Similarly to Lyon, Marseille is underrated as a French tourist destination. As the second-largest city in France after Paris, it can hardly be considered abandoned. However, it’s never talked about among travellers as a bucket list location in Europe. Personally, I think if you overlook Marseille on your French itinerary, you’ve definitely missed a trick.
During my year-long study abroad experience, I ended up returning to Marseille THREE times. I love how the city gives off a feeling of eternal summer all year round. I love each district has a distinct character, meaning you feel like you’re constantly finding something new. Mostly, I love how it’s the perfect hub for day trips exploring the Provence region, with its charming towns and exquisite natural escapes.
Read on to find out what to do in Marseille. At the end of this post you’ll also find a guide on the best day trips from Marseille.
Where to stay in Marseille
Marseile is a pretty big city and it can often feel overwhelming when choosing a place to stay. Of course, your decision on where to stay in Marseille will be based on your budget, what kind of facilities you want and what kind of trip you have planned.
Marseille Hotels and Appartments
When I stayed in Marseille, I was lucky enough to stay in Le Quartier du Panier (2nd arrondisement), which is the oldest and most colourful area of the city. This district is also close to both Gare Marseille Saint-Charles and Vieux Port, making it an excellent base for your trip.
If you’re looking to stay in Le Panier district, check out the awesome Duplex Panier, a beautiful modern apartment that sleeps up to four people (meaning you can split the price with your friends!)
However, if you want to stay right in the hustle and bustle of Vieux Port, check out the gorgeous Hôtel Carré Vieux Port.
On more of a budget? No worries, Vertigo Vieux-Port is also right by Vieux Port and has bright, spacious dorm rooms available.
Getting around Marseille
While many of the best things to do in Marseille are all within walking distance, you’ll probably need to navigate public transport to get to some of the top attractions, especially if you’re looking to visit the national park.
Luckily, Marseille has a pretty great metro and tram system. The price for a one trip ticket is ¢1.80 and for a ten trip ticket it’s €15.
However, for the same price (€15) you can get a day ticket on the open top Colourbus, meaning you can be driven around in the sun with wind in your hair and no worries about navigating public transport, all whilst learning about the city’s history as you go.
You can also consider getting a Marseille Pass, which gives you access to public transport, free access to Marseille’s museums (including MuCEM, the Museum of Mediterranean Archeology and both museums based in Palais Longchamp) and free tastings and samples at specific boutiques around the city. Find out more about what’s included and read reviews by clicking below:
What to do in Marseille
The Vieux Port is the touristic heart of Marseille. It’s also one of the oldest parts of the city, having served as a trading port since 600BC when Greek settlers arrived from what we today call Turkey.
This is where you’ll find your cafés, restaurants, bars, crêperies, souvenir shops and more. It’s also the location of Marseille’s daily fish market every morning from 8 am to 1 pm. There’s nothing quite like wandering along the side of the port, ice cream in hand (after the fish smell has dissipated), perusing all the delicious menus on offer and gaping at all the different boats anchored up in the water.
Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is somewhat of a symbol of the city of Marseille. From its impressive location atop the hill of Notre-Dame de la Garde, it can be seen from all over the city.
The Basilique was built in the 13th century, however, it has had a long and varied history; it even served as a prison for a short time during the 18th century.
It is situated at the highest point in the city and is an excellent place to visit to learn about Marseille’s medieval history and bask in the best panoramic views of the city and coastline.
Palais Longchamp is a stunning monument built in the 19th century in the centre of Marseille. Although there was construction going on in front of the Palais Longchamp during my visit, it didn’t take away from the absolute exquisite beauty of the neoclassical architecture all built around the elaborate fountain, Chateau d’Eau. Ascending the wide stone staircase and dancing between the pillars on a warm day will make you feel like Cersei in King’s Landing,
Behing Palais Longchamp you’ll find Parc Longchamp, a beautiful open park with grassy spaces, benches and quaint bandstands.
The Palais Longchamp also houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. Ticket prices of both museums depend on what exhibitions you plan to visit.
To celebrate 150 years of the Palais Longchamp, access to the Musée des Beaux-Arts and Muséum d’Histore Naturelle will be free from the 12th- 31st December 2019.
Chateau d’If is a a fortress on the island of If, located in the Frioul Archipelago about a mile from the coast of Marseille. It was built on the orders of King Francis I in 1524 in order to help protect the city from attacks.
Chateau d’If was used as a prison in the 19th century, having imprisoned over 3,000 French Calvinists. However, the chateau is still famous today as it is the setting of the Alexandre Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo. In the novel, the protagonist is imprisoned in the chateau for 14 years before successfully escaping.
You can reach the Chateau by a few different boat companies that are stationed in Vieux Port, including Le Bateau Frioul, who will take you to the island and back for €11.10 (the evening return price is €5.60 but this is only available between July and September). Individual access to the chateau once you’ve arrived on the island is €6 each.
Discover the award-winning museum on European and Mediterranean culture and history. The permanent exhibitions are interdisciplinary and focus on different aspects of how Mediterranean society has changed throughout history. You can also find temporary exhibitions at Mucem on individual Mediterranean artists and writers. Find out what’s going on at Mucem during your visit.
The museum is located next to the 17th Century Fort Saint-Jean and in contrast to the fort, the modern museum, constructed out of steel latticework and glass -and designed to look like a cube- is quite striking. It also has excellent views over the coastline of Marseille from the roof terrace.
Individual tickets for the museum are €9.50. Get your skip-the-line tickets in advance to avoid the queues for an extra 50 cents.
Le Quartier du Panier
After learning about Marseille’s long history, there’s no place better to visit than the city’s historic centre. Le Panier is the oldest and arguably, the most vibrant, area of the city.
Wondering around the district, I was charmed by the incredible world-renown street art and abundance of plants and flowers. The whole quarter gives off a colourful and cosy neighbourhood ambiance that you don’t expect in the centre of a city.
Don’t forget to visit the Place des Pistoles, a large square surrounded by numerous quaint restaurants and cafés, making it the perfect spot for lunch during your long day wandering around the city.
La Vieille Charité
While wandering around Le Panier, you’ll probably come across the La Vieille Charité, a sixteenth century Baroque building that was used as a hospice for poor people until the end of the 19th century.
The first floor of the building houses the Musée d’Archéologie Mediterranéenne (Museum of Mediterranean Archeology), which houses incredible collections of artefacts from Ancient Egypt. Access to the museum is €6 each, or is included in the price of the Marseille Card.
La Vieille Charité also houses temporary exhibitions throughout the year, so make sure you look up online to find what’s going on during your visit.
Gare de Marseille Saint-Charles
This may seem like a strange thing to put on a what to do list. I mean, no one, spends longer than absolutely necessary at a train station. However, I merely felt it necessarily to point out that the views from the outside terrace are pretty phenomenal!
Each time I went to Marseille, I spent a good while on the terrace taking pictures of the panoramic views from the station over the city. If you decide to embark on one of the day trips from Marseille listed below, arrive a good ten minutes before your train or coach is to depart in order to take in these beautiful views!
The best part about visiting coastal cities, such as Marseille or Barcelona is their proximity to the beach. This means that after a full day exploring the city and walking around museums, you can relax at the beach and watch the sunset or take a swim.
During my visit I spent a day at the Plage de la Point Rouge, a sandy beach surrounded by decent restaurants and bars and easy to reach by various buses from the city centre.
Bear in mind that like most city beaches, these aren’t going to be exactly paradisal. However, read on to discover where to find some of France’s most stunning beaches nearby in the Calanques National Park.
Day trips from Marseille
Like I’ve already mentioned before, one of my favourite things about Marseille is its prime location and excellent transport links that make it an ideal base for exploring the region of Provence.
Day Trip to Aix-en-Provence from Marseille
One of my favourite day trips from Marseille is to Aix-en-Provence, the capital of Provence during the Middle Ages. Having been founded in 123 BC, Aix-en-Provence is both historically and architecturally one of the most interesting cities in France.
Make sure you take a walk down the beautiful Cours Mirabeau, where you’ll find some of the most famous brasseries in France, including the Deux Garçons, which has been around since 1792. Other notable attractions include Aix Cathedral and the Town Hall.
You can find the studio of Paul Cezanne, a famous French post-impressionist artist. Cezanne was born in Aix and died in Aix and was deeply in love with his native birthplace. During my visit I walked to the nearby garden where you can view Mont Sainte-Victoire, a mountain that Cezanne painted over 80 times.
Day Trip to Cassis from Marseille
A short 30 minute train ride from Gare de Marseille, you’ll find yourself in Cassis, a beautiful and colourful seaside town, situated just on the other side of the Calanques National Park.
Cassis is much quieter than Marseille, especially during low season, making it a perfect day trip from the city to escape the crowds. Wander along the vibrant port or spend the day at Bestouan Beach, surrounded by lush mountains and dramatic cliffs.
Day Trip to Calanques National Park from Marseille
I couldn’t write about Marseille without mentioning the Calanques National Park, i.e. one of my favourite places on earth. In fact, the Calanques are the main reason why I’ve returned to Marseille time and time again.
Located between the city of Marseille and the smaller town of Cassis, the national park is a land of wild fauna and dramatic, jaw-dropping coves, where bright the turquoise ocean cuts through limestone cliffs to create extravagant rock formations and stunning beaches.
It is easy to reach the National Park by bus from the centre of Marseille, or from Cassis by foot. However, for a completely stress-free experience, consider a boat tour from Marseille port that takes you through some of the most exquisite Calanques on a maxi-catamaran. The tour also includes lunch and swimming/ snorkelling opportunities.
Thanks for reading my guide on what to do in Marseille and day trips from Marseille. As ever, if you think I’ve missed something important from this guide, don’t hesitate to comment!
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