When I received my teaching placement in Marseille, I didn’t know I would fall in love with this city in southern France. Like pure serotonin. We’re talking 300 days of sunshine each year, Mediterranean Sea views and a vibrant city with an attitude. I can’t tell you the number of times I thought to myself, I hope no one pinches me because I still can’t believe I get to live here. I am overwhelmed with the beauty of this city and endless new corners to explore. Here’s my humble to attempt to share the best things to do in Marseille, France.
There was certainly a lifestyle change when I went from living in Missouri to Marseille. I drove everywhere back home in Missouri, but in Marseille, I don’t have a car. But the public transportation system in Marseille gets me about everywhere I need to go without any problems. And the few times that buses aren’t running, I’m able to Uber. For your visit to Marseille, I strongly recommend downloading the RTM app and getting some sort of unlimited pass for the duration of your stay. Not only is it extremely affordable, but it’s also entirely practical. With your RTM pass, you gain access to virtually all the buses, metro lines and even boats. How cool is that?
The RTM app is the public transportation app that gives you actual wait times for different stops, and I use it on the daily. However, I prefer Google Maps to recommend which specific bus or metro lines to take. And once Google Maps gives me the best route, I check the RTM app for actual wait times because Google isn’t always up to speed.
Don’t overlook the navettes, or boats, as they’re part of your public transportation pass. Quelle vie !
The Mucem, or Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, is a much newer museum as it opened in 2013. But this spot doesn’t lack for history. Although le J4 building is a modern-day build, the Mucem also includes Fort St. Jean, a 7th century military fortress. This museum sits right on the Mediterranean Sea and has beautiful gardens to stroll. Due to Covid, I haven’t been able to visit the museum yet, but I’ve walked the grounds and am already enchanted.
As much as I love Marseille, its allure isn’t the typical French charm. The Marseillais are known for their rough and tough exterior, much like the rocky Calanques, the crazy strong Mistral wind and mighty Mediterranean waves. In the oldest city in France, Marseille dwellers sport a rugged strength, which is why Palais Longchamp is a discordant yet welcome moment in city architecture.
You think it’s just a beautiful park, but wait, there’s so much more. On your left, you have the Museum of Fine Arts. And on your right sits the Natural History Museum. Even more, Palais Longchamp boasts a botanical garden, which used to be a zoo.
When I learned about La Corniche not long after moving to Marseille, I was hooked. Whenever I think of Marseille, these splendid moments are what pop into my mind. You cannot beat the stunning sea views, expensive homes and lack of tourists. It’s not in the main hub of downtown Marseille, but it’s extremely accessible either by foot or bus from Vieux Port.
I have no reservations saying your trip to Marseille will not be complete without a trip to La Corniche. Because yes, I do feel that strongly. You can rent a city bike to take along the path or simply take a leisurely stroll.
L’Anse de la Fausse Monnaie
Nestled right along La Corniche sits L’Anse de la Fausse Monnaie, a cove perfect for picnicking and swimming. In my dozens of walks along La Corniche, I always seemed to stop at this cove because it truly just takes my breath away every time. And as for swimming, the waves aren’t as aggressive here as some other anses.
Vallon des Auffes
Another stop along La Corniche, Vallon des Auffes is the perfect cove for swimming or paddle boarding. Walk the path along this small fishing village with its colorful buildings and many boats.
Le Glacier de la Corniche
My best friend’s mom always said that a long line is a sure sign that the restaurant is good. And Le Glacier de la Corniche is no exception. I passed this seaside ice cream shop plenty of times before I braved the long line. And it was so worth it! During the weekends, there’s always a line out the door for this hole-in-the-wall ice cream spot, but the dozens of flavors and farm-fresh quality merit the hype. And this dive sits on La Corniche, which means your wait is breathtaking ocean views. If you really just can’t stand lines, go on a weekday to profiter bien.
Loving France and being gluten-intolerant sounds like an oxymoron. But La Pépite gave me the freedom to choose absolutely anything I wanted in the glass case. These pastries are all gluten- and dairy-free but full of rich flavor. On special occasions, I liked to treat myself to these goodies.
La Calanque de Sugiton
If there is anything that you absolutely must see when in Marseille, it’s Les Calanques. Forever and ever, this will stand as one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever laid eyes on. The rock formations jutting along the Mediterranean Sea, the deep blue hues and warm sunshine provide the most halcyon atmosphere. Les Calanques translate to “rocky inlets,” and Marseille isn’t the only place to enjoy these majestic sights.
But out of the several calanques I’ve visited, my favorite one is in Marseille. It takes about 45 minutes of transportation from Vieux Port to get to La Calanque de Sugiton. Here’s the best route from Vieux Port. Do dress for the part with sturdy shoes and a water bottle, as this hike is not for beginners.
Sprawled out over 44 acres, Parc Borély is the place to get your steps in. The beautiful gardens and fountains are under the watchful eye of the 18th century bastide. I had a delightful morning riding a bike in this vast, tranquil park.
Jardin du Pharo
Another frequented spot, Jardin du Pharo offers sweeping views of Le Vieux Port, the Mucem and the Mediterranean Sea as well as a massive palace.
Situated right along La Corniche, Parc Valmer gives you some of my favorite views in Marseille. As far as parks go, this one is on the smaller side, but its perched position provided drool-worthy sea views. Pack a picnic or grab your favorite novel as you soak up the sun seaside.
You cannot go to Marseille without seeing Le Vieux Port, or the old port. Not only is it one of Marseille’s biggest claims to fame, but it also sits at the heart of this city. Plenty of shops and restaurants surround this boat-filled port as well as street performers and fresh markets. Whenever I met up with friends downtown, we’d always meet up at Vieux Port because the location cannot be beat.
Abutting Le Vieux Port is La Canebière, one of the main shopping streets with a history dating back to the reign of Louis XIV in the 1600s.
Marseille is the second largest city in France, but you’re just a stone’s throw away from escaping the hustle and bustle. Le Frioul is only a 20-minute boat ride from Vieux Port. These islands are sure to delight with its deep blue water and gorgeous landscape. These islands’ history dates as far back as 500 B.C., and its isolated location made it an ideal spot to build Caroline Hospital, where yellow fever patients were treated in the early 1800s. Be sure to wear comfy shoes as this island’s hikes will tempt you.
Les Terrasses du Port
You think you’ve seen a mall before, but you have not seen a mall until you’ve visited Les Terrasses du Port. This massive, new shopping center not only offers a variety of shops but also uninterrupted sea views from the top level. Plus, the dining options on the terrace offer the most magical sunset views.
Another major shopping mall, Centre Bourse sits steps away from Le Vieux Port and has something Les Terrasses du Port doesn’t have: Galeries Lafayette, a high-end department store. And right behind this modern shopping mall sits the History Museum of Marseille and Jardin des Vestiges, ruins dating back to 200 B.C.
Notre Dame de la Garde
Did you even go to France if you didn’t see some type of church, cathedral or basilica? Non. Marseille is a very hilly city, and Notre Dame de la Garde overlooks the city from her perch. Dating back to the 1200s, Notre Dame gives you some of the best views of the city. But be sure to tie your hair back because Le Mistral wind is a piece of work up there.
Cathédrale de la Major
Ben oui, another cathedral. This Byzantine cathedral is the only church to be built in France during the 1800s, and Napoleon III laid the first stone, according to Marseille Tourisme. Technically, La Major is composed of two churches: one built in the 6th century, another built in the 19th century. The former is the oldest church in Marseille with its roots reaching the 500s.
This is the neighborhood where the hipsters come to play. You’ll know when you’ve arrived at Cours Julien because graffiti is everywhere and eclectic shops line the streets.
As much as I love France and French culture, sometimes I miss home and pieces of America. One of the things I miss is the coffee, especially iced. When my friend Esther introduced me to Bernie, it was love at first sight. I hadn’t tasted genuine iced coffee in months, and my heart was full. You also can’t beat the indie vibes with all the greenery and allergy-friendly goodies.
La Préfecture neighborhood
One of my favorite areas to walk and browse shops is near La Préfecture. In front of these city administration buildings sits a grand fountain and a big square where people like to eat and catch some rays of sun. Just steps away from this square is Rue Paradis, a lively yet less trodden shopping street.
Also mere steps away from La Préfecture is a tiny pâtisserie with the most beautiful pastries. Oh Faon serves up gluten-free, vegan treats. When my friend Kelly suggested we visit Oh Faon, I was a bit hesitant. Gluten-free and vegan? Surely, that can’t be any good. Oh, was I wrong! On Saturday morning, I tasted my first Oh Faon pastry, and we bought six more for our party that Sunday. Beautifully designed and packed with flavor.
Avenue du Prado
Another major shopping street, Avenue du Prado has been dubbed the Champs-Elysées of Marseille, per La Provence. These tree-lined, wide avenues will make you want to wander for hours.
If you’re looking for a ‘grammable spot with luxe vieux, Ciel Rooftop is just for you. This cozy, chic rooftop terrace and restaurant will wow you with its views of Marseille, its drinks and sophisticated menu.
I passed this restaurant literally hundreds of times before trying it, and now I’m kicking myself for waiting so long. Not necessarily an Instagrammable place, Khai Hoan is your classic Vietnamese restaurant with authentic food with some serious bang for your buck. I couldn’t stop thinking about my Pho for days. Come for lunch during the week for an extra good deal.
Some people like to talk down on Marseille for its different accent and rough attitude, but let me tell you: I am proud to call Marseille home and honestly laugh when people say things like that. Pourquoi? Because this city has some of the most beautiful spots, and there is an abundance of things to do in Marseille.