12 Delightful Things to do in Marseille France | Aux Armes!

12 Delightful Things to do in Marseille France | Aux Armes!

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 Marseille 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, and more.

☞ RELATED POST: Paris vs Marseille: A History of Rivalry on and off the football field

Best Things to do in Marseille, France

Vieux Port in Marseille
Vieux Port in Marseille

1) Stay in the Vieux Port (Old Port)

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.

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.

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

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

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) 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). 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) Take a walk through 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) 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.

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) 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 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) Take a boat out to 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.

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.

This is also an excellent and safe area in 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.

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

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).

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 or plan how to get around

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 Marseille 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.

Chanting Aux Armes in Marseille

10) Go to an Olympique de Marseille football game

Marseille 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. 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.

☞ RELATED POST: 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) 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.

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.

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

12) 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. 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.

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

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, if you want the Olympique de Marseille experience.

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

12 Delightful Things to do in Marseille France | Aux Armes! 1
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