The day before I arrived in Marseille, two buildings collapsed. The townhouses had been on the brink of tumbling down for years, but there’s no real guidelines from the government here about what makes a structure ‘liveable,’ and it’s estimated that around 40,000 of the city’s residential buildings are unsafe or unfit to live in. On the day in question the buildings contained several of their residents, who were crushed all of a sudden in the rubble ruins, sparking outcry from across the city about the number of unsafe houses allowed to go on being rented out regardless. France’s second largest city after Paris, Marseille is also one of the poorest, and is widely considered to be the most dangerous. These facts, combined with the whole building-crumbling fiasco, meant that I wasn’t particularly optimistic about what I’d find in the city.
However, though it may well be a troubled place, it’s also really really beautiful- in a diamond-in-the-rough kind of a way- containing a melting pot of different cultures all living fairly peacefully side-by-side. Although Marseille is the capital of Provence, I’m 99% certain that the image people conjure up when they think of the region is definitely not one of this gritty city. Unlike some other parts of France I’ve visited which are more geared towards tourists and appear rather on the polished side as long as you stick to the areas you’re supposed to visit, the atmosphere here is not a manufactured one. I spent almost four months docking regularly in the passenger port at Marseille and spent most of my time running from place to place like a madman trying to see as much as I possibly could, and discovering some exquisitely intriguing areas in the process. I’m sure there are still a million places that I’ve yet to see within the city, but for the time being here are the neighbourhoods of Marseille perfect for wandering in, eating in, shopping in, and just generally appreciating.
Le Vieux Port
Marseille is the oldest city in the whole of France, and has been the home of an important port since the days of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. (You’ve got to admit, that’s pretty old.) So, Le Vieux Port (that’s The Old Port, FYI) has been the main hub of the city for donkeys years- and it does make for a lovely morning stroll, I’ll give it that. Filled with boats and surrounded by restaurants and bars, this is where most visitors to the city flock to when they first arrive; therefore BEWARE THE PLASTIC-MENUED RESTAURANTS!! (If you’re looking for somewhere affordable but delicious to eat or drink in the area, head to Bistrot l’Horloge, just behind the harbour. It’s beaut, and not expensive, and downright cozy) During the winter, a Christmas market springs up at the centre of the port, complete with a dazzling big wheel- a very nice place at night time especially, folks!
And here’s a fun fact for you: the name of the main road leading away from the marina is ‘La Canabière,’ which comes from the word ‘cannabis.’ Because back in the Medieval Days, the area around Le Vieux Port was used to grow hemp. In fact, between ye olde days and the 1930s, Marseille grew to be one of the world’s biggest traders in hemp products. So there ya go. Make of that what you will.
Marche de Noailles
Guys…going back to the port thing. Marseille has pretty much always been a city made up of immigrants, due in part to the fact that it’s in such a great location to enter France, and partly nowadays down to the fact that all races and religions seem to be able to co-exist here fairly comfortably, at least in comparison to elsewhere in the country. By the 1950s, over half of Marseille’s population was Italian, and over the last few decades there has been a massive influx of North and Central Africans to the area. This African influence can be felt across the whole city, but nowhere as much as at the Marche de Noailles. This place is INCREDIBLE.
A little pocket of streets within walking distance of the port, walking through the Marche de Noailles felt almost as if I’d done a quick hop over the sea to Morocco or Algeria. The smell of spices wherever you walk is delicious, the noise around you is cacophonous and the hustle and bustle is…well, there’s a lot of hustling and bustling, basically. As well as spices, meat, fruit and vegetables, shops selling tea, baskets, and all manner of things you never knew you needed, are crammed into this little area. The majority of people around here speak Arabic, although most Arabic-speakers also seemed to speak French.
Sad times for me, as I don’t speak either of those languages at all. Awkward.
A good old-fashioned soap-maker
Marseille is the don of European soap-makers, and that makes sense because they’ve been creating bars of the stuff for centuries now. Savon de Marseille, as the official name for it goes, is traditionally made from olive oil and salt water straight out of the Mediterranean Sea; boiled in a tub for a few days and poured into moulds, the soap is then cut into cube shapes and stamped. It’s all very official. These days there are a few variations on the old recipe, although olive oil soap (it’s dark green in colour), is the classic- so if you’re looking for a classic souvenir, this will be it. AND- big time bonus as this soap is really great for your skin- it’s completely natural, with no weird additives whatsoever. You’ll find soap for sale in just about every souvenir shop you enter, but if you fancy doing things properly you should probs head to one of the soap-makers in town. The Savonnerie Marseillaise de la Licorne has several shops dotted about the place, plus a workshop where you can go and watch the soap being made, and a museum- where you can give soap-making a go yourself. And more importantly, ‘Licorne’ means ‘unicorn’ so there are unicorn pictures wherever you turn.
Notre-Dame de la Garde
Oh my ears and whiskers, the view from this church on top of the highest hill in the city is nothing short of spectacular. From one side you can see out towards the port and the Mediterranean Sea, with the Château d’If on a tiny island in the distance. (The Château was actually once a prison, which in a similar style to Alcatraz was completely inescapable due to its nifty location in the middle of open water.) And on the other side, the panorama of the entire city of Marseille surrounded by rocky hills and mountains. It’s particularly stunning at sunset, and is without a doubt my favourite place in the city.
Inside the church, things are also rather on the magical side. Notre-Dame’s golden walls are filled with miniature ships: all offerings from sailors to thank the Virgin Mary (she’s standing on top of the church, you see) for saving them in stormy weather or other such crazy life-threatening conditions. It’s like something straight out of a fairytale, know what I’m saying?
Related: The Magic of Notre-Dame de la Garde
A Marseille Brocante
Every day for a week in December, my cast-mates from the ship and I would have to rehearse in a studio in the La Capelette area. This is a part of the city that definitely doesn’t expect tourists to just rock up for a look around, and mostly it was home to bakeries and kebab shops and barbers…and the odd heap of broken furniture…and on the one day that I walked into a chicken shop to ask if they did coffee (there was literally nowhere else around, and although they did indeed do coffee, it was absolutely revolting and served from a machine like the ones they used to have in hospital waiting rooms), the man in the chicken shop expressed his confusion at why on Earth so many Americans and Ukrainians had descended on the area all of a sudden. It just doesn’t happen round there, you know?
So imagine my DELIGHT when I discovered that directly behind our hired dance studio, was a tiny courtyard filled with several brocantes, each one stuffed to the brim with treasures galore!? Les Puces de Fifi is completely out of the way, so the only way you’re likely to reach it is if you’re in a car en route somewhere else, but if antique or vintage treasure hunts are your kind of thing, this is the place for you. There’s also a beaut little restaurant onsite which looks downright delicious.
We stumbled upon the Cours Julien completely by accident, having just gone off for a stroll around the city to see what we could find in the limited time available, and we absolutely loved it. This area of Marseille is BANG ON TREND. (As my old manager would say.) The bohemian-feeling Cours Julien is an open square on a hill, lined with independent bars, restaurants, and a whole variety of shops- not one chain store shall you find, my friends! You could metaphorically eat your way around the world here, as the area is home to all manner of food nationalities, from French to Syrian, Brazilian to Italian. It’s a cool place to head to in the evenings, and most daytimes there’s a market held in the middle of the square, although what’s being sold at the market varies- the theme changes from day to day.
The most awesome thing about Cours Julien and the streets that run off it it, is without a doubt the street art painted across almost every inch of its buildings. You could lose a few hours here just wandering up and down taking it all in tbh; and to help out local businesses you probably should.
The train station
Yes pals, you read it correctly! (And I’m no train spotter, I promise.) Back in the days when aeroplanes weren’t a thing, and the English were busy little bees tromping all over Africa and Asia attempting to claim the entire world as their own, Marseille was an important stopping point on their journey. The English ladies and gents would hop on a train to Marseille, where they would consequently hop on board a ship to take them to exotic far-off lands to begin their new lives; this meant that the train station needed to look *slick as*.
An extremely grand staircase leads from street level up to the station building, and around the staircase are statues inspired by all the exotic far-off lands that people traveled to from that very same station. I know it’s just a staircase guys, but I really was impressed by it, okay!? Once you reach the station-level at the top of the stairs, the views across the city- with Notre-Dame on the horizon- are fully worth the climb.
A somewhat classier location than other areas of the city, Opera is the area just behind Le Vieux Port, centring unsurprisingly around the Opera House. This is where to head to for your more upscale shopping, with a mixture of high street, designer and boutique shops lining the streets, and a far less ramshackle appearance to its buildings.
Related: What to do in Bordeaux
If there’s one part of Marseille that does look typically Provençal, it’s Le Panier. And when the church bells start to ring and you can’t hear any traffic from the street, you could surely fool yourself into believing you’re in the middle of the countryside. This is where the Ancient Greeks decided to build their village of Massalia all those thousands of years ago, and although there’s not really any Ancient Greek Architecture to be found these days-it’s still pretty old. Once upon a time Le Panier was home to sailors and fishermen, and was considered a not-particularly-pleasant place to be. Still very much a working-class area, the narrow cobbled streets wind up and down the hills in a very compact web, and are home to a melting-pot of people from across the world. We stumbled across the area- and a tiny Cormoran restaurant– one evening just at the point that I thought my days on this earth were over due to starvation. It was getting late, I was freezing cold, and we’d been walking for about an hour. Next thing you know the warm glow and steamed-up windows of the restaurant appeared ahead of me like a literal beacon of hope. Praise the Lord!
Since that day…there was no turning back!! This is without a doubt the quaintest, prettiest part of the city, even with the odd pop of street art to jazz things up a bit.
Related: Going Solo in Nice
Cathédral la Major
As Notre-Dame de la Garde is the true landmark of the city, many people mistakenly believe it to be a cathedral; and why wouldn’t they!? I totes understand. But Marseille Cathedral is in fact, at ground level and therefore much easier to reach. Located in the outskirts of Le Panier, directly in front of the sea, this rather majestic building is built in a very similar way to Notre-Dame- in that it looks sort of like blocks of Lego pieced together. The building is absolutely mahoosive, and circa Christmas 2018 had one of the largest Nativity scenes I’ve ever seen, complete with dolls in all manner of Provençal clothing. Outside, people skate up and down, play the odd match of pétanque and generally go about their leisurely business. It’s all very chill round here ya know?
That other Marseille church- Saint-Vincent de Paul
Another ‘stumbled upon’ location, this beautiful church had nobody in it when we visited. I fully understand that not everyone wants to traipse around looking at churches all day long, but if you’re in the area (right at the far end of La Canabiére) and appreciate a bit of beaut architecture every now and again, this building is lovely, and features a big old statue of Joan of Arc standing proudly out the front.
Truth be told guys, I never actually made it to Les Calanques. It was the one place in the vicinity of Marseille that I was desperate to visit, but had no time to get there. BUT. I’m putting it on this list anyway, because it’s still a goal of mine to go one day, and it’s a place worthy of a mention whether or not I’ve physically made it yet!!
Every time we sailed into the city, we could see the cliffs and bays of Les Calanques, which is now a full on National Park, like a series of craters chomped out of the limestone and dotted with tufts of green plants that grow directly from the stone. Even in winter, the sea was a vivid azure and I’m sure that to visit the area up close, either by kayak or on foot would be beautiful.
Now pals, I may well have overloaded slightly on the photographs in this particular post, but it’s basically because I LOVE MARSEILLE!! And I’d appreciate it if you appreciate it, too! Don’t get me wrong, this is not the place to come if you’re expecting a full-blown packaged-with-bows tourist experience. But if you’re someone who enjoys soaking up the atmosphere of somewhere new like a miniature sponge, this is surely somewhere you need to at the very least take a glance at.
What to know before you go to Marseille
- I walked everywhere in the city, although I’ll admit that I walk more than most human beans and traipsing all over the place might not be to everyone’s taste. The majority of places on this list are within a half hour walk of Le Vieux Port.
- If you arrive in Marseille by cruise ship, you will have to catch a shuttle to the city. Distance from Marseille port to the city (normally a shuttle will drop you in the vicinity of Le Vieux Port) is normally around half an hour.
- Although the city is widely reported to be dangerous, I never felt unsafe here; I was comfortable walking around in the day by myself, although at night I never walked around alone- something I rarely do wherever I am in the world. Unfortunately.
- Marseille’s public transport network is apparently brilliant- not that I personally used it. The city is serviced by metro, tram and bus, all for €1.70 per trip.
- This isn’t a particularly cheap destination; food and drink in the city works out as price-wise pretty level with the South of England.
- I was in Marseille from November to February, and the weather was fairly mild the entire time. In Summer, the temperature in Marseille really heats up- I mean, it is on the South coast of France after all.
- You will definitely do better here if you can speak some French. Don’t get me wrong, they get many an English-speaking visitor to the city, and it’s possible to have many a conversation here in English. But the French are notorious for speaking only French, and appreciating a little bit of effort from visitors to their country. Which is fair enough.