Being that Marseille is not a tourist city, there’s a good chance that you don’t know much about Marseille, despite the fact that it is the second-largest city in France – only behind Paris! Marseille is located on the south-eastern coast of France, almost near Nice and Cannes, and despite the fact that it is not frequented by tourists, this bustling city is definitely worth stopping by if you plan to be in the area! We visited on a whim when we flew from Madrid to Marseille, on our way to Switzerland. We decided to rent a car and drive from Marseille to Switzerland so that we could experience a quick 2 days in France and soak in the French countryside on our way to Geneva, and we were so glad we did! 2 days was plenty long enough for us, and we fit quite a lot into those busy days but we loved getting to experience the French culture for the first time. Below is a list of all of our Marseille favorites, and a perfect little itinerary for a quick 2-day stop!
What to Do
*Note that all of these are free activities, but can get crowded, so I’d recommend doing them earlier in the day if possible. Pro Tip: you can do all of #’s 1-5 in one day, leaving all day for the Calanques of #6 – if you don’t read anything else AT LEAST do yourself a favor and make sure you skip down to read #6 🙂
- Vieux Port (The Old Port) – this is the city center area that is right on the water. Vieux Port is the main harbor and marina of Marseille, which is guarded by Fort Saint-Nicolas and Fort Saint-Jean. It’s the perfect place to eat, stop for a cappuccino (or glass of wine), or just spend time meandering through restaurants and shops. We did every Marseille meal here, and none of them disappointed! French food is absolutely AMAZING, the rumors are true 🙂 But more about that later….. (you can read about our favorite French foods to try here).
- City Center – The Port is (obviously) right on the water, but the main city center is right above the port and also has dining and lots of shopping. Soap is a big thing for Marseille, so you’ll find lots of adorable little soap shops with walls full of colorful bars of soap. One thing that DID surprise me was the lack of bakeries around town. Not that they weren’t there, but I was fully expecting to see a bakery around every turn with lots of bread and pastries, which was not the case. So, word to the wise, when you do find a bakery be sure to stop because you may not see another one for a while!
- Notre Dame de la Garde – this is an enormous Romano-Byzantine basilica that dates back to the 19th century. Situated on a hill that overlooks the city, the view from here offers amazing panoramic views of Marseille and is definitely worth carving some time out for. Be sure to look out over the Bay of Marseille at the Frioul archipelago from the vantage point of the basilica. One of the four islands that makes up this archipelago is If, which is the location of Chateau d’If, from the novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Admission is free and you can get to the basilica by walking, driving, or bus. Keep in mind that it is on top of a hill though, so if you’re walking you’ll probably get a pretty good workout, so maybe don’t wear heals that day 😉 The intrinsic artistic detail that adorns the entire church is simply breathtaking, and is worth a visit just to view the inside of the basilica alone. Colorful mosaics adorn the walls and ceiling, priceless paintings hang from the walls, pillars of marble run all throughout the interior, gold is present around every turn, and statues of gold, silver, and bronze live inside the magnificent halls. It is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and I would highly recommend checking it out!
- MuCEM – the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations is located right on the water, near Vieux Port. As you may have guessed, it is devoted to the history and culture of European and Mediterranean civilizations. This museum is split up into 3 different sites, the J4 building, Fort Saint-Jean, and the CCR (Center for Conservation and Resources). The CCR houses the museum’s actual collections and requires a paid ticket to explore. We explored Fort Saint-Jean (free), and the (free) J4 building, which is an astounding concrete cube that forms a perfect square. It is a see-through lacy screen made of concrete that you can’t miss. It’s actually super hard to explain, so PLEASE do your due diligence and google photos of it because it really is an amazing architectural feat. The J4 building is known as the “heart” of the MuCEM, and hosts permanent and temporary exhibits (although, we didn’t see many – but that may be because we were too interested in the building structure itself). Please do yourself a favor and walk through this unique building if you find yourself in Marseille – you won’t regret it. Be sure to come back and see it at night too, as it is lit up from the inside!
- Catedrale Major – this Cathedral of Sainte Marie Majeure was founded in the 4th century and is just a short walking distance from the MuCEM. We just walked over to the outside of it, took a quick peak inside and left. It was cool to see, but small compared to Notre Dame de la Garde. If you’re only going to do one historic site I’d definitely recommend choosing Notre Dame, but if you’re visiting the MuCEM too it’s worth a quick walk to check this one out as well. However, I probably wouldn’t make a point to go out of my way to see it if I wasn’t already in the area.
6. Calanque de Sugiton – this was the absolute BEST part of Marseille and is what really made this whole trip worthwhile, so I hope you’ve stuck with me long enough to get this far down! Calanque de Sugiton is a portion of France’s Parc National des Calanques, which lines the Mediterranean coast from Marseille to Cassis. Calanques are rugged coastal areas interspersed with narrow, steep-walled inlets developed in white limestone or other similar rock. Think the fjords of Norway… these are dry limestone cliffs that jut into the water. Sugiton is the most
popular area of the park because it is the calanque that is most easily accessed by hikers and is open even during the hot season. During the summer some of the other calanques are closed due to high fire risk, so if the calanques are in your travel plans be sure to do some research to see which ones are open during your visit! Sugiton is the one closest to Marseille, but if you end up staying closer to the town of Cassis you’d probably want to visit a calanque that is closer to that town. If the trail is open, you can actually hike from Marseille to Cassis through the park along all the calanques. We didn’t have time to try this, but I’ve heard it’s a rather strenuous and sometimes dangerous hike at parts, so be sure to do your research ahead of time if you decide to go this route! You can access Sugiton through Luminy College, which you can GPS to.
When you enter Luminy College keep driving through campus until you can’t go straight anymore and park. There is also a bus that will take you to Luminy if you don’t have a car. From the parking lot you’ll see a clear path, which will be about a 30 minute walk (part gravel, part paved) to the trailhead, and then another 15 minute walk from the trailhead to the water for a total of 45 minutes hiking (one way). Be sure to take note of the trail markers at the beginning of the route so that you know which marks to look for. At one point in your hike you’ll come to a fork in the road….going up will take you to an observation deck and going down will take you the water. We (obviously) chose to go the water route. At the bottom there are 2 pebble beaches, but you’ll want to get there early to claim a spot as it gets pretty crowded. If crowded beaches aren’t your thing then just climb around on the rocks to find a more secluded area, or swim to the island in the middle to climb up and relax like we did. If you’re a fan of cliff jumping the island in the middle is a great spot, and you’ll probably see many of the locals taking advantage of the spot. Pro Tip: bring lunch if you plan to be here a while and have your bread and cheese on the rocks by the water…it doesn’t get much better than that! Even if you don’t go the lunch route, DEFINTELY bring water with you and wear sneakers….it is definitely a hike down and a hike up and there is little shade until you get to the bottom. If you have time and want to spend the money, there are lots of options to kayak, paddleboard, sail, or boat out and around all of the calanques, which would be AMAZING. We would love to come back to France just to try that someday. While we didn’t get a chance to try it while we were there, I can’t imagine any reason why it wouldn’t be absolutely fantastic!
While the city is fun to see, it is still a city, and to be honest, we aren’t really city people. The French in general didn’t seem to be overly friendly or helpful (most didn’t speak English or pretended not to and didn’t try to communicate any other way), and the city itself was actually kind of dirty. In fact, we ran into a family from Paris on our hike who just talked about how dirty Marseille was and how it was nothing like Paris. Honestly, it wasn’t THAT bad, it’s not like we saw rats running around or anything, it’s just a normal city. While the port and the history make this an interesting city, it’s still a city and isn’t designed specifically for tourists. The family that we met on our hike were shocked to find out that we were from the US and visiting on vacation since Marseille isn’t a typical vacation destination. However, the beauty of a non-touristy area is that you get to immerse yourself in the real culture of a French city, not just a watered-down tourist version with astronomical prices. And while we loved our visit and we were glad that we did it, we probably won’t put it on our return-to list now that we’ve done Marseille already. We WOULD, however put the Calanques on our return-to list for SURE 🙂
Where We Stayed
- Kyriad Hotel ($100/night) right by the Marseille airport. We took a taxi from airport to hotel for 10 euros because we didn’t have reservations, but they do offer a shuttle service if you plan ahead. We took the free shuttle to the airport the next morning to get our rental car. Clean, king bed, hairdryer, can pay for breakfast in the morning if you want. This was the first big sized bed we had in Europe during our entire trip, all others were 2 twins pushed together.
- Hotel Carre Vieux Port ($100/night) in downtown Marseille. This hotel was right next to the port and was a perfect location for us! It was small but clean, with 2 double beds. They let us check in early, and you can pay for breakfast if you want (but there’s a great café next door). It was located one street up from the port, and near a parking garage that cost 30 euros per day.
- Hotel la place ($100/night) in Annemasse, France. This is a small town right outside Geneva but still in France, where lodging was much cheaper. The room was clean and warm, offered secured parking at no additional price and free wifi.
- Pentahotel ($80/night) in Paris. We had a bit of an issue getting out of the Zurich airport (we drove from Marseille to Switzerland, stayed in Switzerland and then flew out of Zurich) after a flight got cancelled, so we hopped on a flight to Paris just to get out of Zurich – oh, the behind-the-scenes joys of flying standby ;). Once we got to Paris a few other flights got cancelled and we ended up having to spend a surprise night in a Paris hotel at the last minute. This hotels was a cheap, clean option that was near the airport that worked well for us. It was $10 from airport by taxi, clean, big bed, hairdryer, and had a bar/restaurant downstairs.
* Disclaimer: all photos and opinions are my own, for which I received no compensation or discount