Like many ports around the world, Marseille long had a reputation for seediness and crime. And there’s still a scruffiness about the city today, which is no bad thing. It lends Marseille a rakish character and gives it an intoxicating dynamism and color. You can see it all in neighborhoods like Le Panier, Noailles and La Paine and their shops, markets and cafes. The Old Port has been in use since 600BC, and if you’re inspired by the great age of France’s oldest city there’s a wonderful choice of museums that will send you back in time. Let’s explore the best things to do in Marseille.
Best Things To Do In Marseille, France
1. Old Port
Marseille’s massive rectangular port has been trading for 2,600 years, and is more of a whole district than a single sight.
On three sides are quays with broad promenades enclosed mostly 18th-century former warehouses.
It seems like almost every one of these has a cafe, fish restaurant or bar on its ground floor, with outdoor seating so you can see life in this enchanting city unfold as you nurse a pastis.
Industry has long moved to the modern docks to the docks to the north, and most of the boats in the old port are for pleasure.
But at the innermost Quai des Belges the latest catch is still brought ashore to be sold at the fish market by the water every morning.
2. Notre Dame de la Garde
This church is one of Marseille’s most famous landmarks, situated on the top of a hill overlooking the city and the sea.
It is most easily accessed by bus, since going there on foot means having to face the weary climb to the top, and there are buses that depart every twenty minutes or so from the Vieux Port and take you right up to the church’s doors. It is free to visit, and the mosaic interior, like the beautiful views of the city, are incredibly impressive.
3. Les Calanques
Weather permitting, a relaxing boat ride to the beautiful Calanques – a stretch of coast between Marseille and Cassis – is a must for anyone visiting the city, especially in the summer.
Stunning views, beautiful beaches and a refreshing sea breeze are some of the highlights that travellers will be able to enjoy whilst visiting the Parc National des Calanques.
Another option is to cycle around the area and look at the landscape on your own, or even to ride a bike to one of the beaches and then rent a kayak or canoe and paddle out to the cliffs.
4. Abbaye Saint-Victor
This house of worship once belonged to an abbey founded in the 5th century. The abbey’s basilica is one of the oldest buildings in Marseilles that is still intact, with foundations dating back to Early Christian and Carolingian times.
With its crenellated walls and towers, the foreboding exterior has the feel of a medieval fortress. Inside, the basilica reveals a simple and somber design, which gives it a special aura. The crypt houses sarcophagi of the 4th and 5th centuries, as well as the 11th-century tombstone of Abbot Isarnus.
The Abbaye Saint-Victor is open for visits on Tuesday afternoons and on additional days during the late summer.
5. Château d’If
A short ferry ride away from the port of Marseilles, the Château d’If is located on the Ile d’If in the Frioul Islands archipelago, a nature conservation area that includes the tiny islands of If, Pomègues, Ratonneau, and Tiboulen.
The scenery is spectacular with protected coves, turquoise waters, pristine beaches, sandy creeks, and impressive limestone cliffs. Thanks to the Mediterranean sunshine, the light creates a spectacular effect on the water, and a microclimate allows rare floral species to flourish.
In this beautiful natural setting, the Château d’If was built as a fortress by King François I in the 16th century. Soon after, the fortress was converted into a prison. The location is depicted in Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo.
6. Musée d’Histoire de Marseille
In Le Panier quarter, just a few steps away from the Vieux Port, the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille tells the story of Marseilles from its Gallo-Greek origins through the Middle Ages to the present day. The museum offers an impressive collection of historical artifacts, covering 2,600 years of history.
The archaeology and history collections come to life in this sleek modern museum’s bright spacious rooms. The museum also has a garden, the Jardin des Vestiges, which is actually the excavation site of the 3rd-century BC port of Massalia.