marseille: A History of Rivalry on and off the football field

1) Stay in the Vieux Port (Old Port)

As I said before, in recent years the city has recently undergone a renaissance. It was never the prettiest city to look at, especially compared to jewel-box Paris or cosmopolitan Nice on the Riviera. It has a grittier old-age look.

Vieux Port in Marseille
Vieux Port

As such, the ancient greek harbor, the Old Port was completely renovated in 2012 with improved traffic circulation and a new metro station underneath. 

Depending on what time of the year you go, there are all sorts of attractions, such as a large ferris wheel in the center, a weird mirror art installation, the Christmas market, boats galore, and a ton of bars and restaurants. This natural harbor has been the heart of the city since 6 BC.

There’s plenty of restaurants and bars around, so this is always where I recommend friends stay for a nice night out and an easy walk back to the hotel.

Hotels around the Vieux Port :

€€ – Ibis budget Vieux Port
€€€ – Hôtel Carré Vieux Port
€€€ – Escale Oceania Vieux Port
€€€€ – Hotel C2
€€€€€ – InterContinental – Hotel Dieu

2) Visit the Mucem

At one end of the Vieux Port, you will find the new Museum of Civilisations (Mucem – Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée).

View of the Vieux Port and Notre Dame de la Garde Cathedral from Mucem (Fort Saint Jean)
View of the Vieux Port and Notre Dame de la Garde Cathedral from Mucem (Fort Saint Jean)

Marseille’s newest attraction opened in 2013 when the city was designated the European Capital of Culture.  Built on the site of the historic Fort Saint-Jean, it is a remarkable modern art building with ancient artifacts inside.

Pro tip: Plan to have a coffee in its amazing Le Mole Passedat Café on the terrasse of the Mucem.
It can get quite crowded, so book your Skip-the-line tickets here.

3) Take a walk through Le Panier

The oldest neighborhood in the city, Le Panier is right next to the Vieux Port and Mucem.  The area barely survived the Nazis, who tore down all the other old buildings around the Vieux Port and the Hotel de Ville.

Le Panier, Marseille
Le Panier

Nevertheless, with substantial rehabilitation, this area today attracts artists and tourists alike.

With its dozens fo narrow cobblestone streets and charming little squares, you will step back into historic Marseille. You can read more about Le Panier here.

Pro tip: Wear good shoes, and if you have small children, take a toddler carrier. Its hilly streets, cobblestone footpaths, and narrow pathways are not the most stroller-friendly.

4) Climb up to Notre Dame de la Garde Cathedral

Known as the Bonne Mere to its locals (Good Mother), this Basilica overlooking the Vieux Port is the highest natural point in Marseille, visible from everywhere.

Notre dame de la Garde

I’ll be the first to admit the Cathedral is not the easiest to get to. But the views are worth it.  There used to be a funicular direct from the Vieux Port, built by Gustave Eiffel’s company (of Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty fame), but that closed in 1967.

Today there are several public buses running up to the Basilica. You can read more about Notre Dame de la Garde here.

Pro tip: Take the Petit Train (Tourist train) that runs from the Hotel de Ville (City hall) next to the Vieux Port. Trains run several times a day, and tickets can be purchased online. Or for something different, try a Segway tour.

5) Go to Prado Beach

Given that this is the French Riviera, no trip to Marseille would be complete without a trip to the beach.

Prado Beach Marseille

Prado beach is the largest beach in the city, with several restaurants and bars directly and a festive atmosphere at any time of the day or night.

Pro tip: Marseille is famous for its camion pizzas (food trucks) so near the Prado is the perfect time to get try one. If you eat pork, try a pizza with figatelle, a corsican sausage that is a delicacy in the area.

6) Take a boat out to Les Calanques

A set of cliffs to the west of the city, Les Calanques are a magnificent natural wonder. With towering rocks and aquamarine clear water, you can decide to hike, swim, or just take it all in.

Les Calanques
Les Calanques

Drive over to the small fishing town of Cassis if you prefer to explore the Calanques by land, or take a boat leaving from the Vieux Port. There are several tour options to head to the Calanques from Marseille that you can see here.

Pro tip: Wear hiking boots if you go by land, those rocks are slippery. Bring a bathing suit.

7) Have a night out at Cours Julien

Street art with an edge, Cours Julien is the trendy place-to-be about a 10-minute walk from the Vieux Port. With graffiti everywhere, quirky little shops and eclectic bars and restaurants, this is where the cool kids hang out.

Rue des 3 Rois, Cours Julien
Rue des 3 Rois, Cours Julien

There is the main square which has a lot of bars and restaurants, but do explore the side streets such as Rue des 3 Mages and Rue des 3 Rois which have plenty small restaurants with everything from local provençale offerings to thai food takeout.

This is also a great area of the city to stay in, with plenty of nightlife to make it easy to get back to your hotel.

Hotel near Cours Julien:

€€€€ – Mama Shelter

Pro tip: Visit Espace Julien for live music nearly everyday. Tickets can be purchased online, or at the door, depending on the event’s popularity.

8) Learn the history of Château d’If

If you prefer a boating trip with a bit of history, head over to Château d’If. It is the on the smallest island in the Frioul archipelago, and the site of fortress prison (a predecessor to the famous Alcatraz in California).

View from Chateau d'If, things to do in Marseille
View from Chateau d’If

Château d’If hit new heights in pop culture when it was featured in Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo. It was also reputed to be one of the prisons where the famous Man in the Iron Mask was held. While his true identity remains a mystery, he was reputed to the older brother or twin brother of the Sun King Louis XIV.

Pro tip: Look for the sign “Prison dite de l’Homme au Masque de Fer”, “Prison reputed to be for Man in Iron Mask”.

9) Book hop-on and hop-off bus tickets

While ancient Paris was razed to the ground in the 1850s and rebuilt by Baron Hausmann, Marseille did not experience this sort of large scale city-planning. The city remains a hodgepodge of buildings that have been built over time, and narrow streets that have turned into one-ways to accommodate today’s traffic. Marseille is one of the most grid-locked cities in France.

There is a new metro system and an elaborate system of trams and buses put in place, but it is not as connected as Paris is.

If you do decide to drive, make sure you have a good up-to-date GPS system because a lot of the roads in the city are one-way streets, and getting around can be tricky. (Even we struggle driving around, and my OH grew up here!)

Alternatively, your best bet might be to book tickets for the hop-on-hop-off buses.

10) Go to an Olympique de Marseille football game

OM fans are some of the most passionate football fans in the world (we are not biased), and they are rightly proud of their brand new stadium, Stade Velodrome.

Chanting Aux Armes in Marseille

If you are visiting between October and May, you may want to take in a game or take a tour of their new museum in the stadium. With their banderoles, chants of Aux Armes, and fireworks all organized by the different clans of fans, it is a world away from North American sports.

OM Fan ChantsEnglish translation
Aux Armes, aux Armes
Aux Armes, aux Armes
Nous sommes les marseillais
Nous sommes les marseillais
Et nous allons gagner
Et nous allons gagner
Allez l’OM, allez l’OM
Allez l’OM, allez l’OM
hohohohohhohohohohohhoho

Qui saute pas n’est pas Marseillais (eh) 
Qui saute pas n’est pas Marseillais (eh) 
To Arms, To Arms 
To Arms, To Arms 
We are the Marseillais 
We are the Marseillais 
And we are going to win 
And we are going to win 
Go OM, go OM 
Go OM, go OM
hohohohohhohohohohohhoho 

Who does not jump is not Marseillais (eh) 
Who does not jump is not Marseillais (eh)

The lyrics are inspired by the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise.

☞ READ MORE: Le Marseillais: Why the French National Anthem remains controversial.

Pro tip: The Fan groups usually sit behind the goals or the narrow sides of the stadium (the tribunes), so book your tickets based on how in-depth an experience you are looking for!

11) Have a Pastis

The quintessential apéritif of France, Pastis de Marseille is an institution. With a fresh taste of anise seed and liquorice, it is somewhat similar to the Greek ouzo, which makes sense since both are on the Mediterranean.

With an alcohol strength of 45%, you then dilute with water, depending on how strong you want it and your preferred taste. Read more about how to serve yourself a pastis.

12) Les Terrasses du Port and Les Docks

If you are looking to do some shopping, you can’t go wrong with these two malls which are right next to each other.

Restaurant in Terrasses du Port
Restaurant in Terrasses du Port Mall

While Les Terrasses is a new modern mall with every shop imaginable, Les Docks is a set of old warehouses that were completely renovated inside while still retaining its old-world industrial charm.

Located at: Les Terrasse du Port, 9 Quai du Lazaret, 13002 Marseille

Pro tip: Don’t miss the large expansive terrasse with its cafés and restaurants on the 2nd floor of Les Terrasses du Port.

13) Walk along La Canebiére

Walk along La Canebiére, aka what the locals call the “Champs-Elysées of Marseille”. A large avenue with beautiful classical buildings, the street has many shops and cafés, along with the city’s Grand Theatre where operas and other cultural events are held. The official shop of Olympique de Marseille is also on La Canebiére, if you would like to take home a souvenir jersey.

14) Take a day trip to Aix-en-Provence

You cannot come all the way to Marseille and miss out on visiting Aix-en-Provence. The ying to Marseille’s yang, the chalk to the cheese, the chic (and rich) town of Aix-en-Provence is only 30 minutes away on the highway.

Mairie at Aix en Provence
Mairie in Aix-en-Provence

Sometimes called the 21st arrondissement of Paris, this fortified town with its old city walls has all the charm of a small town in Provence. You can read more about Aix-en-Provence here, and see tour options to visit from Marseille.

16) Try a bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse is a traditional Provençale dish originating from the port city of Marseille. It was originally a fish stew made by Marseille fishermen, using the bony rockfish from the bottom of their fishing nets, which they were unable to sell to restaurants or fish markets.

Restaurant saying they are a member of the bouillabaisse charter.
Restaurant saying they are a member of La Charte de la Bouillabaisse

These days bouillabaisse is haute cuisine, with the prices to match. Small brasseries and diners in Marseille were so annoyed to see new upscale restaurants produce a version of “bouillabaisse” that in 1980 they came up with something called the “La Charte de la Bouillabaisse” (meaning the “Bouillabaisse Charter”).

You can get the recipe for bouillabaisse here.

15) Go shopping on Rue Saint Ferreol

Just behind the Old Port is Rue Saint Ferreol which is a long pedestrianized street with shops along it. You will find most of the large European brands here, so warm up your credit cards!

Frequently Asked Questions

How to get to Marseille?

The easiest way to get to Marseille is by high-speed train. It is a mere 3 hours away from Paris.  If you drive, it will take around 8 hours. There is also an International Airport, with direct flights from London, Amsterdam, and other major European capitals.

When is the best time of the year to visit?

Marseille is lovely all year round, but don’t be fooled by its location on the French Riviera. In winter, it gets cold especially with a weather phenomenon known as the Mistral. High winds mean you will need a good winter jacket, and you will not be sunbathing on the beach. 
On the other hand, winter is a perfect time to catch a football game, if you want the OM experience.

Pro tip: Remember to exchange la bise 3 times (rather than the Parisian 2) when greeting someone.

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So will you be putting Marseille on your France Bucket List? Comment below and let me know.

A bientôt!

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Marseille: 16 Delightful Things to do in the Phoenician city

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