Things to Do in Marseille
Calanques National Park (Parc national des Calanques) sits in the south of France between Marseille and Cassis. The area boasts dramatic rocky inlets, azure waters and pebble beaches, making it a popular destination for tourists looking to hike, swim and sail.
The park is relatively large and composed of nearly 20 acres (8,500 hectares) by land and more than 100 acres (42,000 hectares) by sea. Visitors can spend their time keeping an eye out for some of the 140 land animal species and 60 marine species that live here. These creatures are protected in the park, which is the only one in Europe to contain land, marine and semi-urban areas. The calanques themselves are also main attractions and include Calanque de Sormiou, Calanque de Morgiou, Calanque d'En-Vau, Calanque de Port-Pin and Calanque de Sugiton.
Everywhere you go in Marseille, you'll see the golden statue of the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, the Romano-Byzantine basilica rising up from the city's highest hill, La Garde (530ft/162m). Built between 1853 and 1864, the domed basilica is ornamented with colored marble, murals, and intricate mosaics, which were superbly restored in 2006 after suffering damage from the atmosphere, candle smoke and war. Bullet marks and vivid shrapnel scars on the cathedral's northern façade mark the fierce fighting that took place during Marseille's Battle of Liberation in August 1944.
Its bell tower is crowned by a 30 ft (9.7m) tall gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on a 40 ft (12m) high pedestal. Locals see her as the guardian of their city and call her 'la bonne mere' or the good mother. Each year on August 15th, there is a popular Assumption Day pilgrimage to the church. From the dome you get a 360-degree panorama of the city's sea of terracotta rooves below.
Wouldn't it be nice to be a prince, to be able to go to seaside town, decide you liked it and wouldn't mind having a little holiday home there, then have the city give you the prime location on the waterfront to build your palace? Welcome to the mid-19th century world of Prince-President Louis-Napoleon. In September 1852, he visited Marseille, said he liked it, was given the Pharo headland overlooking Vieux Port and Ile d'If, built the magnificent Palais du Pharo, then never even stayed there. Luckily his wife seems to have had a more generous nature and the Empress Eugenie gave it back to the city.
In 1904, the city of Marseille turned the building into a medical school. This necessitated some architectural changes and the balance of the building's appearance was altered losing some of its beauty. Since then, the building has been again modified to become a modern conference centre, with many of the auditoriums skillfully concealed underground below the forecourt.
Marseilles has grown from being a tiny trading port established by the Greeks in 600 BC to being France’s second largest city. Topped by the hilltop Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde cathedral, it rises from the lovely harbor front of the Vieux Port or Old Harbor out into a sprawling, modern metropolis.
Given its role as France’s major port and its proximity to Africa and the Mediterranean, it is not surprising that Marseilles is an extremely culturally diverse city with great transport links to most of the country. Marseilles is the gateway to Provence, an area famed for its cooking and its artists.
As well as being an important port and industrial city, Marseilles is also an important center for culture with the Opera de Marseille and the Ballet Nationale de Marseille housed in the historic Opera House. It has also attracted many famous artists over the years, including Renoir and Cezanne, and spawned much of France’s hip hop music.
Marseille Cathedral is a Roman Catholic cathedral and basilica minor located in the Old-Port of Marseilles and a national monument of France. Far from being just a run-of-the-mill church, it is the seat of the Archdiocese of Marseille and the hobbyhorse of Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who laid the first stone of the new building in 1852. The foundations, commonly referred to as the Old Major, date back to the 12th century and correspond to a sober Romanesque style. Only the choir and one bay of the nave persist today, as a new, more opulent cathedral was built next to the remains in 1852. The new Marseilles Cathedral was built on a gigantic scale in the Byzantine-Roman style from 1852 to 1896.
Winding along the Mediterranean coast along the South of France, La Corniche is a waterfront roadway that stretches five kilometers through Marseille. As both a walkway and a road for cars, it offers wonderful views of the sea and coastline. It was a particularly popular promenade for residents of Marseille in the 1920s. From there you can also see the Iles du Frioul, elegant villas of the late 19th century, and the Prado beaches. The Chateau d’If (of the Count of Monte Cristo fame) is also visible.
Along the way sits the Maregraph Building, which took measurements over thirteen years to determine France’s sea level elevation. The bench of La Corniche runs three kilometers between the Pont de la Fausse-Monnaie and Hotel Sofitel Palm Beach, making it the longest bench in the world. Part of the roadway is named after President Kennedy, who was assassinated during its construction.
The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM; Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée) is a national museum in Marseille, France. It was inaugurated in 2013, the same year Marseille was designated as the ‘European Capital of Culture,’ and is dedicated to showcasing the multifaceted history of the Mediterranean and its different landscapes, cities, and shores.
The museum is built on reclaimed land at the entrance to Marseille’s harbour. Its exhibits are devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations in the Mediterranean basin, taking an interdisciplinary approach to presenting the different societies who have called this area home throughout the ages and in modern times. It is the first museum in the world to focus entirely on the cultures of the Mediterranean, and it includes all the social sciences: anthropology, political science, sociology, history, archaeology, and art history.
The calanques are narrow and steep inlets along the limestone coast of southern France, the most impressive ones being located along the little stretch of coastline between Marseilles and Cassis. They are romantic, wild and, being surrounded by huge cliffs, often protrude fjord-like into the landscape. While many calanques require hours of hiking or kayaking to reach, the Calanque de Sormiou is more easily accessible and still provides a true visual spectacle for visitors.
After a 15 minute drive or 45 minute walk from the main road down the hills, a sandy beach awaits next to the bright blue Mediterranean water. A couple weekend homes dot the landscape and then there is Le Château, the modest but immensely popular bouillabaisse restaurant that requires a phone reservation well ahead of time to snag a seat. As sparse as the landscape might appear, Sormiou actually serves as a habitat for a rich flora and fauna.
The colonnaded Palais de Longchamp, constructed in the 1860s, was designed in part to disguise a château d'eau (water tower) at the terminus of an aqueduct from the River Durance. The building of this water storage and the associated canals and aqueducts was a major turning point in the history of Marseille as it allowed the city to expand, building new districts. One of these was the Boulevard Longchamp, laid out by the city then developed by private business people who profited from providing a grand boulevard of similarly styled, gracious houses.
In the Palais itself, the 2 wings house Marseille's oldest museum, the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée d'Histoire Naturelle, which have extensive displays of the arts and the sciences respectively. Its lovely gardens with lakes, fountains, waterfalls - not surprisingly water features heavily! - and a children's playground and carousel are a good spot for bored children.
More Things to Do in Marseille
Following extensive renovations back in 2013, the Marseille History Museum is now one of the largest history museums in Europe and it’s a fitting homage to France’s oldest city, showcasing a fascinating array of archaeological finds. Exploring the interactive exhibitions and multi-media displays, visitors can follow the evolution of Marseille from its founding by the Greeks back in 600BC, to the early Christian settlers, through to medieval times and the redevelopment of the city under Louis XIV.
Notable highlights include an impressively preserved 3rd-century Roman cargo boat, a remarkable collection of 13th century pottery and a series of architectural works by Pierre Puget. Also worth a visit is the open-air Jardin des Vestiges, which displays excavated remains, including a paved Roman Toad, necropolis and antique Greek walls.
Designed by Marseillais architect Pierre Puget and constructed between 1671 and 1749, the 3-storey, arcaded courtyard of the Centre de la Vieille Charité wraps around Provence's most imposing Baroque church. Initially built as a charity shelter for the town's poor but it was more like a prison: 17th century France was tough. Chasse-gueux (beggar-hunters) were paid to round up the poor and put them into almshouses which were effectively workhouses. In 1736, the Centre housed 850, by 1760 it was 1059 but by 1781 it was less acceptable to imprison people just for being poor and the number dropped to 250.
Soaring 394 meters over the beaches of Cassis, Cape Canaille is France’s highest sea cliff and it’s a dramatic sight, with its steep grey and ochre colored cliffs jutting out into the ocean. Located between La Citotat and Cassis on the Mediterranean coast, the rugged headland has long drawn visitors from both towns, and offers spectacular views that span the glittering Cote d’Azur, the Calanques and the Gulf of Cassis.
The easiest way to take in the views is to follow the 15km ‘Route des Crêtes’, a dizzying serpentine road that curls its way along the coastal cliffs and climbs to the highest point – head there at sunrise or sunset for the most breathtaking views. Alternatively, adventurous travelers will find ample opportunities for hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing.
The Iles du Frioul is a collection of 4 islands off the coast of Marseilles. They are Pomègues, Ratonneau, If and Tiboulen. Until the 16th century they were largely uninhabited although visited by passing sailors needing a rest from trade or war. But in 1516, Francois the Ist visited Marseille and decided the islands were the perfect place for a fort to defend Marseille, hence the Ile d'If was developed as a fortress and later, prison.
From the 17th to the 19th century, they were used as a place of quarantine for people suspected of carrying plague or cholera. Sea birds and rare plants thrive on these tiny islands, each about 1.25 miles (2.5km) long, totalling 500 acres (200 hectares), which are sprinkled with the ruins of the old quarantine hospital, Hôpital Caroline and Fort Ratonneau (used by German troops during WWII).
Abbaye Saint Victor in Marseille may not be at the top of everyone's to-see list, especially when the nearby, picturesque Notre Dame Basilica and its bird's-eye view are such a big draw. But there are two reasons this abbey should be added: First, it's a convenient stop on the way to Notre Dame, and secondly, it is commonly considered the oldest church in France–which is quite a claim, considering that thousand-year-old churches seem to be a dime a dozen here.
In fact, the abbey's history dates back to the fifth century, was in ruins by the ninth century and by the 13th century, when other world-famous churches were first being built, Abbaye Saint Victor was being renovated. Martyrs died here, the library was dismantled simply to please a de Medici family member, and in the late 18th century, the site was stripped of all of its finery. In short, it's had quite a history.
La Canebiere is Marseille's Champs Elysees. Modelled on the famous Parisian boulevard, it is a wide stretch leading straight up from Vieux Port (Old Port) for about 3/4 mile (1 km). it does not quite have the elegance of the Champs Elysees being a little more a hotch-potch of shops, hotels, and restaurants, but it is a great place to get the feel of the city. Named after the city's thriving trade is nautical rope in the Middle Ages - canabe being the French word for cannabis or hemp from which the rope was made - the street is now the spine of the thriving city.
La Canebiere acts as a divider between different city districts. To its west there is the modern shopping mall Centre Bourse, to the south is the moneyed district, and to the north you'll find the quartier Belsunce where you can buy just about anything from the local Arab community if you're prepared to haggle with the street-traders.
The less glamorous but equally beautiful little sister to nearby St Tropez, those leaving Provence for the sun-dazzled shores of the French Riviera will find everything they’re looking for in Cassis. This is the South of France at its most postcard-worthy - vast sandy beaches flanking a pretty harbor of painted fishing boats and magnificent yachts, and traditional cafés lining the stone-paved streets.
The ancient fishing port of Cassis is now a popular seaside resort, marrying its historic architecture with a flush of modern restaurants and boutique hotels, but the town’s most unique selling point is its location. Set beneath the towering white limestone cliffs of the Cap Canaille – France’s highest cliff – and surrounded by ‘calanques’, a series of sheltered inlets, home to the region’s renowned white Cassis stone quarries.
Calanque d’En-Vau is one of the many fjord-like inlets along the coastline between Cassis and Marseilles. It’s hard to believe that this wild, untamed nature is right outside a major city, but once there, the hustle and bustle of Marseilles might as well be on the other side of the world. The calanques are a Mediterranean paradise, where the sea has carved its way and created shining white cliffs towering thousands of feet above the azure water. The landscape looks stony and brittle, but all over one can see it come to live. There are gnarled pine trees, dark blue pistachio, wild asparagus and juniper, as well as rare birds nesting high up in the limestone cliffs.
Of course, getting to Calanque d’En-Vau involves hiking along the adventurous hiking trails that follow the coastline to the hidden bays. It is one of the more difficult inlets to get to and requires hiking down the extremely steep inclines.
Marseille Vieux Port, or Old Port, is the hub of the city. It was the natural harbor of this port town since antiquity; the Greeks landed here in 600 BC and set up a small town for trading. The town grew and in the middle ages became a center for growing cannabis, or hemp, for nautical rope. Hence the name of Marseille's main street Canebiere, which leads down to the old port. By the mid-1800s, the port of Marseille could dock over 1,000 ships at one time and around 18,000 ships passed through each year. However once steam took over from sail, the harbor proved too shallow and the focus moved to new docks built at La Joliette. Then in WWII, the Nazis obliterated the port and the historic town in the Battle of Marseille. After 1948, a reconstruction project was undertaken and these days the port is again a bustling center of Marseille, although these days only for leisure boating.
These days the New Port, to the north, has taken over the commercial harbor functions.
The Vieille Charité in the heart of Old Town Marseille houses not one, but two museums – the Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Art (Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens et Amérindiens) and the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology (Musée d'Archéologie Méditerranéenne). Formerly a poorhouse and then an orphanage throughout its four-century history, the structure’s restoration in the mid-20th century was championed by architect Le Corbusier. The site has since served as a fun destination for fans of art and history, as well as those who simply want something a bit off the beaten path.
Unlike its sister museum, the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology focuses on the history of the immediate area and features items found in the region and specifically in and around Marseille. With that, the museum not only tells the history of Marseille, but of Mediterranean Europe in general, and can be an enlightening take for visitors from around the world.
With its ancient roots, Marseille is the perfect city to host the Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Art (Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens et Amérindiens). And the Vieille Charité, with its fascinating architecture, is the perfect place to house it.
The Vieille Charité may not look like much from the outside, as it was originally a poorhouse dating back to the late 17th century. But inside, visitors are treated to a massive courtyard with symmetrical rows of beautiful arches, where light plays over the pinkish stone from nearby quarries. At the center of the courtyard is a jewel box of a chapel; all in all, it would be a worthy sightseeing destination even if it didn't house a museum.
Marseille's connection to the sea goes back millennia, and even today the city has one of the largest, busiest ports in Europe. While perhaps not the hottest ticket in town, the Maritime and Commercial Museum of Marseilles (Musée de la Marine et de l'Economie de Marseille, or simply the Marine Museum) should still be a stop on any visitor’s agenda, as it is dedicated to what Marseille is all about.
Housed in the Palais de la Bourse, the former Chamber of Commerce, the Marine Museum charges 2 euro per ticket, which is definitely within any traveler’s budget. The exhibits focus mostly on modern maritime history, which spans the last 500 years or so, and provide a fascinating look into what has made Marseille a major player in the worldwide maritime economy.
Marseille's Museum of Modern Art is also known as the Contemporary Art Museum, which is a direct translation of the French Musée d'Art Contemporain and usually seen in print simply as MAC. The site is a bit out of the way, in Marseille's 8th arrondissement; but that's no reason to leave it out of a city itinerary. The museum is more relevant to the world of contemporary art than ever before, especially with the recent Year of Culture hosted by Marseille.
The permanent collection features works from the mid-20th century to the present, while the ever-changing temporary exhibitions highlight the work of new and emerging artists from around the world. However, there is a focus on French artists, which gives foreign visitors an excellent overview of the country’s current arts scene. In addition, the complex that houses MAC also hosts concerts, conferences, panel discussions and many other events.
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