The Provençal harbour town of La Ciotat is bordered by the mighty seascapes of the Calanques National Park.
The scenery is out of this world, whether you see it by car on a twisting coastal road or from below on a sea cruise.
The town also has a calmer side where there’s a string of welcoming sandy beaches.
And for an idea of how Provençal La Ciotat is, they even wrote the rules on the iconic game of pétanque here.
And that isn’t the only point of pride for the town, as it was a summer home for film pioneers the Lumière Brothers.
They shot one of their earliest movies in La Ciotat, and the cinema where they screened it still shows films to this day.
Lets explore the best things to do in La Ciotat:
1. Calanque de Figuerolles
Just around the Cap d’Aigle and in the national park is this narrow cove cutting far into the coast.
There’s a small rocky beach at the end and the gleaming, transparent waters will call out to you for a swim.
If you’re with young ones they’ll be able to paddle in safety here, as the beach shelves low and the sea is smoothed by a large rock at the mouth of the creek.
This being a Calanque, the walls are high and rugged, and here they’re formed of a strange puddingstone.
On the beach you’ll have a constant view of the bizarre Rocher du Capucin looming from the west side.
2. Île Verte
There are shuttles from La Ciotat’s port out to this island within the national park’s boundaries.
The ferry ride will take 15 minutes and drop you at a place of uncommon beauty, the Calanque Saint-Pierre, where there’s a beach served by a restaurant.
Many visitors don’t make it past this heavenly place.
But if you want to see more there’s a sinuous trail around the coast bringing you to two other beaches as well as calanques that plummet to the sea.
At the highest point of the island is Fort Saint-Pierre, here since the 1600s but strengthened by the Germans in the Second World War.
3. Old Port
La Ciotat’s old port is close to most people’s notion of coastal Provençe: The water bristles with private yachts and fishing boats, and under the ochre-shaded houses on the quaysides are rows of cafe and restaurant terraces.
In the evenings there’s a joyous and convivial atmosphere, and you can stroll around to a bar on Quai Ganteaume to see the sun going down behind the rocky mass of the Cap d’Aigle.
On the east side you can continue along the harbour wall until you get to Môle Bérouard, the 19th-century lighthouse and last fragment of La Ciotat’s citadel.
4. Parc du Mugel
This botanic park begins at the port and is dominated by the enormous rock at Cap d’Aigle, powering up to 155 metres.
There’s a dual appeal to this place, as first you have the lovingly arranged garden, with cactuses, roses, a palm plantation and an orangery.
And then there’s the nature reserve, making up the small creeks of the coast here and the woodland and herby maquis that wends up to that colossal rock in the south.
You can ramble through forest with chestnuts, Aleppo pines, holm and cork oaks, carob and laurel trees and stop at the belvedere to survey the Île Verte.
5. La Ciotat’s Beaches
The Calanques are great for their supernatural rocks and shimmering seas, but on other days you may be in the mood for soft sand and a few more luxuries.
The man-made beaches begin just north of the port and arc around the bay in a sequence of little horseshoes defended by breakwaters.
Each one has its own purpose: There’s a beach where smoking is banned (Plage Lumière), one where people can bring animals and one equipped for wheelchairs.
And at every one the sea is irresistibly clear and shallow.
Behind there’s a long promenade under stone pines with bar and restaurant seating at close intervals.
6. Chapelle Notre-Dame de la Garde
In summer you can venture into the national park to call in at this 17th century chapel, perched high above the water and with heart-lifting views back across La Ciotat’s bay.
The chapel was built in 1610 and its altar has a magnificent gilded oak sculpture of Notre-Dame de la Garde from 1630. Sailors would come to pray before voyages and leave ex-votos, and afterwards they would scale the enormous rock behind to check the horizon and conditions before departing.
This landform is etched with 80 steps, and in the evenings you can clamber up and sit and watch the sunset.
7. Musée Ciotaden
In the former town hall is the town’s museum, which has 15 rooms and 1,500 objects, so you can investigate many threads of La Ciotat’s story.
The most riveting exhibits come from the turn of the century when the Lumière Brothers shot one of their first movies at the train station in La Ciotat in 1895. A little later, around 1910, the game Pétanque was invented in this town and is now commonplace all over France, especially in the south.
You can go further back and see the artefacts left by ancient mariners and learn about the Genoese families that settled here in the 15th century.
8. Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption
La Ciotat’s largest church brings a touch of gravitas to the waterfront at Quai Ganteaume.
It is beautiful at night, when the high sheer walls are lit up and reflected in the water.
The church was built at the start of the 17th century and has a restrained Romanesque revival style, without much embellishment.
The stone for the facade, including the finely carved south portal, came from the ancient quarries at La Couronne near Marseille.
Inside check out the woodwork in the choir, carved from walnut in 1649, and the marble high altar, hewn by a Marseille marble mason in the 1700s.
9. L’Eden Théâtre
The world’s oldest operating movie theatre reopened in 2013 after a long refurbishment.
Movie historians should come no matter what’s on, just to be able to sit in the same hall where the Lumière Brothers screened L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat in 1895. That film showed a steam train pulling into La Ciotat’s station and is claimed to have sent some viewers running from the hall in terror.
The cinema is closed up during the day, so the best way to see the interior is to do what people have been doing for 120 years here and watch a movie!
10. Chapelle des Pénitents Bleus
La Ciotat is scattered with little chapels, and the last on this list is one of the handsomest buildings in the town.
It was erected in 1626 in the Baroque style at a time when counter-Reformation sentiment was running high in France after the Wars of Religion.
La Ciotat’s Genoese community would come to worship at the chapel, and there are a few touches to keep your eye out for, like the gargoyles above the windows, the octagonal bell and the fine wall sculptures.
Today the chapel is a dignified exhibition hall for local artists.
11. Route des Crêtes
From the land the Calanques between La Ciotat and Cassis are awe-inspiring.
But with the sun beating down in July and August walking in the national park can be uncomfortable.
Instead you can drive this tortuous road as it weaves its way up towards the Cap Canaille headland, which is almost 400 metres above the sea and has Europe’s tallest maritime cliffs.
Every now and then there’s somewhere to park up, get out and stare dumbstruck at the scenery.
You can look back at La Ciotat or over the Calanque Massif banking up to the west of Cassis.
All the way there are alien rocks diving hundreds of metres to the water.
At one of the highest points is a semaphore, built in 1791 and conducting military sea traffic along the coast.
12. Calanques Boat Trips
On Quai Ganteaume are a couple of companies waiting to whisk you off to see the Calanques from the water.
Some parts of the national park are impassable on land, and on these voyages you’ll pop in and out of these gargantuan coves hemmed by cliff-faces hundreds of metres high.
Bring a camera because some of the images here almost defy belief.
On the longer cruises, like the one to Sormiou, just south of Marseille, you’ll be given time to go ashore and relax on the beach.
13. Paddle Boarding
A new trend sweeping the Mediterranean coast in the last decade is also one of the best ways to get to the Calanque de Figuerolles.
On quiet, clear days the seas are gentle on the coast and easy to navigate, while paddle boarding’s shallow learning curve means kids as young as 10 can get the hang of it.
By hiring your own board you’ll relish the sense of independence, going where you choose and finding quiet bathing spots away from the crowded beaches.
There are also organised outings led by instructors who know the coast, taking you to unfrequented places of jaw-dropping natural beauty.
14. Days Out
For a change of airs there are other gorgeous towns to see in either direction along the coast.
You could carry on to Cassis after coursing along the Route des Crêtes.
This fishing port is at the centre of the Calanques, with a lovely harbour in a little pocket among the sky-scraping cliffs.
In the other direction, around the bay from La Ciotat, the landscape is less threatening and after a few minutes you’ll arrive at Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer.
This resort is loved for its beach, Les Lecques, a curving band of pebbles and sand lapped by shallow seas that are safe for little ones.
In the town hunt down the mini Statue of Liberty, a small gilded replica of New York’s landmark sculpted by the same artist, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.
15. Marché Nocturne
From the start of July to the end of August the harbour front at La Ciotat is closed off to cars, and a multitude of stalls take over the quayside.
The market trades from 19:00 all the way to 01:00 and is just the place to pick up giftable regional products like honey and olive oil, or all kinds of artisan handicrafts.
There’s also a more traditional market on the old port during the day on Sundays for fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, charcuterie, pastries, flowers and a much more besides.