Marseille is often touted as the new Barcelona. But while it shares the same glistening Mediterranean shores, Marseille attractions, in general, are far less touristy and much more affordable.
Marseille has a rich sense of itself – this is, after all, where the La Marseillaise, the French national anthem comes from – and sitting at the border of southern French and North African culture, it offers edgy art, sumptuous history and delicious food.
The city is undergoing massive regeneration (some might say, gentrification) but large swathes of people still live and work in the centre, near Le Vieux Port, the throbbing cultural heart of the city, making for a lively and all-consuming city break for those willing to dive in and discover a different side of the South of France.
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Top 10 Things to See in Marseille, France
France’s second-largest city offers something for everyone. Whether you’re spending just one day in Marseille, or you’re looking for fun and unique places to see in Marseille, we’ve got you covered with the below guide.
Looking for the best places in Marseille to eat, drink and shop? Scroll down or use the table of contents above to find the relevant section at the end of this article.
Climb the steps to Notre-Dame de la Garde
The Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde is the highest building in Marseille. King François 1st decided to build here, at 150 meters (490 feet) above sea level, to protect Marseille from would-be invaders.
The Virgin Mary on the top is said to watch over everyone in the city. It’s one of the first places to go in Marseille, to get your bearings and see how the surrounding mountains and coast have shaped the city.
The most rewarding way to get to the Byzantine architecture and to see the sublime views, is to climb the hill on foot and then scale the many steps to the top.
For the less energetic or mobile, a small train runs daily from Le Vieux Port (the old port of Marseille) and takes about fifteen minutes. There is also a public bus, #49, although this still requires a seven-minute steep walk.
The hill is the perfect spot to view Bastille Day fireworks or have a romantic evening picnic but take lots of supplies, as there are no shops nearby. The walk down is much quicker than waiting for the bus in packed summer crowds.
Roam the Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM)
MuCEM is a must-do in Marseille, for all ages. It’s an impressive building at the water’s edge and the flagship for Marseille’s redevelopment from run-down waterside city to chic Mediterranean destination.
Inside, you’ll find temporary and permanent art exhibitions covering everything from football, recycling habits, and love…
Tempting tasty treats await in the two restaurants, both the brainchild of local chef, Gérald Passedat.
Le Môle offers a fantastic high-end but reasonable, all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, whilst La Table seats everyone for dinner at communal tables of 20.
There are pop up concept stores, ice cream kiosks, and summer evening events when DJs turn tracks in the basement while visitors roam the museum for free. Otherwise, access is easy and kids are well catered for.
Explore the walkways at Fort Saint Jean
Louis XIV built this fort in 1660 at the entrance to the port after remarking that the Marseillais are “extremely fond of old fortresses”, although it had been a military outpost since the 12th century.
Occupied by Germans in World War Two and bombed by the Allies upon liberation, the Fort Saint Jean has been completely renovated with a stunning walkway connecting it with Le Panier, Marseille’s oldest neighbourhood.
A visit exploring the charming ancient nooks and crannies takes no more than an hour unless you pause to take in the sea views, which are perfect for Instagram moments. There’s not much for small children and ramps are steep, with not much seating, if mobility is an issue.
Visit Le Panier, the oldest district in Marseille
Nestled between the Vieux Port and shiny new district of La Joliette is Le Panier (meaning basket in French, after a local 17th-century inn); one of the best activities in Marseille is to walk the winding roads, stopping to photograph the frescoes on the sides of buildings and reflecting on how Marseille used to be.
Much of it was cleared with dynamite during the Second World War (2,000 residents were sent to concentration camps), as its maze of streets were fertile ground for Resistance fighters, Jewish communities in hiding and criminals.
Finish the thirty-minute stroll with a visit inside the majestic Cathédrale La Major. Built between the 12th and 19th centuries, the Byzantine domes and turrets of La Major are impressive, as are the murals and mosaics. The walkway underneath has been newly refurbished with a gastronomic concept kitchen café called Les Halles de la Major. Great for architecture and history buffs and foodies.
Soak up the literary vibes with The Count of Monte Cristo
In 1516, King François stood on this small island (a twenty-minute boat ride from Marseille’s port) and decided it was a perfect spot to build a fortress to defend Marseille from attack.
Château d’If was never invaded and in the 19th-century, it became a prison (surrounding strong tidal waters reduced the chance of escape).
Until the prison closed in 1890, thousands of poor political prisoners were kept in dungeons on the lowest floor while richer prisoners paid for fireplaces, large beds and sea views.
Whilst no one is known to have escaped, Alexandre Dumas’ hero, Edouard Dantès, was wrongly imprisoned in the prison and broke out in the smash-hit book of 1844, The Count of Monte Cristo.
Boats leave from Le Vieux Port and the prison is closed Monday – check carefully as not all of the boats stop at the island. Wear good shoes, as paths are uneven and like many tourist attractions in Marseille, there is very little shade so take sun hats, lotion and lots of water.
Admire Corbusier’s City Within A City
Explore Marseille off the beaten path and pay a visit to Cité Radieuse – a completely self-contained village, housing hundreds of apartments with a school, doctor’s surgery, shops and restaurants.
At the end of World War Two, the city was suffering from an acute shortage of housing as well as access to doctors and schools. Renowned French architect, Corbusier, came up with a plan to solve the city’s problems by creating this “city within a city”.
It’s great for architecture and culture buffs, who can take a free guided tour (in English). The roof is easily accessible – perfect for taking spectacular pictures of the pool and surrounding city.
Have a cup of coffee in the bookshop or a bite to eat in the restaurant overlooking the sea before you leave this unique Marseille attraction.
Lounge outdoors at the impressive Palais Longchamp
During a cholera epidemic in the 1800s, the city’s leaders had to find a way to get a clean water supply into the city. The complicated plan to build over 52 miles (85 km) worth of aqueducts from the Durance river took years and to celebrate, the magnificent Palace Longchamp was built to commemorate the achievement.
Today it’s one of the top things to do in Marseille for families – you can easily while away an entire day, visiting the small Natural History Museum, the botanical gardens, the observatory and the many playgrounds.
There is a café at the top of the many steps to treat the kids to ice cream or to share a beer with friends. In summer, there are live concerts on the grounds too.
Feed all your cultural needs at La Friche
Anyone deciding what to do in Marseille should include a trip to La Friche. A vast former tobacco factory, now refurbished as a cultural arts centre, it offers many festivals over the warmer months.
There is something for everyone here; have a coffee in the delightful arty bookshop (a great place to pick up presents to take back home) and watch the skateboarders in the skate park on the ground floor.
One up, shop at the Monday night farmer’s market, admire the experimental art and eat at Les Grandes Tables, a restaurant which cooks sustainable meals.
Families and friends will love watching the sunset on the roof (often with DJs beating out tunes in the background), eating from the food trucks and just hanging out.
Mobility might be an issue for some – there are lots of steps and no lifts. Plus, because it’s in a residential area, everything closes early to avoid disturbing the neighbouring buildings.
Stroll and picnic at Hotel Dieu, Le Vieux Port
Hotel in French doesn’t always mean an actual hotel, it can sometimes just mean a grand old house or building. And for 800 years, this majestic building above the Vieux Port (with exceptional views over towards the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde) was the city’s hospital.
Nowadays it is, in fact, an actual hotel – the InterContinental – where you can have a wonderful Mediterranean-inspired brunch on Sundays.
One of the best places to visit in Marseille for a picnic or pitstop while exploring town, is on the public steps below the Hotel Dieu. Pause for a spot of people watching, or to take in the view across the harbour.
Afterwards, take the little “ferry” which runs from one side of the marina to the other – a useful way for the tired or immobile to cross the port.
Escape the noise and heat at Parc Borély
Louis Borély, a local merchant, returned home rich from Egypt in 1767 with the idea of building a country house, which would “surpass all others in terms of size and splendour”.
Now called Park Borély, it’s the place for in-the-know locals to escape the heat and noise of the city, although not always the crowds.
Classified nationally as “one of the most remarkable gardens in France”, feted French author Marcel Pagnol fondly recounted childhood visits here.
The house is impressive but it’s the gardens that people come to enjoy. Hire bikes and pedal the huge array of grass and pathways. Try out the playgrounds, watch people practice Marshall arts or playing football. Read a book by the lake, trying not to disturb the badgers and ducks or flex your muscles in the outdoor gym.
Maybe visit the botanical gardens or buy a crepe in the café. If you need more still, there’s a hippodrome (horse track) and a golf club next door, as well as a sandy beach opposite to cool off with an afternoon swim.
Where and What to Eat in Marseille
As expected of an up and coming city on the Côte d’Azur with a melting pot of cultures, there are some great places to go in Marseille to eat (notably in the Cours Julien).
There are three things to eat in Marseille which are difficult to find in other cities; bouillabaisse, navettes and great couscous.
Chez Fonfon, the best place for bouillabaisse in Marseille
One of the culinary delights of this Mediterranean city is bouillabaisse, the local fish stew. It was first created by fishermen who couldn’t sell the rockfish, rascasse they caught at the market. They added this to sea robin, European conger and other fish like John Dory (or even seafood, such as crab) and simmered it for hours (bouillabaisse comes from two Provençal words meaning simmer and boil).
Along the Corniche Kennedy, the road which lines Marseille’s stunning coastline, there are several little creeks and at about 1.2 miles (2 km) from the Vieux Port, Les Vallon des Auffes, is one of the most charming (auffes is the word for the grass that was grown in the area to make fishing rope).
Italian fishermen established a community here in the 18th century and the small bay is full today of wooden fishing boats (still used) and colourful cabins.
The bay has been home to Chez Fonfon, an upmarket fish restaurant, for the past 50 years; they helped to establish the Bouillabaisse Guild in 1980, a club for the best producers of this divine broth. With views over the sea (book for the best tables), it’s essential to order the dish at least 24 hours in advance and it’s always for 2 people minimum. Expensive but delicious.
Les Saveurs Du Vieux Port, the best place for couscous in Marseille
With a rich Algerian and Moroccan diaspora, Marseille is overflowing with restaurants serving North African cuisine. Some of the best can be found in the less salubrious-looking spots between Marseille’s Saint Charles station and Le Vieux Port.
The first thing you notice about Les Saveurs du Vieux Port is the deliciously sweet North African desserts piled high in both windows. This is a low-key friendly place, a bit like a couscous café, where rice dishes (vegetarian and meat) are served with mint tea at reasonable prices.
It doesn’t serve alcohol and is best for people looking for delicious ‘fast food’ while visiting the marina and nearby market des Capucins.
Four des Navettes, the best bakery for navettes in Marseille
There is a legend that over 2,000 years ago, Mary Magdalene escaped Jerusalem with Saint Martha after Jesus’ death to the south of France, where they hid in a cave (now a pilgrimage site) in the Saint-Baume mountain ridge. To commemorate the journey, the city created navettes, a boat-shaped cookie, flavoured with orange.
Four des Navettes is a five-minute walk from the Vieux Port and has been baking navettes since 1791. Self-proclaimed as the oldest bakery in Marseille, it still uses the oven from the 1800s and the same recipe which has been handed down over generations.
Since the 4th century AD, navettes are traditionally eaten on February 2nd on Candlemas, except here, where they are made and eaten all year round.
Where to Shop in Marseille (& what to buy)
In visiting Marseille, France, there are some very unique shopping experiences to be had, which really engage all the senses. I
n addition, of course, to the many daily food markets selling delicious Provençal food, there are also chic tree-lined shopping boulevards and large high street malls. Find the best shopping in Marseille, here.
Marché des Capucins, for the most interesting ingredients
Two of Marseille’s best markets offer something different for ambitious foodies. The fish market begins at sun up and has done so since 1909 every day of the year in one of the prettiest spots quayside in Marseille. It is near Sir Norman Foster’s impressive L’Ombrière (“the shade”), a mirrored art installation which locals use as a meeting place. Arrive early to see the octopus, squid, seafood and a huge array of tasty fish, as by 1pm, nearly everything will be gone.
After a coffee in the marina, make the short five-minute walk uphill towards the Marché des Capucins.
The market is on the site of a monastery, built in 1579 for the monks du Capucins–the name comes from the word capuce, the hooded capes the Italian monks wore.
This is one of the messiest, raucous and most colourful places to shop in Marseille. Don’t be intimidated by the noise and hustle though, as it’s a great place to find unfamiliar fruits and vegetables which you have to ask the names of and how to cook.
The real draw is the piles of different coloured spices and deciding which ones to take home in which to marinade your fresh fish.
Cours Julien, for the most affordable independent stores
The Cours Julien has been on the up over the past decade and while it’s still a little unrefined – as most edgy places are in large cities – it’s also an eclectic, vibrant area, showcasing Marseille’s multicultural heritage. It’s where the bobos live, what the French affectionately call the Bourgeois Bohemian families.
It’s a great place to people watch; families eat on tables circling the square, listening to the buskers, while watching their kids play in the playground. A lot of people come to photograph the street art and watch the graffiti artists–it has the largest amount of any French district nationwide.
Eye up the crafts at the weekly art market on a Wednesday, buy some local treats, or visit the (very) small indie cinema. Have a pre-dinner drink in one of the many bars and then choose your cuisine from an incredibly wide range – Pakistani curries, Lebanese falafels, Tunisian and Algerian couscous, Mexican and Spanish tapas, British fish and chips, Italian pizzerias and French brasseries are all on offer.
But it’s the independent shops which are a delight, where fledgeling artists, designers and art cooperatives sell their wares at affordable prices. There are some great second-hand boutiques here too, for furniture, clothing, vinyl and art.
Many of the shops only open in the afternoon (this is a place where shopkeepers sometimes only open if they feel like it) and close at 7pm, when the bars get going. The shops are completely shut on Sundays and Mondays.
La Joliette, for the best designer shops
Twenty years ago, the area of Marseille known as La Joliette, was home to run-down portside buildings and dirty ferry terminals, welcoming tourists heading to Corsica and Sardinia. Now it is part of one of the largest Southern European regeneration zones and one of the funkiest Marseille places to see.
For high street names and high fashion, head to Les Terrasses du Port, a three-level shopping mall with a chic food court on the ground floor. The roof is the prize however, the place to ice skate in winter drinking mulled wine or lazing in one of the restaurants in summer. The view over the port is magnificent, watching the large cruise ships dock in their new home further east.
If you’re looking for high-end independent shops, cross the street to Les Docks Village, a repurposed industrial portside building, immaculately renovated. This is the place to find unique presents for loved ones, to window shop, or to chill out in one of the divine cafés and brasseries.
Where to drink in Marseille
As night falls in Marseille, the locals head to their favourite bar to socialise, listen to live music or to take in the sunset views. Find out the best places to grab a drink in Marseille, here.
Le Funiculaire, the best all-round bar in Cours Julien
There are many bars in Cours Julien, but a great all-rounder is Le Funiculaire. It’s a wine bar, often holding breakout exhibitions for up and coming local artists, across all art forms.
From May to October, people spill out onto the streets, discussing politics, fashion and music and tasting the myriad of local wines and beers on tap.
In winter, it’s a good place to see live musicians, jamming together and the toilet is arthouse psychedelic. The bartenders are friendly and whilst they don’t serve food, you can join the queue for fresh pizza at the small hole in the wall opposite. Great for couples and friends.
Rowing Club, the best rooftop bar with views
With so much skyline looking out onto the sea, there are many wonderful places for a drink with a view, but many ask exorbitant prices. The Rowing Club is off the beaten track – situated at the tail end of the marina – with a vista over the Fort Saint-Jean to die for.
It’s a classy place, with a restaurant and brunch menu which should be more expensive than it is, but you can also just have a drink (it’s family-friendly too).
Arrive early in the evening, pre-sunset, to get a table. Music is provided for the mostly 25-50-year-old crowd and if hungry, they will find you a charcuterie or cheese plate to snack on.
White Rabbit, the best bar for live music
In between the cultural mecca of MuCEM and the chic shopping terraces of La Joliette, is the White Rabbit bar. For the past six years, it has been serving local beers, shots “that hit hard”, cheese plates and pizza to a bevy of hipsters, rock lovers and people who adore live music.
A decent Happy Hour (Monday to Saturday, 5.30pm to 8pm) attracts the crowds, many of whom stay after the bands finish to dance to the DJs. In summer, the music is loud, the party full on and the atmosphere cool.
Where to Stay in Marseille
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There are plenty of things to do in Marseille to discover the local culture, to delve into the architecture and history, but mostly to wallow in the culinary heritage and witness the constantly evolving fusion between African and French culture.
Marseille attractions have a lot to offer adventurous families, couples and friends willing to experience the city the way the locals live it. A visit here can provide depth and a glimpse of life away from the more well-known must-see Provençal destinations involving the wine, the lavender fields, and the beaches.
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