Guide to Marseille and Aix-en-Provence

A fountain in a plaza

TripSavvy / Paula Galindo Valle

If you are cruising the Mediterranean Sea, there's a good chance that the city of ​Marseille or another city on the French Riviera will be a port of call. Marseille is often the cruise gateway city to the historic Provence area of France and provides easy access to fascinating cities such as Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, St. Paul de Vence, and Les Baux.

Visit Marseille

When your ship sails into Marseille, one of the first things you'll see is the Château d’If, which is a small island located about 1.5 miles from the old port. The fortress sitting on the tiny island held many political prisoners during its history, including the French revolutionary hero Mirabeau. However, Alexandre Dumas made Château d’If even more famous when he included it as the prison location in his classic 1844 novel, "The Count of Monte Cristo." Local tour boats take visitors out to see the island, but cruise passengers get a marvelous view when sailing into or away from Marseille.

Three things come to mind when the word Marseille is mentioned. Those who love food will know that bouillabaisse is a fish stew that originated in Marseille. The second is that Marseille is the namesake for the stirring national anthem of France, "La Marseillaise." Finally, and of most interest to travelers, is the historical and tourism aspects of this captivating area. The city dates back more than 1,500 years, and many of its structures are either well preserved or have kept their original design.

Marseille is France's oldest and second largest city. It has historically served as an entry point for North Africans entering France. As a result, the city has a relatively large Arab population. Those who watch old movies and read mystery novels can recall stories and pictures of the French Foreign Legion and remember the exotic tales from this exciting port city. The city is watched over by the church of Notre-Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard), which sits above the city. The city is full of other fascinating landmarks and architecture, and seeing a panoramic view of the city from this church is well worth the trip to the top.

Marseille has many other historic churches that visitors can explore. The Abbey of Saint-Victor dates back more than a thousand years and has a fascinating history.

Stop at Aix-en-Provence

On a cruise to the French Riviera, the ships usually offer shore excursions to Avignon, Les Baux, St. Paul de Vence, and Aix-en-Provence. A half-day shore excursion to Aix-en-Provence is thoroughly enjoyable. Buses take guests to the old city of Aix, which is about an hour's drive from the ship. This city is famous for being the home of the French impressionist Paul Cézanne. It also is a university town, with lots of young people that keep the city lively.

Aix was originally a walled city with 39 towers. It now features a circle of boulevards around the center, with fashionable shops and sidewalk cafes. If you are lucky, you will be there on market day, and the streets are filled with shoppers from the surrounding countryside. Flowers, food, clothing, prints, and other items you might find at a yard sale back home are in abundance. It's delightful to wander through the streets with a guide and visit the Saint Sauveur Cathedral. This church was built several hundreds of years ago, so you can see the 6th-century Christian baptistry and the 16th-century carved walnut doors right next to each other inside the church.

After about an hour of touring with a guide, you will have free time to explore Aix-en-Provence on your own for about 90 minutes. Of course, you might want to try one of Aix's famous Calissons, so head to a bakery and buy a few. You could use a whole day just to wander through the market but when on a tour, the time is limited to just browse through some of the stalls. Many tour groups meet at the Great Fountains on the Cours Mirabeau. It was built in 1860 and is at the "bottom end" of the Cours at La Rotonde.

Make Time to Sightsee

One of the best things about a cruise is getting to see a wide variety of places without having to pack and unpack. One of the worse things about a cruise is not having enough time to explore fascinating towns, such as Aix-en-Provence, in more depth. Of course, if you didn't need to make that bus, there's no telling how many Calissons you might consume, and some travelers might still be wandering the streets absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of Provence.