Things to Do in Marseille
As Europe's only protected park to contain land, water, and semi-urban areas, Calanques National Park (Parc National des Calanques) is a mecca for outdoor adventurers. Whether you want to snorkel and sail, kayak and climb, or hike and watch out for wildlife, France's answer to the Garden of Eden has it all.
With its charming jumble of fishing boats and fishermen’s cabins clustered around the small harbor, and framed by the arches of a stone-brick bridge; visiting Vallon des Auffes feels like stepping back in time. Located along the Marseille Corniche, the historic port village is a world away from the bustling city and makes a tranquil detour for those traveling along the coastal road.
Despite its diminutive size, Vallon des Auffes punches well above its weight when it comes to gastronomy and its handful of waterfront restaurants are well known for serving delicious fresh fish and seafood. Top restaurants include Chez Fonfon, L’Epuisette and Chez Jeannot, while the most celebrated dish is Provencal specialty bouillabaisse.
Perched atop the city’s highest hill, the magnificent Notre-Dame de la Garde, which is visible from all over the Marseille, is one of the city’s most striking landmarks. The Romano-Byzantine basilica dates back to the 19th century and is best known for its grand bell tower, which is capped with a gleaming gold statue of the Virgin Mary.
The Palais du Pharo in Marseille was built for Napoleon III and was once home to the city’s medical school. The palace is now used for municipal events and conferences and is famous for great views over the Mediterranean Sea from the palace gardens.
The calanques are narrow and steep inlets along the limestone coast of southern France, the most impressive ones being located along the little stretch of coastline between Marseilles and Cassis. They are romantic, wild and, being surrounded by huge cliffs, often protrude fjord-like into the landscape. While many calanques require hours of hiking or kayaking to reach, the Calanque de Sormiou is more easily accessible and still provides a true visual spectacle for visitors.
After a 15 minute drive or 45 minute walk from the main road down the hills, a sandy beach awaits next to the bright blue Mediterranean water. A couple weekend homes dot the landscape and then there is Le Château, the modest but immensely popular bouillabaisse restaurant that requires a phone reservation well ahead of time to snag a seat.
As sparse as the landscape might appear, Sormiou actually serves as a habitat for a rich flora and fauna. Over 900 plants grow here and birdwatchers will find many rare birds nesting in the steep cliffs. Swimming and sunbathing is popular, but the area is also crossed by numerous hiking trails, some more demanding than others, and the little bay is also a popular destination for visitors arriving by boat.
Marseille is France’s largest and busiest port, welcoming over 1.5 million cruise passengers to its shores each year. As the gateway to Provence and the south of France, Marseille is a popular stop on Europe cruise itineraries, and offers ferry connections to Corsica, Sardinia, Algeria, and Tunisia.
Winding along the Mediterranean coast along the South of France, La Corniche is a waterfront roadway that stretches five kilometers through Marseille. As both a walkway and a road for cars, it offers wonderful views of the sea and coastline. It was a particularly popular promenade for residents of Marseille in the 1920s. From there you can also see the Iles du Frioul, elegant villas of the late 19th century, and the Prado beaches. The Chateau d’If (of the Count of Monte Cristo fame) is also visible.
Along the way sits the Maregraph Building, which took measurements over thirteen years to determine France’s sea level elevation. The bench of La Corniche runs three kilometers between the Pont de la Fausse-Monnaie and Hotel Sofitel Palm Beach, making it the longest bench in the world. Part of the roadway is named after President Kennedy, who was assassinated during its construction.
The colonnaded Palais de Longchamp, constructed in the 1860s, was designed in part to disguise a château d'eau (water tower) at the terminus of an aqueduct from the River Durance. The building of this water storage and the associated canals and aqueducts was a major turning point in the history of Marseille as it allowed the city to expand, building new districts. One of these was the Boulevard Longchamp, laid out by the city then developed by private business people who profited from providing a grand boulevard of similarly styled, gracious houses.
In the Palais itself, the two wings house Marseille's oldest museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, and the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle, which have extensive displays of the arts and the sciences respectively. Its lovely gardens' lakes, fountains, waterfalls, playground, and carousel are good spots for kids.
Soaring 394 meters over the beaches of Cassis, Cap Canaille is France’s highest sea cliff and it’s a dramatic sight, with its steep grey and ochre colored cliffs jutting out into the ocean. Located between La Citotat and Cassis on the Mediterranean coast, the rugged headland has long drawn visitors from both towns, and offers spectacular views that span the glittering Cote d’Azur, the Calanques and the Gulf of Cassis.
The easiest way to take in the views is to follow the 15km ‘Route des Crêtes’, a dizzying serpentine road that curls its way along the coastal cliffs and climbs to the highest point – head there at sunrise or sunset for the most breathtaking views. Alternatively, adventurous travelers will find ample opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing.
The Marseille Cathedral (Cathédrale La Major) is a Roman Catholic cathedral and basilica minor located in the Old-Port of Marseilles and a national monument of France. Far from being just a run-of-the-mill church, it is the seat of the Archdiocese of Marseille and the hobbyhorse of Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who laid the first stone of the new building in 1852. The foundations, commonly referred to as the Old Major, date back to the 12th century and correspond to a sober Romanesque style. Only the choir and one bay of the nave persist today, as a new, more opulent cathedral was built next to the remains in 1852. The new Marseilles Cathedral was built on a gigantic scale in the Byzantine-Roman style from 1852 to 1896.
Despite its isolated location on the far end of Panier district and along the busy commercial port, this cathedral should not be missed as it is still today the only one of its kind in all of France, and doesn’t fail to impress with its sheer size and extravagant architecture. Its iconic green and black stones form an instantly recognizable stripe pattern, flanked by two bell towers and a dramatic entrance.
More Things to Do in Marseille
The Abbey of St. Victor (Abbaye Saint-Victor) in Marseille may not be at the top of everyone's to-see list, especially when the nearby, picturesque Notre Dame Basilica and its bird's-eye view are such a big draw. But there are two reasons this abbey should be added: First, it's a convenient stop on the way to Notre Dame, and secondly, it is commonly considered the oldest church in France–which is quite a claim, considering that thousand-year-old churches seem to be a dime a dozen here.
In fact, the abbey's history dates back to the fifth century, was in ruins by the ninth century and by the 13th century, when other world-famous churches were first being built, Abbey of St. Victor (Abbaye Saint-Victor) was being renovated. Martyrs died here, the library was dismantled simply to please a de Medici family member, and in the late 18th century, the site was stripped of all of its finery. In short, it's had quite a history.
The Îles du Frioul is a collection of four small islands just off the coast of Marseille. In their long history, the islands have been used as the site of a fortress and prison, and a quarantine zone for people suspected of carrying the plague cholera. Nowadays visitors come to hike the islands and visit the famous Chateau d’If.
The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (Le Mucem)—or Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée, in French—is a national museum in Marseille, France. It was inaugurated in 2013, the same year Marseille was designated as the ‘European Capital of Culture,’ and is dedicated to showcasing the multifaceted history of the Mediterranean and its different landscapes, cities, and shores.
The museum is built on reclaimed land at the entrance to Marseille’s harbour. Its exhibits are devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations in the Mediterranean basin, taking an interdisciplinary approach to presenting the different societies who have called this area home throughout the ages and in modern times. It is the first museum in the world to focus entirely on the cultures of the Mediterranean, and it includes all the social sciences: anthropology, political science, sociology, history, archaeology, and art history. In addition to the Mucem’s permanent collections, there are also rotating temporary exhibitions and seminars, feature films and documentaries, and performances focusing on the Mediterranean’s current affairs.
The Chateau d’If, situated just off the coast of Marseille, is a former French naval base and prison that was immortalized by Alexandre Dumas in the novelThe Count of Monte Cristo. Visit the island fortress to see its jail cells and enjoy panoramic views of the city of Marseille.
One of Provence’s prettiest coastal villages, Cassis enjoys an idyllic setting amid Mediterranean calanques (rock-sheltered coves), the Cap Canaille sea cliffs, and vineyard-carpeted hills. As well as beaches, a boat-filled harbor, and the historic Château de Cassis, the town also boasts ample boutiques, cafés, and hotels.
La Canebiere is Marseille's Champs Elysees. Modelled on the famous Parisian boulevard, it is a wide stretch leading straight up from Vieux Port (Old Port) for about 3/4 mile (1 km). it does not quite have the elegance of the Champs Elysees being a little more a hotch-potch of shops, hotels, and restaurants, but it is a great place to get the feel of the city. Named after the city's thriving trade is nautical rope in the Middle Ages - canabe being the French word for cannabis or hemp from which the rope was made - the street is now the spine of the thriving city.
La Canebiere acts as a divider between different city districts. To its west there is the modern shopping mall Centre Bourse, to the south is the moneyed district, and to the north you'll find the quartier Belsunce where you can buy just about anything from the local Arab community if you're prepared to haggle with the street-traders. Behind the Centre Bourse is the Jardin des Vestiges, the ancient port center. Excavations here have turned up all sorts of things including bits of the 3rd century BC Greek city. Most of the finds, and an old Roman trading boat, can be seen in the Musee d'Histoire de Marseille in the Centre Bourse. Further up the street is the Musee de la Marine (in the stock exchange building) which has the nautical history of Marseille.
Following extensive renovations back in 2013, the Marseille History Museum (Musee d'Histoire) is now one of the largest history museums in Europe and it’s a fitting homage to France’s oldest city, showcasing a fascinating array of archaeological finds. Exploring the interactive exhibitions and multi-media displays, visitors can follow the evolution of Marseille from its founding by the Greeks back in 600BC, to the early Christian settlers, through to medieval times and the redevelopment of the city under Louis XIV.
Notable highlights include an impressively preserved 3rd-century Roman cargo boat, a remarkable collection of 13th century pottery and a series of architectural works by Pierre Puget. Also worth a visit is the open-air Jardin des Vestiges, which displays excavated remains, including a paved Roman Toad, necropolis and antique Greek walls.
The Vieille Charité in the heart of Old Town Marseille houses not one, but two museums – the Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Art (Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens et Amérindiens) and the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology (Musée d'Archéologie Méditerranéenne). Formerly a poorhouse and then an orphanage throughout its four-century history, the structure’s restoration in the mid-20th century was championed by architect Le Corbusier. The site has since served as a fun destination for fans of art and history, as well as those who simply want something a bit off the beaten path.
Unlike its sister museum, the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology focuses on the history of the immediate area and features items found in the region and specifically in and around Marseille. With that, the museum not only tells the history of Marseille, but of Mediterranean Europe in general, and can be an enlightening take for visitors from around the world.
Moving from the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology to the Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Art is an easy transition, as both complement one another. There are temporary exhibits as well, and the most recent featured works by Picasso. For cruise day trippers, the Vieille Charité is an easy stroll from the cruise port.
With its ancient roots, Marseille is the perfect city to host the Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Art (Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens et Amérindiens)—also known as MAAOA—and the Vieille Charité, with its fascinating architecture, is the perfect place to house it.
The Vieille Charité may not look like much from the outside, as it was originally a poorhouse dating back to the late 17th century. But inside, visitors are treated to a massive courtyard with symmetrical rows of beautiful arches, where light plays over the pinkish stone from nearby quarries. At the center of the courtyard is a jewel box of a chapel; all in all, it would be a worthy sightseeing destination even if it didn't house a museum.
Or should it be museums, plural? In addition to the permanent exhibitions of the Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Art, which features striking ethnographic pieces and ancient artifacts, there are several temporary exhibits in other gallery spaces, as well as the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology (Musée d'Archéologie Méditerranéenne).
The museum and its exhibits provide a wonderful, off-the-beaten path activity that's perfect for the whole family. Note that the site is widely known as the greater Vieille Charité, rather than the specific museum names.
Marseille's connection to the sea goes back millennia, and even today the city has one of the largest, busiest ports in Europe. While perhaps not the hottest ticket in town, the Maritime and Commercial Museum of Marseilles (Musée de la Marine et de l'Economie de Marseille, or simply the Marine Museum) should still be a stop on any visitor’s agenda, as it is dedicated to what Marseille is all about.
Housed in the Palais de la Bourse, the former Chamber of Commerce, the Marine Museum charges 2 euro per ticket, which is definitely within any traveler’s budget. The exhibits focus mostly on modern maritime history, which spans the last 500 years or so, and provide a fascinating look into what has made Marseille a major player in the worldwide maritime economy.
The stars of this show are the to-scale boat models from centuries past, and the nautical maps are works of art in and of themselves. There are also items from the early days of scuba diving, which show modern divers just how much the equipment has changed.
Marseille's Contemporary Art Museum (MAC), which is a direct translation of the French Musée d'Art Contemporain, is a bit out of the way in Marseille's 8th arrondissement, but that's no reason to leave it out of a city itinerary. The museum is more relevant to the world of contemporary art than ever before, especially with the recent Year of Culture hosted by Marseille.
The permanent collection features works from the mid-20th century to the present, while the ever-changing temporary exhibitions highlight the work of new and emerging artists from around the world. However, there is a focus on French artists, which gives foreign visitors an excellent overview of the country’s current arts scene. In addition, the complex that houses MAC also hosts concerts, conferences, panel discussions and many other events.
Marseille is known as a vibrant city, and it's mostly with good reason. Even on the winding back streets of the Old Town, there are raucous conversations taking place among locals, and it seems like there's always something going on at every hour. Between the active port and the souk-like markets, it can all get a bit overwhelming, and when that’s the case, visitors can head to the Place aux Huiles for a wonderful respite from the daily hub-bub.
Translated, the Place aux Huiles is Oil Square, which refers to the old canal that led from the Old Port to a shipping point for barrels of olive oil. In the early 20th century it was filled in, and later on the Place aux Huiles was built and named in honor of its past.
Today the L-shaped square, designed to resemble an Italian piazza, is just off the Quay Rive Neuve on the Old Port and is lined with some of the best restaurants and bars in town. But because it is off the main drag and only open to pedestrians, the area is relaxing, quiet and the perfect place to while away a lazy afternoon after sightseeing in the morning.
Fort Saint-Jean is a historic but highly quirky fortification in the Old-Port of Marseilles commissioned by none other than Louis XIV in 1660—but not for obvious reasons. He had the fort built for defensive purposes, of course, but also because he wanted to please his Marseilles people, noticing that inhabitants were extremely fond of nice fortresses but were also wary of their governor; the two new forts were built in response to a local uprising rather than for the defense of the city - their cannons pointed inwards towards the town, not outwards towards the sea. The name of Saint-Jean comes from the site on which the fort is built, which was previously occupied by the Order of the Knights of Saint John.
The fort was later used for military purposes on several occasions, as it was in the possession of the French army for the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries; it was utilized as barracks and clearing station for the Army of Africa during the 1830s and was occupied by the German military in November 1942. But in the wake of the liberation of Marseilles in August 1944, much of the fort and its historic battlements and buildings were destroyed by the explosion of a munitions depot. Today Fort Saint-Jean is an exhibition space for permanent collections operated by MUCEM, the Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditérannée.
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