If you happen to be in the south of France, don’t miss Marseille. The country’s second largest city after Paris, Marseille was originally founded by ancient Greeks. This Mediterranean port is often overlooked by international visitors. But we are here to tell you why you shouldn’t miss it. From the exotic feel of the Old Port, through the gritty feel of its neighbourhoods, to the rugged seacoast, Marseille offers an unforgettable experience to its visitors.
The top ten things to see in Marseille, as recommended by our family, are below. We divided them by arrondissement or city quarter, so you can better plan your visits.
1st arrondissement of Marseille:
1) Le Vieux-Port (the Old Port)
The Old Port is the soul of Marseille. This natural harbour is what attracted the original Greek settlers to the area. Today, this port is mostly pedestrian, surrounded by restaurants and cafes, with the view of the fishing and pleasure boats buoying on the waters.
2) Mucem (Museum of Mediterranean and European Civilisations)
Inaugurated in 2013 when Marseille was designated as the European Capital of Culture, this museum is a must see. It is located in the Old Port and you can visit the grounds for free. If you want to see the exhibits, you will need to purchase a ticket.
The exhibits, as the name of the museum suggests, are there to impart knowledge about the history of the Mediterranean cultures. It is not an art museum although there are some art displays. It is a multidisciplinary museum combining anthropology, history, archaeology and art history.
So If you are curious about the history of the Mediterranean and its role as one of the cradles of our civilization, this is a museum for you. And if you come on the first Sunday of the month, admission will be free of charge, as is the case with a lot of museums in France.
3) Fort Saint-Jean (Saint John Fort)
This 17th century fortification is built on the former site of the Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John. The order served as a monastic hospice during the Crusades. In fact, the fort has had quite a bloody history. You can get some amazing views of the Old Port from here. It is free of charge to see the grounds. But if you want to go inside, you will need to purchase tickets from the Mucem.
4) Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille (Cathedral of Saint Mary Major)
Often called Cathédrale La Majeur or the Marseille Cathedral, this 19th century structure in the Byzyntine Roman revival style has been built on the site of the original 12th century church built in the Romanesque style. The cathedral has been the seat of the Archdiocese of Marseille since 1896. It holds a proud title of a national monument of France and it is one of the largest cathedrals in the country.
5) Château d’If (Castle of the Yew Tree)
This fortress which later became a prison, is the setting of the novel of Alexandre Dumas “The Count of Monte Cristo”. It is located on a tiny island 3.5 kms from the Old Port and is accessible by ferry.
4th arrondissement of Marseille:
6) Palais Longchamp (Longchamp Palace)
Located in the 4th arrondissement of Marseille, this architectural beauty is sure to take your breath away. Built in the 19th century to celebrate the construction of the Marseille Canal, it houses two museums and beautiful gardens located behind the palace. The gardens are on the French Ministry of Culture’s list of Notable Gardens of France. The palace grounds and gardens can be seen free of charge.
7) Musée d’histoire naturelle de Marseille (Natural History Museum)
Housed in the Longchamp Palace, the Natural History Museum of Marseille is an interesting place to visit. It contains thousands of zoological specimens, fossils and minerals. Make sure to grab a pamphlet in English when you enter as all exhibit labels are in French. Better yet, download the free offline French-English dictionary from Google Translate to your phone and use your phone camera to translate the labels for you. Or if you are learning French, this is a great way to practice your language skills. This museum, as many others in France, are free of charge on the first Sunday of the month.
8) Musée des beaux-arts de Marseille (Marseille Museum of Fine Arts)
This museum, also located in the Longchamp Palace, is the oldest museum in Marseille. Its focus is on paintings, sculptures and drawings from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The works represent the French, Italian, Spanish and Northern schools. On the first Sunday of the month, this museum does not charge admission.
Between 6th & 7th arrondissement of Marseille:
9) Notre Dame de La Garde (Our Lady of the Guard Basilica)
The Old Port may be the soul of Marseille, but this basilica is the city’s symbol. You cannot miss its sprawling presence in between the 6th and 7th arrondissement. It sits atop the highest natural point of Marseille and overlooks the city.
The admission is free of charge but you can make a donation to the church if you so wish. There is even a cafeteria on the premises open daily from 8 AM to 5:30 PM except on Mondays. It is called L’Eau-Vive and it is run by missionary nuns.
To avoid crowds, we recommend visiting the basilica earlier in the morning. Most tourists park at lower levels, having to make the climb on foot. However, not many people realize that there is free parking on the very top just by the steps of the basilica. There aren’t many spots but we’ve been there several times, even at peak times and we’ve always found a place to park.
9th arrondissement of Marseille:
Calanques are rugged fjord-like inlets on the Mediterranean coast of France. You can admire them on a 20 km stretch starting in the 9th arrondissement of Marseille and ending in the fishing port town of Cassis. They are very typical of this area.
Beware that if you are coming from inland, some calanques are only accessible on foot. And in the summertime, you may only be able to enter them early in the morning due to a high risk of forest fires. However, you can also see them from boat tours.
We hope we convinced you to visit Marseille. We promise you won’t be disappointed. And if you have already been to this port city, what has your impression been? We’d love to hear from you.
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Check out our other France blogs:
- An Interview with artist Margot Gunta Delhomme
- Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris
- A Weekend in Paris
- The Five Symbols of Paris