Marseille is France’s second largest city and its largest container shipping port, which admittedly doesn’t make it sound all that inspiring as a travel destination.
However, with 2,600 years of human history to explore on this spot — not to mention the allure of the Mediterranean on your doorstep — the capital of Provence has much to offer visitors.
Marseille underwent a multimillion-dollar facelift in 2013, which saw a significant upgrade to tourist infrastructure. Yet the city has managed to retain much of its old town charm, particularly around the Vieux-Port (old port).
Enjoy this Marseille travel guide.
Marseille for history lovers
The Greeks saw potential in the region now occupied by Marseille, and established a seaport in 600 BC.
How right they were. Five hundred and fifty years later, the city fell into the hands of Julius Caesar. It didn’t actually become part of France until the 15th century, only to be almost cleaned out by the plague in the early 1700s.
Learn more of the back story at the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille. It’s a spacious and inspiring museum for all ages, with a fabulous mise-en-scène of daily life through the ages via models, videos, games, historical maps and posters.
Download a guided walking tour and make your way around the old port to the very contemporary MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations). Don’t arrive here too late as you’ll want to take your time taking in the extensive exhibitions exploring the history of various Mediterranean civilisations.
At 154 metres above Marseille, the panoramic views from the Notre-Dame de la Garde Neo-Byzantine church are worth the uphill trek. Inside you can light a candle, pray or simply admire the stained glass and mosaics work dating back centuries. There’s also a mini museum and crypt to explore.
Place de Lenche in the old town is a square full of local character and ambience. It was apparently the spot for a good philosophical debate back in the days of the Greeks. Today you can debate the menu choices at the many bistros and cafes in the area.
Top cultural experiences in Marseille
Like most major French cities, the list of cultural things to do in Marseille is extensive.
If you only have a day or two to get amongst it, here are some of the essentials.
Opera lovers, make haste to the imposing Opéra de Marseille. It offers an extensive annual program of world-class performances.
Theatre buffs should find out what’s playing at Théâtre du Gymnase, which produces classical and contemporary pieces. The beautiful Italianate-style building dates back to 1804.
Great places to eat in Marseille
Seafood is understandably a prominent feature on most Marseilles menu boards, so we’ll start there.
Chez Fonfon, overlooking the waterfront, is a local institution for its bouillabaisse (a traditional fish stew). Alternatively, head for La Boite à Sardine (the Sardine tin) for fresh fish, mussels, oysters, clams and bien sur sardines. Fabien Rugi and Céline Bonnieu are the faces behind this success story.
Pizza is also big in Marseille, in all senses of the phrase. Most pizzas are served with a thin Italian-style base and delicious fresh toppings. L’Eau à la Bouche is very popular, complete with sassy waiters, pavement tables and a bunch of Vespas parked out front. Book if you can, as there are less than a dozen tables. Walk off your meal with a stroll down to the port.
At La Caravelle Marseille try classic French dishes while catching a jazz, soul or funk concert, with a view, every Wednesday and Friday.
For tasty eats during the day, Les Halles de la Major is a gourmet food market offering oysters, cheeses, breads, wines and seafood. It’s a great brunch or snack spot and just a stroll from the MuCEM.
Four des Navettes is the oldest bakery in Marseille. It dates back to 1781. Snack on delicious local orange blossom bread as you wander around town.
Where to shop in Marseille
Marseille’s waterfront has undergone a massive regeneration in recent years.
Les Docks is a major new retail and dining precinct on the water, with designer boutiques offering clothes, accessories, décor and more.
Don’t leave town without picking up a chunk of famous handcrafted Savon de Marseille (soap!).
Ways to relax in Marseille
While it might not be a sea voyage, honour the city’s seafaring tradition with a ride on the free ferry between the two quays of the Vieux-Port.
Hiring a car and driving around the coastal roads is quite sublime and one of the most relaxing things to do in Marseille. In the evening the shimmering lights of the city sparkle against the vastness of the Mediterranean, creating a true sense of movement and freedom.
In the warmer months, picnic on the beach, take dips, stroll or jog along the coastline. Plage du Prophete south of town is a family-friendly beach or head further along the coast to private coves where the locals set up tables and chairs and enjoy an apéro as the sun sets. 30 minutes’ drive further south is the Parc National des Calanques, where you can swim in the turquoise sea beneath rugged, soaring cliffs.
Marseille also offers easy access to several wine regions. Put away the maps and let someone else do the driving on a wine tour of charming Aix-en-Provence. Visit a variety of vineyards and sample the region’s celebrated rosés, well-balanced reds and lively whites.
Do you have any tips to add to our Marseille travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Ruby Boukabou is a travel, culture and food writer based between Europe and Australia. Ruby has written for The Age, The Australian, Qantas, Issimo, The Diplomat, Paris Voice and Inside Film. She has also produced culture and travel stories for the ABC, SBS and Screen Australia. When Ruby’s not writing, she’s probably tap dancing — and is a founding member of the Paris Tap Crew. She’s also a member of jazz/world music group Le Shuffle Project, which records and performs in Paris and beyond.