Marseille Travel Guide
Despite being France’s oldest city, predating the foundation of Paris by several centuries, Marseille remains one of the country’s most underrated destinations. But as a port city with a sublime location on the Mediterranean Provencal coast, an abundance of natural wonders, a plethora of new museums, and a history that stretches back ancient Greece, Marseille is slowly gaining the recognition it deserves. More than two millennia as the de facto gateway to France have resulted in an open-minded melting pot accepting of all manner of cultures and counter-cultures. Known historically as having a rather macho image, you won’t find much visible same-sex affection on the street. However, hosting EuroPride in 2013 helped lead the way in broadening minds, and although still discrete, there are a plethora of gay and gay-friendly bars with more opening every year. So while you won’t find a dedicated gay quarter, that’s largely because Marseille’s down to earth, sometimes gritty, sometimes glamorous streets have become home to all.
The best hotels in Marseille
You can’t go far without catching the heady scent of naturally-scented soap, a product the city is known for
Things to do in Marseille
Marseille’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2013 helped reignite a sense of self-confidence, and there’s nowhere better to absorb its two-and-a-half millennia of history than the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille. The largest urban museum in France, the Musée d’Histoire’s exhibits stretch from prehistoric pottery to the latest twenty-first-century developments, and incorporates an archaeological site containing ramparts, dock buildings, and an ancient necropolis. To glean a better understanding of the city’s long tradition of diversity head to MuCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. Its permanent collection of 250,000 objects, which includes everything from ancient North African manuscripts to modern home-grown graffiti, are complemented by a further 700,000 photographs and images, charting the cross-fertilisation of cultures around the Mediterranean that has made Marseille what it is today.
Marseille points of interest extend far beyond its museum spaces however. You can’t go far without catching the heady scent of naturally-scented soap, a product the city is known for throughout France. Dating back to 1900, the Marius Fabre Soap Factory has produced matchless soaps using traditional methods for more than a century, with guided tours leading you through the entire process. Whether you reach Marseille by air, land, or sea, you also can’t fail to note the imposing Château d’If. Playing a central role in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, this island castle is a pleasant twenty-minute boat ride from the Old Port, which it has helped protect for five hundred years. More than just a fortress, this castle also served as the French Alcatraz for enemies of the state.
A more recent addition to the city’s skyline is the Opéra Municipal de Marseille, unveiled in its present form in 1924. An art deco masterpiece encased within its original neo-classical shell, this opera house has launched the careers of many famed opera singers, including tenor Plácido Domingo and soprano Renata Scotto. For many aficionados, a night at the opera in Marseille comes second only to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. But if you prefer your art hung on the walls of a gallery, Le Musée des Beaux-Arts contains an impressive collection of sixteenth and seventeenth-century masterpieces. Among the works of Hubert Robert and Jacques-Louis David, Napoleon’s court painter, you’ll also find The Wild Boar Hunt by Rubens and several works by the finest of all French baroque artists, Pierre Puget, born in Marseille in 1620.
Cours Julien is said to be one of the most tagged neighbourhoods in the world
What to see in Marseille
A good place to begin any exploration of Marseille is in Le Panier. The city’s oldest district, the pleasant squares and narrow streets sit on the crook of land between Old Port and sea mole. Recalling the small independent cafes and craftsmen of a quiet Provencal village, rather than the bustling industry of France’s second-largest city, it overflows with flowers and the fading facades of pastel-coloured window shutters. Ask any resident of Le Panier what to do in Marseille and they’ll undoubtedly mention Calanques National Park. Encompassing unique limestone formations that create secluded, fjord-like inlets, France’s tenth national park stretches west from Marseille to Cassis. Its Instagram-worthy panoramas can be explored by sea or land, with those driving along winding coastal roads such as the Route des Cretes given spectacular views from Europe’s highest maritime cliffs.
Marseille’s urban environment is perhaps best experienced around Cours Julien. It’s said to be one of the most tagged neighbourhoods in the world, with graffiti artists from around the globe joining residents to create an open-air gallery spanning more than 200 façades. Those with an interest in urban art will also appreciate a tour of Le Corbusier’s La Cité Radieuse. This masterful example of post-war brutalist architecture is another major Marseille point of interest. Created as a new way of living, it incorporated shops and a restaurant as well as 23 different types of ultramodern apartments, and has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site because of its importance to modern design.
If you prefer beaches over urban architecture, then top up your tan at Mont Rose, the nearest nudist beach. Popular with locals and tourists alike, it is one of the oldest gay beaches anywhere on the French coast, its patches of sandy shore peeking out from among sweeping rocks, creating a peaceful and picturesque location at which to absorb the rays.
Where to eat in Marseille
Spend mere moments in Le Panier, and you’ll sense Marseille’s quirky street fashion
Shopping in Marseille
Spend mere moments in Le Panier or among the yacht-set of the Old Port, and you’ll sense Marseille’s quirky street fashion. This is thanks in part to the likes of Georges Garat, which celebrates the bold and the quirky among its collection of streetwear and semi-formal outfits. Rive Neuve, meanwhile, dedicates itself to wardrobes beyond the ready to wear, showcasing designers’ latest collections and offering out-of-this-world service, whatever your style. Taking an alternative view of shopping is the streetwear concept store Black Butter, combining clothing and accessories with home décor, groceries, and magazines. Sourced globally and deliberately chosen for its uniqueness, its stock is as varied as chocolates by the USA’s Mast Brothers and household items by Denmark’s House Doctor.
Another concept store is Jogging, created by Olivier Amsellem and Charlotte Brunet. Providing a space for its carefully curated list of up-and-coming designers to sell their wares in the heart of the city, Jogging also sells beauty products, artisan perfumes, and even indie magazine imprints. About as different to Jogging as they come, the Maison de la Boule is the place to pick up your very own set of handmade boules, or one of the many souvenirs allied to the game. Try your hand on the indoor court, or patronize the small museum whose main attraction must be Fanny, a figure with the dubious honour of receiving a peck on the bum from anyone who loses a game 13-0.
PLAY is one of Marseille’s best-loved gay clubs. Just five minutes from the Old Port
Nightlife in Marseille
With a welcoming atmosphere and creative cocktails, Le Pulse is a great place to start any night out. Decide between the chill-out lounge, where you can dance to the beats of the rotating list of guest DJs, and the terrace, where you can sip signature drinks while admiring a view of the entire city. The nearby Polikarpov offers some of the most affordable drinks in Marseille; and though you may head there for the prices, but you’ll stay for the laid-back, pub-like atmosphere which has made it a destination of choice for many seeking a congenial night out in the city. Alternatively, PLAY is one of Marseille’s best-loved gay clubs. Just five minutes from the Old Port, it makes for the perfect place to stop after a day of Marseille sightseeing, with patrons welcomed by a different style of music each evening.
An authentic bar dating to the 1920s, La Caravelle epitomizes the heady, carefree days of the Jazz Age, although modernisation has added a tapas bar to its original pre-war counter and frescoes. You’ll find the earlier part of the evening dominated by pastis, the anise flavoured aperitif invented in Marseille to replace outlawed absinthe, and cocktails taking hold as evening becomes early morning. And then there’s the undefinable L’Endroit Resto Club. Managing to simultaneously unite a low-key restaurant with one of the wildest night’s out available anywhere in the city, it features a menu of local-sourced ingredients that alters each month, and a list of evening entertainers as diverse as saxophonists and fire-eaters.
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