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 had the distinction of being the European Capital of Culture, an event that helped to 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, saying that there are lots of things to see in Marseille. 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 discovered many places in Marseille that were absolutely worth exploring and I had a terrific time!
Places to see in Marseille
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.
Book skip-the-line tickets for MuCem.
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 must-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!
Book a 3-hour culinary foodie tour of Marseille.
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. 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 one day!
A big heartfelt thank you goes to Eva from the Marseille-Provence Greeters network for showing me the best places in Marseille. Her enthusiasm certainly rubbed off on me!
Read about my Rhône River cruise from Lyon to Port-Saint-Louis near Marseille.
In a new project called Google Night Walk, the company has created an immersive tour through Cours Julien, a neighbourhood of Marseille, France. Just like an audio guide in a museum, narrators Julie and Christophe lead you across the city and point out places of interest. It’s immersive and educational, explaining the history and context behind Marseille’s landmarks.
Your article brings back memories – I spent a few days in Marseille about 7 years ago and was completely captivated by its unique setting.
That was a highlight for me. You have to go back! 🙂
Thanks for your lovely comment!
These photos are beautiful! My boyfriend and I spent two weeks exploring the south of France and I wish we had spent more time in Marseille. We had some lovely food and wine while we were there, but I missed the restaurants in the Arab Quarter. I guess I’ve got one good reason to go back!
I definitely tried bouillabaisse. Had lots of it! Haha!
What an inspiring blog Keith! 🙂 P.S. I have the same photo of Le Panier! (the 2nd one down) Did you try bouillabaisse? Wrote a post on the 4 I tried but still searching for the perfect traditional one 🙂
[…] with the hosts and learned a lot about them and their lives. Examples include the lovely Eva in Marseille who takes great pleasure in not only hosting guests in her apartment but showing them around town, […]
[…] heard so much about and feast on its delicious cuisine and wines. I’d just boarded the TGV in Marseille. Destination: Avignon, in the heart of the Provence region. I’d never been on a TGV before, […]
Stunningly beautiful photos as well as the Marseille. France is gifted with wonderful places. Two thumbs up Keith! Thanks for sharing.
Oddly, I never really dedicated much time to France, apart from the ‘obvious’ Paris and a little bit of Provence and Cote d’Azur. Marseille looks so fascinating…
Thanks Thomas. The crime level was one of the reasons some people advised me not to visit. I’m glad I did as Marseille was a great surprise. Marseille, like many other big cities, undoubtedly has areas that a visitor should avoid. With common sense and some research of where to go/areas to avoid, I’m sure you’ll be fine. I didn’t feel unsafe in the city at all.
Beautiful photos. Marseille definitely has some nice areas, and I’d love to visit one day. Having lived in France and met many people from the area, it’s a shame the city has a bad reputation for high crime. Like any city, if you’re smart about how you travel I’m sure you’ll be fine.