Marseille is France’s second largest city and is located on the Mediterranean coast. Blessed with a mild climate and a stunning natural harbour, Marseille has played an important role in the trading routes in the Mediterranean since Roman times. However, the city entered a period of decline in the mid-20th century. In 2013, Marseille has the distinction of being the European Capital of Culture, an event that many locals hope will kickstart a revival of the city. When I started planning my trip to Marseille, I asked around for tips and advice. The opinions were evenly split; one group insisted I avoid the city and instead head straight for the French Riviera or the Provence, whilst another group spoke with great enthusiasm about the city. I was intrigued. It soon became clear to me that Marseille is perhaps one of those places that, with time and exploration, slowly reveals itself to you.
I felt the instant draw of Marseille the second I stepped out of the Metro station at Vieux Port, the historic harbour in the heart of the city. I was greeted by blue skies, gulls, a salty sea breeze and a gorgeous brand new promenade. The harbour was a hive of activity, with both locals and tourists enjoying the sunshine at the many al fresco cafés and restaurants, or at the embankments. At the harbourfront, a group of boisterous fishermen sold their catch of the day.
The harbour itself was packed with leisure boats and fine yachts. I quickly spotted the city’s most-loved icon perched atop a steep hill fronting the harbour: the impressive Notre Dame de la Garde basilica.
Around the harbour, construction crews worked briskly to complete the renovation work on historic monuments, the promenade and new futuristic-looking buildings such as the Pavilion M (the brand new tourist office), MuCem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) and the adjacent Villa Méditerranée. This was clearly a city in the midst of a makeover.
I explored Marseille in the following days and discovered a cosmopolitan city, with a rich historic and cultural heritage, which was bent on re-inventing itself. The refurbished Vieux Port, the first stop for most visitors, is a wonderful window to the city. From here, streets branch out in different directions into the surrounding neighbourhoods such as the quaint le Panier district, with its gorgeous cafés and art galleries, and the bustling Arab quarter.
Another muse-see in Marseille is the city’s 19th century Cathedral, situated between the Panier district and the port. Built to impress, the cavernous Cathedral or La Major is a mix of Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic styles.
The Arab Quarter
Marseille has a sizeable Arab population – immigrants from the ex-French colonies in North Africa, including Algeria and Tunisia. The Arab Quarter, situated just north of the Vieux Port, is a maze of streets filled with shops, markets and restaurants. The heavy scent of spices in the air was absolutely captivating.
The Arab Quarter also has a selection of some of the city’s best restaurants. For authentic Arab cuisine (with reputedly the best couscous in town), try Chez Kachetel. If you’re a big fan of seafood, you have to have a meal at Toinou!
The beacon of Marseille
I set aside a whole afternoon to visit the city’s most prominent icon: the Notre Dame de la Garde. Situated on the city’s highest point, this famous basilica is often referred to by locals as Marseille’s compass or beacon. It stands tall like a guardian of the city and the views from the hill are stunning, but get ready to be blown away by the magnificent interior the second you step inside!
Marseille is doing a remarkable job in re-inventing itself as a new cultural magnet. The museums and cultural centres look amazing and the line-up of exhibitions to be held throughout the year in conjunction with European Capital of Culture is impressive. I wish I could’ve stayed longer to explore other parts of the city – three days wasn’t sufficient in my opinion. I missed other beautiful and interesting sights like the Palais Longchamp, the fishing village of L’Estaque, the city’s islands and beaches, and the hip Cours Julien district. I guess I’ll have to return soon!
A big heartfelt thank you goes to Eva from the Marseille-Provence Greeters network for showing me around her city. Her enthusiasm certainly rubbed off on me! Eva is also the owner of a gorgeous holiday rental in le Panier. The apartment is bright, spacious and boasts stunning views of the harbour and the Mediterranean Sea.
If you’re planning to visit Marseille, check out Eva’s apartment and ask her or any of her Marseille Greeter colleagues to show you around. It really is a terrific way to get to know Marseille… through the eyes of a local.