Marseille itinerary

A long weekend in Marseille

If you’re looking for year-round sunshine and an authentic Mediterranean experience, look no further than Marseille, France’s second biggest city. Since it was the European City of Culture in 2013, it’s become a slightly cleaner, bustling metropole with hidden charms if you know where to look. It’s definitely worth spending a long weekend exploring its ancient neighbourhoods brimming with life.

The Pearl

Sit down for pre-dinner apéro at one of the city’s many bars. You could even try a local aniseed spirit – pastis – which is served long with water and ice. Deliciously refreshing.

The Grit

Although Marseille has come a long way, some areas are still quite unsafe. Be street savvy and you’ll be fine. Also wear comfortable shoes as it’s a city made for walking.

Day 1 in marseille: Le Vieux-Port / Le Panier /La Cathédrale de la Major/ Mucem / Fort Saint-Jean

Smell fresh fish at the Vieux-Port

Founded over 2,600 years ago by Phoceans, Marseille is one of the oldest cities in Europe. It’s natural harbour is one of the longest and can fit 3,200 boats. And every morning, you’ll find fishermen selling their catch of the day directly to locals and restaurants next to the Norman Foster designed Ombriere, a huge steel canopy that provides much-needed shade.

Uncover ancient artefacts in Le Panier

Once one of Marseille’s dodgiest neighbourhoods, Le Panier is now full of tasteful street art and independent shops like La Boule Bleue (where Marseillais buy competition grade boules) or L’Atelier du Corail where you can buy jewellery made from sustainably picked coral from the Med. It’s also where you’ll find La Vieille Charité, a museum that houses thousands of ancient artefacts, from traditional African masks to Ancient Roman amphoras. 

Jewellery made from sustainably collected Mediterranean coral near Marseille
Jewellery made from sustainably collected Mediterranean coral at L’Atelier du Corail

Oggle at opulence at the Cathedrale de la Major

It’s impossible to miss la Cathedrale de la Major as it has a distinct striped brickwork. Built in the 19th century, it can fit up to 3,000 people. It’s main dome soars up to 70 metres high and you get a real sense of wonder and opulence as you walk round.

Catch some modern art at Mucem

Built in 2013, the Mucem stands for the Museum of European and Mediterranean civilisations. Like La Vieille Charité, it also has lots of old objects and it also welcomes temporary modern art exhibitions by the likes of Jeff Koons. There’s free entry on the first Sunday of the month. The real attraction though is walking up the ramp right round the square building and looking out at the views framed by the seaweed-like facade.

Muceum museum in Marseille has a great rooftop view
The Mucem rooftop is free to access. Avoid the tourist-trap restaurant and take in the view

Go back in time at the Fort Saint-Jean  

Louis XIV had the Fort Saint-Jean built in 1660 to protect Marseille’s port, a strategic asset for France. It’s been beautifully restored and is worth a walk round, with little exhibitions dotted about and a Mediterranean garden on the roof.

Day 2 in marseille: Notre Dame de la Garde / La Canebière / Rue St Fereole / Cours Julien

Notre Dame de la Garde

One of the best vantage points of Marseille is from the top of the hill where the glittering gold statue of Notre Dame de la Garde on the basilica. Marseillais have been visiting Notre Dame – aka la Bonne Mere (good mother) – for centuries, asking for protection or solace from suffering and sending prayers for fishermen lost at sea.

La Canebiere

La Canebiere (named after ancient hemp fields) is Marseille’s equivalent to Paris’ Champs Elysees, but much less glamorous. However, it does have a few points of interest. There’s the official Olympique de Marseille gift shop for football fans (known as L’OM locally). And Bourse is a large shopping mall with plenty of French shops including Nature et Decouverte and Gallerie Lafayette. You’ll also find the real bourse aka stock exchange building on the other side and next to it, one of the oldest carousel’s in France, dating back to the 18th century.

The 18th century carousel in Marseille
Le Grand Carroussel de la Canebiere dates back to the 18th century

If you want to shop more, walk up Rue de la Republique or down Rue St Fereole. If you see shops selling cheap knockoff clothes and mobile phones, you’re probably on Rue de Rome which runs parallel.

Cours Julien

Cours Julien is the grittier part of Marseille, also known as the Creative Quarter. This area used to be a huge, daily fruit and veg market but is now known for its tiny theatres, bars, restaurants and graffiti. Try a street art tour if you want someone to translate the hieroglyphics. It’s only a 15mins walk up the hill from the Vieux-Port via the slightly dodgy Noailles area.

Where to eaT in marseille

Restaurant opening times are quite strict in France so make sure you keep an eye on your watch. They’re usually open from 12-3pm and then from 6pm till 10pm. French people are prompt because they want to take their time and really savour the food and the time with friends or family. Here’s some of the best places to eat in Marseille.

Around le Vieux-Port 

All paths lead back to the Vieux-Port so it’s helpful to have a few good eateries up your sleeve. 

CAPRI PIZZA -For a casual snack on the go, head to Capri Pizza. I have fond teenage memories of popping by while on a shopping trip round town to have a slice. Their menu is extensive but you can’t go wrong with a slice of Royale – cheese, ham, mushrooms and local oregano- served warm, wrapped in paper on a plate.

AU DOYEN -If you want to sit on the port, the all-day brasserie Au Doyen at the end by the Mucem. Look for the little tourist trains and you’ll see it. They serve French-style crowd-pleasers mussels, steaks, burgers and salads.

LA PASSARELLE- Locals love having their lunch break under the cane canopy at La Passarelle, tucked behind the Theatre de la Criee. It’s worth the short walk uphill to sit in their sheltered garden. They have a seasonal menu with imaginative dishes, served on colourful tablecloths.

Fresh seafood

LE REPAIRE – This tiny seafood bar has outdoor seating overlooking Fort Saint-Nicholas and the Fort-Saint Jean at the mouth of the Vieux Port. Serving up seasonal dishes like oysters, sea urchins or scallops, they also make great cocktails.

COQUILLAGES PIERROT – Octopus, swordfish, tuna, seabream, mussels, oysters…the French love their seafood and Marseille does not disappoint. For an impressive and reasonably priced seafood platter, head to Coquillages Pierrot on Le Prado. Old regulars mix in with business people and the seafood is on display so you can see your lunch before eating it.

L’EPUISETTE – For something extra special, go to L’Epuisette, a one Michelin star restaurant perched on the end of the small fishing port, le Vallon-des-Auffes. Make your way through a seven or nine course menu while overlooking the bay of Marseille and the Château d’If. Even the toilets have their feet in the Med.

The quaint little fishing village of Vallon-des-Auffes is part of Marseille

Relaxed evening vibes

SEPIA – If you want dinner with a difference, away from the hustle and bustle, then Sepia is the perfect place. Right at the top of the hill where Notre Dame de la Garde is, they have covered outdoor seating which overlooks Marseille. Service is attentive, the fixed price menu is creative and the sommelier is very friendly.

LIVING ARTS – Don’t let the graffiti and casualness of the Cours Julien neighbourhood put you off. It has a great vibe in the evenings with young professionals perching at one of the many restaurants and bars. One of our favourites was Living Arts, which turns into a jazz bar in the winter. Led by a passionate chef, the menu has proper French dishes on it.
Tip: Grab an aperitif at La Baleine, a craft brewery on the main square.

Where to stay

MAMA SHELTER – After its success in Paris, this trendy hotel chain has set up a branch in Marseille’s Cours Julien area. A 15 minutes walk from the Vieux-Port, it’s well-located for getting round the city and right next to independent shops, bars and restaurants, although the area is on the edgier side. Bedrooms are stark, with concrete walls and ceilings but beds are comfy and showers hot. The breakfast buffet is excellent, with fresh fruit salad, pastries, and omelettes made to order.

If you have more time…

Les Calanques

A bit further along the coast from Marseille is a set of coves carved out of the limestone by the Med over hundreds of years – the Calanques. It’s really worth getting a boat trip starting from the Vieux-Port to visit all of them and marvel at the huge cliffs and turquoise waters.

Top tip: If you want a cheaper boat trip, jump on the shuttle boat which can take you from the Vieux-Port to nice little fishing villages in L’Estaque, further West, or to la Pointe Rouge further East.

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