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Tour Marseille on the bus or by the little train
The first thing to do in a new city is to get an idea of its layout and the major sights. The easiest and quickest way to do that is on a tour. There are two different kinds in Marseille giving you a good overview of this lively city.
Open Top Bus Tour
The 1 ¼ hour open bus tour takes you around the major sights and streets. It’s a great way to take in the main attractions at your own pace, giving you 24-hour access and step-on, step-off access at all the stops.
There are 13 stops, starting at the Viex Port (Old Port). You go past the defensive Fort Saint-Nicolas onto the grand Corniche President Kennedy for sweeping views out to sea. Then it’s up the narrow streets past gracious old villas to Notre Dame de la Garde where the views are superb. You pass near Abbaye Saint-Victor, which is well worth a look, do a loop through Le Panier, the Old Town, then loop back to the Viex Port and a tour through the area call La Joliette. You pass the Cathedral and the Fort Saint-Jean with a stop at MuCEM (Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean) before arriving back at the Vieux Port.
Open Bus tickets information on page 11.
Le Petit Train Tour
Le Petit Train also starts from the Vieux Port and has 2 routes. One goes from the Old Port up to Notre Dame de la Garde, taking in other sites like the Abbaye Saint-Victor. It stops for 30 minutes at Notre Dame which gives you enough time to take in the remarkable interior and the views. The whole trip including the stop takes around 1 ¼ hours.
The second circuit goes around old Marseille, giving you more of a trip around Le Panier where you can stop if you want to see the shops, restaurants and bars. This one lasts around 1 hr 5 mins.
Le Petit Train information on page 11.
Transport: Metro Line 1 to Vieux Port and many buses.
All the Attractions of Marseille
3. Le Vieux Port
4. Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean
5. Walk through Le Panier, one of Marseille's oldest districts
6. Le Corbusier's Cite Radieuse and the Velodrome Football Stadium of Olympique Marseille
7. Chateau Borely Museum of Decorative Arts and Fashion
8. Le Palais Longchamp Museums of Fine Arts and Natural History
9. Shopping in Marseille
10. Take a trip out to the islands and bays around Marseille
11. Practical Information on Marseille
02 of 11
Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde overlooks Marseille
Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde is unmissable; towering over the city from its hill, 162 meters high. The present building is only just over a century old, but the site and what occupied it has a far longer history.
The original little chapel on the hill was built in 1214 as a sanctuary devoted to the Virgin Mary and enlarged a little in 1477. In 1515 King Francois I came through Marseille on his way back to Paris after defeating the Italians at the battle of Marignan. Seeing the lack of defense of the city and threatened by the ambitious Charles 5th, Holy Roman Emperor, who wanted the south of France to pull together his two great regions of Spain and central Europe, the French king opted for 2 fortresses in Marseille: one on the island of If just outside the harbor, and the other on top of the hill, enclosing the small chapel.
During the ensuing centuries, Notre-Dame remained a public chapel within the fortress, with sailors adopting it as their church. The military buildings became a prison during the French Revolution in the 1790s, housing members of the royal Bourbon family and the chapel was stripped of everything, including its status as a religious building. But religion returned fast and in 1807 church services began again.
The chapel was replaced by the grand basilica in the mid 19th century, opened in 1864 and finally finished in 1897. It was designed by Henry Esperandieu who also designed the Cathedral Nouvelle-Major in the town in similar style.
The enormous, heavily gilded statue of our lady dwarfs you as you approach. The interior is a Roman Byzantine extravaganza, its bombastic décor modified by small ships hanging around the nave and plaques put up by sailors and fishermen. Its major draw for visitors is the splendid view over the sea and the surrounding countryside. From here you get a fantastic view of iconic buildings like the modern Vélodrome, home of l' Olympique de Marseille (OM) football team.
Colline de la Garde
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 91 13 40 80
Open daily 7am-6.15pm; Apr to Sept 7am-7.15pm
If you want to check out more of the 8 centuries of the basilica's history, visit the Musée de la Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Rue Fort du Sanctuaire
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 91 13 40 04
Open Tues-Sun 10am-5.30pm; Apr-Sep 10am-6.30pm
Transport: Bus 60
03 of 11
Spend time in Le Vieux Port, the Old Port of Marseille
It was here that the Phoeniciens landed in 600 BC so this is the cradle of Marseille. Today the Old Port is where everybody congregates, walking through the small fish market or the Sunday craft market, gathering in the cafes, bars and restaurants along the quays and people-watching. A free ferry (10am-1.15pm & 2-7pm) takes you across the harbour from the Hôtel de ville to the quai de Rive Neuve, giving you great, if short, views of the boats bobbing up and down, tall gracious wooden yachts beside sleek modern motorboats with the odd old fishing boat standing up to the modern age.
There’s an extraordinary huge metal canopy at one end designed by Norman Foster, great for sheltering from the summer sun. Look up: it’s like a giant mirror reflecting you on the ground.
To one side of that you'll find the boats that run to the different islands around Marseille, to the Cote Bleu and to the Calanques.
Transport: Metro 1 Le Vieux Port and many buses.
04 of 11
The Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean
The Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM) stands beside Fort Saint-Jean, its striking modern architecture by Rudy Ricciotto looking like a giant child’s toy. Opened in 2013, the exhibition aims to show the world of the Mediterranean countries, from France to Israel. J4 as it's named takes 4 themes, the Birth of Agriculture and the Emergence of the Gods; Jerusalem, Holy City of Three Religions; Citizenship and Human Rights, and Beyond the Known World.
For all details and information, check out the Guide to MuCemContinue to 5 of 11 below.
05 of 11
Walk through Le Panier, one of Marseille's oldest districts
For a little history, walk through Le Panier. The oldest part of Marseille, called after a former inn, lies to the north of the Old Port. It was a mix of tiny streets until 1943 when the area filled up with Resistance fighters, Jews and Communists escaping from the German occupation of the city. The people were given 24 hours to leave with many deported to the camps. Then the Germans dynamited the area, leaving just 3 buildings: the Hôtel de Ville (Town hall) on the Old Port, the Hôtel de Cabre on the corner of rue Bonneterie and Grande-Rue and the Maison Diamantée on rue de la Prison.
You can see all those buildings and the small streets that are left if you follow the red trail, a walk that takes you through the old town and Le Panier. The trail also takes you past the Hospice de la Vieille Charité, a 17th-century workhouse built by Pierre Puget with a Baroque chapel. Today it houses 2 museums: The Musée d’Archéologie Méditerranéenne (Museum of Mediterranean Archeology) and the Musee d’arts Africains, Océanians, Amérindiens (Museum of African, Pacific and Native American Art), both well worth a visit. The trail starts at the Tourist Office where you can also get a map.
Also see other walks around different areas of Marseille, all well marked with different colored lines on the streets. Maps from the tourist office.
06 of 11
La Cite Radieuse of Le Corbusier and the Velodrome in Marseille
Two iconic buildings stand close to each other along Boulevard Michelet in the north east of Marseille. The most famous is La Cité Radieuse, the great work of the architect Le Corbusier which you either love or hate. Built between 1947 and 1952 the inspiration was to create a new way of living in a ‘radiant city’. The 17-storey building, a gigantic concrete Concourse, 165 meters long and 56 meters, high houses 337 apartments with brightly colored doors built along interior roads, a hotel, an architectural library, a school and various businesses though many of them are closed. On the 9th floor strange shapes sculpted from concrete look out over the splendid panorama of the city. MAMO is an arts center putting on temporary exhibitions from international architects.
You can take a guided tour with a group (contact the Tourist Office for details) or wander around on your own.
La Cité Radieuse
280 Boulevard Michelet
Tel.: 0826 10 40 44 (booking line)
Centre d'art de la Cité Radieuse
280 Boulevard Michelet
Tel.: 00 33 (0)1 42 46 00 09
Open Wed-Sun 11am-6pm
Admission 5 euros
Transport: Métro Ligne 2 to Rond-point du Prado
Bus lines 21, 21S, 22 and 22S to Le Corbusier
The Stade-Vélodrome is a must for hard-core football fans. Originally built in 1938 for the World Cup football event, it’s now a reconstructed undulating structure, part open to the skies, built of steel and glass. Marseille, the European Sports Capital, hosts the UEFA Europe 2016 here. You can take a tour in English through the exhibition rooms devoted to the local team, OM (l'Olympique de Marseille which was the team of the legendary player, Zinedine Zidane).You see the VIP boxes and can sit looking down into the impressive space. It also hosts big concerts in the summer, from the likes of Paul McCartney.
3 Boulevard Michelet
Tel.: 00 33 0826 10 40 44 (reservations)
Tours from April to May only
Transport: Metro Line 2 to Rond-Point du Prado then 5-minute walk south.
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Chateau Borely Decorative Arts and Fashion Museum
Just to the south of La Cité Radieuse, you'll find a different museum. The elegant 18th-century Château Borély houses the Museum of Decorative Arts and Fashion which is mainly devoted to a superb collection of ceramics.
Start in the luncheon room with 18th-century glazed earthenware made by Gaspard Robert who broke the near monopoly of the Sevres porcelain works. You see beautifully shaped and delicately painted pot pourri holders, plates, dishes and intriguing pots with indentations around the rim designed to refresh glasses in the water inside before the servants poured yet another kind of wine.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, there were many different ceramicists in Marseille but they were a close-knit community who intermarried and moved between each other’s works, so creating what became a homogeneous style. In other rooms you see the other main Provencal works, from Moustiers-Ste-Marie in the Gorges du Verdon, Apt, Castellet and Varanges. There’s a room devoted to blue and white ceramics; a bathroom with scent bottles, a cabinet of curiosities, and modern ceramics.
There’s also a small costume gallery and wallpaper corridor. The delightful park with its boating lake, rose gardens and a botanical garden, is always full of families enjoying picnics, joggers and bicyclists. Walk towards the sea and you can get to the Borély beach for a swim.
143 ave Clot-Bey
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 91 55 33 60
Open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm
Admission Adult €5, under 18 years free. Free with City Pass
Transport Bus 83
08 of 11
Le Palais Longchamp Museums of Fine Arts and Natural History
It might have been conceived as the end of a viaduct to bring water by a canal from the Durance river to the town in the 19th century, but after adding a triumphal arch and an allegorical fountain in fine neo-classical style, the Longchamp Palace looks more like a statement of power and wealth. Inside there are two good museums.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts, the newly renovated Fine Arts Museum, houses a superb collection of Italian, Flemish and French art from the 16th to the 19th centuries from artists of the calibre of Rubens, Jordaens, David, Corot and Signac as well as the 19th-century satirist who hailed from Marseille, Honoré Daumier.
The Musée d’Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) shows off the flora and fauna of Provence as well as its zoology. Its collection of stuffed animals dates back to the 18th century.
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 91 14 59 30
Open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm
Closed Jan 1, May 1, Nov 1, Dec 25, 26
Admission with the Natural History Museum Adult €5; under 18 years free; free 1st Sunday of the month. Free with City Pass.
Museum d’Histoire Naturelle
Tel.: 00 33 (0)4 91 14 59 50
Open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm
Admission with the Fine Arts Museum (see above).
Transport: Metro Line 1 to Cinq Avenues-Longchamp
Tram 2.Continue to 9 of 11 below.
09 of 11
Shopping in Marseille from chic boutiques to colorful markets
There are plenty of opportunities for shopping in Marseille. With the revival of Marseille and particularly the renovations around the old port, came a huge new shopping complex, Les Terrasses du Port (9, Quai du Lazaret) with 190 shops and restaurants. It’s buzzing all the time, is open 7 days a week and has great views from the terrace overlooking the sea. There are both international designers and high street shops (French and international) here.
Many shops are south of La Camebière district, within three streets: rue Paradis, rue St-Ferréol and ru de Rome. Many boutiques and shops are around the Musée Cantini. The streets around Cours Julien are full of small artists shops.
For antiques, visit the Quartier des Antiquaires, a series of streets west of Place Castellane.
You’ll find independent boutiques and individual designer shops in the streets around rue Saint-Victor, rue d’Endoume and rue Sainte.
There are markets daily in Marseille, but try to make for the Marché Noailles (also called the Marché des Capucins), a general market but full of African spices and colourful textiles. It's open Monday to Saturday 8am to 7pm.
The photo is of Atelier Terre Neuve in Le Panier at 1 rue Four du Chapître.
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The islands and bays outside Marseille
There’s plenty to see outside Marseille. Most people start with a boat tour out to Château d’If and the island of Le Frioul which you can see from Marseille. The Chateau d’If was used as a state prison, then became the place where Alexandre Dumas set the Man in the Iron Mask.
Le Frioul is a great place for long walks. There are plenty of apartments to rent and small restaurants along the quayside where the boats from Marseille stop.
If you can, get out to Les Calanques, a preserved coastline between the sea and the montains. It’s now a National Park and well protected. Crystal clear bright blue water with inlets cut sharply into the rocky coastline invite you to walk, swim or just marvel at the view.
The third option takes you out to the Côte Bleu, on the other side of Marseille. A series of small villages are strung out along a coastline beloved by the 19th century Impressionist painters. Take the train and get out at any of the villages like Estaque from Marseille, or take a boat from the Vieux Port.
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Marseille - Practical Information
Getting to Marseille
Marseille is now on the direct route by eurostar and TGV from St. Pancras International in London. The train (daily in summer, less frequent in the low season) leaves London at 7.19am and goes via Lyon and Avignon, arriving at Marseille at 2.46pm (local time), taking just 6 hours 27 mins. Return tickets start from £99.
More about traveling by train direct from London to Marseille.
I travelled through Great Rail Journeys, a UK company which organizes both escorted group rail holidays and individual journeys. They can tailor-make you an itinerary entirely following your directions. For orgnised travel, check out some of their ideas on their website. Typical escorted group holidays include 6 days in the Dordogne and the Lot from £645 per person; and Languedoc and Carcassone (7 days from £795 per person).
Contact Great Rail Journeys by telephone on 0800 140 4444 (from the UK) or check their website.
For more detailed information, check out my article on how to get to Marseille from London or Paris.
Marseille Tourist Office
11, La Canebiere
Tel.: 00 33 (0)826 500 500 (0,15€)
Pick up a map from the tourist office. The map is very detailed, with addresses of every attractions as well as pharmacies etc. and has transport directions to each.
If you plan to spend time in Marseille, visiting different attractions, buy the City Pass from the Tourist Office: 1 day 24 euros; 2days 31 euros; 3 days 39 euros. The City Pass gives you free entry to the museums; free transport; crossing to Chateau d’If; one tour on the little train and reduced fare for the Open Bus Tour
L'Open Bus Tour: Get a ticket in advance from the Tourist Office, or at your hotel, or wherever you board for the 1 ¼ hour tour. You can get on and off at any of the 13 stops and the ticket lasts for 24 hours. 1 day 19 euros; 2 days 22 euros (10% less with City Pass). Pay the driver when you board. Daily journeys every 45 minutes in high season. Closed Jan 5-23.
Le Petit Train. Circuit 1 up to Notre Dame de la Garde goes daily in high season about every 20 minutes from a stop along the Vieux Port 10am-12.20pm & 1.40-6.20pm. At other times, check the timetable as the train goes daily but at less regular intervals. Duration with a 30 minutes stop at Notre Dame around 1 ¼ hours. Adult 8 euros; 3-11 years 4 euros.
Circuit 2 Le Vieux Marseille goes daily from April 1 to Nov 15 about every 30 minutes from a stop along the Vieux Port from 10am-12.30pm & 2-6pm. Duration with a 30-minute stop at Le Panier is around 1 hr 5 mins. Adult 7 euros; 2-11 years 3 euros.
Buy your tickets from the Tourist Office, your hotel or at the boarding point on the Old Port.