Sitting on a natural harbor on France’s Mediterranean coast, Marseille has attracted travelers since ancient times. In fact, the seafaring Greeks gave the city its name, “Massalia.” Being a port brought advantages and disadvantages to what would become France’s second largest city. A bad reputation for crime and grubbiness are two of the latter. However, since it was designated as the European Capital of Culture in 2013, the city has been spruced up, while keeping its cool, cosmopolitan edge. Here’s how to spend a weekend in Marseille.
Start your discovery of Marseille at the historic, recently refurbished Vieux Port. Its bobbing sailboats and morning fish market set the tone for the maritime city. Along the the port’s right promenade you’ll come to MUCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, inaugurated in 2013. Even if you don’t go inside, it’s worth admiring the building’s marvelous latticework. Also, its terrace offers great views.
From here, you can swing by Marseille’s cathedral, Sainte-Marie-Majeure. The large, stripped Neo-Byzantine building was constructed at the end of the 19th century to replace the former 12th century church, parts of which still exist.
The cathedral is next to Le Panier, a hilly village-like neighborhood similar to Paris’ Montmartre. Wandering the area’s narrow lanes, you’ll find examples of Marseille’s famous street art. There are also some great boutiques like Pollen, a collaborative shop run by local designers, Trois Fenêtres, an eclectic concept store, and Comme Avant, where you can buy modern “savon de Marseille” and other organic, zero-waste soap and cosmetics.
When you feel peckish, pick up light lunch fare at Maison Geney, a contemporary tea salon. For more typical marseillais dishes, savor a meal at Le Clan des Cigales, which has a lovely terrace. If you’re looking for a cool treat, you’ll find inventive ice cream flavors at Vanille Noire, or more traditional flavors at Le Glacier du Roi, located on the pretty-yet-touristy Place de Lenche.
Once you are finished in Le Panier, drift down towards La Canebière, Marseille’s main street. The street leads you to the cosmopolitan Noailles area. In Noailles, you can meander through the Marché des Capucins, a colorful market showcasing Provence’s bounty, as well as the exotic foods of the city’s multicultural population.
Keep strolling north and soon you’ll reach the alternative Cours Julien and La Plaine area, where you can spend the rest of your afternoon, and possibly evening. The area has a high concentration of street art (Europe’s greatest!), second hand shops, concept stores (look for Oogie, Marseille’s first concept shop which also has a café and Coco & Nuts, an ethical and vegan shop and café), local craft beer venues (like MALT, Bière De La Plaine or Fietje) and other cool haunts.
For dinner, try Court Circuit, serving modern cuisine made with local ingredients. Or, for a more stylish dinner, sample Marseille’s best contemporary bistronomie at La Mercerie, L’Orphéon or Cédrat. Enjoy cocktails and small plates in an attractive modern setting at Maison Bohème. For chic drinks in a speakeasy-style bar, try Carry Nation.
There are a number of options for your Sunday in or around Marseille. One of the great things about the city is that there are lovely beaches and beautiful nature right at its doorstep. The eastern part of the harbor is home to La Corniche, a stunning promenade along the coast. Along this is the Endoume neighborhood, with tiny lanes and old fishing village bays. One of these bays, Malmousque, is where you can also relax or swim off the rocks. For an easy access beach there’s the sandy (and popular) Plage des Catalans.
Right at the edge of Marseille is one of France’s most exceptional natural wonders: Les Calanques, craggy coves lined with turquoise waters. There are various hikes you can do to discover these, lasting from an hour to all day (starting points reachable by local bus). You can also see the Calanques by boat either from Marseille or Cassis, a picturesque seaside town on the other side of the Calanques, which merits a visit.
There are other boat trips you can take from Marseille, too. The most popular is to the Château d’If, a former prison notoriously described in Alexandre Dumas’ novel “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Boats depart from the Vieux Port.
Staying in Marseille, you could spend your morning at the Mega Vide Greniers, a vast yard sale held by the Hippodrome every Sunday. Or you may prefer perusing the stands of the Marché Centre Commercial les Puces, Marseille’s flea market. In the afternoon venture out to see one of France’s most famous modern buildings: Le Cobusier’s Unité d’Habitation also known as “la Cité Radieuse” (the 3rd and 4th floors and terrace can be visited).
Then finish your day with a drink and wander through la Friche la Belle de Mai, repurposed buildings similar to Paris’ Ground Control. These buildings house outdoor cafés, art exhibitions, a theater, and more.
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Written by Lily Heise for HiP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Haven In for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long-term or buy in France or Italy? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates.