Marseille Guide: Planning Your Trip

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While many travelers visiting France overlook Marseille, they shouldn't. Boasting 26 centuries of history, the Mediterranean port city and former Phoenician colony has much to offer. Sandy beaches with calm azure water perfect for swimming and water sports, stunning natural parks, unique local cuisine, vibrant neighborhoods, and easy access to other destinations in southern France are among the draw cards.

Read on for our full tips on planning a trip to Marseille, including information and advice on the best time of year to visit, the best things to see and do, where to eat, and how to get around.

Planning Your Trip 

  • Best Time to VisitThe city is at its best in the late spring to summer, when warm sea temperatures, cheerful festivals, and ample opportunities for day trips mean there's always plenty to see and do.
  • Language: French is the official language in Marseille, with a small minority of inhabitants speaking local dialects, including Provençal.
  • Currency: The Euro has been France's official currency since the year 2002.
  • Getting Around: As central Marseille is relatively small and manageable, getting around on foot is probably the best way to go. The city also has a decent public transportation system comprising two metro (subway) lines, day and night buses, and trams. Le Petit Train de Marseille, a sightseeing train shuttling visitors between the Old Port and some of the city's most popular sites, can also be a great way to get around and familiarize yourself with Marseille's key attractions. Meanwhile, local trains, including high-speed TGV lines, are easily accessible for day trips in the greater region and beyond.
  • Travel Tip: If you plan a summer trip to Marseille, consider going in June when crowds tend to be thinner and rates on hotels and flights are slightly less expensive. July and August on the Cote d'Azur see swarms of vacation-goers descending from Paris and elsewhere in France, and some may find the crowded conditions less than ideal.

Things to Do 

If you're planning a first trip to Marseille, make sure to reserve at least a few hours to visit the Old Port (Vieux Port), with its historic waterfront, restaurants and bars, and imposing medieval fortresses that once guarded the city from invasion.  Also spend a half-day or so wandering through some of Marseille's most interesting neighborhoods, including Le Panier, the city's oldest district. Its working-class and immigration-rich past makes it an area that's fascinating to explore, and it also boasts sun-drenched squares, narrow streets to wander, street art, and trendy boutiques. Taking in the beauty of the sand, sea, and surrounding natural areas is also something we recommend: Spend some time soaking in rays and swimming at Marseille's best beaches, and if time allows, take a day trip to areas of outstanding natural beauty such as the Calanques National Park.

Here are the top things to do during your trip:

  • Get a sweeping panoramic view over the city and sea beyond at Notre Dame de la Garde, the 19th-century basilica that crowns the highest hill near the Old Port. Locals tend to view the basilica and its statue of the Virgin Mary as both a symbol of the city and its divine protector.
  • Stroll down and around La Canebière, the wide, pedestrianized central avenue that's sometimes compared to Paris' Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Built in the 17th century, it's lined with boutiques, department stores, and café terraces perfect for watching Marseille city life in action.
  • Sample local dishes and drinks such as bouillabaisse (fish stew laced with herbs and vegetables) and pastis, an anise-flavored botanical liqueur. Pick a table outdoors at a restaurant or bar on the Old Port, and let your taste buds connect you to these beloved Marseille traditions.

Explore more local sights and attractions by checking out our full-length articles on the best things to do in Marseille and 48-hour itinerary for the city. Next, see our guide to plotting some great day trips from Marseille.

What to Eat and Drink 

As a port city that's had constant contact and trade with southern Europe, North Africa, and other places, Marseille's local food scene is nothing if not diverse. Local dishes and cuisine are influenced by the traditions of Provence, Italy, Greece, Morocco, and Algeria. The food scene here is so eclectic and rich that it inspired the late chef and food critic Anthony Bourdain to call Marseille "a glorious stew of a city, smelling of Middle Eastern spices, garlic, saffron, and the sea."

It's the sort of place where you can taste dishes from several cultural traditions in a single day. Order some delicious French bread and navettes (elongated, boat-shaped little cakes native to Marseille) from a corner bakery, before tucking into the catch of the day from a local fisherman at a waterfront restaurant. For a snack, you might find the perfect slice of pizza from a food truck by the beach, and later a steaming platter of tajine (Moroccan-style meat and vegetables, often served over couscous) for dinner.

Typical Marseillais dishes and treats such as the aforementioned bouillabaisse, ratatouille (Provence-style vegetables with olive oil), fougasse (flatbreads similar to Italian foccacia) and pistou (a light basil, bean, and vegetable soup) are all delicious. Many are suited to vegetarians and vegans, too, thanks to the Mediterranean focus on fresh vegetables and olive oil. In the spring, regional produce ranging from cherries and artichokes to spring asparagus and mushrooms fills stalls at colorful markets in the city. In the winter, enjoying a steaming bowl of fish stew on the Old Port can be the perfect way to warm up before a blustery walk along the coast.

Marseille's bar scene is relaxed and friendly, and you can find everything from traditional brasseries and neighborhood bars to elegant cocktail joints. The best way to embark on an evening out is to "follow your nose," as the French say: Start with a casual glass of wine or pastis at an outdoor terrace in the Panier neighborhood, then head down to the Old Port for dinner and finish the evening with a cocktail by the city opera house.

To find out where to eat and drink in the ancient city, explore these features on the best traditional foods to try in Marseille, top Marseille restaurants, and Marseille's nightlife scene.

Where to Stay 

When deciding where to stay in Marseille, it's important to assess both your budget and travel requirements before hitting the "book" button. As a major city in southern France, it offers hotels and accommodations at every price point and star rating, from high-end international chains to intimate boutique hotels and budget apartment rentals. Especially when traveling in high season (late spring through early autumn), we recommend looking for deals and booking accommodations several months in advance.

As in most cities, you can expect hotels in the center to have substantially higher rates than ones further away from popular attractions. To save money, consider staying in a neighborhood that's a ways off from the Old Port, which is studded with luxurious hotels. You might also wish to consider renting an apartment or catered flat with access to a kitchen, especially if you're interested in doing a bit of cooking and would prefer not to eat out for every meal. Make sure to familiarize yourself with Marseille's main neighborhoods before booking any accommodations, and read up on issues such as safety for tourists and access to public transportation/the city center.

To decide what sorts of accommodations are right for you, read up on some of the top-rated Marseille hotels.

Getting There 

From Paris, you can get to Marseille by train in as little as around three hours via the high-speed TGV line. The average travel time is just under four hours. TGV trains from Nice to Marseille do not take nearly as long (two hours and 38 minutes), while non-direct journeys on the route can take over three hours. Unless you're touring the greater Provence region by car, driving isn't generally the best option, given France's extensive and efficient train network. If you do opt to drive to or around Marseille, it's essential to study French and European traffic laws before you take the wheel, and make sure your rental car is equipped with a reliable GPS system.

Air France flies directly from Paris Charles de Gaulle and Orly Airport to Marseille, and you can also get from London to Marseille via British Airways. Flights from North America generally require a connection through a European hub airport such as Paris, Hamburg, or Amsterdam. Marseille Provence Airport is located around 17 miles from the center of Marseille. The airport is a comfortable, easy-to-navigate space with a variety of shops and restaurants. To get from the airport to the city center, you can take a taxi (around 30 minutes) or the airport shuttle bus to the Marseille Saint-Charles train station (around 25 minutes; follow the signs from the arrivals terminal).

Money-Saving Tips 

  • Consider buying a Marseille Citypass, which gives you unlimited transportation on the city's tram, bus, and subway network, free access to a large number of top attractions and museums in the city, discounts on the Marseille bike scheme (see below), and other perks. You can choose between passes valid for 24, 48, or 72 hours.
  • Unless you prefer the heat of the summer and plan to spend most of your time on the beach, consider going in low season (roughly late October through early March). Airfares and hotel rates tend to be lower when you opt to visit outside high season. What's more, Marseille gets around 300 days of sun a year, and the quieter months can afford opportunities for hiking and coastal walks, and exploring museums and monuments while beating the crowds.
  • Take advantage of annual events such as the Fête de la Musique (June 21), which sees free musical performances take over the capital every summer.
  • You can travel inexpensively on two wheels by using Marseille's city bike rental scheme. The first 30 minutes are entirely free, and the hourly rate after that is quite reasonable.
  • In the warmer months, consider packing a picnic of French bread, pastries, fruit, and typical Marseille treats such as pastis and aioli (steamed vegetables, shellfish, and other goodies dipped into garlic-laced mayonnaise), and spreading out on the lawn in a local park, or at the beach.
  • Enjoy a variety of inexpensive local foods and nearby sit-down restaurants by visiting the Marché des Capucins, Marseille's most popular and vibrant farmers' market.
Article Sources
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  1. European Commission. "France and the Euro." Web. Consulted August 31, 2020.

  2. Marseille Office de Tourisme et des Congrès. "Fortresses." Web. Consulted August 31, 2020.

  3. Marseille Tourisme. "Notre Dame de la Garde." Web. Consulted August 31, 2020.

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