Founded by ancient Greek mariners circa 600 B.C., Marseille was originally a trading port. Today, thousands of boats dock in this sunny Mediterranean city, which fuses vibrant cosmopolitan energy with a seafaring merchant heritage. The French relish their southern capital for its superb seafood, thriving arts scene and unique mix of architecture. Its proximity to Italy, the Riviera and Provence make it an ideal jumping-off point for cruises, beaches and romantic country getaways. Join us as we explore this ancient seaport during its tenure as 2013’s European Capital of Culture.
Marseille – 2013 Capital of Culture
In 1983, the European Union launched its “European Capital of Culture” program, which selects a city (or two) every year to highlight the wealth and diversity of European culture. During that year, the designated city hosts special events in recognition of its heritage. Much like a World’s Fair, it is seen as a chance to boost a city’s image and often fosters urban regeneration. As one of two cities to receive the honor in 2013 (the other being Kosice, Slovakia), Marseille has risen to the occasion with the completion of several spectacular building projects and hundreds of special events, exhibitions and displays.
In addition to these festivities, fall travelers to Marseille can enjoy annual events like the electronic Marsatac music festival at the end of September, La Fiesta des Suds world music festival in October and La Foire aux Santons starting in late November. The latter is a picturesque Christmas market featuring the region’s santons (little saints)—hand-painted terra-cotta figurines used in traditional creches (nativity scenes). Marseillais artisan Jean-Louis Lagnel first created plaster molds for the clay santons during the French Revolution (1789–1799), when midnight mass and large nativity scenes were banned. Afterwards, the production of miniature nativity scenes depicting local characters became a cottage industry in Provence. Since 1803, santonniers (figurine makers) have gathered in Marseille to show and sell their wares at the market. Many merchants and churches also display these beloved figurines during the Christmas season.
Le Panier District – Marseille’s Art Basket
Marseille’s charming Panier quarter dates back approx. 2,600 years. This hilly neighborhood—which has small pedestrian lanes, stairways and alleyways that crisscross a panier (basket) of artistic treasures—is packed with character. Local artists include potters, painters and jewelers who live and work in this bustling neighborhood of cafés, elegant buildings and churches, tree-lined parks and graffiti art. Amble into ateliers (workshops) to chat with artisans, relax on a park bench or let a Marseillais (Marseille resident) take you on a Saturday afternoon neighborhood walking tour.
Aficionados of art, architecture and history should visit La Vieille Charité, a 17th-century charity shelter and workhouse for the city’s indigent that is now a museum/cultural center. Housing several fine museums and a café within its grand walls, it boasts graceful arched passageways that surround a stone courtyard and a 17th-century baroque chapel built by Pierre Puget (French artist, architect and engineer). This year, the chapel’s temporary exhibit is a fascinating display of the city’s beginnings.
Marseille – Nostalgic French Road Tripper
The Citroen 2CV (the French version of the Volkswagen Beetle) made its production debut in 1948. According to its design requirements, the car needed to have space for four adults, excellent gas mileage and the ability to safely carry a basket of eggs over ploughed fields. Engineered for ease of use and maintenance, reliability, versatility and fuel economy—not to mention performance on poor roads—the Citroen 2CV became a model of design ingenuity. Its rollback canvas sunroof combined with a rather unusual shape gave this French economy car quirky appeal. Nicknamed “Deuche” in France, the car enjoyed a host of monikers in other countries—Umbrella on Four Wheels, the Duck, Flying Dustbin and Tin Snail, to name a few. The last 2CV left the production line in 1990, but the whimsical French legend lives on as a sentimental favorite for collectors, students and car enthusiasts. To put some spark in your travel adventure, climb into one of these popular vehicles for a spin around the city. Marseille en 2CV lets you explore the sights in a vintage 1975 2CV equipped with a driver/guide. On the beaten trail or off, tours can be customized to suit your interests.
Marseille – A Bastion of Modern Architecture
Architecture that spans the centuries has helped shape the character of Marseille. Along with a great collection of ancient structures, the city is home to several fantastic modern creations such as the MuCEM, which was completed just in time for Marseille’s turn as 2013 European Capital of Culture. On the waterfront, the exceptional Villa Méditerrannée—an exhibition and auditorium space designed so the sea can “enter the building”—incorporates water as a central space between the structure and its base.
To see the origins of the modern apartment building, pay a visit to Unité d’Habitation—also called Cité Radieuse (radiant city). Swiss architect Le Corbusier built this vertical village (1947–1952) with a vision for mass housing following a post-World War II housing scarcity. It then became a concept for other European housing developments, introducing concrete when steel was too expensive to use for building. This radiant city is now pending UNESCO World Heritage designation, due to its historical and design significance. The complex of 337 two-level apartments organized into 12 stories incorporates an indoor “shopping street” along with sport, education and medical facilities, plus a flat roof with a running track and paddling pool. You can visit the roof terrace for spectacular city views, make an appointment to tour an apartment, dine at Le Ventre de l’Architecte (The Architect’s Belly) or turn back the clock to 1950 by staying overnight in one of the building’s “spare rooms,” now part of Hotel le Corbusier.
If Island – A Chateau with Any Other Name is Just Not the Same
Approx. one mile off the shore of Marseille, you can explore a small limestone island many locals never visit. Believing there to be nothing on this spartan setting but an empty castle on a rock, many Marseillais miss out on splendid city vistas and the fascinating history and legends that still occupy the fortress walls of Château d’If. Completed in 1516, the fortress became a detention center for important political prisoners over a century later. It was one of these prisoners—a sailor, hypnotizer and spiritualist named Jose Custodio de Faria—who is said to have inspired French author Alexandre Dumas to immortalize him as one of the heroes in his famous novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.
You can take the ferry across the bay to visit the dismal cells of the fictional Count of Monte Cristo and the mysterious “Man in the Iron Mask,” kept hidden due to his potential threat to the throne as purported brother of the French Sun King Louis XIV (1643–1715). The fact that there is no record of him being held at the chateau is beside the point. Dumas and Voltaire both wrote about him, and his enigma has continued in film. Moving on, you can watch a black-and-white film version of The Count of Monte Cristo and learn about other island guests that included a shipwrecked rhinoceros on his way to the Vatican in 1516, and a ship captain held responsible for bringing the bubonic plague to Marseille in 1720. In the small museum, visitors can also view the crack in the wall through which the Count of Monte Cristo is said to have escaped.
Les Calanques – The Fjords of France
The coastal area southeast of Marseille is a breathtaking stretch of classic Mediterranean landscape and cliff coves known as Les Calanques. Although the area has recently been designated as national park land, locals have long known about this geological treasure. Many Marseillais own—or aspire to own—their own cabanon (weekend cottage or villa) along this stretch of sunny coastline peppered with fishing villages. Sheer white limestone cliffs that fall into small coves of turquoise water make the area a fantastic place to hike on marked coastal trails. You can also take a boat tour (from either Marseille or Cassis) or simply relax on one of 50 sheltered beaches and bathing areas. An underwater grotto that houses prehistoric wall paintings and engravings puts it on the must-do list for scuba divers.
In addition to May and June, the temperate months of September and October are ideal times to visit Les Calanques, especially if you plan to hike. During summer, this arid region has restrictions for hikers due to the intense heat and fire hazards.
Cassis – Stay in the Seaside Town Next Door
If you’re heading to Les Calanques, drive on to Cassis afterwards and you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of what Saint-Tropez was like before it hit the big time. This little seaside resort is tucked at the foot of Cap Canaille, the highest sea cliff in France, and is located just 30 minutes from Marseille. A picturesque fishing port lined with cafés and restaurants, it possesses a cozy French-Mediterranean ambience and fresh seaside air.
Check into a romantic B&B like Maison°9 and relax in the gardens, or plunge into the pool overlooking the vineyards. Walk or drive into town and eat bouillabaisse at a harbor restaurant. Then wander over to the family-run I Gelati Della Casa Rossa. Artisanal sorbets and ice cream, crepes, frappes and granitas make this a little slice of French-Italian dessert heaven. Order the glace du jour (ice cream of the day) and sit on the small terrace, or take it to go for an evening stroll along the harbor. Then return to your French farmhouse manor to enjoy the quiet Provençal splendor on the patio.
Aix-en-Provence – Seat of Aristocrats & Artistry
The birthplace and home of Paul Cézanne, the celebrated French painter who captured the light and landscapes of the region, Aix-en-Provence virtually overflows with artistry. Roman thermal baths, fountains, gardens, cobblestone streets and bastides (mansions) populate this delightful university town, which became the seat of aristocrats, kings and counts in the 17th century. Outdoor markets filled with olives, wine, almonds, produce, leather and textiles attest to the fact that this rustic “town of water and art” (so named for its many fountains and pieces of art) is the center of trade for the south of France.
More art awaits in museums housed in grand buildings:
- Musee Granet is based in the old Priory of the Knights of Malta
- The modernist Foundation Vasarely features remarkable Bauhaus architecture
- The Old Aix Museum resides in a 17th-century townhouse
Wander through the Vieil Aix (old town), where architectural and cultural treasures abound among boutiques, quiet courtyards, cafés and eateries. Relax on a bench under shade trees in the park-like garden of Vendome Pavilion, an 18th-century aristocrat’s mansion. Then visit an evening street market to enjoy the charm of this ancient town.
To escape the bustle of Aix, set out on one of the peaceful walking trails that traverse nearby Mont Sainte Victoire, the iconic subject that graced approx. 40 of Cézanne’s masterpieces. Take one of four different routes to the top, where you can explore a monastery and enjoy fantastic views. At the base of the mountain, fans of Pablo Picasso can visit Château de Vauvenargues, the 13th-century bastide where the artist lived and is now buried.
Travel Tips: Marseilles
As the country’s second largest metropolis, Marseille bustles with activity and exudes historic appeal as an ancient seaport. It’s also the gateway to the Provence region in southeastern France, known for its French flair and charm. Read these tips to find out how to see Marseille from its best angles—by foot, bike, train or vintage car.
Petit Train Tour
Although it may seem touristy, the blue-and-white Petit Train delivers great bang for the buck. This open-air tram travels along two routes for just 7 or 8 euros (approx. $9.12 or $10.42 U.S.), depending which route you take. The first (and best value) travels from Vieux Port (old port) along the Corniche (sea road) before climbing to Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille’s famous basilica on the hill that keeps watch over the city. Hop off the tram to admire the lovely mosaics inside and the spectacular views outside. The Petit Train’s second route heads to the old town-district of Le Panier. Listen to entertaining stories (in English) as you roll past the city’s neighborhoods, churches and ancient buildings.
Take a Walk with a Local
When you travel, it’s great to have a local show you the ropes. In Marseille, they’ve made this good idea accessible to everyone. The Marseille Provence Greeters organizes free walks with local volunteers (greeters) who take you to hidden places and favorite haunts, while sharing insider info and stories of the Marseille-Provence region. Extending a warm and friendly welcome, the greeters help you get familiarized with Marseille and unlock its charm on fun walks that focus on topics from architecture and stairways to football and sardine banquets. Be sure to wear good walking shoes. If you enjoy your walk, make a donation to the cause on the spot with your greeter, or via the website.
Specialties to Sample
Marseille’s maritime location makes it an excellent place to enjoy seafood and French-Mediterranean cuisine, along with several other regional specialties:
- Aioli: A garlic sauce traditionally served with vegetables and dried cod that is rumored to have originated in Marseille.
- Bouillabaisse: This famous, flavorful Provençal fish stew originated in Marseille. Made of various fish, shellfish, vegetables, regional herbs and spices, it’s traditionally served with la rouille (a mayonnaise of olive oil, garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper) on bread similar to crostini.
- Daube: Stewed lamb or beef with olives and carrots.
- Langoustine: The French name for scampi, a small pink-orange lobster that resembles a large prawn.
- Moules MariniÀre / Moules frites: Mariner’s mussels are steamed and served in white wine sauce. If you order moules frites, you’ll get mussels with fries.
- Navettes: Sweet biscuits flavored with orange blossom and shaped to resemble navettes (little rowboats). Le Four des Navettes bakery near the Abbey of St. Victor has been baking this local treat since 1781.
- Patis: A strong, anise-flavored alcoholic drink made in Marseille that’s popular as an aperitif.
- Pieds et paquets: Rolled, triangular packets of lamb tripe stuffed with bacon and parsley sauce.
Get Around with Le Vélo
It’s easy and affordable to get around Marseille by bike. The city has 130 cycle rental stations and plenty of bike paths. You can buy a 7-day subscription online or at any Le Vélo station for just 1 euro (approx. $1.33 U.S.). Once you subscribe, you can use the service as often as you like for seven consecutive days. The first 30 minutes of each trip are free for subscribers; afterwards, there’s a 1-euro charge for every hour the bike is in use. If you don’t return the bike by midnight (when the stations close), you’ll be charged for an extra day.
Weather & Wear
Fall is a fabulous time to visit Marseille. The summer crowds have dissipated and the high heat has turned to a warm glow. Temperatures hover from 52°F to 68°F (11°C to 20°C) between September and November, with an average of 6 to 9 days of rainfall per month (October is the wettest). But since the Provence region claims to enjoy a remarkable 300 sunny days each year, warm and breezy days are common.
While not as fashion-focused as Parisians, Marseille locals generally dress nicely. Jeans, skirts and capris are fine for sightseeing, while a dressier ensemble is best for dining out at night. Walking shoes are crucial to navigating Marseille’s many cobblestone streets and staircases, but remember that the French reserve tennis shoes for the gym. Cool fall evenings—especially in November—call for warm cardigans, sweaters or vests, and a stylish jacket that works in the rain. For added protection from the elements, pack one of our handy travel umbrellas.
MuCEM – 2013 Grand Opening
Occupying over 430,000 sq. ft. of space on the Vieux-Port waterfront, the brand new MuCEM (Museum of Civilizations from Europe and the Mediterranean) just opened its doors in June. This impressive cultural spot has a footbridge that links the 12th-century Fort Saint-Jean with a modernist cube covered in concrete latticework that resembles lace. Inspired by the rocky seaside landscape of Marseille, architect Rudy Ricciotti fashioned the building to represent stone, wind and water. Inside, you’ll find exhibitions that focus on the history and diversity of Mediterranean civilization, as well as restaurants, a café, gift shop and garden.
Le TGV – Riding the Silver Bullet
The French electric bullet train has whisked passengers from Paris to Lyon since 1981. Regularly reaching speeds of 200 mph, the TGV—Train à Grande Vitesse (high-speed train)—has a network that currently includes 149 destinations, with more to come. On the TGV, a journey from Paris to Marseille takes just three hours. Of course you can fly, but the train offers spectacular views of the French countryside (not visible by air) and a state-of-the-art travel experience.