There is quite possibly no city in France which arouses more commentary from its native citizens than Marseille. Unlike Paris, there are just as many who adore the second-largest city as loathe it. Those who loathe it no doubt had their wallet stolen, missed their train or got horribly ill off of some shabby bouillabaisse.
Marseille is the passionate wild-child of France, drenched in sunshine, noisy souks, pastis, and the sweat of rowdy fishermen toiling on the docks. And that’s why we love it.
Marseille is also a poem: There can be moments of quiet and calm such as a Sunday afternoon stroll through the Panier – the old town — with no sound but one’s own footsteps. Windows and doors are left open and we hear the animated conversation of families having lunch, dishes clattering. An old man slumbers in a chair outside, while his portable radio hollers out a football match.
Marseille is the passionate wild-child of France, drenched in sunshine, noisy souks, pastis, and the sweat of rowdy fishermen toiling on the docks.
It is at once, a city ancient and modern.
Fishermen hawk their catch of the day in the shadow of the gigantic and controversial MuCEM or Musée des Civilisations Européen et la Mediterranée, which sits like some giant computer chip at the edge of the harbour.
Marseille is also the Arabic men in their djellabas speaking animatedly with their hands, their eyes shining out from deeply tanned skin, huddled outside shops selling oil and olives, spices, and black soap.
While the more fashionable coastal towns of the Côte d’Azur get much more attention, Marseille is the last remaining authentically côté sud part of France, largely because it is still a working fishing port, has no casino, and has enough crime and occasional random violence to keep the too well-heeled from setting up house there.
Sure, some parts of town can feel dicey (and indeed, some really are), but the vast majority of places we visited were utterly baba-cool, as the French are periodically fond of saying.
Beginning your Visit: Gare St. Charles, Portal to Provence
We arrive by train and exit onto the broad sunlit terrace of the St. Charles station which offers a majestic view of the city. Like North Africa, Marseille can be blindingly bright, the whites and pinks of the buildings framed by an azure blue sky.
During the early part of the day, Marseille can seem slightly deserted. In summer, the mid-morning heat of summer hits boiling by around 11. We make our way to our hotel down at the port, a fitting place to begin one’s jaunt through the city.
The Vieux Port: Old Meets New
The Vieux Port de Marseille is still the life-blood of the city with a very vibrant and colourful criée or fish market that happens each day from 8am to 1pm. It’s a marked contrast to one of the most controversial parts of the port’s redevelopment, the MuCEM (https://www.mucem.org), a museum dedicated to the diaspora of Europe and the Mediterranean civilisations.
Designed by architect Rudy Ricciotti, it holds a remarkable mix of historic artifacts that tell the story of the Med from prehistoric times to the present day. The building itself elevates the exhibitions thanks to the stunning chiaroscuro of light that pours in through the modern louvers that sheathe the exterior. Here you can see contemporary exhibitions, enjoy a guided tour, and visit the 12th century Fort Saint-Jean (included with entry to MuCEM,7 promenade Robert Laffont) that lies just over a walkway across the water. We love the Fort St. Jean for its collections of decorative arts, distinctively Moorish-Mediterranean garden, and the bookshop and café.
Le Panier: The Heart (and soul) ofMarseille
One of the most pleasant ways to while away an afternoon in Marseille is to wander the streets of Le Panier, the city’s old town.
We start off from the Hôtel Dieu(1 Place Daviel), the city’s old hospital, and now the impossibly chic Intercontinental Marseille Hotel.
The streets here are dotted with wonderful small cafes and boutiques. Keep an eye out for the Hôtel de Cabre (27 Grand Rue), a stunning townhouse that remarkable, has remained intact since it was built in 1535. Nearby is the Maison Diamantée (3 Rue de la Prison), the last of the great aristocratic homes from before the French Revolution. The entire exterior is studded with diamond-shaped stones, and the lobby is worth a peek just for its beautiful staircase.
Queen of the City: Notre-Dame de la Garde
The best view of the city can be found from the city’s most famous symbol, Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde (http://notredamedelagarde.fr/), which sits high up on Garde Hill overlooking Marseille. You’ll need to take a taxi or bus (number 60) because it is a considerable hike. The basilica is stunning, with a low, vaulted-ceilinged church and crypt and a “high” church in the Roman-Byzantine style. The bell tower features an impressive Virgin Mary statue with bronze bells covered in gold leaf. At dusk, the bells glimmer in the setting sun.
Architectural Icon: Unité d’Habitation de Marseille
Located in an ordinary suburban neighborhood is one of the world’s most important architectural statements, the Unité d’Habitation (https://citeradieuse-marseille.com/ 280 Boulevard Michelet) designed by LeCorbusier. It has been on my personal bucket list for many years and yet every time I go to Marseille, I forgot about it. Not this time.
This is modernism in all its Brutalist glory, a living sculpture that is fascinating from every angle.
The Unité d’Habitation is a UNESCO heritage site and regardless of your feelings for LeCorbu, it is most definitely worth a visit. While it is still an official housing project, it also operates as a museum and hotel (see STAY below) with tours and designated areas open for visitation.
LeCorbusier was equally revered and reviled for his experiments in modern housing. As both artist and architect, he created his own philosophy of how design could transform the urban human condition – to varying degrees of success.
This is modernism in all its Brutalist glory, a living sculpture that is fascinating from every angle. The massive concrete structure features the designer’s trademark primary colour palette of red, green, yellow, and blue. Completed in 1952, the structure was built as a response to the urgent need for housing following the end of WWII. LeCorbusier’s utopian vision was built around creating a vertical community where families could live, play, and shop. There were clinics and even a hotel. In short, it was a “city within a city.”
Wandering the hallways and public spaces, one is immediately impressed with the use of volume, proportion, lightness, and darkness; all framed within LeCorbu’s signature bêton-brut, a rougher cast-in-place concrete.
Making one’s way to the top of the structure, one discovers a multi-purpose open-air zone featuring exercise areas, a clubhouse, and a wading pool. It’s a bit jarring to imagine children running about 56 meters above the ground.
A visit to Marseille would not be complete without a visit to the Marché Capuçin (5 Rue du Marché des Capuçins), which is a traditional souk brimming with spice stalls, rai music vendors, and halal butchers. We can never resist picking up some North African black soap, spices, and these prickly gloves worn to slough off dead skin when you shower.
We have a shortlist of shops we visit every time we are in town, and first on the list is Maison Empereur (4 Rue des Récolettes, https://empereur.fr/). This old-world droguerie dates to 1827, but it is so much more than a drugstore, with everything from household cleaning staples to kitchenware, table linens, and even a small café. This is where you’ll find the classic blocks of Marseillais soap.
Marseille is fabulous for vintage shopping and one of our favourites is Jolie Rouge (72 Rue d’Aubagne, https://www.facebook.com/lejolirougebrocantes) chock full of vintage clothing, china and glassware, not to mention the much-sought-after barware of yore, like Ricard and Pastis water bottles and French ashtrays (we use them as soap dishes.) If you’re there late in the afternoon, enjoy a drink at the store’s bar.
We love to load up on cheeses, bread, and charcuterie at Epicerie l’Ideal (11 Rue d’Aubagne, http://www.epicerielideal.com/) before we head out for a pique-nique in Calanques, a national park just outside of the city. Stock up also on other regional delicacies from throughout the south of France as well as Italy. Or eat on the spot at the shop’s own little restaurant.
Fruits de Mer
If you’re like us, France makes you crave those towers of fresh seafood, and Chez Roger (28 Quai du Port, https://www.roger-coquillages.fr/) may not be the cheapest but it certainly offers the freshest catch, with smooth service to match.
Marseille is famous for Bouillabaisse, but alas, the dish has been so commercialised that you will go to great pains to find a decent one. If you are serious about getting a proper fish stew then you will need to travel 40 minutes to the edge of Marseille, to Les Goudes. Here, perched on the rocks of a tiny hamlet is L’Esplaï du Grand Bar des Goudes (29 Rue Désiré Pelaprat (Rue du Chasseur) grandbardesgoudes.fr) with what we believe is a truly authentic bouillabaisse.
Plauchut (168 La Canebière, http://www.plauchut.com/) is Marseille’s oldest pâtisserie and here you’ll find divine cakes, nougat, cream puffs, and the ultimate Provençal treat, Calissons d’Aix. In the back of the shop is a classic salon de thé, which is rapidly disappearing in France. It’s here you’ll find old ladies and their grandchildren stuffing their faces full of pastries.
If you’re looking for discretion and privacy, head to Le Couvent (6 rue Fonderie Vieille, https://www.fonderievieille.com), a completely anonymous 17th-century stone building with a mansion-like ambiance. No restaurant, bar, or spa, but the 10 luxurious apartments are tastefully filled with vintage furnishings, art and books and will make you feel like you’re a Marseillais.
Looking for luxe, then head to the Intercontinental Hotel Dieu (1 Place Daviel, https://marseille.intercontinental.com/en/) which for 805 years was the city hospital. It is now an Intercontinental Hotel with beautifully appointed rooms that will make you forget it was ever a hospital. Downstairs is the impossibly chic bar, Le Capian, with our favourite summer day cocktail – a house specialty – the Étincelle, an intoxicating mix of Bombay gin, lemon juice, Midori, pineapple juice, and lemonade.
For a decidedly modernist stay, book the Hotel LeCorbusier (https://www.hotellecorbusier.com/, 280 Boulevard Michelet) located inside the Unité d’Habitation, a UNESCO heritage site which grants you easy access to the entire building including restaurant and roofdeck.