The old city of Marseille might not make much of an impression from a distance but, once you’re in, you will never want to leave. Although it once had a seedy past as one of the largest suppliers of heroin to the US, Marseille has undergone a facelift to become a major tourist attraction.
With 300 days of sunshine, boutique hotels, sandy beaches and lots of day activities to do, you should have a fantastic time when visiting this multicultural port city. The addition of swanky new museums and its 2013 stint as the European Capital of Culture shows a city that has blossomed amidst its cultural differences.
Here are our top picks of day activities to try on your next visit to Marseille.
Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCeM)
MuCeM is housed in a stunning complex of three different sites. Considered the top tourist attraction in Marseille, the museum explores the culture, history and the civilization of the Mediterranean region through rotating art exhibitions, anthropological exhibits and film.
There is a new addition on the former J4 Pier, designed by Rudy Ricciotti and Roland Carta. This section explores the treasures of the spice route, stories of gods, the seven wonders of the world and the visions of Jerusalem.
In the vaulted room of the Fort Saint-Jean, you’ll find monuments dating as far back as the 12th century. Learn more about the work of the museum in the Conservation Centre, which is the third site.
Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
One of the most famous landmarks in Marseille, this church sits on the top of a hill from where you can see the sea below and the city beyond. This spectacular church is visible from a good distance and it was the perfect lookout point during the Middle Ages.
Today, it’s a beacon for the Catholic community. Make sure you spend time on the terrace after looking through the gorgeous interior. This is where you can enjoy the panoramic views of the red rooftops of Marseille, the old harbour and views of the Frioul archipelago.
The best way to get here is by taking a bus that brings you right to the church’s door. If you walk, you will have to face the laborious climb up the hill.
The Old Town (Le Panier)
Fondly referred to as “The Basket” by locals, this is Marseille’s oldest quarter. The artsy ambience and village-like feel will quickly envelope you. Sun-baked cafes serving sweet treats and delicious French cuisine will entice you with their mouth-watering aromas. Hidden squares are begging to be explored. The narrow winding streets hold the secret to Marseille’s charming personality. Love international dishes? Try one of the Algerian restaurants. Le Panier is also a residential area that houses art galleries, boutiques and gourmet food shops. Walking tours usually begin at Quai du Port, up to La Canebiere. Take note of historic landmarks in the area including Vieille Charite, Hotel de Ville and Cathedrale de la Major.
Calanque de Sugiton is the most popular national park in Marseille. It’s a great spot for nature walks and scenic boat tours. The location of the park is 15km from Marseille, on the way to the fishing village of Cassis.
You’ll be awed by the mesmerising turquoise colour of the water, the calm pools of saltwater flowing on the sea and the diverse array of wildlife and plants. Sports enthusiasts will have a lovely time exploring hiking, kayaking, swimming and rock climbing.
The fjord offers an amazing view on a journey through the waters. This is ideal for boat cruises and yachting. The water is very cold, so be careful if you’re thinking about jumping in for a swim. Other calanques in the area include Calanques de la Cote Bleu and Calanques de Cassis.
Channel your inner speedster
If you have watched The French Connection, you’ll remember the many car chase sequences that had you on the edge of your seat. Paul Ricard built the Circuit Paul Ricard very close to the airport in 1970 to host the French Grand Prix. The arena is well-maintained and it’s open to motorcycle and car clubs who want to go for a spin around the track.
This historic island prison was popularised by The Count of Monte Cristo. It was built in the mid-1550s as a coastal defence station. You’ll find the gunnery towers within the walls are still standing as one of the distinctive features of the prison.
It was converted into a prison in the 18th century because of its unique location that served as a deterrent to those who wanted to escape. Conditions were terrible, and it was eventually closed in 1890.
Look for primitive graffiti inscribed on the walls by inmates who called this prison home for decades. There is a prison cell designated to the Count of Monte Cristo even though it’s a work of fiction.
It’s clear to see that Marseille has moved far from its seedy past. From historic buildings, looming islands and gorgeous architecture, you should definitely give Marseille a chance.