For as long as I can remember, I’ve had this unshakeable desire to visit Marseille in the south of France. Not to do anything or try anything particularly new though. In fact, I’d forgotten why exactly I even THOUGHT to travel to this gritty, rough port city with its accented French and notoriously tough reputation. And then I arrived. And it all came back to me…..
“Quoi?” – my teacher looked at me quizzically. I had tried to say “I want to go there” in my elementary French but probably managed to insult her in some way (not an unusual occurrence during my university days). On the screen was a picture of a beautiful Mediterranean port, with dazzling blue water and ships with tall masts. It was Marseille and it looked spectacular.
Marseille’s beautiful old port is best experienced at sunset
Why go to Marseille?
France’s second largest city, Marseille is, and always has been, a melting pot of cultures, food and styles. Back in the old days the city belonged to the Greeks, Romans and countless others before becoming synonymous in the late 20th century with immigration from the former French colonies and there is now a large North African population. These days, Marseille is well-known for its musical scene and within France as the home of French hip-hop. And in 2013 the city was designated the European capital of culture.
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Kim-Ling and I had travelled from Nice to Marseille, where we met up with my brother and his wife for a couple of days to explore the city together. We’d decided to go for an AirBnB and that choice really paid off! We hired a loft apartment close to Marseille’s old port which overlooked a large square and with a rooftop view of the city. Good start Marseille, good start.
Marseille’s Old Port
There is something about ports that I just love, and Marseille’s old port is one of the largest and most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Our little group decided to meet around the port and took a good stroll, French-style, to both ends looking for food. As we walked along the edge, we were entertained by bands, perused knick-knacks at street stalls and stopped for a beer at one of the restaurants overlooking the water. The vibe is so casual and laidback that we often forgot that there was a city behind us!
Street markets line Marseille’s Old Port
The view of the Old Port is breathtaking
Notre Dame de la Garde
Eager to explore the city, we caught a bus from just north of the port (no. 60, €3,80), arriving at Marseille’s Notre Dame de la Garde church, which has killer 360 degree views over the entire city. These views come with a wind that could pick up small children, so hold on tight to your hats and belongings! The church in its current form was built in 1864, and is much loved by the locals, who believe that the Virgin protects the city. Battling cyclonic winds and fearing that if I flared my lats a little I might fly away (who am I kidding?), we moved inside to take a look at the interior of the church.
Notre Dame de la Garde
Notre Dame de la Garde
The interior of the church is magnificent. It’s extravagant, grabs your attention and won’t let you go. Make sure you give yourself time to explore the cavernous underground with its many shrines and cool statues, before making your way back up to the main cathedral chamber. Here you will find these golden cupolas running through the middle of the church and engraved statues adorning either side. There are also these candy red arches which will remind you of the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain if you’ve ever visited.
Oh, and I should mention the view. Perched high up on the top of a hill, Notre Dame de la Garde overlooks the city and gives you majestic views of Marseille. You will not find a better vantage point in the whole of the city. Besides, entering the church is free and you can get a good sense of Marseille’s cultural history by giving it a visit.
The Le Panier district of Marseille
We made our way back down into the city after a while and headed towards Marseille’s trendy Le Panier district. Filled with small cafes, street art and a funky bohemian vibe, it’s hard not to love this area. We stopped at one of the bars which spilled out onto the road to rehydrate and take in the atmosphere, but before long we were being ushered off into the kerb as a firetruck – yes a FIRETRUCK – came down along the road. It was a bit of a tight squeeze but literally as soon as it had passed, everyone came rushing back and not a drop was spilled during the whole operation!
MuCEM and Fort St Jean
Drinks complete we wandered off in search of two of Marseille’s highlights: the MuCEM and Fort St Jean. Wandering through some alleys we finally made our way around to the Museum of European and Mediterranean civilisations (or MuCEM for short). Wow, it instantly strikes you as a spectacular work of art/architecture. It’s a brand new building (2012) by architect Rudy Ricciotti and looks fresh, contemporary and cutting edge. It also makes for a stunning night shot!
Inside the museum is a bunch of cafes and of course art, sculptures, etc. They have a really good collection of ancient artefacts (Marseille has been a port for the Greek, Romans, Visigoths and numerous others throughout time) which provides a good overview of the city’s history. Entry is €9.5.
When you are finished at the MuCEM, if you head to the roof and cross the walkway you will enter Fort St Jean. This 17th century port has been restored and opened to the public and is a really cool attraction for visitors. It has this interesting mix of history with some contemporary art pieces and some pretty outlandish sculptures thrown in for good measure! Entrance is free to just walk around, etc.
Sitting just behind the MuCEM and Fort St Jean is Marseille’s Cathedrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure. There is something about churches in Marseille: they are just so cool! Take this cathedral for example, its striped, candied design is pretty unusual but looks amazing.
If you are a fan of majestic French architecture and consider yourself somewhat of a romantic, then Palais Longchamp is for you! This 19th century monument houses a few museums and is surrounded by an expansive beautiful green garden, one of the finest in France.
La bouillabaisse and Marseille’s most famous dish
Of course, no self-respecting Francophile would visit Marseille and NOT gorge themselves on its world famous dish: La Bouillabaisse. Originally a fisherman’s stew consisting of at least three different types of fish, the rich flavours and fresh seafood became an instant hit and has since been imitated many times around the world.
So after some extensive research (literally 4 and a half minutes on Google in our apartment…), I decided to try out the offering at La Voille Marsellaise down in the port area. Now La Bouillabaisse is expensive (some reaching up to €100) but this place was around €40 or so. And it was spectacular! The sauce was creamy but not too overpowering, and the seafood was to die for. If you’re a seafood fan, you must try Bouillabaisse in Marseille!
Generally, the food in Marseille was really good, reasonable prices (sometimes difficult to find in France) but all of exceptional quality. I inhaled one of the best burgers I’ve ever had at the port – (ask for the ‘charolais’ burger and thank me later!).
Plage du Prado
While we were tromping around Marseille, we also decided to head outside the city to the beach, or Plage du Prado as its known in French. Hopping on the No. 19 bus to ‘La Plage’ will drop you off at a nearby shopping centre and you can then cross the road over to the beach. Though it was warm it was a bit too windy for our liking (like a freaking hurricane actually!), the beach was quite large and we were all a bit disappointed not to be able to enjoy it more.
Other things to do in Marseille (that we didn’t get to)
There was a whole heap of things we didn’t get to do in Marseille, but if you do have the time, be sure to fit these into your schedules somewhere:
- Calanques are narrow rock formations on the coast which look like beautiful isolated lagoons and they have the most amazing blue Mediterranean water. They are mostly outside of Marseille city along the coast so you’ll have to organise a tour or hire a car to reach them. We’ll be back for these!
- Cruising the harbour – Marseille is a port city so what better way to explore it than hire a boat to take you around. You’ll get stunning views of the port, forts and buildings on the headlands and even see some of the sights outside of the port and its surrounds.
Hell, I loved Marseille! All of it. The city was buzzing and alive and much more enjoyable than other reviews had led me to believe. It’s also one of the most stunning French cities I’ve visited with just the right mix of new and old architecture, lively streets and natural beauty. Even the food was noteworthy, but then I never could go past fresh seafood…. What I’m trying to say is Marseille is cool and if you haven’t ever thought about visiting before, definitely include it on your wanderlust list for the future.