10 Things to do in Marseille: History & Culture | Aux Armes!

10 Things to do in Marseille: History & Culture | Aux Armes!

A city with a reputation, even within France. But in recent years, it has undergone a transformation. The city on the French Riviera, near the rolling hills of Provence, there are so many things to do in Marseille, it was even crowned the European Capital of Culture in 2013.

Full confession: we may be Snippets of Paris, but my OH is a born and bred Marseillais (pronounced mar-say-ay). And he is none too pleased that our kids are born and bred Parisians.

To say there is a bit of a rivalry between the Marseillais and Parisians is an understatement. I don’t suggest you walk around Marseille with a Paris Saint-Germain football t-shirt (soccer to North Americans), unless you are keen to “meet” the locals. Just think Liverpool vs Manchester United, New York Yankees vs Boston Red Sox, or Toronto vs Montreal.

A friendly rivalry these days, but a rivalry nonetheless. As an example, French politicians who want to present themselves as a counterbalance to the Government seated in Paris, will claim to be representing Marseille.

It is a city that I quite enjoy, and not just for the relatives offering free babysitting. So I hope I can inspire you to visit as well.

Facts & History of Marseille, France

i) The Ancient Mediterranean City & Christianity

To understand Marseille (pronounced mar-say), you have to know its location. The city on the Mediterranean is a natural harbor. Because of this, the city has been around since at least 600 BC, known as the Greek colony Massalia.

Then came the Romans, and with them, Marseille became an early center of Christianity. Tradition holds that Mary Magdalene came to Marseille, after landing in nearby Arles, converted the local people, and then retired to nearby Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume (about 50min away from Marseille by car), where she was buried in a crypt.

ii) Middle Ages and the Rivalry with Paris

Marseille remained prosperous 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.

It was remained autonomous until the 12th century when Beatrice of Provence married Charles, the brother of Saint King Louis IX. Charles, like every chauvinistic ruler, tried to take over and managed to quell the first of many rebellions.

France at the time was not the country we know and love today. Rather, it was a hodgepodge of autonomous regions, ruled by different crowns and speaking different languages. People at the time didn’t speak French here, but rather a language called Provençale.

The Kings of France over the generations imposed laws on the population of Marseille, doing little to endear themselves. The city was officially made a part of Provence, France in 1481.

In 1539, another King, François Ier imposed the French language on the entire population. No more speaking Provençale. This further inflamed the rivalry with distant Paris, where François Ier was based. 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 city suffered greatly in 1720, when the Great Plague of Marseille killed more than half the population, bringing this great city to its knees.

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iii) The French Revolution and La Marseillaise

Needless to say, when the Revolution rolled around, the city was an enthusiastic participant. It sent 500 volunteers to Paris to defend their interests. Their battle cry on the way to Paris became the national anthem of France: La Marseillaise.

French (short version)English translation
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrannie
L’étendard sanglant est levé, (bis)
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes
Mugir ces féroces soldats ?
Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras
Égorger vos fils, vos compagnes !

Aux armes, citoyens,
Formez vos bataillons,
Marchons, marchons !
Qu’un sang impur
Abreuve nos sillons !
Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us, tyranny’s
Bloody standard is raised, (repeat)
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons, your women!

To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Water our furrows!

As you can tell from the lyrics, they were the teensiest bit bloodthirsty.

☞ RELATED POST: History of the French Revolution and Protests in France

(Note: they weren’t actually that creative to compose a song while marching. The song was written by a poet Claude Rouget de Lisle, while he was stationed in Strasbourg. It was just adopted by the Marseillais on their way to Paris, and hence its name. Way to grab all the glory!)

iv) Second World War

During WWII, while Paris was fully under Nazi control, Marseille was technically in the “Free Zone”, which was managed by the Vichy Government (with their German overlords).

The city’s strategic position on the sea made it an early hub for the French Resistance for escape routes and safehouses. While Hitler considered Paris was too beautiful to be bombed, he did not have any such reservations about Marseille.

The city was bombed several times and invaded by the Nazis soldiers, before finally being liberated in 1944 by the Allies.

v) Football Glory in 1993

For today’s generation of Marseillais though, young or old, their most recent moment of glory is their Football Champions’ League title in 1993. The local team Olympique de Marseille (OM) lays claim to being the 1st and only French team to win a Champions League title. 

A Jamais les Premiers!

English translation: Forever the First – Motto of Olympique de Marseille fans

This might appear to be a minor anecdote, but don’t tell any Marseillais that. To date, the Paris Saint-Germain Football club has never won, making the victory all that much sweeter.

In the football cheers below you can see the influence of the French national anthem rally cry with “Aux Armes“.

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

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

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

Ten Things to do in Marseille, France

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

But with the new Museum of Civilisations opening, a complete renovation of the Vieux Port and the city’s brand new metro lines, Marseille today attracts more tourists than ever.  It has also become a popular destination for cruise ships, with many boats docking there in the summer.

Vieux Port in Marseille
Vieux Port in Marseille

1) Vieux Port

The ancient harbor, the Old Port was completely renovated recently 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.

Just next to it are Rue Saint Ferreol and La Canebière, two of the most famous pedestrian shopping streets in downtown Marseille. 

Pro tip: On your first night in Marseille, watch the sunset from the Vieux Port, and enjoy happy hour with a glass of Pastis de Marseille.

☞ RELATED POST: Pastis de Marseille: France’s national drink

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)

2) Mucem (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée)

At one end of the Vieux Port, you will find the new Museum of Civilisations (Mucem). 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.

Le Panier, Marseille
Le Panier

3) Le Panier

The oldest neighborhood in Marseille, 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. 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.

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.

Notre dame de la Garde

4) 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.

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 Notre Dame de la Garde.

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.

Prado Beach Marseille

5) Prado Beach

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

Les Calanques
Les Calanques

6) Les Calanques

A set of cliffs to the west of Marseille, 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.

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 of Marseille.

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

View from Chateau d'If Marseille
View from Chateau d’If

7) 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).

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”.

8) 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.

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.

9) La Velodrome (Stadium of Olympique de Marseille)

If you were inspired by the football clip above of OM fans, you may want to take a tour of their new museum in the stadium or take in a game. With their banderoles, chants and fireworks all organized by the different clans of fans, it is a world away from North American sports.

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!

10) Les Terrasses du Port and Les Docks de Marseille

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

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

Where to stay in Marseille, France

I would recommend staying near the Vieux Port or Cours Julien. There’s plenty of restaurants and bars around for a nice night out, and an easy walk back to the hotel.

Hotels around the Vieux Port

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

Hotel near Cours Julien

€€€€ – Mama Shelter

Getting around Marseille

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 for traffic.

To get around this, a new metro system has been built, and an elaborate system of trams and buses put in place.

If you do decide to drive, make sure you have a good up-to-date GPS system because a lot of the roads in Marseille are one-way streets and getting around can be tricky, even for the locals.

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

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 from Marseille. There is also an International Airport, with direct flights from London, Amsterdam, and other major European capitals.

When is the best time to visit Marseille?

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 means 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, want the Olympique de Marseille experience

Is Marseille safe to visit?

Marseille has a “reputation”, even within France. Historically, the Old port meant easy access to smugglers and the mafia to bring in drugs, crime and weapons into Marseille. Compared to North American cities though, the level of crime rate is relatively low.

Areas to avoid include Les Quartiers Nord, or the northern part of the city. Pickpockets are common, so watch your belongings.

How many days should you stay in Marseille?

I recommend atleast 2 nights, including the day you arrive, especially if you want to go on a boat trip to Les Calanques or Château d’If. You may also want to add an additional night and spend it in nearby Aix-en-Provence, which is 20min away by train.

☞ RELATED POST: Chic in the South of France: Top Things to do in Aix-En-Provence

Pro tip: Remember to do the bises 3 times (rather than the Parisian 2).

10 Things to do in Marseille: History & Culture | Aux Armes! 1

And if you are practicing learning French, you will enjoy the local Marseillais. Their accent is more of a slower sing-sing French, rather than the fast-paced Parisian version.

So if you have a few days to spare, don’t hesitate. See you in Marseille! A bientôt!


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