There's More than the Beach to Marseille
Marseille is often overlooked by travellers who opt for other city-break destinations, and holidaymakers who bypass it on their way to the French Riviera or the interior of Provence. That's a shame, as France's second city is also its oldest, with 2600 years of history, plus it's a sea port that's a cultural melting pot, with a Mediterranean climate, and great food. Add to that some gorgeous areas of national park that are so close they're almost part of the city, and great beaches within easy reach. Here are our top picks for places to visit on a city break in Marseille.
Notre‑Dame de la Garde
Also known as Bonne Mère (the Good Mother), this hilltop basilica watches over Marseille, something of a symbol of protection for fishermen, sailors, and residents, as it can be seen from across the city and the Mediterranean beyond. Walk up the 150-metre hill (there's also a tourist train) to the church for 360-degree views. Notre‑Dame de la Garde was built in Roman-Byzantine style in the mid 19th century, and features a cupola and a 41-metre bell tower that's topped with a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary. Inside the church, you can look at the mosaics, visit the crypt, and admire the stunning ceiling.
Marseille's nickname is the Phocaean City because it was founded around 600BC by Greek sailors from Phocaea, in modern-day Turkey. Marseille grew up around what is now the Old Port (Vieux Port), and although the city's maritime activity now focuses on a newer port, the old harbour is still a bustling place that's home to a marina, and also the embarkation point for boat tours along the nearby coast. It's a great place for a stroll, and there are many bars and restaurants to stop off at. There's also the fish market, which has been in the same spot for over 100 years — it's worth visiting in the morning to soak up the atmosphere.
MuCEM and Fort Saint Jean
At the mouth of the Old Port is MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations), which opened in 2013. It's devoted to Mediterranean anthropology, history, archaeology, art history, and modern art, and — appropriately for a city founded by merchants from Asia Minor — the interrelationships between cultures in the Mediterranean basin. The main MuCEM site is linked by a footbridge to Fort Saint Jean, a restored former military site. Built in 1660 by Louis XIV on the site of a 12th-century building used by crusaders, the fort later served as a prison in the French Revolution, and a barracks for French Foreign Legion troops heading to North Africa.
The Cité Radieuse (Radiant City), is a 20th-century avant-garde housing block of more than 300 apartments and designed with the residents' comfort in mind. Now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is the work of Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier), and includes an indoor high street, a bar, a restaurant, a communal roof-top area, a primary school, and a running track, all surrounded by a 2.8-hectare park. You can explore the complex by booking a tour. Cité Radieuse is in the south of the city, close to the Orange Vélodrome, legendary home of Olympique de Marseille.
Perhaps Marseille's most charming district is the Panier, the city's old town. Situated close to the Vieux Port, this is an area of narrow, sometimes steep old alleyways flanked by shuttered houses, little charcuteries, épiceries, and boulangeries, and small bars and restaurants. You can also discover the occasional hidden cobbled square where you can sit outside a café and watch the world go by. Look out too for the colourful murals and graffiti art. The area has been home to immigrants from many countries, starting with the Greeks who founded the city, then later people from Italy and Corsica, North Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.
The 19th-century Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure is close to the Old Port and Panier. This Romanesque-Byzantine Revival cathedral, adorned with bell towers and domes, can accommodate 3000 people. It has an opulent interior featuring materials such as Carrara marble and onyx, plus some wonderful mosaics. Look out for the seven statues representing Jesus, as well as those of some of his apostles and disciples. The cathedral is predated by the Old Major church, which stands next to it and was originally built in the 4th century, but was rebuilt in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Calanques National Park
The Calanques National Park is a stunning area of coastline just south of Marseilles that's a popular place for climbing, hiking, swimming, scuba diving, and wildlife spotting. Calanques are steep-sided valleys formed by the erosion of limestone — in this case they have been flooded by the sea — and this idyllic landscape of little coves flanked by cliffs rising up to 500 metres high, hidden beaches, rocky platforms, and deep blue sea is a popular place to get away from the city for the day. You can reach it via the plentiful boat tours that depart from the Old Port, although you can also drive there outside of summer when it's not crowded and the car parks are open.
A great place to spend the day is the Frioul archipelago, a collection of four small islands just off the coast of Marseille. The 2.7 km-long Ratonneau Island is ideal for walking and cycling, and you can explore old forts and even a former yellow fever quarantine hospital, as well as relax on the pretty Saint Estève beach. Port-Frioul village has shops, bars, and restaurants, and is a popular port for yachts. Ratonneau is linked to Pomègues Island by a sea wall. You can cross it and then follow the walking trail along the 2.5-kilometre-long island to an old military fort, passing through a rugged landscape of bare rocks. On the smaller Île d'If island is Château d’If, a fortress originally built by King Francis I in 1516. It became a prison where José Custodio Faria, who inspired Alexandre Dumas's novel The Count of Monte-Cristo, was locked up. The best time to explore the islands is between April and June, before peak season, when the spring flowers are out. Ferries leave Marseille's old port for Pomègues and Château d'If.
Prado Beach is arguably Marseille's largest and best city beach area. It's actually a collection of man-made shingle beaches in the south of the city. It was created in the 1970s, and is ideal for all ages and has plenty of facilities, plus a 26-hectare seaside park. You don't have to travel too far to find even better beaches. Head west from Marseille along the Côte Bleue, where there are some lovely sandy beaches around the villages of La Couronne and Carry-le-Rouet, including St Croix and Verdon.