Marseille is France’s second largest city, its most important economically throughout history, and perhaps also its most misunderstood. It has a reputation for being gritty, working-class, and unsafe. The history drew me here, and I fell in love with the city.
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The Palais Longchamps is one of Marseille’s few monuments to itself. Not a must-see, but pretty.
You’ll typically arrive in Marseille either by plane or train. Currently, the only direct flight from North America is from Montreal, but with a single stop at a European hub (I went through London) you can make it to Marseille pain-free. The airport is a ways out of town, but there is an easy, regular shuttle for €8 that will take you to Gare St. Charles, the main train station.
Arriving by train you will also end up at St. Charles, and from here, both public transportation and taxis/Uber can get you anywhere else you need to go.
Do not rent a car! I repeat, do not rent a car! Marseille would be a terrible place to drive. Most streets are windy and one-way, drivers are aggressive, and parking is tough to come by.
For the most part, the areas of the city you will want to see are within not-too-terrible walking distance (think 45 minutes or less by foot). Most locals walk regularly, and it’s the best way to experience the sights and smells of the city, although there will be hills to climb, which can get tiresome. However, there is also an extensive bus system, as well as a few Metro and tram lines, all of which are fairly efficient and not overly costly. A single ticket on the Metro cost €1.80 and includes a transfer to a bus line.
Where to Stay
The center of life in Marseille, especially for tourists, is the Vieux Port, or the old port. Stay near there. Both the neighborhoods to the north (Panier) and south (Saint-Victor) are safe. I stayed in an Airbnb apartment on the southern tip of the Panier and was thrilled.
If you are one who prefers American hotel brands, options are a bit more limited. There is a Radisson Blu on the southern side of the Vieux Port, and the impressive Intercontinental Hotel Dieu on the north side. There are also some European brands (Novotel and Sofitel) in the Vieux Port area.
The Vieux Port and Notre Dame de la Garde above. This is the center of all things Marseille.
What to Do
Marseille is much more about lifestyle than specific sights, but there are a few locales not to miss when you are here.
There are a few impressive churches in Marseille, but the one to make sure to visit is Notre Dame de la Garde. It is a climb to get there, or a bus, but the views overlooking the entire city are worth it! (If you have time, Cathedral la Major and Abbaye Saint-Victor are also awesome.)
If you are a fan of The Count of Monte Cristo, you might want to take a short ferry to the Chateau d’If, the famous prison from which Dantes makes his escape. The ferry only runs on days with nice weather and no wind, so it might not be going when you want it to. The prison is smaller than you’d expect, but its connection to the book makes it enjoyable.
The Calanques are a national park within the city boundaries of Marseille! Narrow inlets surrounded by mountains line the coast, and can be explored by hike or boat. Calanque de Sugiton can be accessed by taking the B1 bus to its end and then following the signs. It’s a fairly short but somewhat steep hike down, taking about an hour each way.
A note here on Marseille’s museums: unless you have either a city pass or a specific exhibit you want to see, they aren’t really worth the cost of admission. Walk around instead.
Calanque de Sugiton is an easy trip, and a stunning view!
What to Eat
Marseille is a place to avoid overpaying for food. Most of your best options will be at small, hole in the wall sorts of joints. But the food is good! Here are a few recommendations (and by no means an exhaustive list):
North African food. Make sure to have it. Lots of it. My favorite was Chez Yassine for Tunisian soups and stews, but there are a ton of kabob shops and couscous eateries all over. Eat at those places.
Pizza. It’s everywhere. It’s cheap, and pretty good. There are fast food options as well as sit down. La Bonne Mere in Saint-Victor was awesome!
Seafood. This is what Marseille is known best for. Mussels are the local specialty, but tourists make a huge deal for bouillabaisse. A good bouillabaisse is expensive and, unless the experience is important to you, not worth the money (we are talking €40-70 per person).
Bakeries. Of course, this being France, swing into a boulangerie for a croissant or baguette. And pop into a market for some cheese to go with it. And probably wine.
Tunisian food at Chez Yassine is worth the trip!
Exploring the Region
Marseille makes a great home base to explore all of southern France. Trains and buses are timely, easy, and won’t break the bank, so day trips (or overnight trips) are totally possible to structure in.
The Roman arena in Nimes is a must-visit for lovers of ancient history.
Other Useful Information
While the weather in Marseille is famously mild, wind in the winter can be a big issue. They say that it blows in multiples of three days. While I am not sure it’s scientifically correct, the wind doesn’t just die down in the span of a few hours. Bundle up.
There are areas of the city not to explore for safety reasons. Once north of the Panier district, exercise extreme caution. On the other hand, Noailles, one of the largest North African immigrant districts, is perfectly safe (as much as in any big city).
In Marseille, people always seem to be late. It is what it is. They are also not in a hurry, so time crunches at meals will frustrate you.
Marseille is known for being creator of the world’s best soap (savon in French). Get some to take home!
Old soap at one of the Marseille soap museums (there are two).
Marseille is one of the most wonderful places I’ve been. Especially given people’s negative attitudes toward it when I announced it as a destination, it exceeded all of my expectations and I am sure it will do the same for you!
Note: thank you to Tourisme Marseille for welcoming me warmly into your city, furnishing me with a Marseille Pass, and sponsoring my bouillabaisse adventure. Your partnership helped make this experience everything it was.
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