Marseille is not a city of incredible sights. There are few monuments to its glory, present or past; only a couple of “must-visit” locations exist to tantalize tourists. No, this is not a city of sights.
Marseille is, however, a city of sounds, of the calls of seabirds and the melodious tones of French in many dialects. It is a city of smells, of fresh fish, salt air, and Marseille’s famous soap. And, more than anything, Marseille is a city of tastes.
If you want fine dining, white tablecloths, elegant service of small portioned tasting menus, visit Paris or Lyon. But for diversity in quality food for (most of the time) reasonable prices, Marseille is your place. Here are a few of the foods not to miss when you visit this amazing city.
Marseille is, before everything else, a port city, and with that distinction comes spectacular seafood. Mussels, or moules as they are called here, can be found everywhere. They are fried, baked, simmered in stock, and are delicious.
These mussels were gratined and then baked. Marvelous!
Pannises are a Marseillaise specialty, similar to a French fry but made of chickpeas instead. They can be fried or baked, and are most often served with a dipping sauce.
This is the dish most associated with Marseille. Originally a peasant stew of potatoes and the fishes nobody wanted to eat, it has evolved into an iconic dish that can cost up to €70 or more per person. (I was told not to trust a bouillabaisse that was under €40.) Yours will likely come in two courses: first the stock, thick and red or brown, with croutons. (It supposedly takes ten pounds of fish to make a single pound of the soup, and based on the deep rich flavor, I believe it.) Second, you will get another bowl of the soup, this time over perfectly filleted fish, at least three or four different species.
This is not a dish for anyone who isn’t a lover of seafood, as there is no escaping the taste, and at the price it isn’t worth just trying to find out. But think of it as Marseille in a bowl, recognize the incredible ingredients and the time that it takes to make, and it will be worth the price.
(Note: thank you to Tourisme Marseille for hosting my bouillabaisse experience, since it was not in my budget to do so on my own.)
The bouillabaisse under the red neon lights of Miramar restaurant.
North African Food
In my opinion, this is the best of all Marseille has to offer. Home to a huge North African immigrant population from the former French colonies in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, these groups brought with them their vibrant flavors. Leblebi, a Tunisian soup of chick peas, chiles, and a poached egg, is the specialty of Chez Yassine, a restaurant in the Noailles neighborhood of the city – about a ten minute walk from the Vieux Port. Order it. It is hot, spicy, and oh so satisfying. Their merguez (a spicy sausage of Moroccan origin) stew is also incredible.
Leblebi from Chez Yassine.
Yes, pizza. I know it’s Italian – or even American depending on style. But pizza is ubiquitous here in Marseille. It is everywhere. From trucks to hole in the wall joints to counters at bakeries to fancy sit down varieties, it is almost impossible to walk two blocks here without bumping into a pizza place. And for €2 for a large slice at many locales, wrapped in paper to go, it is an affordable option on a budget. Just watch out for the olive that most places add to each slice. It might have a pit.
A pizza rack at a bakery. Inexpensive and solid.
Marseille may not be the leader in incredible sights to see, but your visit here is sure to dazzle your taste buds with a variety of things you may not have had before. Just don’t be afraid to try a tiny joint; it may have the food of your dreams!
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