A Travel Guide to fascinating Marseille
Marseille is the oldest city in France. It dates back 2600 years when it was founded by the Phocaeans, or Greeks, from what is now Turkey. Named Massalia the town became very prosperous setting up trading posts in surrounding settlements. It remained independent of the Romans when they occupied Provence but the inhabitants made the mistake of backing the wrong side during the civil war between Pompey and Caesar. For many years Arles, which had backed Caesar, became the dominant town but by the Middle Ages Marseille had recovered due largely to the trading opportunities offered by the Crusades.
Second City of France
Despite losing many lives during the the Great Plague of the 1720s, Marseille gradually grew in importance. As well as being the great port we see today, it is also the Second City of France. Recently there has been a transformation of the infrastructure thanks to the Euroméditerranée Development Programme. In 2013 Marseille was the European City of Culture.
As you might expect there is a great deal to see in this historic city and most of it is based around the Vieux Port, the adjacent Rive Neuve and the famous Canebière.
Top things to see and do in Marseille
The Vieux Port
Ever since the Phocaeans pitched up in this inlet over 2600 years ago this has been the pulsating centre of what would become a great city. Best viewed from the heights of the Parc du Pharo, the spectcular Old Port is a sight to behold. On the north side lies Le Panier where the Romans settled. On the South side is the Rive Neuve dominated by the Romano-Byzantine Nôtre-Dame-de-la-Garde and from the head of the port, the Quai des Belges, runs the renowned Canebière. To save your legs like the renowned author Marcel Pagnol used to, a free ferry boat operates between the Quai du Port and the Quai de Rive Neuve. Picturesque it may be, the port is too shallow to accept modern shipping which has to berth at Joliette. Nevertheless, it provides a superb Marina for Marseille’s fishing fleet and other assorted small craft.
Leading directly from the Vieux Port, the Canebière is Marseille’s famous main street dating from the 17th century and named after the old hemp rope works (canèbe means hemp in Provençal) which used to be here. At the height of its fame in the first half of the 20th century when it was the centre of cultural life, there were songs and even operettas written about it. Listen to Cane, Cane Canebière by the chanteur (singer) Alibert. Fashionable cafés, cinemas, variety theatres and famous departmetal stores were all located here.
After the War things were never quite the same however and despite attempts to update the area it remains fascinating, albeit a little down at heel. Neverthelss, there is plenty to see here including the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille and the Jardin de Vestiges (Archeological Garden). Le shopping is nearby too! Turn south at the Noailles Metro station into the Boulevard Garibaldi and then bear left into Cours Julien and it’s all here!
Situated to the north of the Vieux Port is where the Greeks settled 2600 years ago to be followed later by the Romans. In fact Le Panier (meaning the Basket) has been the first port of call for successive waves of immigrants over the centuries, most recently from North Africa and Vietnam.
Le Panier expanded considerably after the Middle Ages but unfortunately a lot of it was destroyed during the WW2 when the Nazis cleared the area of most of its population as well as tearing down their houses. Unfortunately, much of this housing was replaced by the typically 1950s Brutalist Architecture which lines the Quai du Port.
Nevertheless, there is much to see here including the restored former Hospice of la Vieille Charité and the Romano-Byzantine Cathédrale-de-la-Major built during the mid 19th century. Something Greek? Well, there isn’t much left but you could visit the Place des Lenches built on the site of the Agora or Greek forum. Here you can enjoy the daily morning market and watch the locals getting their supplies. Perhaps you could treat yourself and buy some of the wonderful fresh produce for your own consumption!
The Rive Neuve on the southern side of the Vieux Port is dominated by the massive Romano-Byzantine Basilica of Nôtre-Dame-du-Gard complete with its belfry and the 11.2 m/27 ft gilt statue of the Virgin. The church was constructed by the architect Henri-Jacques Espérandieu to replace the original Nôtre-Dame built in 1214, although the site had in the meantime been a fort. The new Basilica, consecrated in 1864, is regarded as the guardian of the city and is known locally as La Bonne Mére.
It is at once a landmark, a symbol of Marseille and a lighthouse which can be seen for miles around including all parts of the city. The Byzantine interior is just as striking and should not be missed. Also on the Rive Neuve is the Basilique St Victor once part of an Abbey founded in the 5th century. There are catacombs and a crypt buried under the 11th century church which are well worth visiting in order to see the early Christian artefacts. To round off your visit to Rive Neuve don’t miss the place Thiars which has an excellent selection of bars and restaurants.
Cassis and the Calanques
The busy and attractive fishing port of Cassis near Marseille is beautifully located between the Massif des Calanques to the west and Cap Canaille to the east and is very popular in season due to its three sheltered beaches. The resort is also known for the white stone quarried nearby used for such projects as the Suez Canal.
From both Marseille and Cassis it is possible to take boat trips to view the amazing Calanques from the sea. Alternatively, you need to take one the (very challenging!) footpaths. Also worth doing, if you have your own transport, is the Corniche des Crêtes. Moreover, from here you get a fabulous view of Cassis and the Calanques (morning is best)
There are a dozen beaches near Marseille, all to the south of the City. The Plage des Catalans is just below the Pharo and the remainder are located further down the coast. Check out the excellent Marvellous Provence website for more information.
Don’t Miss: the view of the Vieux Port from the Parc du Pharo, (best during the late afternoon and evening). Above all treat yourself to the delicious local fish stew Bouillabaisse.
Bars and Restaurants
25 Rue du Panier, 13002 Marseille.
Tel: 033 (0)623 575 848
Don’t let the Bar in the name fool you – this is an excellent reasonably priced sea food restaurant in the the heart of Le Panier as well as a Bar.
Nul Part Ailleurs
18 Quai de Rive Neuve,
Tel: 033 (0)491 335 895
Pasta and Pizza with outside tables and a great view of the Vieux Port conveniently situated on the Rive Neuve.
14 Quai du Port,
Tel: 033 (0)484 885 052
Don’t come to Marseille and miss out on the famous fish stew Bouillabasse. Some of the best can be enjoyed here on the Quai du Port – just don’t expect it to be inexpensive. A plate of the true dish will set you back €56 although you can have Soupe de Poissons for just €18.50!
Metropolitan Tourist and Convention Office of Marseille
11 La Canebière – CS 60340
13211 Marseille cedex 01
Tel: 033 (0)826 500 500
Driving distances from Marseille to nearby Provençal cities
- Aix-en-Provence – 32km / 20 miles
- Arles – 92km / 57 miles
- Toulon – 67km / 41 miles
- Avignon – 103km / 64 miles
- Nimes – 122km / 76 miles
- Nice – 199km / 124 miles
Other articles featured in this Provençal series are:
More about Marseille and the Provençal region
Check out more exciting things to do and places to see locally in the wider Provençal Région here.
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