Marseille bears the vibrancy, hues and eclectic charm associated with a port city given the intermingling of colors, faiths and nations ferried across the Mediterranean for commerce and livelihood. Beyond the dirt and grime that takes a life of it’s own in the orange haze of the settling Mediterranean sun, Marseille comes alive in a cacophony of French splattered with Arabic, public walls glowing in the light of dazzling murals and streets coming alive with the din and chatter of meals at roadside cafes. This is a magical city, belonging to France but even more to the world, and is not “classically French”. A sea change in both mood and environment from the elegance of Paris, Marseille appeared to us a diamond in the rough, shining in all it’s uncut glory. We spend three beautiful days exploring the city along with a short day trip to Cassis, another delightful Provencal village. As you scroll down this post, I will provide my “slow travel and wander” take on what to see in Marseille to savor the city and it’s finest offerings. Fingers crossed that you will stumble upon something that you really like that will make you want to visit this magical destination- a true melee of races, colors and faiths that has blossomed with human immigration, thereby enriching it’s culture.
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1) What to see in Marseille: Chateau D’If
I will start off this “What to see in Marseille” travel guide with the infamous penitentiary Chateau D’If, a ferry ride away from the mainland because let’s face it, this grim looking prison is what propelled Marseille to international fame. I am talking about Alexander Dumas’s famous novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, with Marseille and the Chateau serving as crucial backdrops to the story. The protagonist Edmond Dantés, a handsome sailor about to marry his sweetheart Mercédès in Marseille, was wrongly convicted of treason the day before his wedding and imprisoned in the Chateau. He spend 6 long years there and finally escaped taking the place of the dead Abbé Faria, a mad priest who was served as his mentor and had informed him about the island of Monte Cristo filled with treasures. Edmond returns to France a rich man and successfully extracts his revenge against the people who had incarcerated him. Dumas, himself a man of color, has an equally fascinating history, which we read about in the small exhibition at the Chateau. Although both Edmond and Abbé Faria were fictitious characters, there are cells dedicated to them in the Chateau to rekindle our imagination of their time in captivity.
The best and the only way to visit the Chateau D’If is by ferry. Buy tickets online for boarding the ferry at Friole D’IF express(boards at the old port) and to enter the Chateau (from it’s website) for a hassle free experience. Once at the Chateau, you will get helpful guide books in English to help you familiarize with it’s history and significance. Originally built as a fortress and later converted to a prison, the Chateau is an impressive structure that evokes both awe and a sense of foreboding as you think of the fate of the prisoners trapped in the middle of the sea, much like what we have at Alcatraz near San Francisco. Having read the novel a million times as a kid and watched it’s movie adaptation, this was the reason why I chose Marseille as part of my first France visit’s itinerary. History, fiction and adventure all clash at the shores of the Chateau, like unruly waves and this place is thus a huge draw! Arrive either early or late (last ferry is around 4:30 PM) to avoid crowds.
2) What to see in Marseille: Panoramic Views
The best views of Marseille are undoubtedly from atop the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde, a Catholic Basilica towering over the city and is the most visited attraction. Irrespective of your faith or lack of it, the Basilica is a must visit (again, arrive early) if you want some of the most gorgeous 360 degree views of the city.
The other lookout point to get a bird’s eye view of the city, the harbor and the Rhone river, is undoubtedly Jardin du Pharo which is where Palais du Pharo is located. The palace was built by Napolean in 1858 for Empress Eugénie, who gave it to the city after his death. It was renovated and converted to a medical school in 1904. Right behind the palace is a statue named “Monument aux héros et victimes de la mer” (translates to “monument for heroes and victims of the sea”) and is a bronze statue depicting three sailors. We did not go inside the palace since the sun was gunning down in full fury, but wandered around, took a few photos and generally enjoyed the garden and the surrounding view for the short time that we were there.
3) What to see in Marseille: Beach and Memorial
Let’s face it, we are not beach people. When it’s 90F outside and it’s blazing hot, the beach appeals to me even less. Nevertheless, we dipped our toes in the sand at the popular Plages de Calahans which was teeming with sunbathers and beach volleyball players. Right along that line you will find Monument aux Morts de l’ Armée d’Orient et des Terres Lointaines, a war memorial dedicated to the “Armée d’Orient” or the brave French soldiers who fought in the first world war at the Macedonian front. Walk below the arches of the memorial to see the Chateau D’If glistening in the morning sun at a distance.
Once you’ve had your fill of photographing the war memorial or sunbathing at the beach, head out to Chez Fon Fon, a restaurant famous for it’s bouillabaisse, Marseille’s favorite fish stew. A plate of of the freshest catch of the day is shown to you before preparing the stew and it comes out in a spicy rich broth, a testament to French cooking meets North African spices. We got a window seat overlooking the beautiful quay lined with boats and pastel colored building.
4) What to see in Marseille: Old Port
The Old Port of Marseille (known as Vieux port) is essentially the heart of this town and forms an essential part of this “what to see in Marseille” guide. Walk along the paved pathway as the sun goes down on the harbor with the Basilica in the background or catch a street performer charming the crowds near the giant ferris wheel that gives of a twinkling glow at night. Dig into a sumptuous Moroccan dinner (plenty of vegetarian options available) at the famous Le Souk right in the middle of Old Port while watching the endless wave of people from all parts of the Mediterranean strolling down to enjoy the evening breeze. The Old Port at the end of the Canebière, the major street of Marseille and has served as the city’s natural harbor for the longest time. The Old Port perfectly captures the multicultural spirit of the city and is a great place to relax and unwind after a day of sightseeing.
5) What to see in Marseille: Neighborhood murals
Le Panier, the oldest district of Marseille is definitely popular with tourists for it’s many attractions, including Cathedral Major (the national monument of France), shops, cafes and it’s mind boggling array of murals that are a visual delight. Museum lovers should not miss La Viele Charité, a 16th century building that is now home to museum of anthropology and museum of contemporary art (we had to give it a miss due to lack of time). Do not forget to stock up on the famous and authentic Savon de Marseille (soaps manufactured in Marseille which have many fake versions so beware!) from La Grande Savonnerie who have an impressive collection of soaps in different fragrances, their best seller being the olive oil one.
The other neighborhood chock filled with murals and cute, local boutiques is Cours Julien, which is far away from the touristy crowd and is a residential neighborhood. After having our fill of the countless murals everywhere, we dined here on the busy rue des 3 Rois lined with ethnic eateries. We chose a tiny Ukranian restaurant and had a hearty meal with borscht soup and Ukranian stuffed crepes. Click on the link below to read my previous post on all the murals in Le Panier and Cours Julien.
A few words on this dress (shown in the photo above) which I purchased from the US based company Mata Traders. Mata Traders is an ethical apparel brand trying to make a difference to the planet and it’s living beings by using slow fashion, sustainable practices of sourcing and fair trade labor. They make beautiful dresses, tops, bottoms and jewelry for women that are chic and functional too! All clothes are made by women in India and Nepal and they are paid fair wages and supported ably for their labor. Mata Traders operate out of Illinois, USA and have a super helpful and responsive customer service. Plus they have some very tempting sales all year round. This cotton Marseille dot dress of mine (see the connection now?) was a life saver in the heat and humidity of southern France! Their size XS is similar to 0P and fitted me well without any alterations. Although this particular one is no longer available, you can check here for other similar styles. With fast fashion being one of the main pollutants of this planet, Mata Traders is trying to make a name in the slow fashion revolution-one stitch at a time. You can read more about them on this slow fashion post of mine.
(Disclosure: I purchased this dress at a special discounted price from Mata Traders. All opinions are my own)
6) What to see in Marseille: Day Trip To Cassis
Cassis is that one seaside village that is an easy half day trip from Marseille and a must visit for one primary reason-the Calanques. The Parc National des Calanques in Cassis comprises of an unique ecosystem including white, calciferous cliffs (due to an abundance of limestone) flanking the azure blue waters of the sea with 140 protected flora and fauna species and 60 heritage marine species. It is the 10th national park in France and is the only one to be peri-urban, marine and terrestrial at the same time! Stretching between Marseille, Cassis and La Ciotat, the calanques are best accessed from Cassis. You can get ferry/boat tickets at the tiny kiosk at Quai Saint Pierre, right next to the harbor, and there are options for visiting 3, 5, 8 or 9 calanques (16 Euros/person). We chose to visit the three most popular ones for 45 minutes and toured Port-Pin, Port-Miou and En-Vau. You can also hike the Calanques but with the sun beating down on us and with not too much time on our hands, that is something we did not want to do. The guides on the ferry/boats were speaking in either French or German (not sure why the latter) and so we had to be content seeing the sights only (since we couldn’t understand a word), which were spectacular!
Besides a boat tour of the Calanques, Cassis itself is a pretty village to stroll around. The harbor front, with the colorful boats, is a visual treat and there are many nice stores to shop at, such as L’art du Temps. We also had an excellent lunch at the two Michelin starred La Villa Madie which overlooked a tiny beach where people were sunbathing or canoeing.
This brings me to the end of yet another post on France. I hope you enjoyed reading it and have gotten plenty of ideas for what to see in Marseille. Truth be told, I loved Paris but Marseille enamored me with it’s raw beauty! I can’t wait to go back someday and savor the city’s sights bathed in the golden sunset over the Mediterranean.
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