Marseille is one of France's largest and most important cities, but compared to Paris, Lyon, or Strasbourg it's not especially well understood. Tourists sometimes find the ancient port city on the Mediterranean a bit intimidating and difficult to navigate, but familiarizing yourself with its main districts and sights in advance can go a long way. A diverse, culturally rich, and complex place, the city boasts plenty of variety across its neighborhoods and districts, from laid-back beach and harbor boardwalk areas to arty enclaves where quirky boutiques, quiet squares, and street art abound. These are 6 of the top neighborhoods in Marseille, and a few notes of what to see and do in each.
Old Port (Vieux Port): Waterside Views & Culture
Probably Marseille's most iconic area, the Vieux Port (Vieux Port) is the lively heart of the ancient Mediterranean city. With a history stretching back to around 600 B.C.—when the Phoenicians established a trading port here—the area and its U-shaped quays are today lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops.
A stroll along the marina offers stunning views over the sea, picturesque boats and yachts, fortifications (Fort St Jean and Fort Saint-Nicolas, both built by King Louis XIV during the 17th century), and the Frioul islands beyond. A dramatic mirror installation on the semi-pedestrian Quai des Belges is an ideal spot for selfies. Stop off at the Marché de la Peche (fish market) in the morning for an authentic slice of local culture, and visit the Mucem, a fascinating museum dedicated to the cultures and history of the Mediterranean. Finally, enjoy an evening drink or dinner in a restaurant with views over the port and marina.
Le Panier: Charming Squares & Arty Corners
North of the Vieux Port is Le Panier, a beloved neighborhood that's steeped in centuries of history. Some of the oldest streets, squares, and structures can be found in the winding, hilly area, whose name literally means "the basket."
The area was settled by the ancient Greeks, as evidenced by spots such as the Place de Lenche, where an agora once proudly stood. Today, the district mostly resembles a charming Provencal town, with its ochre and pastel facades, sunny squares studded with cafes, and narrow streets lined by quirky boutiques. Having hosted waves of immigrants over many decades, it has a distinctively hybrid cultural character—although in recent years it's been rapidly gentrifying.
Explore the area's winding streets and stairs, sit on a square for lunch or artisan coffee, and admire its abundant street art. Also check out distinctive buildings such as the 17th-century former workhouse called La Vieille Charité (today housing museums and galleries) and the 16th-century La Maison Diamantée, with a stone facade cut into diamond-like shapes.
La Canebière: Old-World Shopping & Style
Leading from the Old Port and stretching eastward for over a mile, the grand boulevard known as "La Canebière" forms the heart of one of Marseille's liveliest areas, with both locals and visitors ambling along its wide sidewalks, sitting in nearby historic cafes and shopping in local department stores and boutiques. The Avenue is also lined with many historic hotels, such as the 19th century Hotel de Noailles at #62. The architecture is varied and eye-catching, with fine examples of neoclassical, Haussmannian, and modern design.
While the main avenue itself has plenty to offer in terms of shopping and people-watching, make sure to explore adjacent shopping streets such as the Rue de Paradis, Rue St Ferréol, and Rue de Rome. These are found just north of Marseille's main tourist office.
Noailles: A Lively Market Vibe
If noisy, crowded, colorful farmer's markets appeal to you, head to the Noailles district to the Marché des Capucins. Located just east of the Canebière district, the Noailles area is often referred to as the "stomach of Marseille", and is one of the best places in town to get a taste of culture (and treats).
Take a stroll through market stalls piled high with bright fruit and vegetables, spices, North-African style pastries, breads, meat and fish, and French cheeses, and consider stocking up on picnic items here for a casual al fresco meal at the beach. The area also abounds with cafes and restaurants that are ideal for people-watching and unpretentious.
Cours Julien: Trendy Boutiques & Street Art
One of Marseille's trendiest neighborhoods is a local favorite for nightlife, boutiques, restaurants, edgy galleries, and walls plastered with street art. Cours Julien is located east of the Noailles market area, and is definitely a place to explore for a genuine taste of contemporary culture (especially on the younger side).
Start at the Cours Julien square itself, a large plaza flanked with palm trees and lined with bars, shops, and restaurants, before exploring the smaller adjoining streets.
Cinq Avenues: Leafy Parks & Museums
The Cinq-Avenues district is a leafy residential area of the city that's often referred to as the "Museum Quarter" due to its numerous museums and galleries. The main attraction in the area is the Palais Longchamp, an eye-catching palace and garden complex that was designed in the 1860s by Henry Espérandieu, who also conceived the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica. It houses three important Marseille museums within its walls: the Museum of Fine Arts, the Natural History Museum, and the city's botanical gardens (formerly a zoo—as evidenced by ornate pavilions designed for elephants, giraffes, and other animals). Especially in the spring and early summer, a stroll through the lush English-style gardens is recommended. The central fountain is studded with elaborate statues, and the whole area is surrounded by parks, canals, and green spaces.