You’re totally spoiled for choice for things to do, see and experience in Marseille, the mesmering city by the sea. If like me, you haven’t been there for a while, you may be surprised by the changes that have taken place over the last few years, I know I was. The city is looking spruced up, the port is as gorgeous as ever, there are new museums, shops, restaurants and bars and it’s impossible to be bored here.
Here are 7 of my favourite things to do in Marseille, and, if you’ve never been before – they’re must-sees:
1. Notre-Dame de la Garde
The view from the Basilica is simply breath-taking as you see Marseille spread out below and around you. There’s an alluring azure backdrop of sea and sky (with about 300 days of sunshine a year, you’re statistically more likely to have blue sky here). You can pick out the huge white dome of the football stadium where the local football team Olympique Marseille play, but what really strikes you is the way the town looks almost Roman, with terracotta roofs galore and pastel coloured buildings that reflect the sun. There with the smell of pine trees, is an air of tranquillity despite the hordes of tourists staggering around with selfie sticks and you feel as though you’re on the edge of a bowl in which Marseille is contained.
They say here that La Bonne Mère, of the Church looks after believers on the way up, making sure they’re safe climbing those hills and stairs, struggling to reach her and praise her. Apparently she takes no notice on the way down so watch your step!
2. Vieux Port
The Vieux port from the sophisticated to the sublime. From restaurants that spill onto the esplanade, quirky shops and places to entice you to part with your Euros to fishermen selling fresh seafood on the quayside and the fabulous Miroir Ombriere, mirrored shade designed by Norman Foster.
3. Take a dip in that clear blue sea
La Couronne is a beautiful beach on the Mediterranean with clear blue water and pristine sand. It’s a short journey by the famous blue train line from the main station St Charles. It’s worth the effort for the journey alone as there are stunning views along the route including from St Charles station itself (above) with its magnificent Belle Epoque staircase.
4. Relax on a city beach
Head to the strip known as La Corniche. The Corniche is the picturesque seaside roadway that meanders along the Mediterranean coast. This 5 km stretch includes a three kilometre segment that was renamed in honour of President Kennedy. Head down to the area below the Corniche where you’ll find rocky inlets and sandy beaches and the Vallon des Auffes, a little fishing port that retains a traditional feel with its little huts and some really great restaurants – here is where you’ll find some of the best bouillabaise.
5. The Island of If
It’s just 20 minutes by boat from Marseille harbour, it is home to a chateau completed in 1531 which is famous worldwide as it is where the Count of Monte Cristo was held prisoner.
6. Calanques National Park
Marseille’s national park is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Get there by boat from the Vieux Port (about 40 mins) or by bus. The turquoise coloured crystal clear waters that are the stuff of dreams. Situated between Marseille and Cassis, this place has wow factor in bucket loads, great for swimming, walking, boating or just drinking in those magnificent views.
7 Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations
There are plenty of museums in Marseille including MUCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations). With its honeycomb-looking wall this museum is a big draw, particularly for the more than 1 million people who stop off at Marseille on cruise ships.
The newly renovated (2013) Museum of History of Marseille has the remains of an ancient Greek Port in its grounds and offers a fascinating insight into the life of this mesmerising metropolis.
Getting about in Marseille
It can take a day to get your bearings here and there’s so much to do and see, so many places close by that just shouldn’t be missed – it’s such a place of contrast. The city and the old city, the beaches and the harbours, the islands that you can reach easily by boat, the Calanques, an area of outstanding natural beauty, fabulous restaurants, markets, museums and churches .
Like a good boullabaise, this is stew of a place with so many different facets that it is fascinating to wander and to discover. A colourful spectacle of a town.
Top Tip: Buy a City Pass that lasts for 24, 48 or 72 hours that you can use on public transport, for entry to museums and monuments plus get a guided tour, a boat trip, and some shops offer a discount if you show it.