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The best things to do in Marseille, southern France

The old port of Marseille, southern france, boats in the harbour, fishermen on the quayside selling fresh fish

Marseille is not like other cities… On the edge of the Mediterranean in the far south of France, Marseille is steeped in history. In the past it’s had a reputation for being a bit gritty. It’s a thrilling, friendly, fun and fabulous city…

But, before you dive into Marseille, here’s a tip: even though it’s a grand metropolis, the pace of life is very different to other cities. Folk here are seriously laid back. Their attitude is that life is for enjoying, there is nothing good to be gained by rushing. So, if it takes a while to get served in a bar or restaurant – it’s no big deal. It’s just the way Marseille is. Marseille people are very friendly, they love to chat, and you’ll find it easy to make friends here.

Meander in Marseille

Aerial view of Marseille and the Mediterranean coastline

Make your first port of call the tourist office at 11 Canebière, the historic high street in the city. You can buy a city pass from 24-72 hours. As well as entry to many attractions, discounts and free tastings and samples, it gives you use of the city transport system including the excellent metro.

Make sure you pick up a free map and guide, then go exploring and lose yourself in the city.Keep the map for when are well and truly lost!

There’s not much more fun than wandering round the ‘Vieux Port’, a vast horse shoe shaped harbour where, every morning a bustling fish market takes place. The boats dock alongside, and the fish is sold direct by the fishermen and their families. An early morning start at the street markets with their fantastic colourful displays of fruit and vegetables is always fun. Marseille is amazing – one minute you are looking in the windows of some of the great French fashion houses, the next you feel as if you’re in a street in North Africa.

Must-sees in Marseille

Man and woman sit with a picnic on the quayside of the old port of Marseille at sunset

There are cafés shops, restaurants and clubs galore. And, if you’re there to relax, watch the world go by and just enjoy yourself, Marseille is perfect.

Take a trip from the Vieux Port around the coast to the Calanques to discover what’s known as the French Fjord. Actually, it’s a National Park where the white limestone cliffs rise dramatically above the sea.

A small island in the blue green waters of the Medisterranean sea, a small boat bobs up and down

The port is also the departure point for boat trips to the Frioul Islands. There you can visit Chateau d’If, home of Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo. It’s not as big a trip as the Calanques but well worth doing.

If you’re a Netflix fan and watched the series ‘Marseille’ starring French superstar Gerard Depardieu as a fictional Mayor, you’ll recognise many of the scenes including the magnificent Hotel de Ville.

The harbour comes alive at night with musicians and jugglers. There’s plenty of street food choice and a great party atmosphere as the sun sets. It’s definitely the place to be.

Food of the gods

Fishermen on the quay in Marseille old port selling straight from their boats to restaurants and housewives

Locals love: When it comes to dining out, follow the locals! In Marseille you’ll find them in Rue Sainte near the port, in the café Pastis et Olives.

Don’t miss: Chez Madie on the Quai Du Port. www.maidielesgalinettes.com is always bustling with mainly French customers and has a reputation for the best bouillabaisse in town.  Just a few doors down is La Maison du Pastis, www.lamaisondupastis.com. Owned and run by Belgian Frederick Bernard, you’ll find more than 95 brands of Pastis and Absinths with tastings and information freely available.

Try a local speciality: Marseilles is the home of Pastis, an aniseed-based drink which is popular across the whole of France. These days there is only one factory in the city still producing it, Cristal Liminana. Founded in 1884, today it’s run by Maristella Vasserot, a direct descendant of the founder. Take a tour, tasting and visit the shop to discover the city’s favourite drink. It’s the perfect aperitif as you sit at a terraced café in the sunny city. Locals ask for a “jaune” even though this strong liqueur is clear in the bottle. Add water and ice to it though and it goes cloudy and a milky soft yellow. Traditionally it’s about four parts water to one part Pastis, ice goes in last.

THE must eat meal in Marseille

Must-eat: Sylvain Robert is the chef patron of L’Aromat, just a few yards from the Vieux Port. Here he presents his contemporary take on Mediterranean cooking. His number one dish, a firm favourite with Marseillans is a truly surprising, utterly mouth-watering bouillabaisse burger (above). Served with a shot glass of fish soup made from fish freshly bought at the Vieux port, and a saffron infused fougasse bun it is sensational. Served with socca chips made from chickpea flour, another local speciality, it’s a dish you’ll remember. (49 Rue Sainte, Marseille)

If you only have one meal in Marseille, make it here.

Practical information for Marseille

Marseille is easy to get to from within France or other parts of Europe. Trains including the TGV are regular and frequent into the Gare St Charles, which is also the pickup/drop off point for the Navette bus which serves the airport.

There is a huge choice of accommodation from 5-star hotels through Airbnb, but I can highly recommend the 3* Hotel Maison Montgrand right by the Vieux Port. A 17th Century property with the bonus of a courtyard sheltered by chestnut trees where you can sit with a drink and recharge your batteries. Frankly, it’s hard to beat.

Magnificent Marseille, so much to see, so much to do, three hundred days of sunshine a year, 95 different Pastis and #1 for a city break!

More on Marseille

7 brilliant things to do in Marseille
Read about the famous soap of Marseille
The Vieux Port of Marseille
Marseille – gastronomic gem of southern France

Marseille Tourist Office: www.marseille-tourisme.com/en/

Peter Jones is a photographer and freelance writer 

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