Like many port around the world, Marseille long had a reputation for seediness and crime. And there’s still a scruffiness about the city today, which is no bad thing. It lends Marseille a rakish character and gives it an intoxicating dynamism and colour.
You can see it all in neighbourhoods like Le Panier, Noailles and La Paine and their shops, markets and cafes. The Old Port has been in use since 600BC, and if you’re inspired by the great age of France’s oldest city there’s a wonderful choice of museums that will send you back in time.
Lets explore the best things to do in Marseille:
1. Old Port
Marseille’s massive rectangular port has been trading for 2,600 years, and is more of a whole district than a single sight.
On three sides are quays with broad promenades enclosed mostly 18th-century former warehouses.
It seems like almost every one of these has a cafe, fish restaurant or bar on its ground floor, with outdoor seating so you can see life in this enchanting city unfold as you nurse a pastis.
Industry has long moved to the modern docks to the docks to the north, and most of the boats in the old port are for pleasure.
But at the innermost Quai des Belges the latest catch is still brought ashore to be sold at the fish market by the water every morning.
2. Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
It’s hard to miss this monument rising above the skyline to the south of the Old Port.
It’s a 19th-century neo-Byzantine church 150 metres above the water, with a large golden statue of the Virgin and Child at the top of its tower to watch over Marseille’s maritime communities.
There had been religious sanctuaries and watch towers on La Garde for many centuries, and the basilica incorporates the lower levels of a renaissance fort that also included a chapel.
The climb isn’t to be taken lightly in the summer, but there’s a tourist train departing regularly from the Old Port.
Needless to say the scenery from up here is jaw-dropping.
3. Calanques National Park
Marseille’s southern and eastern suburbs brush up against an area of exceptional natural beauty.
The Calanques are craggy white limestone cliffs and creeks reaching gargantuan heights and descending sharply to the sea.
You can experience these rocky wonders by land or sea.
If you’re going to hike it then you’ll need an intrepid spirit, as the GR 98 from Marseille to Cassis takes around 11 hours and leads you into some tough country.
Of course, the scenery makes up for the exertion.
There are also mini-cruises departing from the Old Port, as well as guided kayaking adventures.
If you can, try to reach the indescribably beautiful cove at Calanque d’En Vau.
Available tour: Catamaran Cruise & Lunch in the Calanques National Park
4. Musée d’Histoire de Marseille
It can be difficult to get your head around Marseille’s 26 centuries of history, but this first-rate museum near the Old Port will help.
Because of the huge time-span that the attraction deals with it’s the largest urban history museum in France.
For history geeks it means half a day spent inspecting amphorae, ceramics, architectural fragments, the remains of ancient ships, mosaics, sarcophagi and much more.
As well as this heap of artefacts from the Ancient Greeks up to the 20th century there are maps and models illustrating Marseille in all phases of its history, and the building joins onto a set of archaeological site containing ramparts, port buildings and a necropolis.
5. La Corniche
Weaving down the coast for several kilometres from the Old Port, La Corniche is one long balcony next to the Mediterranean, going past beaches and quirky little neighbourhoods.
You can drive it, but it’s just as rewarding to walk for the sea air and outstanding vistas of the Frioul Archipelago and the towers of the Château d’If in the bay.
One of the most striking sights is the Vallon des Auffes, a traditional fishing harbour on a steep inlet, ringed with ramshackle old huts and accessed from the sea beneath the arches that support the road.
6. Le Panier
This part of Marseille, just north of the Old Port, has been inhabited since 600 BC and was the site of the Greek colony of Massalia.
A the city evolved it became the place where Marseille’s waves of immigrants settled, and even today there’s a large Maghreb and Corsican population.
It’s a district with ochre-coloured walls, stone stairways and long, corridor-like streets emerging on sun-drenched squares.
Until recently it had always been one of the poorest parts of Marseille, as demonstrated by the La Vieille Charité, a 17th-centruy baroque almshouse with three tiers of arcaded galleries around a chapel.
Now it’s an increasingly trendy district with independent boutiques and craft shops, cafes and plenty of imaginative street art.
Inaugurated in 2013, MuCEM is a cutting edge museum that regenerated a portion of Marseille’s waterfront next to the 17th-century Fort de Saint-Jean.
The architecture is breathtaking, but what’s inside is actually quite difficult to sum up: It’s a kind of overview of Mediterranean culture an civilisation, incorporating art, photography exhibitions and historic artefacts.
Most people who visit agree that the exhibitions aren’t the most consistent, capriciously jumping from period to period and theme to theme, but they’re so diverse that there are galleries to capture everyone’s attention.
Entry to the fort, built by Louis XIV, is included in the ticket, and this structure is connected to the museum by two bridges.
8. La Plaine and Noailles
Directly east of the Old Port are two neighbourhoods that will give you a sense of day-to-day life in Marseille.
Noailles is another area in which generations of Africans settled, particularly after Algeria became a French territory in 1830. The scruffy and chaotic market here runs from Monday to Saturday, with sights and scents that could be from a souk in North Africa or the Middle East, with flatbreads baking and kebabs sizzling.
La Plaine, around Place Jean Jaurès, a few streets further east is one of the trendier parts of the city.
Here there are stylish boutiques and bars, as well as a market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings with a jumble of stalls selling everything from fresh produce to perfumes.
9. Stade Vélodrome
Even before a marvellous refurbishment in the build up to Euro 2016, Olympique de Marseille’s home stadium was one of the world’s football cathedrals.
Now it’s the largest club football stadium in the country, with a capacity of 67,000, and is finally protected from the merciless Mistral wind by a spectacular undulating roof.
Despite being an icon, the Stade Vélodrome hasn’t always been appreciated by the city or OM’s fans, and you’ll learn all you need to know about this history on an hour-long tour, while visiting the dressing rooms, the highest point of the terraces and going pitch-side.
10. Boulevard Longchamp
One of Marseille’s most edifying walks can be taken along the handsome Boulevard Longchamp with its upmarket 19th-century houses and twin row of plane trees.
The best way to do it is to head from Canebière station up towards Palais Longchamp, and the crescent-shaped colonnade and fountain of this imposing 19th-century complex will slowly come in to view.
Palais Longchamp and the park and attractions around it were built to celebrate the completion of the Canal de Marseille, which linked with the Durance River and ended centuries of water supply problems for the city.
The city’s Natural Museum and Museum of Fine Arts are set here too.
11. Cité Radieuse
Built between 1947 and 1952 this apartment building made from concrete was the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s first Unité d’Habitation, a design that would be repeated across Europe in the post-war period.
The idea was to transfer the homes, streets and amenities of a city into an 18-floor concrete block.
More than a thousand people still live here, but there’s a tour taking you into one of the restored original apartments, and up to the rooftop terrace where you can gaze out over the city.
Like all of Le Corbusier’s buildings it’s now protected as a UNESCO site.
Now a north-western suburb of Marseille, L’Estaque is a fishing village that inspired Cézanne, Braque and an array of other late-19th-century painters.
Cézanne in particular spent a lot of time in L’Estaque, painting scenes of the village and sea in different seasons.
If you’re familiar with his work you may get thrills when you survey these seascapes with your own eyes.
The Marseille artist Adolphe Monticelli was another painter linked to the village in this period, and there’s a museum in L’Estaque with the largest single collection of his work in the world.
On a wander, go by the old port where stalls sell panisses (chips made with chickpea flour) and chichis fregis (donuts).
13. Musée des Docks Romains
Marseille’s ancient history is so rich that one museum isn’t enough to show you all there is to see.
The Musée des Docks Romains is a couple of streets in from the north side of the Old Port and covers the site of one of the world’s few known Roman commercial warehouses.
They were uncovered after the war, during the which a number of streets had been dynamited by the Germans.
What will blow you away here are the dolia, massive ceramic jugs as tall as full-grown adults and able to store 2,000 litres of wine or olive oil.
Despite being on the Mediterranean and having 42 kilometres of coast, Marseille has never been thought of as a beach destination.
In the mid-70s though the Prado seaside park was created, reclaiming 40 hectares of sea and laying it with shingle and sand.
What really makes it is the view of the gnarled white rocks at the start of the Calanques to the southeast.
Your other option for seaside relaxation are the beaches of Corbière in the north, just past L’Estaque.
These are also man-made, and like Prado are protected from erosion by breakwaters.
Bouillabaisse is a Marseille dish that is cooked all over the world.
It’s a fish and seafood stew normally made with lean fish that have little market value and are better when cooked down, like scorpionfish, conger and sea robins.
These are stewed with wine, olive oil and saffron, although the remainder of the recipe varies from restaurant to restaurant.
Part of the ritual is rustic bread smothered with rouille, a kind of piquant mayonnaise, and dropped into the soup.
It all goes best with white wines from the Rhône Valley or Languedoc-Roussillon.
On the sweet side you can pick up navettes, cute boat-shaped biscuits in a variety of flavours, from anis to chocolate.