When you visit an ancient coastal city, founded in 600 B.C., you expect to find a melting pot of cultures, rich history, century-old architecture, and amazing sea-focused food traditions. Marseille sits on the Gulf de Lyon, part of the Mediterranean Sea, and is known as the bridge between North Africa and Europe. The multicultural city offers a unique blend of African and French traditions that permeates its long history. Given the city’s time-tested and rich background, you will find plenty to explore on your Marseille getaway.
1. Notre Dame De La Garde
The Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde stands guard high on a hilltop overlooking the harbor. Her namesake, the Virgin Mary, is positioned atop the bell tower where she keeps watch over Marseille’s sailors.
Notre Dame de la Garde is one of the most popular tourist locations in the city. Allow plenty of time for your visit. The walk up to the top is a steep 150 meters (almost 500 feet) high. There is also a train that will save you the walk. Either way, you should visit; the panoramic views are spectacular.
2. Fort Saint Jean
On the edge of Old Port, Fort Saint Jean is easily recognizable by its tall watchtower. The fort has been the lookout for the city port since it was built and added throughout the 13th–17th centuries. An important military complex, Fort Saint Jean is a vital piece of Marseilles history.
Pro Tip: The steep ramps connect sections of the fort, making the assent slightly challenging, but the reward is stunning panoramic water views.
3. Old Port
The Old Port across Europe imparts a sense of timelessness. Filled with intriguing architecture, history, and winding cobbled streets, these sections of town beckon tourists to explore. Once rundown and gritty, a revitalization has taken hold of Marseille’s Old Port district.
Former warehouses and shipyard-focused buildings have been transformed into charming cafés, restaurants, and shops. It is a lovely spot to sip your favorite beverage and admire the pleasure boats coming and going along the docks.
4. Le Panier
Le Panier is the historic neighborhood of Marseille. The Old Quarter, populated by the Greeks around 600 B.C., is pretty old. Like most ancient and medieval towns, the cobblestone streets are narrow and winding.
Getting lost while wandering through neighborhoods is one of the best ways to explore old European cities, and Marseille is no exception. As you turn left then right, you will discover charming shops and restaurants to enjoy, stunning picturesque backdrops, and an important scene of the city’s historic old town.
5. Cathédrale De La Major
The beautiful, 19th-century Cathédrale de la Major is also known as the “Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure,” or “La Major” by the locals. Surrounded by shops and cafés, the cathedral towers rise above the square with an artful presence. The striped marble towers add a striking visual to this beautiful church.
The cathedral is even more stunning on a clear night. The towers brightly lit against a dark sky impart a feeling of power and importance to the city.
6. Musée Des Civilisations De L’Europe Et De La Méditerranée
Juxtaposed by the 19th-century architecture of the Cathédrale de la Major, the uber-modern Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée creates a distinct contrast. Much like the city of Marseille, the cityscape is constantly evolving and growing.
The artistic concrete-cube-shaped museum houses permanent and evolving gallery exhibits chronicling the history of Mediterranean culture and art.
7. Chateau D’If
The imposing fortress, Chateau d’If, sits on its rocky bed just off the coast of Marseille. It began life as a defensive fortress protecting the city and later it was used as a prison. The island of If was made famous by Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, a fictional story about escaped prisoner Edmund Dantes.
You can visit Chateau d’If and tour the prison cells, if you dare. Political prisoners were housed based on their ability to pay. The wealthy prisoners enjoyed (hardly) their confinement with fireplaces and water views. The poorer political dissidents were housed in the dark, dank dungeon, living out their days in sickness and misery.
Pro Tip: I strongly suggest you read The Count of Monte Cristo before you visit. It will certainly enhance your Chateau d’If experience.
8. Palais Longchamp
To celebrate the arrival of clean water to the city, a Herculean feat, in the late 19th century, the city erected Palais Longchamp. The beautiful gardens and colonnades are like the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Palais Longchamp offers locals and tourists the opportunity to enjoy a beautiful green space, pretty fountains, botanical gardens, and playgrounds. Sections of the park were once a zoo and some cages remain, some with artful flowerbeds and others with fun animal replicas.
The Observatory and Planetarium offers guided tours and exhibitions about the stars and planets.
9. La Vieille Charité
La Vieille Charité is a historic building now a museum dedicated to Marseille’s cultural heritage. Built in the 17th century as a home for Marseille’s poorest citizens, the massive building has a long central courtyard, arched walkways, and a Baroque-style chapel.
10. The Beaches
Not traditionally a Mediterranean beach destination, Marseille now has its own beachy vibe. The beaches stretch from Corbières to Pointe Rouge and are visited by local families and tourists alike. There are plenty of beaches along Marseille’s coastline; some sandy, some not so much.
A favorite is Prado Beach, consisting of North Prado and South Prado. The Prado Beaches reside on land recovered from the Mediterranean Sea. They stretch out and have plenty of room for all the beachy fun you would expect. Hemmed in by a large green park where soccer players show off their foot skills and families enjoy picnic lunches, it is a wonderful spot to enjoy southern France’s sunshine coast.
The popular Plage des Catalans is located in the center of all the city’s action. It is a busy and crowded beach, however, it is perfect for a quick swim. One of the main attractions of Plage des Catalans is that it is open from 7 a.m.–10 p.m. during the week and from 7 a.m. on Saturday to 10 p.m on Sunday. It is the perfect spot for an evening picnic on the beach under the stars.
11. Skate Park Du Prado
Even if you don’t skateboard, the Skate Park du Prado is worth a look-see. The bowls and cavities create a platform for riders to skate in beautiful wave-like motions, echoing the nearby ocean. Situated near the Prado Beaches, the Bowl attracts riders from across the city and beyond.
The park is lit at night creating an atmosphere of gliding shadows with the music of grinding wheels across the concrete as a back note.
If you are able, grab your board and take a dip. Or, simply watch and marvel at how wonderful it is to be young and flexible.
12. The Food
Marseille is generally acknowledged as the home of bouillabaisse, a delicious fish soup. Traditionally made with rascasse (rockfish), whiting, eel, spiny lobster, and crabs, it is stewed in wine, saffron, and olive oil. Sampling a hearty bowl of this rustic dish in Marseille is a must for any foodie.
You will also find wonderful restaurants serving North African cuisine. Save at least one lunch or dinner for a spicy tagine and couscous.
Keep an eye out for navettes, a traditional sweet treat classically flavored with orange blossom water. You can also find other delectable flavors like chocolate, vanilla, or lavender.
13. Day Trips From Marseille
After you have explored everything Marseille has to offer — and it will take a few days or more — you will find yourself very close to several other wonderful cities in southern France that are worth a day trip.
The beautiful Aix en Provence will capture your heart. Spend the day, spend the weekend, spend lots of days enjoying this charming city. Beautiful Avignon on the banks of the Rhone will entice you to linger and indulge in her relaxing vacation vibe. Then, explore why Van Gogh loved Arles and made it his home.