A coastal town on Provence’s Côte Bleue, Martigues became a hang-out for artists in the 19th century.
They were seduced by its clear light and canals, and Martigues was soon dubbed the Venice of Provence.
You can decide for yourself if that’s a fair description, but you’ll definitely fall for the little channels, houses and bridges around the Brescon Island in the middle of the town.
There’s delectable Mediterranean cuisine, arresting coastal scenery and a superlative museum with works by the celebrated artists who settled in Martigues.
And for days chilling out in the sun you’ll never be far from a pristine sandy beach or cute old fishing port.
Lets explore the best things to do in Martigues:
1. Miroir aux Oiseaux
An image that graces many postcards of Martigues is this romantic scene at Quai Brescon.
It has old wooden boats bobbing in the water beside a small rectangular wharf.
And the cobblestone waterfront crowded with ramshackle houses painted in pastel shades.
For the cherry on top, the wharf has quaint iron gaslights and at night you can gaze across the Galiffet Canal to see the Church of Saint-Genest illuminated.
This spot has captured hearts for hundreds of years, and was immortalised by painters like Félix Ziem, André Derain, Raoul Dufy and Camille Corot.
2. Le Quartier de l’Île
Saint Sébastien, Baussengue and Galliffet are the canals that make up the prettiest area in the city.
These encircle the Île Brescon and inspired Martigues’ nickname, the Venice of Provence.
The yachts, painted houses, bridges and restaurant terraces create a very evocative backdrop for your wander on the quays.
From the dock at Jonquières you can also catch a free shuttle boat that takes 13 minutes to reach Ferrières at the start of the Baussengue Canal.
You’ll make four stops along the way and get a photogenic perspective on the town throughout.
3. Église Sainte-Madeleine-de-l’Île
The church at the end of Canal de Saint Sébastien on Île Brescon is in that extravagant Italian Baroque style and is protected as an “historic monument”. Work was completed in 1680 and there are a few furnishings inside that go back to the earliest years.
One is the marvellous walnut pulpit from 1694, and you have to get a good look at the chapel frescos, painted by the Catalan-born French artist Michel Serre in the same year.
Serre was active around the Marseille area and was chosen as the official painter of the French Galleys by King Louis XIV.
4. Côte Bleue
This length of coast south and east of Martigues is where the pale limestone mass of the Estaque Range slips into the Mediterranean.
If you’re planning a day at the beach you’ll come to one of the coves on the Côte Bleue , in an area that got its name from the vivid blue of the Mediterranean against the rock.
The exposed rocky cliffs give it a rugged air, but also help to defend the sandy beaches from the wind and surf.
There are four Blue Flag beaches just 15 minutes from Martigues, and a selection of quaint harbours and family resorts to discover on excursions.
5. Parc de Figuerolles
By the Berre Lagoon there’s a 131-hectare space where tourists and residents of Martigues can recharge their batteries.
Decked with scrub and pine forest there’s small plains and valleys for walks, horseback rides, jogging and mountain biking.
The municipal greenhouses are also here and there’s a designated botanical path with 50 types of plant.
It’s a small wonderland for youngsters as there’s a tourist train, imaginative tree-house playgrounds, an educational farm with 300 animals and pony rides offered by the equestrian centre.
6. Plage de Sainte-Croix
One of Martigues’ four Blue Flag beaches, this small but perfectly formed sandy cove is about ten minutes in the car from the centre of town.
You can park at the top of the cliff and then duck through a forest of stone pines and down a stairway etched in the rock to this heavenly beach.
There are few signs of civilisation apart from an the old Chapel of Saint-Croix and a restaurant.
The beach has fine sand and although there are rolling waves, the gentle slope makes the water safe for small kids to paddle in.
7. Musée Ziem
Martigues’ fine art museum is in the town’s converted customs barracks.
It was set up at the start of the 20th century when Félix Ziem donated several works just before he died.
Ziem had fallen in love with Martigues in the 1840s, and moved into a workshop in the town so he could paint the picturesque canals that became his trademark.
You can ponder some of Ziem’s landscapes of Martigues, as well as his depictions of Venice and Constantinople.
The Marseille school is represented by Loubon, Guigou and Jean-Baptiste Olive, and there are also landscapes by Fauvists like Picabia, Derain and Dufy.
8. Galerie de l’Histoire
To get up to speed on Martigues’ rich history come to the Town Hall.
The ground floor has been turned in to a mini-museum with 500 square metres of exhibits explaining the different phases of the town’s growth.
There are interactive displays, models, a handful of artefacts and photos, all matched with descriptions.
The oldest pieces go back as far as 11,000 BC and you’ll travel to the present day to find out about the future projects in store for the city.
Possibly the most compelling part recounts the 1800s when Martigues became fashionable with painters like Ziem.
9. Plage du Verdon
Just around a headland from Sainte-Croix is the slightly larger Plage du Verdon.
And where its neighbour is just right for grown-ups to relax on, this beach is better if you have teens and children with you.
It’s at the base of a cove that cuts several hundred metres inland, and this helps keep the sea currents and winds out.
The beach is supervised all summer long and there are ample facilities like bars and restaurants, volleyball courts and a place where you can hire a pedalo and go on a little cruise around the cove.
Like Sainte-Croix ,Verdon has earned the Blue Flag several years running.
10. Chapelle Notre Dame des Marins
Up twisting tracks through Mediterranean woodland is a chapel has been a pilgrimage site for Martigues’ residents since the 1600s.
Dedicated to “Our Lady of the Sailors”, it’s a place where mariners would travel to say prayers and leave votive offerings before embarking on voyages.
The chapel is charming enough, and a document of how things used to be in Martigues.
But your main motive for getting up here has to be the panorama.
The Berre Lagoon, Martigues and its canals and the Estaque Mountain Range all sweep out before you.
Resting in a creek on the Côte Bleue, Carro is a beautiful old fishing port.
It’s steeped in maritime history, and you should get up to visit early, as there’s a daily fish market on the quayside starting at 08:30. Carro was where a peculiar form of tuna fishing originated, in which a shoal would be compacted into an ever smaller space by several boats.
You can find out more about this heritage at the “Entre Mer et Collines” exhibition on the first floor of the Cercle des Pêcheurs building.
This little attraction documents Carro’s agriculture and fishing history with artefacts, photographs and testimonies.
So all of the beaches on the Côte Bleue are guarded from the elements.
But you need only stand at spots like Cap Couronne to feel the full brunt of the wind that batters the coast in more exposed places.
This is music to the ears of windsurfers who catch the breeze at La Couronne and Les Arnettes.
In the right conditions the waves can reach heights of several metres.
But those many long creeks that cut into the coast are made for less demanding activities like stand-up paddleboarding and snorkelling in transparent waters.
You won’t need more than 15 minutes to reach this family seaside resort anchored by a chic, palm-edged marina.
Carry-le-Rouet could be a launchpad to escape to the Côte Bleue’s nature.
The Chemin des Douniers is a coastal trail cut in the 18th century to try to foil smugglers.
Carry Plongée, the main dive centre in the region is based in the marina: They’ll take you on underwater odysseys in the Côte Bleue’s many creeks, where the wildlife is protected by a marine reserve.
And you might be interested to know that Carry-le-Rouet was where Nina Simone spent the last few years of her life before she passed away in 2003.
When France’s second-largest city is only half an hour down the road it would be a shame not to call in.
On the Old Port you’ll dream of historic ships, merchants, shipowners and the Count of Monte Cristo.
The depth of history can make your head spin, as this was the first place in France to be colonised by the Ancient Greeks, way back in 2,600 BC. As ever it’s a city with a cosmopolitan personality that will win you over at African street markets, bars, clubs and art galleries.
Push on a bit further and you come to the cinematic seascapes of the Calanques, where mountains plummet to the Mediterranean.
15. Local Gastronomy
If you want to dine like a Martégal then you have to order some poutargue, which is a curious delicacy that has been consumed in the town since at least the 1700s.
Poutargue is salted mullet roe that is packed and left to cure for several weeks, and normally comes coated in beeswax to keep air out.
In Martigues its enjoyed as an aperitif or starter, sliced thinly with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Poutargue pairs very well with white wine from Cassis, the Côtes-de-Provence or Muscadet.
And like all coastal towns in the region, the bouillabaisse fish stew is something you have to try at least once.