One of France's largest urban centers, the Mediterranean city of Marseille is as distant from Paris as you can imagine—both geographically and culturally. It's an ancient port that has long been a center of trade; "les Marseillais" (the locals) are proud of their distinctive culture and centuries-long history. It's known for its beauty, but also for being a bit "rough around the edges"—and that's all part of the appeal.
At once laid-back and vibrant, Marseille has it all: superb beaches and coastlines; varied, fascinating neighborhoods; awe-inspiring historic monuments; and delicious local dishes and drinks that are certainly worth sampling. Add the opportunity for day trips to nearby national parks and postcard-perfect Provençal towns, and you'll soon see why the city makes an ideal hub in southern France. Here are some of the best things to see and do in Marseille, especially on a first trip.
Explore the Old Port
There's something timeless—even mythical—about Marseille's Vieux Port (Old Port), the waterfront that has seen some 26 centuries of trade and cultural exchange. The Phoenicians founded a colony called Massalia here in around 600 BC, and it became a major center of commerce in the Mediterranean, incorporated into the Roman Empire before being christianized during the 5th century. During the medieval period and religious wars known as the Crusades, the Port was guarded by the forts of Saint-Nicolas and Saint-Jean; both continue to dramatically flank the port, and can be visited.
The Vieux Port may have tons of history, but it's still a vibrant center of present-day life in Marseille. Come take a stroll on the waterfront and admire the countless boats and ships moored in the harbor. Sit out at a terrace overlooking the port and enjoy a glass of wine or pastis, a typical Marseille liqueur flavored with anise and botanicals. Take a tour of the two forts, and/or a boat cruise out to the Friouil archipelago and islands beyond.
Visit the Chateau d'If, an Old Fortress and Prison
One of Marseille's most dramatic landmarks, the Chateau d'If looms near the coast of the old city, on the smallest island of the nearby Frioul archipelago. Built by King François I and completed in 1571, the formidable compound has served as a defensive fortress designed to protect Marseille from military invasions, as well as a state prison. Protestants and anti-monarchy figures were the most frequent prisoners between 1580 and 1871.
In 1844, French author Alexandre Dumas brought the Chateau d'If worldwide fame by placing it at the center of his novel "The Count of Monte Cristo." Today, it's an essential tourist destination and affords fantastic views over the sea and Old Port.
Getting there: From the Old Port, you can take a boat shuttle operated by Frouil If Express; boats depart several times daily.
Head to the Beaches
During long summer days, planting a big beach umbrella in the sand and spending the whole day swimming, sunbathing, or boating can be an idyllic prospect. And even if you're visiting in the winter when chilly winds and cool temperatures often reign, you'll still probably want to hit the beaches around Marseille for activities such as coastal walks and sea views.
Where to find the best beaches in Marseille and its surrounding area depends on your style and preferences. If you're after a quick swim close to the city center, Catalanes Beach is only a 15-minute walk from Vieux Port. It's not the prettiest beach in the area, but it's ideal for a spontaneous dip.
For lifeguarded swimming during high season, head to the Plage du Prado or the Plage du Prophète, both wide, sandy beaches that are ideal for families, sunbathers, and sports enthusiasts. If you're drawn by wild beaches with stunning natural scenery or opportunities for snorkeling, head to the Calanques National Park and its remarkable coves.
Taste the City's Best Bouillabaisse
Not everyone will think that Marseille's most-famous dish, bouillabaisse, sounds appealing. But unless you're vegetarian or vegan, we still strongly recommend you try a big, steaming bowl of this centuries-old fish stew originating in ancient Greece, and imported by the Phoenicians who colonized the area. Typically made with the fresh catch of the day or a variety of local seafood specialties, the stew is composed of an herb and saffron-rich broth, olive oil, and seasonal vegetables. Traditionally, you'd enjoy it accompanied by a toasted hunk of baguette and a spicy, garlic-rich paste called rouille.
The stew is so popular that you'll find it all over the city, year-round. But some of the best (and most picturesque) places to taste it are found on the Vieux Port; these include Le Miramar and Restaurant Michel.
See the City's Iconic Basilica—and Enjoy Panoramic Views
Looming over one of the city's highest points, Notre Dame de la Garde is widely seen as the symbol and figurative guardian of Marseille. The basilica is locally referred to as "La Bonne Mère," meaning "The Good Mother," and a bronze and gold-leaf statue of the Virgin Mary emerges from the bell tower.
Consecrated in 1864 on the site of several former chapels, the basilica was built in a Roman-Byzantine style. Come not only to admire its opulent façade and interior—rich with gold leaf, mosaics, elaborate dome structures, and stones in multiple hues—but also to enjoy sweeping panoramic views over the city, Old Port, and the waters beyond.
Getting there: We recommend taking the Petit Train de Marseille sightseeing train from the Old Port to the Basilica; this is also a great way to get an overview of some of the city's other key sites.
Take in the Splendor of Calanques National Park
Detractors sometimes describe Marseille as a city lacking in "traditional" beauty, yet they've clearly overlooked that the city is surrounded by some of the region's most stunning and well-protected marine environments. The Calanques National Park, sprawling between the outskirts of Marseille and the pretty port town of Cassis, is remarkable for its azure waters, which wend through craggy creeks (calanques) teeming with lush Mediterranean greenery.
Swim in protected coves whose waters are too blue to believe, or go snorkeling, boating, hiking, or rock-climbing in the park's seemingly endless calanques.
Getting there: From Marseille's Old Port, drive or take a taxi south to the national park (around 35 minutes). Alternatively, you can take the train to Cassis; from the town center, the "Port Miou Calanque" is around 30 minutes away on foot. There are numerous other trail departure points there as well.
Wander and Shop the Canebière District
To get an authentic local sense of daily life, head to La Canabière, the longest and widest avenue in the city. Built in 1666, it was greatly expanded during the end of the 18th century, and its grand neoclassical-style buildings reflect the period. It now extends all the way to the Vieux Port, making it an easy access point from the waterfront to the city center.
This is a popular place to stroll, browse for clothes and other items in the avenue's many boutiques, window-shop, and people watch from café terraces. Department stores, grand hotels, and restaurants also occupy the long avenue, which is adjacent to some of the other best shopping streets in Marseille, including rue Paradis, rue Saint Ferréol, and rue de Rome.
Get a Taste of Local Culture at the Capucins Market
If you share our enthusiasm for local farmers' markets and the opportunities for cultural discovery and exchange they tend to afford, this place is for you. Located in close reach of La Canebière shopping district, the Marché des Capucins is well known for proffering some of the city's best, and least expensive, fruit and vegetables.
You'll also find numerous stalls selling food products, spices, and textiles from North Africa and other parts of the Greater Mediterranean. You might say the market—also referred to as the Marché de Noailles—carries forth Marseille's centuries-old tradition as a bustling, diverse center of trade and cultural exchange.
If you're interested in learning about the region's history—including Marseille's—spend some time exploring MuCEM (Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean). It only opened in 2013, but is now one of the world's 50 most-visited museums. Tracing diverse traditions from the Antiquity to the present, its collections and special programs tell the fascinating story of Mediterranean cultural practices, archaeology, art history, cultural traditions, and contemporary art,
The main site near the Old Port, designed by Rudy Ricciotti and Roland Carta, stands beside the 17th-century Fort Saint Jean. Footbridges between the new and old structures dramatically symbolize how the Mediterranean forged powerful connections between European and Middle Eastern cultures.
Wander Old Marseille in the Panier District
Situated just north of the Old Port, Le Panier (literally, "the basket") has had inhabitants since around 600 BC, making it the oldest part of the city. It was once the center of a Greek colony called Massalia, from which Marseille's name is derived. During the 17th century, it was abandoned by more affluent residents for new developments to the east, and became a principally working class district populated by sailors and fishermen. It has also welcomed waves of immigrants from Italy, Corsica, and North Africa over the centuries. As evidenced by the old almshouse (La Vieiille Charité), it was until recently one of the city's poorest districts.
Today, Le Panier's narrow little streets, cheerful squares, and hidden corners are dotted with café terraces, hip restaurants, street art, and boutiques selling everything from Marseille soap (savon de Marseille) to jewelry. Be sure to take in the ochre and bright yellow façades, stone stairways, and hilly passageways; then wander through a few boutiques before settling for lunch on one of the area's sun-soaked squares.
Stroll or Drive La Corniche, Marseille's Coastal Road
One fantastic way to see the ancient port, sea, and islands from different vantage points is to take a long (often blustery) stroll along La Corniche, a boardwalk-style pathway built parallel to the coastal road of the same name. You can also drive it if you choose to rent a car.
The promenade stretches for 3 miles from the Catalanes beach to the Prado beach. Along the way, you'll see noteworthy sites including the aforementioned Chateau d'If and Iles du Frioul (Frioul islands), opulent villas and mansions like the one pictured above, and excellent sea views.
Getting there: Pick a sunny day to enjoy the route or path to the fullest—not a difficult task in a city that gets an average of more than 300 days of sun a year. To walk, follow the signs and easy path from the Old Port to La Corniche.
Take a Train to Cézanne's Favorite City
Hop on the train from the Marseille Saint-Charles station and spend a few hours roaming Aix-en-Marseille, one of the prettiest towns in the region. The birthplace of French painter Paul Cézanne, Aix and its surrounding mountains are the subject of many of his paintings. The popular market town is also renowned for its historic district, where you can bask in the sun on Provençal squares lined with warm-colored buildings and shaded by large trees. Have a drink or al fresco lunch on one of the terraces in the Cours Mirabeau, and take in the sights, colors, and traditions of the farmers' markets on and around Place Richelme.
Getting there: Trains depart around six times daily from Marseille Saint-Charles to Aix, with the direct TGV (fast train) taking only around 15 minutes. Booking in advance generally means you'll get lower fares.
Play a Game of Boules
Especially during the warmer months, a common sight in Marseille is locals playing a game of pétanque, or boules. The game, similar to bocce, involves throwing grooved metallic balls on sandy pitches, aiming to get yours as close to the smaller target ball (called a "cochonnet") as possible. While some play it competitively, most locals enjoy it casually, as an excuse to catch up with friends and sip tall, ice-cold glasses of Pastis de Marseille mixed with water.
The game is widely played across the city, including around the Old Port and in local parks. To rent equipment and access pitches, you can head to recreation centers such as the Cercle des Boulomanes (50 Rue Monte Cristo).
Frolic at Borély Gardens & Château
Situated around 3 miles south of central Marseille, the sprawling grounds and gardens of the Château Borély offer an ideal way to get a break from the urban ground and enjoy some fresh air. The Parc Borély is one of the city's most popular local green spaces, boasting enormous green lawns, botanical gardens harboring thousands of species of plants, poetic canals filled with ducks and swans, and playground areas. There's even a beach-side walk from the grounds.
The 18th-century château now houses the Museum of Decorative Arts and Fashion, whose collections are noteworthy for their fine ceramics and exhibits dedicated to the history of style.