Planning a trip to France soon? Go beyond Paris and the French Riviera to visit one of most underrated port cities in the South of France – Marseille. Here’s why you should go.
Why Go Now
Hot off the heels of celebrating its title as the European Capital of Culture in 2013, Marseille, a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic French-Mediterranean port city and the capital of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in France, has shed its gritty reputation to unveil a brand new look for visitors and locals alike – with investment in leading-edge creative spaces, new public art, modern architecture and cruise tourism taking centre stage in its transformation.
Relatively new to the tourism scene, Marseille is experiencing a cultural renaissance and urban renewal thanks to the €7 billion investment from the Euroméditerranée project, an economic and cultural development plan supported by the European Union. Travellers are taking notice of this underrated French port city with 1.3 million cruise ship travellers making a stop in its port last year. Even with these numbers, the city feels calm and not overly touristy like other cruise heavy tourist spots like Barcelona.
With a rich history (Marseille is France’s oldest city discovered 2600 years ago), 300 days of sunshine a year, sandy beaches, coastal roads, a thriving old port guarded by two fortresses, and French-Mediterranean cuisine, Marseille is perfect for all types of travellers – from the sun catcher to the history buff, the foodie to the modern art enthusiast.
On my first trip to the city in June, Marseille had my heart at hello. Without a doubt, Marseille opened my eyes to a different side of France I hadn’t seen before. One filled with an ancient maritime heritage and old world charm with Fort Saint Jean and Fort Saint-Nicholas guarding the Old Port and one of New Marseille – re-branded, contemporary and one invested in its future through arts and culture.
Only have a short time to visit? Try this 48 Hour Guide to Marseille:
How to Get There
Air France – Vancouver to Marseille with Free Stopover in Paris
Air France launched its newest direct flight from Vancouver to Paris on March 29, 2015. Currently, Air France-KLM serves five Canadian destinations – Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton and has developed code-share agreements with WestJet, offering Air France flights to those living in smaller cities.
Marseille is only a 1.5 hour flight from Paris with Air France. All fares allow for free stopovers in Paris, either on the inbound or outbound flight, allowing you to visit two destinations on the same journey. Bonus! Visit www.airfrance.ca for flight information and latest promotions.
For great views and a central location, check in at Hotel Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port, a 5 star luxury hotel with panoramic views of Marseille’s harbour. Contemporary design blends with the charm of the city’s marine heritage in a subtle, classy way. This 136 room hotel has 3 suites and in room views of the harbour. Although a small balcony in the room would have been a nice touch, you don’t have to go far to enjoy the view en plein air. After checking in, head to the terrace of Le Carre Bistronomy for lunch, one of Hotel Sofitel’s chic restaurants for beautiful daytime views of the harbour.
Explore Vieux Port (Old Port) by Foot
Marseille’s Vieux Port goes back as far as Antiquity and the Middle Ages when the Greeks and Romans came there to settle. Today, Vieux Port has been newly renovated during the city’s 2013 revival and still remains at the heart of Marseille’s centre after all these years – a place where locals come to meet. If you’re looking to take a dip in the Mediterranean waters away from the city, you can catch a ferry to the Frioul Islands and the Calanques from Vieux Port. Surrounded by shops, restaurants, fishermen selling their catch, vendors under tents, enlarged pedestrian walkways and the Notre Dame del Garde in the far distance, exploring Vieux Port by foot is an excellent way to locate your bearings on the first day.
Reflection Under the Ombrière
Get your cameras out! As part of Vieux Port’s renewal into a pedestrianized civic space in 2013, architect Norman Foster created the Ombrière, a 46 x 22 metre reflective stainless steel canopy, open on all sides with slender poles around the edges. Part public art sculpture, part events pavilion, this space is noticeably interactive, with a mirror on the ceiling providing a reflective experience to the denizens below.
To see the new, revitalized side of Marseille, head to Arvieux Square to check out Second Nature, a new public art piece that animates the square surrounded by commercial buildings and the docks. I stumbled upon this 18 meter high orange spiral sculpture, a contemporary work of art designed by artist Miguel Chevalier and designer Charles Bové, on my way to the FRAC. Installed between Les Docks Joliette and the FRAC, this public art sculpture is already impressive during the day, but illuminates the area at night, coming alive after dark for a virtual reality experience. Projectors and sensors broadcast a virtual garden reflecting Mediterranean flora over the surface of the docks building. Worthy of a tourist photo op, either day or night.
The Illusionary FRAC
Across from Second Nature, is the architecturally impressive FRAC (Fond Regional D’art Contemporain), a contemporary arts centre designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to celebrate Marseille’s title of European Capital of Culture in 2013. Hundreds of glass rectangles arranged at opposing angles create an illusionary effect of light and shadow.
If you’re looking for gifts or souvenirs for yourself or loved ones, bring back famous Savon de Marseille or Marseille soap, famous in the region. These aromatic soaps are made from natural vegetable oils. The tradition of soap making in Marseille dates back 600 years and today the tradition lives on with many shops selling them around the city.
For a range of Mediterranean and globally inspired gifts perfect for the budget travelista, I stumbled upon Fragonard Perfumeur, a chic boutique chain seen across Provence and the French Riviera specializing in perfumes, cosmetics and curated lifestyle products such as artfully designed scarves, kaftan tops, home décor, tote bags and beach bags, throw pillows, books and colourful soap dishes, all reasonably priced.
Public Art Sculpture at Palais du Pharo
If you have time before dinner, head to Palais du Pharo next to Hotel Sofitel for a glimpse of photo-worthy public art sculptures Vancouverites are all too familiar with – French artist Bernar Venet’s mathematically-inspired steel sculptures. The Vancouver Biennale brought one of Venet’s sculptures titled 217.5 Arc x 13 to Sunset Beach for its 2014 – 2016 exhibition. In Marseille, his Arc series is amplified with multiple sculptural pieces titled 84 Arcs / Désordere in the garden of Palais du Pharo which look striking against the palais façade.
Dinner at Chez Fon Fon – Surprising Vallon des Auffes
For a beautiful setting, a visit to Chez Fon Fon for dinner is a must. Located in picturesque Vallon des Auffes, a small fishing harbour sheltered from Marseille’s city life, Chez Fon Fon specializes in seafood Bouillabaisse, a famous fish stew known in Marseille. Chez Fon Fon opened its doors in 1952 and offers views of the quaint harbour below. Making our way down the set of old, concrete stairs, unsure of what we’d find, the beauty of the neighbourhood unveiled itself as I turned a corner and stood in awe – a truly unexpected experience with locals relaxing by the harbour with friends and neighbours, a scene reminiscent of a small seaside village.
Colourful Street Art in Cours Julien
If you’re a street art fan, start your second morning by heading to the Cours Julien district of Marseille in the 6th arrondissement, a multi-ethnic hill top neighbourhood of artists, musicians and ‘bobos’ (French term for bourgeois – bohemians). Although more alive in the evening than during the day, this area is surrounded by cafes, playgrounds, multicultural restaurants and pedestrian-friendly alleys and laneways. The shuttered shops in the morning are a blessing as vibrant and intriguing graffiti and street art murals are in full view, popping against the front and sides of shop walls. For a morning full of colourful discovery and to see a neighbourhood filled with local flavour, make some time to see Cours Julien.
Lunch Like a Locavore Where New Meets Old
From Cours Julien, walk down to Vieux Port in about 20-25 minutes. Stop by Restaurant Le Poulpe for lunch on its patio, a relatively new restaurant opened in the Old Port in 2014. Its concept is perfect for locavores looking for the freshest local ingredients in their dishes – Le Poulpe chooses products within 200-250 kms of Marseille.
Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM)
As part of its 2013 celebrations, the impressive cube-shaped MuCEM was built by architect Rudy Ricciotti with beautiful concrete latticework on its façade that lets in natural light, casting intricate shadows throughout its spaces. This 15,000 sq meter national museum sits on reclaimed land at the harbour next to Fort St. Jean. The old connects with the new with a footbridge in between. The MuCEM also has a rooftop café and restaurant where locals can be seen relaxing, chatting or reading while looking out at the water and fortress through the concrete lattice. Definetely worth a visit.
From the MuCEM, Le Panier, Marseille’s oldest district filled with narrow lanes and cobblestoned streets, is just a short walk away. This hilly neighbourhood filled with colourful boutiques is good for strolling and window gazing as artists sell paintings, ceramics and gifts. On a Monday in June, the streets are quiet although our guide tells us the area is starting to become more touristy. Tip: Visit Marseille before the tourists take over.
Get Cultured in Marseille’s Noailles Neighbourhood
Like walking through a Moroccan souk in the middle of Marseille, for a taste of North Africa and to understand Marseille’s multi-ethnic vibe, visit Noailles, the area dubbed the Arabic Quarter. Visit aromatic spice shops, relax with a glass of mint tea, explore the outdoor market and tuck in and out of shops selling produce, Turkish lokum, Tunisian zlabias, Algerian kesra, and Moroccan tagine. Noailles truly feels like you’re outside of France.
Dinner at Trois Forts
On your last evening, head back to the Sofitel for a dinner with beautiful views at Trois Fort, the hotel’s gourmet restaurant on the 7th floor during dusk on its harbour-facing terrace. Snapshot worthy views await. A perfect night cap to your 48 hours in Marseille.
I visited Marseille as a guest of Atout France. For national tourist information on France visit http://ca.rendezvousenfrance.com. For information on tours and upcoming events specific to Marseille visit www.marseille-tourisme.com or www.visitprovence.com to help create your itinerary.
Note: Air, accommodation and activities arranged by Atout France. Many thanks to Air France, Marseille Tourism and Visit Provence for hosting my stay.