Best Things To Do in Marseille
Meandering through Marseille's past, whether it's through the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde or the Le Panier and Vieux Port districts – or even the mysterious island on which Château d'If sits – is one of the best ways to experience France's second-largest city. Taking a tour aboard one of the boats docked at the port to natural beauties like the Parc National des Calanques is a must, too. And if you encounter one of those uncharacteristic rainy days – or even just need a break from the sun – a stop inside MuCEM is highly recommended.
Updated March 28, 2019
- #1View all PhotosfreeLe Panier#1 in MarseilleFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDFree, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Le Panier – or the Basket – gives a glimpse of Old Marseille and real Marseille culture. From its narrow winding streets that spill into squares to its restaurants, ateliers (worskshops) and terraced homes, Le Panier is a delightful place to meander. It's also convenient to attractions, such as MuCEM and Cathedrale de la Major, among others.
Visitors say that this district is full of character, highlighting the street art and local restaurants and boutiques. Others describe it as charming and a great place to wander for a few hours.
- #2View all PhotosfreeVieux Port#2 in MarseilleSightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDSightseeing, Free, Neighborhood/AreaTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Vieux Port started docking ships and boats back in 600 B.C., and it was a vibrant hub of the city until steamboats became the preferred mode of transport and Vieux Port was considered too shallow. Later in WWII, the Germans bombed the port, and it was left in disrepair until the mid-1900s when a revitalization project restored the port. These days, it is back to its former self, with scores of bobbing sailboats and an array of restaurants, bars and shops located just ashore.
Recent visitors said you could easily spend hours strolling through Vieux Port, perusing various shops and restaurants to satisfy any taste – and even hopping aboard a Ferris wheel. History buffs will be entertained here too, as there are several historical structures still standing, including Église Saint-Ferréol les Augustins, a Roman Catholic church that dates back to the 12th century.
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Abbaye Saint Victor is a working Catholic church, which was founded back in the 11th century as an abbey and named for the Roman soldier and Christian martyr Victor of Marseille. Much of the abbey was destroyed in 1794, with the austere church and crypts remaining.
Visitors call the abbey simple – and somehow stunning in its stark design. Others highly recommend paying the 2 euros for access to the unique crypts.
- #4View all Photos#4 in MarseilleChurches/Religious Sites, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDChurches/Religious Sites, Sightseeing, FreeTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
The Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde – translated as Our Lady of the Guard – was built in the 1850s on the foundation of Marseille's ancient fortress. Today, this working Catholic basilica – filled with stunning marble, murals and mosaics – is a symbol of the city, the crowning point of its skyline and likewise, a wonderful place to enjoy sweeping views of the city below. You'll probably be able to spot it from the harbor, as a large, gilded statue of the Virgin Mary sits atop the bell tower.
Some visitors called the climb up to the top "tough," but the views worth it. Although travelers admit that the church is beautiful, they were most impressed with the panoramic views. However, several reviewers also warned of heavy crowds and potential pickpockets.
- #5View all Photos#5 in MarseilleMonuments and Memorials, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDMonuments and Memorials, SightseeingTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Built in 1660 by Louis XIV, Fort Saint-Jean is a well-preserved fortress guarding Marseille at the entrance to the Old Port. Interestingly, it was built not to keep invaders at bay but to tamp down a local rebellion. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was used by the French military until German military forces occupied it during WWII. Today, the storied fort is a tourist attraction, where travelers stretch their legs and relax rather than prepare for battle.
Travelers of all ages rave about the peaceful atmosphere of Fort Saint-Jean and the wonderful views from the top. They also note that it's surprisingly accessible, with ramps and elevators.
- #6View all Photos#6 in MarseilleHiking, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPENDHiking, Parks and Gardens, Recreation, SightseeingTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
Visualize jagged limestone cliffs dropping into secret pebble beaches, which are lapped by the aquamarine waters of the Mediterranean Sea, and you'll start to get a picture of the Parc National des Calanques. Although many travelers view this national park from the sea, others say the hiking is absolutely magical too.
Recent visitors said pictures don't do the Parc National des Calanques justice, swooning that its cliffs, inlets and beaches are breathtaking. While tourists mentioned seeing locals sunbathing on the secluded beaches, rock climbing and rappelling, and hiking, travelers short on time might have to limit themselves to a boat tour. The tourism board recommends a number of operators, including Croisieres Marseille Calanques and Levantin. These boat tours range in price: For instance, a brunch tour with Levantin costs 69 euros in the winter low season and 79 euros in summer high season.
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The Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée, which goes by its acronym Mucem, is Marseille's history and cultural museum that leads visitors on an anthropological journey through Mediterranean history. Architect Rudy Ricciotti designed the contemporary building, which connects to the 13th-century Fort Saint-Jean via a footbridge.
Travelers say this museum gives you a great understanding of the region's past all the way up to present-day. They also highlight the Mucem's rooftop gardens, saying that the views from these vantages are some of the best.
- #8View all Photos#8 in MarseilleChurches/Religious Sites, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPENDChurches/Religious Sites, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
Where the Abbaye Saint Victor is unembellished in its design, the Cathédrale de la Major is ornate. But it's also younger: The Cathédrale de la Major was built in the mid- to late 19th century, and its unique Byzantine design reflects a period in time where Marseille port was "the gateway to the east." Inside, visitors will find mosaics, statues and side chapels.
Recent visitors said the Cathédrale de la Major is as impressive inside as it is outside. They also appreciate its location in Le Panier, near other top attractions, such as MuCEM and Fort Saint Jean.
- #9View all Photos#9 in MarseilleMonuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, ToursTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPENDMonuments and Memorials, Sightseeing, ToursTYPE1 to 2 hoursTIME TO SPEND
Château d'If is a 16th-century fortress, commissioned by King Francois I, set atop the smallest island in the Frioul archipelago less than a mile from Marseille. It was later used as a prison, considered ideal for its isolated, escape-proof location (similar to San Francisco's Alcatraz). Visitors to Marseille often travel by boat to this beautiful and mysterious monument, especially since it inspired the prison setting of Alexandre Dumas' famous book, "The Count of Monte Cristo."
Once on the island, visitors are free to wander Château d'If at their leisure. Recent travelers described the experience as interesting, both for the ancient history exhibited here, as well as for the stellar views of the bay and Marseille in the distance. Since the island boasts only one outdoor cafe, some wish that there was more in the way of eateries or gift shops – even as a place to shelter from the cold winds of the island and kill time before boarding the ferry back to the city.
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