48 Hours in Marseille: The Ultimate Itinerary

Old Port/Vieux Port, Marseille, France

michel Setboun / Contributor/Corbis/Getty Images

The sun-drenched city of Marseille, perched on the Mediterranean in southern France, is a bustling, culturally rich place that can feel a little daunting for the uninitiated. Compared to Paris, which attracts millions of tourists a year, Marseille is relatively uncharted, and is often overlooked. But tourists with interests in history, architecture, delicious regional cuisine, coastal adventures, and even street art should give the ancient port a closer look. Smaller and more manageable than many cities, Marseille has much to offer. And it's entirely possible to enjoy it fully in just 48 hours.

Follow our suggested two-day itinerary below, and experience the best of Marseille with stops at the Old Port, Chateau d'If fortress and former prison, beaches, and the centuries-old district known as Le Panier. This is a flexible and self-guided tour that can be tailored to fit your budget, tastes, and desired departure date.

01 of 06

Day 1: Morning

Marseille's Old Port

TripSavvy / Paula Galindo Valle

10 a.m.: After landing at Marseille-Provence Airport or the Saint-Charles train station, head to your hotel and drop off your bags. We recommend choosing a hotel that's close to the city center, so you spend less time traveling from each point on the itinerary to the next.

Your first stop is the Old Port (Vieux Port), which is probably the city's most recognizable landmark and a historic bridge between the land, sea, and islands beyond. It was established roughly 26 centuries ago by Phoenician traders, and is today lined by restaurants, hotels, bars, and cafes.

Take a first, leisurely look by admiring the handsome boats and ships, nearby fortress structures (Fort St-Jean and Fort Saint-Nicolas), and Frioul Islands just offshore. Take a stroll on the pedestrian waterside paths and visit the famous Marseille Fish Market (Marché du Poisson) on the Quai de la Fraternité. Few places offer a better or more historic glimpse into local culture.

12:30 p.m.: Settle in for lunch at one of the many waterfront restaurants on the Vieux Port (you'll find some excellent choices for seafood and regional cuisine). Weather permitting, get a table outside and take in more sweeping sea and port-side views.

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02 of 06

Day 1: Afternoon

The old fortress

TripSavvy / Paula Galindo Valle

2 p.m.: After lunch, board a ferry from the Vieux Port to the nearby Chateau d'If, a former royal fortress and prison that gained fame worldwide thanks to its appearance in Alexandre Dumas's "The Count of Monte Cristo."

The imposing fortress on the island of If was built in 1524, commissioned by King François I for strategic defense. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was used as a prison (you can visit the cells of the castle to this day).

Explore the castle and take in sweeping views of Marseille across the water; from here you can also spot other islands in the Frioul archipelago.

4 p.m.: Once back on dry ground in Marseille, walk up the Quai du Port and stop off at La Maison du Pastis, a boutique where you can learn about (and taste) different versions of Marseille's iconic, anise and botanical-flavored liqueur. Staff members generally offer onsite tours and tastings, and a bottle of pastis makes a great gift or souvenir to take home.

5:30 p.m.: Next, walk due north past the Musée des Docks Romains (Roman Warehouses Museum) and into the centuries-old, colorful district known as Le Panier (around 10 minutes). Probably Marseille's most iconic neighborhood, Le Panier is also its oldest; Greek settlers were present here as early as 600 BC, and many of the facades and monuments date to as early as the 12th century. Once occupied by wealthy merchants, the area became a center for waves of immigration after the 18th century. In more recent years, it's transformed again into a trendy spot for boutique shopping, street art, and restaurants.

Wander through the district's Provencal-style squares with cheerful, ochre-colored facades and balconies tumbling with flowers, narrow lanes lined with quirky boutiques, and corners decorated with bright urban murals. At sunset, the warm Mediterranean colors should really pop. Visit this pagefor an overview of the most interesting squares and streets to visit.

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03 of 06

Day 1: Evening

A corner with stairs and street art

TripSavvy / Paula Galindo Valle

7 p.m.: Nightlife in Le Panier is both lively and laid back, so settle in for an evening in the much-fussed-about district. Kick off the night with dinner at a typical Marseillais seafood restaurant (ideally al fresco), or if preferred, try a more contemporary and creative table.

We recommend grabbing a table outside at Entre Terre et Mer (13 rue du Panier), nestled in a quiet alleyway and a big hit with locals. The whole seafood platters, fresh catch of the day, cheese and charcuterie platters, and short but carefully curated wine list are reputed to be excellent.

Alternatively, try the inventive dishes of Nadjat Bacar at Douceur Piquante (17 Rue de l'Évêché), an intimate, quirky eatery where the cuisine of Africa's Comoros islands is in the spotlight. The daily menu features freshly caught fish of the day, spicy rices and paellas, organic vegetables, and a variety of vegetarian and vegan dishes.

9 p.m.: After dinner, we recommend a digestive stroll to continue your exploration of Le Panier. Make sure to dress warmly if visiting in the fall or winter—Marseille can be surprisingly chilly at night during these seasons.

Local places that are particularly captivating after dark include the Eglise Saint-Laurent, an arresting medieval church that connects by footbridge to the MuCEM (Mediterranean Museum); the Place de Lenche, a square situated on the old Greek Agora that's lined with cafes and restaurants; and the adjoining Grand'Rue, which runs above an ancient Greek road that led from the Old Port.

Up for a nightcap? Grab a cocktail or glass of wine in the area on one of the cheerful squares outside, or head back south to the Vieux Port to enjoy a drink and evening waterfront views at places like La Caravelle, a popular jazz and tapas bar.

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04 of 06

Day 2: Morning

A plant seller at a market

TripSavvy / Paula Galindo Valle

8:30 a.m.: Your day starts on a colorful local note with a stroll and breakfast at the famous Marché des Capucins(also known as the Marché de Noailles). If you're visiting on Sunday, note that the market is closed, continue on to the next step in the itinerary instead.

Vendors at the heaping market stalls peddle fresh fruit and vegetables (try some fruit samples for an early morning treat), spices, and typical specialties from Marseille, Provence, North Africa, and the Middle East. Either enjoy a market stroll breakfast by purchasing pastries, fruit, fougasse bread, and other typical streets from the stalls, or settle in for a sit-down breakfast and coffee break nearby. We recommend Le Comptoir Dugommier (14 boulevard Dugommier), a traditional French brasserie north of the market whose breakfast is reputed to be excellent.

10 a.m.: Next, head north or southwest (depending on where you had breakfast) to reach the grand, wide boulevard known as "La Canebière." Often compared to Avenue des Champs-Elysées in Paris, the semi-pedestrian boulevard boasts historic hotels, shops, department stores, and restaurants. Stroll along it and people-watch before meandering down side streets such as Rue de Férreol, Rue Paradis, and Rue Beauveau. Leisurely browse the many boutiques and shops, and grab coffee on a terrace if you need a break from walking. Finally, admire the historic Marseille Operahouse (2 rue Molière) at the far western edge of the district.

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05 of 06

Day 2: Afternoon

People kayaking around rocky cliffs

TripSavvy / Paula Galindo Valle

12 p.m.: To make the most of the afternoon ahead, we suggest a light lunch or snack from one of the many bakeries or cafes in the La Canebière/Opera area. Sandwiches, crepes, or fougasse bread with cheese and salad greens are good potential choices.

1 p.m.: For your afternoon adventure, you have two choices, both involving Marseille's beaches and outstanding areas of natural beauty. Note that both are ideally visited during warmer months, but even during cooler periods it's possible to enjoy hiking and coastal walks.

  • Option 1: If you have a rental car or access to a taxi, drive south to the Calanques National Park (around 40 minutes). Comprising striking sea "creeks" with azure waters, coved beaches, and dramatic green cliffside trails, the park is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Calanque de Sormiou is the largest in the park, and one of the prettiest nearby Marseille. We recommend spending a couple of hours swimming in the cove, sunning on the sandy beach, and/or exploring nearby trails.
  • Option 2: If you only rely on public transport or would prefer a beach with restaurants and other amenities, take bus #83 from the Vieux Port metro station to the Plages du Prado (Metro Rond Pont du Prado). This one of the most popular sandy beaches in Marseille, with miles of coastline ideal for swimming, windsurfing, coastal walks and more. Spend a few hours enjoying the water and the sand; there's also a playground for children and green spaces at the nearby Parc Borély.

4:30 p.m.: Drive back to Marseille or take bus #83 back to the Vieux Port. From here, take bus #60 from the Capitainerie stop to Notre Dame de la Garde, the first point on your evening leg.

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06 of 06

Day 2: Evening

Exterior of Notre Dame de la Garde

TripSavvy / Paula Galindo Valle

6 p.m.: Ideally, you'll arrive at your next stop around or just before sunset. Crowning Garde Hill, one of the highest points in Marseille, Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica overlooks the city, port, and waters beyond as if to protect it. And many locals believe it does. The Byzantine and Roman-style Basilica, built in the mid-19th century, features a prominent gilded statue of the Virgin Mary that can be seen from afar. While it closes daily 6:15 pm and you may be too late to see the inside, admire the striking facade and take in panoramic sunset views from its terraces.

7:15 pm: Walk 25 minutes down the hill and eastward to the Place de Castellane, an 18th-century square where you'll enjoy a memorable dinner and, if energy allows, a last nightcap, Marseille-style.

7:30: Settle in for dinner at Bubo, a creative new table that Michelin rates as one of the city's rising stars and best "simple restaurants." Chef Fabien Torrente's Provencal-style tasting menus focus on local produce and sustainably caught fish, and the minimalist dining room shows a more contemporary, forward-looking side to Marseille. If you're hungry and curious, try the six-course "Signature" menu.

Still brimming with energy? Seize the night with a stroll in the trendy, street-art saturated Cours Julien area, around 20 minutes north of Bubo restaurant by foot. Bars we especially recommend in the area include the Massilia Pub (this makes a great alternative for dinner) and El Picoteo, a Spanish-style bar with a large, leafy patio out back.