The capital of Provence, Marseille is one of the oldest cities in France. It treasures an interesting historical-cultural heritage and an amazing natural environment that makes this city a wonderful getaway for any time of the year. Check out the 10 things to do and see in Marseille on your vacation!
1. Take a cruise to the national park of Les Calanques
Speaking of excursions, Provence is the perfect region for explorers! If you are looking for dreamy landscapes one of the must-visits you have to make in Marseille is to the national park of Les Calanques, located a few kilometers from the city.
Here are located some small coves of turquoise waters hidden among white cliffs that dot the coast and will leave you speechless.
Thanks to the beauty of its landscapes and seabed, Les Calanques has become one of the major tourist attractions in the south of France. There are several ways to discover this natural park:
If you are a hiking enthusiast you can walk the GR-98 route from Marseille to Cassis. It is a long and arduous path but the views that you will be able to contemplate during the walk compensate any effort.
My favorite option: you can also see Les Calanques from the water by taking an excursion on a pleasure boat. In my opinion this is the best way to spend a relaxing day in Marseille being in contact with nature and enjoying the beautiful views of the Mediterranean Sea. In my article Visit the Calanques National Park from Marseille I tell you all the options for a cruise in the Calanques. Don't miss it!
2. Stroll through the Old Port of Marseille
The heart of the city is the Old Port, one of the most important in the Mediterranean since the Greeks founded Marseille 2,600 years ago. I find it fascinating to walk around this place as there are not many ports in Europe with this longevity that are still in operation.
Today, it serves as a marina and is surrounded by some of the most interesting tourist attractions such as Fort Saint Jean, Fort Saint Nicolas, the MuCem or the Palais du Pharo, among others.
The old warehouses that once collected the goods traded in the port have given way to restaurants and cafes with terraces whose tables overlook the sunset over the sea.
How about sitting at one of them to taste the best bouillabaisse in France or have a glass of pastis, the typical local drink made from aniseed? It's a great place to relax, watch the scenery and the locals stroll by or bring the day's catch to the quay.
Although the New Port has taken over from the Old Port in terms of port trade in Marseille, fishing continues to be a way of life for many Marseillais and it is still possible to see boats arriving here after a long day at sea.
In short, the city's Old Port is a living piece of its history and visiting it is one of the best things to do in Marseille.
3. Visit the forts of Saint Jean and Saint Nicolas.
The Old Port of Marseille is defended by two imposing fortresses that, although they look like twins, in reality they are not, since they were born for different purposes. Nevertheless, both have been part of the city's landscape for centuries and are now two important tourist attractions.
The fort of Saint Jean
Saint Jean is the oldest and was built by the order of the Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem in the 12th century during the Crusades.
It was originally used as a starting point for troops to reach the Holy Land, but throughout history it was also used as a prison during the French Revolution and as an ammunition depot during World War II.
Today it is one of the most visited monuments in Marseille and is connected to the MuCem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations) via a footbridge. The view of the port of Marseille from here is a real marvel.
The fort of Saint Nicolas
Opposite is the fort of Saint Nicolas, another fortress that King Louis XIV ordered to be built to defend Marseille from invaders and local revolts.
During the French Revolution, the fort began to be dismantled but was later rebuilt to preserve a structure for the defense of the city.
If during your trip you want to enjoy an extraordinary view of Marseille and its bay, do not hesitate and climb the ramparts of the fort, you will get some postcard pictures!
4. Enter the MuCem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations)
Without leaving the Old Port, after visiting the forts of Marseille and by the sea you will find the most interesting museum to see in Marseille, the MuCem, a place that was born as a tribute to the Mediterranean Sea and the civilizations that arose around it.
Considering that it is the only museum dedicated to the prolific Mediterranean cultures of both shores, it is well worth a visit. If you are passionate about archeology and history, you will enjoy it very much. There are several reasons why I recommend you to visit the MuCem:
First of all, because of its collections and the very nature of the institution. In its rooms it houses a million works, documents and objects on archeology, anthropology, history and art history that make up a curious journey through time. To see it well you will need at least half a day.
Secondly, the contemporary architecture of the building designed by Rudy Ricciotti contrasts sharply with the traditional architecture of the area and has transformed the landscape.
Thirdly for the breathtaking views of the Old Port of Marseille and the Mediterranean Sea from the elevated walkways of the museum. Also for its beautiful gardens where I recommend a nice walk.
Finally, because MuCem is a very interesting space for the exchange of ideas, for the dissemination of knowledge and for the recognition between cultures.
Isabel's Traveller Tip
If you just want to enjoy the views of the MuCem and its gardens, admission is free any day. And on the first Sunday of each month you don't pay anything either.
5. Tour the hipster neighborhood of Le Panier
In addition to the walkway linking the MuCem to the Fort Saint Jean, there is another connecting it to the Le Panier district, the oldest in Marseille and nicknamed "the little Montmartre of Marseille".
Crossing it you will find a picturesque neighborhood perched on a hill, which went from being one of the most humble neighborhoods in the city in the seventeenth century to one of the trendiest in the present thanks to its art galleries, vintage clothing stores, inviting terraces and urban murals.
What will you see at Le Panier?
Enter the labyrinthine, cobblestone streets of Le Panier to discover the hipster and multicultural essence of this curious Marseille neighborhood. Take the walking tour up the hill from the Old Port to the upper area where the Greek agora was located in the 3rd century BC!
Along the way you will come across charming squares such as Los Molinos (where you can see the last standing mill that gives its name to this site), Lenche square (from which there is a magnificent view of the harbor) or Treize Cantons square (from which you can see the Vieille Charité, the most prominent monument of Le Panier that was once a hospice and today is home to several cultural institutions).
You will also see old houses, small churches, craft stores, chocolate shops and bakeries where you will be tempted to try some local sweets. Now, nothing better to say goodbye to a tour of Le Panier district than having a few wines in one of its cheerful bars imbued with the relaxed Mediterranean spirit of Marseille and toasting to your trip.
Isabel's Traveller Tip
If you are looking for an original souvenir, you can buy authentic Marseille soap at La Grande Savonnerie in Le Panier district.
6. Be amazed by the Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica
South of the Old Port stands one of the most important monuments to see in Marseille: Notre Dame de la Garde.
Despite its imposing appearance and what many people believe, this temple is not a cathedral but a Romanesque-Byzantine basilica that replaced an ancient medieval chapel from the early thirteenth century.
To get there you can walk up to it, but if you want to get there faster and save the effort of walking uphill I advise you to take the bus 60 or the tourist train that runs along the coast. It will allow you to see other sights of Marseille and get to the sanctuary in a jiffy.
Why visit this church?
Notre Dame de la Garde seems to me an essential visit to make in the city. On the one hand, for its artistic beauty where polychrome stones, golden ornaments and mosaics give shape to a superb monument. On the other hand, because on the hill of the Garde there are spectacular panoramic views of all Marseille, from the sea and the islands to the mountains, appreciating the vast expanse of the city.
If you have the chance, I recommend going to the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde at sunset, when the sunlight tinges the walls of the temple of a beautiful orange color and the image of the Virgin Mary that tops the bell tower shines brightly, as if it were a spiritual beacon. It is a magical moment.
7. Discover the fearsome penalty of the Château d'If
If the weather is fine and the sea is calm, you can not miss taking a boat to go to the island of If, in the bay of Marseille. Here is located a fortress of the sixteenth century that inspired the writer Alexandre Dumas to set the prison of his famous novel "The Count of Monte Cristo".
Although the Château d'If was built by order of King Francis I to protect the port of Marseille, years later it was also used as a prison as described in the novel. Given its location, it made escapes difficult and has come to be compared to the famous Alcatraz prison.
Today you can visit the old dungeons of the Château d'If, the stories of the most famous inmates and enjoy the view of the Marseille coastline from the top of its towers and battlements.
This excursion to the enigmatic fortress of the Bay of If is one of the best things to do in Marseille.
8. Enter St. Victor's Abbey
One of the oldest buildings to see in Marseille and a treasure of Romanesque architecture is the Abbey of Saint Victor. Founded in the 5th century A.D. on the remains of an ancient Greek necropolis and near the tomb of the martyred saint after whom it is named, it is now an important place of pilgrimage for the French, especially on February 2, during the religious feast of Candlemas.
If your getaway to Marseille coincides with this celebration you will have the opportunity to see the procession to the abbey of St. Victor, an example of local folklore. If not, don't worry because the history of this place, its architecture and the legends that surround it also make it worthy of a visit.
On the outside, this monastery looks like a fortified castle, with several towers and a wall, but I would say that the most amazing thing is inside.
Here you can see the catacombs where St. Lazarus and St. Mary Magdalene are venerated, the cave of St. Victor, the crypt and the church. You can also see some ancient sarcophagi, both pagan and Christian. This is the case of the coffin of St. Cassian, which was discovered in 1965.
Would you like some navettes for a snack?
After the visit to the Abbey of St. Victor I recommend you to go to the oldest bakery in Marseille, Le Four à Navettes (136 Rue Sainte) located very close to the monastery.
This is where the navettes are baked, a very typical cookie of the city whose boat shape alludes to the legend of the "Holy Marys" (Mary Salome, Martha, Mary Magdalene) and Saint Lazarus, who came from the Holy Land to the coast of Marseille by boat to evangelize it.
It is a sweet closely linked to the Abbey of Saint-Victor because on Candlemas day, after the procession, it is customary for the people of Marseille to buy their navettes here to enjoy them with the family.
It's a very original gift to bring back home - I'm sure yours will love it too!
9. Take some pictures at Boulevard Longchamp
A stroll along the boulevard Longchamp is another of the essential things to do in Marseille during a trip. An avenue full of nineteenth-century buildings crowned by a beautiful palace that seems designed to set some of the most beautiful pictures you will take in the city but, in reality, its purpose was quite different.
The origin of the Palace Longchamp is related to the problems of drinking water supply that Marseille had suffered for centuries. In the mid-nineteenth century, a canal was built to transport water from a nearby river to the city and to celebrate the success of the project, this beautiful palace with a baroque and monumental air was built at the end of the boulevard.
This building today houses the Museum of Natural History (right side) and the Museum of Fine Arts (left side) but the center of attention is undoubtedly the magnificent baroque fountain located in the middle of the semicircular colonnade linking the two wings of the Longchamp Palace and the surrounding gardens. A true hymn to water, to nature and to the abundance that comes with the arrival of water.
Isabel's Traveller Tip
If you want to see the inside of the Longchamp Palace, get the Marseille City Pass as entrance to both museums is included.
10. Contemplate the impressive cathedral of Marseille
In last place and closing this list of places to see in Marseille is the cathedral of Marseille. A temple overlooking the sea and unique in its kind in France that is located at the entrance of the port, a few steps from the MuCem and Fort Saint Jean.
Built in Byzantine style, it is the only cathedral that was built in the country during the 19th century, although its foundations date back to the 12th century.
Why visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore?
There are many churches in the city but this cathedral is an icon for the people of Marseille. The truth is that it is a temple that impresses by its size. In fact it is one of the largest cathedrals in the world and in this sense Santa Maria Maggiore is very reminiscent of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
To see it towering majestically over the port of Marseille is an unforgettable sight for the traveler. Its domes can be seen from afar and the decoration of its walls, with their characteristic black and green stones, form a pattern of stripes immediately recognizable from any point in the city.
The entrance flanked by two bell towers is spectacular, as is the architecture of the interior for which Byzantine arcades, Venetian mosaics, Carrara marble and Tunisian onyx were used - a marvel!
My advice to visit the cathedral of Marseille is to go with enough time to enjoy it and observe every detail in silence, admiring the great harmony and devotion to the divine that permeates the atmosphere.