Marseille is a bustling port city in southern France, best known for having the nation’s largest North African population. Here in the center of the Provence region, sailors, wanderers, entrepreneurs and immigrants rub elbows and add to the colorful backdrop of this magnificent city, whose core values are reflected in stunning tourist attractions and a culture of international commerce and exchange. Keep reading to discover some of the best things to do in Marseille, France.
There’s no better place to get an introductory feel for the city than from the Old Port harbor. Right on the eastern end of Marseille’s busiest street, this picturesque location is very typical of the region and is the place where fishermen, pedestrians, travelers, street performers, and artists converge. The port is also teeming with local fish markets, all boasting the freshest, finest catch of the day. Many opt for an easy-going tour of the area for better insight into Vieux Port’s historical and present-day significance, including its connection to ancient Greece.
Private Tour: Street Art, Food and History
Address: Departs from Marseille Town Hall
2. Tour major religious sites
Shrouded in local legend, Notre-Dame de la Garde is by far the most venerated of all the churches in Marseille. Appearing at the summit of the city’s highest hill, its gilded statue of the Virgin Mary can be seen and felt from all over town. Locals take a pilgrimage there every year to pay homage to the cherished emblem, which is said to keep a steady, watchful eye over Marseille’s fishermen and sailors as they set out to face the dangers of the sea.
Next up is the Abbaye Saint Victor. One of the oldest in the country, this early Christian church serves as an important burial site for saints, whose remains are now housed on display in the museum. Finally, well-known for its elaborate mosaics, the Cathédrale de la Major is a stunning Roman Catholic edifice built under the reign of Napoléon III, who laid the very first stone in 1852.
Notre-Dame de la Garde
Address: rue Fort du Sanctuaire, 13281 Marseille, France
Website: Notre-Dame de la Garde
Located just off the coast of Marseille, the Château d’If is an incredible structure originally sanctioned by King Francis I as a military fortress to shelter the city’s coastline and naval fleet from attack. The imposing stone structure would later serve as the site of a local jailhouse, imprisoning political enemies and religious asylum seekers for nearly 300 years. In the present day, the Château has been made famous by French author Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, and can now be accessed by Vieux Port ferries.
Marseille City Sightseeing and Chateau d'If Tour
Address: Marseille City Centre
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4. Continue exploring off-shore destinations
Chateau d’If isn’t the only island you can reach by ferry. In just 20 minutes time you can also explore the islands of Pomegues, Ratonneau, and Tiboulen known collectively with If as “Frioul”. With access via the If-Frioul Express, the archipelago boasts a small, local community of its own, plus bars and restaurants set up for tourists. The 19th-century Caroline Hospital is also a historic spot along this island visit. Formerly operating as a primitive public health department and border protection agency, it regularly quarantined patients carrying yellow fever and other communicable diseases before allowing them entry onto the mainland.
Address: Quai des Belge
Website: If-Frioul Express
5. See the Vieille Charité Center
The historic Centre de la Vieille Charité has certainly seen its fair share of functions over the years: as a place of worship and almshouse for the city’s poor, to an elderly home and orphanage for children. The baroque chapel is enclosed within the center of a large outdoor courtyard, where it’s surrounded on all sides by the archways and columns that have become typical of Italian architectural excellence. Also housed within the Vieille Charité is the Museum of Mediterranean Archeology and the Museum of African, Oceanic, and Native American Art, which offer unique means of interacting with both ancient external histories as well as exploring some of the cultures that contribute to Marseille’s own contemporary landscape.
Centre de la Vieille Charité
Address: 2 rue de la Charité, 13002 Marseille, France
Although there are many museums to see, Marseille is best known for its sunny disposition, which means that at some point it might be a good idea to trade in your reading glasses for a pair of hiking boots and hit the open trail. The Parc National des Calanques showcases natural cliffside inlets that can be found sprinkled throughout the neighboring Mediterranean. While dreamy and idyllic, some calanques are too remote to be accessed by tourists. For best results, head over to the Tourism Office for a detailed guide on the safest and most scenic routes. Plus, if adventure is what you crave, then experiencing the calanques by boat or kayak could mean even more breathtaking wonders to behold.
Snorkeling Tour in the Calanques National Park
Address: Departs from Port Pointe Rouge
7. Head to the beach
Okay, so you’re not exactly stoked to be physically exerting yourself on vacay. We get it, but there’s no use wasting perfectly good scenery. Luckily, you can still enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the Marseillaise landscape while lazing about on the beach. Though the beach has become a somewhat symbolic reminder of the relaxed, harmonious way of life in the French Riviera, few people realize just how recent the phenomenon is in Marseille. Prior to the 1975 inauguration of Prado Park, it was virtually impossible for local swimmers to gain access to the sea. Presently the park occupies a space of nearly 89 acres (36 hectares) of lush green spaces, playgrounds, skate parks, and beaches of pebble and sand.
Prado Park Beaches
Address: Plage du Prado, 13008 Marseille, France
Website: Prado Park Beaches (in French)
8. Shop local delicacies
Sampling local goods is an absolute must for anyone planning a trip to Marseille. From the Old Port a multitude of small shops and markets can be found, including master chocolatiers specializing in regional, artisan flavors, and beauty shops selling handmade soaps made from jasmine, almond, lavender, and other Provencal extracts typical of the region. Aptly referred to as the savon de Marseille, these nourishing, all-natural products are beloved throughout France and make excellent souvenirs for friends and family.
Marseille’s largest avenue, La Canebière is comparable to Paris’ Champs-Elyséès in that is a major beacon of wealth and prestige within the city, featuring luxury hotels, Haussmannian architecture, and high-end merchants. Just south of there the Capucin district runs a North African-inspired bazaar where teas, spices, and other Maghrebine goods can be found for cheap.
Atelier de Création - La Grande Savonnerie
Address: 36 Grand rue, Marseille, France
Facebook: La Grande Savonnerie
9. Peruse the Parc Longchamp
Comprising 20 acres (8 hectares) of land, Longchamp Park is a celebrated public space commemorating the flow of water to the city via the Marseille canal. Not only do spectacular fountains, statues, and natural greenery make it a local favorite, but the site is also home to the city’s oldest museum, the Musée des Beaux Arts, where an impressive collection of provencal paintings and artwork can be found.
Musée des Beaux Arts
Address: 7 rue Edouard Stephan, 13004 Marseille, France
Website: Musée des Beaux Arts (in French)
10. Even more maritime wonders
Marseille’s Palais de la Bourse is the one place in town where the economically inclined go to monitor the state of the city’s stock exchange. Bearing the name of the mythological god of trade, it echoes of Marseille’s history as a prime port city in the Mediterranean region. It also includes an extensive maritime museum–a sea wanderer’s paradise, complete with detailed nautical maps and unforgettable displays of critical sea vessels throughout history.
Musée de la Marine et de l'Économie
Address: 9 La Canebiere, 13001 Marseille, France
Boasting one of the most diverse populations in all of France, it’s no wonder Marseille has so much to offer in terms of tourism and leisure. Whether basking in the sun or brushing up on local history, these top 10 best things to do in Marseille, France will ensure that you enjoy your stay in this magnificent seaside city. Plus, in order to make the most of your adventure you should consider purchasing the exclusive City Pass, which guarantees two private tours, free entry into several major cultural sites, and unlimited access to public transport throughout town.
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