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.
Top 10 Sights in 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, the MUCEM 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.
6) Palais Longchamp (Longchamp Palace)
Located in the 4th arrondissement of Marseille, the Palais Longchamp 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.
9) Notre Dame de La Garde (Our Lady of the Guard Basilica)
The Old Port may be the soul of Marseille, but the Notre Dame de la Garde 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.
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.
For our other posts about France, check out:
Oh wow everything looks gorgeous. I’m definitely going to reference this when planning a trip to Marseilles. I’ve been wanting to visit for ages.
So much to see & do in Marseille & so much history! It looks like a fabulous place to visit when I’m next in France! Thanks so much for the tips!
I have wanted to visit Marseille since I saw Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Parts Unknown and your post just makes me want to plan a trip soon! I would love to visit the museums and see the architecture and spend some time people-watching at the old port.
Anthony Bourdain sure shined a spotlight on a lot of hidden gems. He was a great chef and travel inspiration for many.
I would love to visit Marseille and visit the Vieux Port, Old town and the Calanques. Marseille is such an exciting city, both historically and culturally.
Marseille looks absolutely incredible! Both the landscapes and the architcture are gorgeous.
Wish i had seen your post before visiting, it’s a really good guide!
Ooooh I love the juxtaposition of the Château d’If next to all those cool, twisty yew trees. I LOVE the look of the Calanques…that would be fun to see by boat and on foot…so you could see them up close as well!
We were originally looking into this area for part of our summer trip, but we landed on going to Brussels instead this time. I’ll just have to visit Marseille another time. Thanks for sharing; this list will come in handy when I do visit! Xx Sara
I have been to Marseille before and I missed some of these things, because it was a quick trip. But that’s a good reason to go back, right? Will save this for future. Great work 🙂
Wish we had this post when we visited Marseille as we were a little stuck for things to do! Will definitely be saving for when we go back, thank you.
I made a stop in Toulon but didn’t have enough time to get to Marseilles. It looks like there is plenty to do there. I would love to see the insides of Notre Dame de La Garde.
Notre Dame de la Garde and the Vieux Port are must sees in Marseille!
Goodness, what a fantastic array of attractions there are in Marseille! I would love to see it all — the fort, the basilica, the cathedral, the palace! Too bad my upcoming cruise is stopping on Toulon instead…
Toulon has its charms too! I am sure you will love it!
My husband and I took a boat tour to visit the calanques in Cassis and though I got a little seasick, it was an interesting tour.
Yes, it can be very windy out by the Calanques. A good option is to hike some of them but not in the summer as some of them get closed due to high risks of fire.
All of these sites are so beautiful; thank you for sharing. I especially love the architecture of the castle and cathedral.
The cathedral has a very unique look and feel to it.
Definitely would love to visit – it looks awesome!
Would love to visit one day! Great guide!
Thank you for sharing so many amazing suggestions. I’ve been to Paris 3 times but there’s so much more to see in France. Saving this for later!
I am a total Francophile but have sadly not made it to Marseille yet. The Calanques are stunning and I’d love to check out the Old Port as well!
I’ve got a trip booked to Marseille this August! It’s been on my wish list for a decade, ever since I saw an old music video where the main character dramatically quits her job and hitchhikes to the Calanques!
Ha! Would love to see that music video!
My favorite part of Marseille was walking from dawn to dusk to explore everywhere. Your itinerary is perfect. I love the soap shops!
[…] Paris and merits several days of sightseeing. Stay in or near the Vieux Port to be close to the best attractions Marseille has to offer. Combine your Vieux Port explorations with the nearby Le Panier neighborhood and the MUCEM […]
I’ve always wanted to visit France. Awesome post
Thank you so much!
Wow I absolutely love your photos! This looks like a gorgeous city to visit, thanks for sharing I’ll definitely add it to my list of places to visit!
Thank you so much! It is an awesome city for sure.
Such a helpful post! We’ve just been to Paris and I’m already wanting to book another holiday. All of the places you mentioned in Marseille look beautiful! xx
Tiffany x foodandotherloves.co.uk
Thank you so much!
Beautiful post! I don’t travel a lot but your blog really makes me want to just get up and go! X
Thank you so much! We’re glad our blog is inspiring you to travel more. 🙂
Love the pictures! Never thought about visiting here but after reading this it sounds amazing x
Great! I hope you do visit someday. You will be surprised by Marseille.
Wow, stunning photos! Looks like a gorgeous place 🙂 I’ve been to France a few times but never here.
Thank you so much! If you do visit, you will like it for sure. Marseille has its own unique vibe, very different from other places in France.
I’ve never been but want to now! It looks gorgeous
Sophie – sophiehearts.net x
Thank you! We guarantee you will love the city when you visit.
These photos are so beautiful and I would so love to visit this place myself someday. I was already thinking of “The Count of Monte Cristo” before I got to the photo of the Chateau d’If haha. Thank you for sharing!
Haha! Yes, I know the Monte Cristo was a fictional character, but that doesn’t stop the throngs of visitors to the Chateaud d’If.
Great list! I haven’t been to Marseille before, will definitely have to check out your suggestions if I do go there. The Calanques look and sound so interesting. Also would love to visit Le Vieux-Port – looks like a lovely place to go for a walk and look around!
Thank you! You will love Marseille! The calanques are definitely great to see. And the Vieux-Port has a great vibe. You will love it when you visit.
Great list! I’d love to visit Marseille at some point! The Calanques sound so intriguing!
What beautiful photos! I really want to go there now!! xo
A revelation…..nothing like my days in the British Merchant Navy when we went down and dirty in the port bars and bistros, typical navy guys, looking for wine, women and song.
I only wish that we’d known then about the rich history from Marseilles.
Yes, even navy guys visit places of interest, we just didn’t know.
Most of the zillions of ports that I visited whilst in the Merchant navy were just that…..and to see, and read your article, really opens Marseilles up for further investigation…..well done BPK!
Haha! Thank you so much, David, for your kind words. You are completely right. How you experience a place depends very much on who you visit it with.
Port towns are so fun. We live in one. Great article and recs. Thank you
Thanks so much! Yes, we love port towns! 🙂
Loved the list, we hit a lot of those in our very limited time in Marseille. We hope to come back one day. Great stuff.
Thank you so much!