If you’ve looked into visiting the South of France, there are no doubt places like Nice, St. Tropez, Menton & Antibes have shown up on your radar. But what about Marseille? While not as popular as it’s flashy neighbors, Marseille is a beautiful and complex city with a diverse culture. I’m here to tell you that you should definitely add this diamond in the rough to your list, and give you 10 amazing things to do in Marseille when you visit!
10 Amazing Things to Do in Marseille France
Visit the Vieux Port
It’s the most iconic image of Marseille and most likely the first picture that will pop up when you search “Marseille” in your browser: the Vieux Port. The Vieux Port or “old port” of Marseille is a bustling center of activity with picturesque views of the harbor and Marseille’s rolling hills. One of the first things to do when you arrive in Marseille is to head to the port for a Pastis (the local liquor) at one of the many bars or cafes that line the port and people/boat watch.
There is usually a lot going on here, with boats coming and going to and from the Calanques and Frioul Island (see below) and there are a ton of bars, restaurants, shops, and nightclubs. If you go really early in the morning you can see the fisherman selling their fresh catches, and there are often also other little markets that pop up throughout the week.
The Vieux Port is easily reached by Marseille’s metro, which saves you the hassle of trying to find parking or paying for it in one of the garages. Day or night, this is a can’t miss thing to do in Marseille!
Take a Calanque Cruise
The Calanques are a series of inlets that run along the Mediterranean coast from Marseille to Cassis. If you like hiking, nature, and beautiful beaches, this is a must for any trip to the Marseille area. Most of them are only accessible on foot or by boat. The Calanques that you can hike to in Marseille include Callelongue, Sormiou, and Morgiou.
A great way to see many Calanques at once (and if you are limited on time to spend hiking to each one) is to do a Calanque cruise, which you can take right from the Vieux Port. The Croisières Marseille Calanques offers options to see all of the Calanques, the main Calanques, or organize a private group tour if you prefer. Departing from the corner of Quai des Belges and Quai d’Honneur, the price and duration vary depending on how many Calanques you want to see and what time of year it is.
See the Sunrise Over Sorimiou
Sormiou is one of the Calanques in Marseille and one of my favorites to visit. During peak season, May-early October, the narrow winding road that leads down to the Calanque is closed due to fire risk. Because of this the only way to reach it during this time is by parking at the top of the hill and walking the rest of the way down for bout 45 minutes of easy to moderate hiking.
We discovered, however, that if you go really early in the morning for sunrise, the gate is open you can access the road down to the Calanque and park there. To make it worth your while, the sun rises directly over the rocks and water of the Calanque, making for a truly stunning sight. It’s so peaceful in the morning before all the tourists arrive and to watch the sun come up and the colors change and reflect in the water is magnificent.
Make sure to leave yourself some extra time to stop at a boulangerie and pick up some breakfast treats to enjoy while you watch!
Go to the Chateau D’If/Frioul Island
Both just a quick and inexpensive ferry ride from the Vieux Port, visiting the Chateau D’If and Frioul Island are 2 great things to do in Marseille. The Chateau D’If is a former fortress and prison and was used as the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel The Count of Monte Cristo. You can tour the fortress (which takes up most of the small island) which has been preserved as a museum. Even though the novel is a work of fiction, there is a cell that is designated to have belonged to the Count.
The Frioul Island is a bit further and has several nice beaches to explore. When you arrive at the small port there are a few snack bars and then you can walk to whichever beach you choose. Calanque de Morgiret beach (pictured below) is adjacent to the port and a short walk. If you are willing to walk a bit further to Plage de Saint-Estève turn right and follow the map path for a 20-minute walk to this beautiful beach (there are maps and signs). You will arrive at a beautiful rocky beach with crystal clear water. On the way, you will also catch scenic vistas of the Marseille skyline.
You can reach both destinations via the same ferry service from the Vieux Port. You will find the ticket station at the southeastern corner of the Vieux Port, which is also where the boat boards. Make sure you look at the different fairs, as you can get a ticket to either destination + return or a combo ticket + return if you want to see both. There are several departures throughout the day.
See the View from the Notre Dame de la Garde
Want to see the best view of Marseille? No contest, the Notre Dame de la Garde church offers the most stunning views of the city, mountains and the beautiful Mediterranean sea. Affectionately called La Bonne Mère (the good mother), the church is visible from most points in Marseille perched atop its hill, watching over the city.
It’s no wonder that the church is Marseille’s most visited tourist attraction, and you definitely have to add it to your list of things to do in Marseille. The church itself is gorgeous, constructed in the Byzantine revival style during the mid-nineteenth century. The interior is particularly unique with a maritime theme, filled with artwork on the walls depicting ships and even has wooden boats hanging from the ceiling.
In addition to the impressive church, the views surrounding it are just unreal. On a clear day, it feels like you can see forever. You can reach the church by driving and parking in one of the lots, walking up the very steep hill from the Vieux Port or taking one of the quaint tourist trains (also from the Vieux Port.) This is a spot that can’t be missed during your visit!
Try the famous Bouillabaisse Marseillais
When you mention that you went to Marseille, an inevitable question you will receive is, “Did you try the Bouillabaise?” Undoubtedly the most iconic food of the city, Bouillabaisse is a traditional fish stew consisting of rich and herbaceous broth, fresh seafood and served with a rouille (mayonnaise made of olive oil, garlic, red pepper, and saffron).
Traditionally, the soup was a poor man’s fisherman stew, using the fish that they couldn’t sell at the market that day. Ironically it has now become a fine delicacy that is served in fine restaurants at a high price point. Some restaurants (arguably the only ones that are doing it right), will require 24-48 hours notice if you will be ordering the bouillabaisse! The broth, rouille & crusty bread, and the fish is all served separately. The seafood part of the soup varies by what is available but must contain at least 4 of these fish: rockfish, spider crab, red mullet, conger eel, and red scorpion fish.
Now, many places will advertise having “authentic bouillabaisse”, but you should be choosy about where you dine in order to ensure you are getting the real deal. Chez Fonfon is one of the most famous and recommended restaurants in Marseille for authentic bouillabaisse, as well as Chez Michel, L’Epuisette & Le Petit Nice. But beware, if you’re paying less than 50 euros per person, you’re just getting regular fish soup.
Go to an Open Market
One thing you must do in the South of France is to visit an outdoor market, and Marseille has some great ones! There is the fish market at the Vieux Port as I mentioned above. There are also often other little markets selling crafts or clothing that will set up around the Vieux Port on various days.
My favorite and most consistent/all-encompassing market though is the Marché Avenue du Prado. Here you will find everything from local food, fresh-cut flowers, clothing, accessories, jewelry, household goods and, of course, the famous Savon de Marseille (handmade soaps).
The market stretches down the Avenue du Prado to the Castellane metro station and is full of open-air booths and vendors waiting to bargain with you. This is where I buy my best souvenirs for others and for myself! What’s great is that it’s open every day (except Sunday) from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm, so you can always go back to get that one thing you forgot the day before. It’s a really fun experience and a great way to get your shopping done economically as you can get some really great bargains.
Check Out the Street Art
Marseille has some AMAZING street art, so naturally one of the best things to do in Marseille is going mural hunting! Fortunately, you don’t have to look too hard, as it seems like every corner you turn there is a colorful display covering a wall.
My 2 favorite neighborhoods in Marseille for street art are the Cours Julien and Le Panier, both with some amazing pieces. The Cours Julien has great shopping and restaurants as well and a fun hipster/boho vibe. Each alleyway you turn down is covered in pretty art and there is color everywhere.
The same goes for Le Panier, a neighborhood just adjacent to the Vieux Port. One of the oldest neighborhoods in Marseille, Le Panier has a distinctly old fashioned feel. Tiny streets with colorful facades and shutters, laundry hanging out the windows, endless street art…it’s a visual wonderland for photographers.
Have a Picnic at the Beach
While Marseille is home to some amazing restaurants (and a few Michelin stars), my favorite thing to do in Marseille at mealtime is a simple picnic by the beach. There’s nothing better than stopping at a local boulangerie for sandwiches and quiches and heading to a Calanque or beach to enjoy a meal by the water.
For an extra-special picnic, stop at a Carrefour or Auchun (the 2 major grocery chains in Marseille) and also add olives, tabouli, a baguette and oozing creamy cheese to the mix. Oh and don’t forget the bottle of rosé!
Luckily Marseille has plenty of beaches to enjoy your picnic. There are the Calanques and Frioul Island which I mentioned above, as well as Les Goudes which is a small fishing village on the outskirts of Marseille towards Cassis with a small Calanque. Plage de la Pointe Rouge & Plage du Prophete are the main beaches within the city of Marseille, which have more of a “city-beach” feel vs the nature of the Calanques.
See a Soccer Game at the Stade Vélodrome
The last but not least of the things to do in Marseille that I will recommend is to go see a soccer game at the Stade Vélodrome! The local team, Olympique de Marseille, are the soul of the city with the loudest and most loyal fans. If you haven’t been to a European soccer game before, I would definitely recommend it as the fans get really into it which makes it so much fun.
The stadium, Stade Vélodrome, is beautiful and newly renovated. The partial roof was added when France won the bid for the 2016 UEFA Euro Cup, finishing construction in 2014. Its unique structure stands out as part of the Marseille skyline and can be viewed from many spots throughout the city.
Check the schedule before your trip to see if there is a home game and if there is I would suggest trying to get tickets. You can buy them easily at the stadium or through a resale site called Viagogo. Tickets will cost between 20 and 40 euros retail and you can either sit in the stands or behind the goal with the huge block of fans (these are the less expensive and much rowdier seats).
Even though there are countless things to do in Marseille, these 10 things will really guarantee you have an amazing time and get the most out of your visit! Bon Voyage!
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