26 Things to See and Do in Marseille, France
Though often overlooked, France’s oldest city is full of natural beauty, hidden ancient ruins and uniquely colored buildings that give visitors plenty of things to see while in Marseille. Once the center of the Mediterranean, Marseille’s culture and buildings blend together the Roman, African, and French influences that built the city from its founding over 2600 years ago. While bombing in World War II left much of the historic parts of the city destroyed, there’s still plenty of history and culture to explore and many things to see and do in Marseille.
Things to See in Marseille
1. Vieux Port
Ground Zero of most visitor’s stays in Marseille, the Vieux Port has serv ed as the center of Marseille since its founding in 600 BC. World War II bombing wiped out most of the historic buildings of Vieux Port, however today colorful buildings, restaurants serving fresh seafood and hundreds of boats now surround this lively marina. Walk around or take a seat at one of the waterfront restaurants and people watch the tourists and locals alike who venture here.
2. Fort Saint-Jean
Situated on the northern end of the Vieux Port, this 17th Century fort’s prime position offers sweeping views of the port, the Mediterranean Sea and much of Old Marseille. The governor of Marseille built this fort, as well as Saint-Nicholas directly across the marina, to protect against local uprisings as opposed to protection of the port from outside forces. You’ll notice walking around the fort that the canons face inwards towards the city instead of out to sea.
The fort was renovated to repair damages from World World II and remains largely intact allowing for easy exploration around the base and walls of the pale rose-colored fort.
3. Nouvelle-Major Cathedral
Marseille’s Nouvelle-Major Cathedral, with its bold stripes, ornate architecture and brightly etched interior, not only stands as one of the most beautiful buildings in Marseille, but one of the most beautiful cathedrals in France. The Byzantine-Roman style contrasts with many of France’s older gothic-style cathedrals (think Notre-Dame in Paris), but strikes a balance between Catholicism and Mediterranean flavor that is uniquely Marseille.
4. Le Panier
One of the few areas left untouched by World War II bombing, Le Panier contains some of the oldest buildings in the city and gives a feel for the its original construction. Colorful buildings and even more colorful street art line winding, narrow streets making a wander around this historic neighborhood a must on your list of things to do in Marseille.
5. Saint-Laurent Church
Located on the site of a former temple of Apollo, Saint-Laurent Church is the oldest surviving church in Marseille. Built in the Middle Ages, it served as a parish for the local fisherman in the district of Le Panier. While the inside of the church may pale in comparison to the nearby Cathedral, the clay-colored Roman Provencal architecture on the outside beautifully characterizes the buildings of this region.
6. Notre Dame de la Garde
Sitting tall upon Garde Hill, the highest natural point of Marseille, Notre Dame de la Garde can be seen from most points of the city. Make the trek up for panoramic views of Marseille and the sea, as well as to take a look inside this stunning basilica which is teeming with bold red and gold colors, as well as covered in beautiful Byzantine-style mosaic murals detailing scenes of ships sailing under the protection of the Good Mother.
7. Saint-Victor Abbey
Founded in the 5th Century, the Saint-Victor Abbey remains one of the oldest structures in the city of Marseille. The monastery is named for Saint Victor of (you guessed it) Marseille, who was beheaded by Roman soldiers after converting several of them in prison, and is one of the oldest structures left in the city. Between the 11th and 17th centuries, Saint-Victor Abbey was among the most powerful monasteries in the Mediterranean and also served an important part in Marseilles’ coastal defense system.
8. Fort Saint-Nicolas
The star-shaped Fort Saint-Nicholas, like Fort Saint-Jean, was built to protect the governor and other elite of the city from the rebellious residents of the city before the French Revolution. While not as open to the public as Fort Saint-Jean, a visit to the fortress can be arranged through the tourist office.
9. Pharo Palace and Garden
The seafront gardens of Pharo Palace offer the perfect place to relax and take in panoramic views of the city, port and sea. Located just past Fort Saint-Nicholas, the hike up the hill is well worth the reward. Take a book or a picnic with you and soak up the sun and Mediterranean air.
As for the palace, Emperor Napoleon III built it in honor of his wife, Empress Eugenie. When the empire fell, it was turned into a hospital. Today it serves as an event and conference space, but on some days during the year they open it up to the public for tours.
10: Anse des Catalans
Closer to the center of Marseille than the more popular Plage du Prado, Anse des Catalans is a smaller beach offering easy access to swim in the Mediterranean, relax in the sun or prime positions on the beach or nearby rocks to watch the sunset at the end of the day.
11. Porte d’Orient
Sitting on the coast of the sea, this monument memorializes the soldiers from Asia who served in the First World War II. The monument is uniquely dignified and its location offers far reaching views of the Mediterranean Sea and the islands along the coast of Marseille. It is one of the best places to watch the sunset in Marseille.
12. Corniche de John F. Kennedy
The John F. Kennedy corniche (or ledge) stretches along the southern coast of Marseille, providing an easy to access walking path along the Mediterranean Coast. Take a morning stroll along this walkway or come back in the evening to watch the sunset over the sea.
13. Plage du Prado
Looking for a day at the beach during your stay? Plage du Prado is the most popular of the beaches along the coast of Marseille. Though artificially built from the land that was excavated during construction of the Marseille subway system, Plage du Prado is full of white sand and a great place to go for a swim in the sea.
14. Marseille Botanical Garden
Located inside Parc Borély, the Marseille Botanical Garden contains almost 4,000 different plant species from all over the world. Stroll among palm trees, Chinese and Japanese gardens, and flowers more native to Marseille and Provence in one of the more beautiful things to do in Marseille..
Museums to See in Marseille
15. MuCEM – Museum of European Mediterranean Civilizations
One of the best museums in Marseille, the MuCEM explores the history of Mediterranean and European civilizations. The permanent exhibit goes deep into the cross-pollination of European and African civilizations along the mediterranean sea. The museum also hosts rotating exhibits that explore aspects of Mediterranean and European culture and history.
Once done seeing the museum, be sure to check out the rooftop restaurant that offers sweeping views of the port, cathedral, sea and coast. The view alone makes this one of the best places to visit in Marseille.
16. Museum of Marseille History
The newly renovated Museum of Marseille History showcases the history of France’s oldest city. Here you can wander through the remains of the city’s ancient port and learn about Marseille’s more than 2600 years of history from tiny Phoenician port to commercial hub of the Mediterranean to modern times.
17. Natural History Museum
One of two museums housed in the grand Palais Longchamp, the Natural History Museum in Marseille is broken up into four parts: world animals that have come through the port, animals and plants from Provence, comparative anatomy, and prehistory/evolution.
18. Fine Arts Museum
The Fine Arts Museum of Marseille makes up the second of the two museums in Palais Longchamp. Focused on artists from Marseille and paintings that depict Marseille or Provence, this museum gives a view into the way that Marseille has been viewed by locals throughout history.
19. Museum of Roman Docks
The Museum of Roman Docks contains one of the few remaining ruins of an ancient Roman commercial warehouse. The remains were discovered in 1947 during the reconstruction of the city following World War II bombing. Today, you can visit the ruins, as well as see other commercial artefacts from the Roman occupation of the city.
20. La Vieille Charité
While this rose-colored 17th century almshouse is a sight in itself, it is also home to two museums that draw on France’s history as a colonial power. On the first floor of La Vieille Charité you’ll find the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology that covers oriental and classical antiquities. The second floor contains the Museum of Art of Africa, Oceania , and Amerindia containing masks from Mexico and West Africa, unusual and unique engraved human skulls, and trophy heads from South America.
21. Maison de la Boule
No game is as French as the game of boules. Played all over the country, the game is similar to bowling where larger, heavier balls are rolled to get as close to the target small ball as possible. The brightly blue Maison de la Boule details the history of the game, and gives you the opportunity to try a hand at it yourself.
What to Eat in Marseille
22. Feast on Bouillabaisse
Don’t leave Marseille without trying its most famous dish, bouillabaisse. This traditional fish stew combines a variety of fish and other seafood together in a delicious broth. Typically served with bread and a peppery sauce called rouille, this delicious and richly flavorful dish is an event in itself.
Best places to eat bouillabaisse:
- Chez Fonfon
- Chez Madie Les Galinettes
- Le Miamar
23. Drink a Glass (or two) of Pastis
Originally developed by industrialist Paul Ricard, pastis has become the choice aperitif of Marseille. Made from star anise and licorice, this strong drink is first watered before serving. Though often associated with absinthe, this drink is made from different materials than the famed hallucinatory drink.
24. Nibble on Navettes
Shaped like a boat and flavored with orange or spices, navettes are to Marseille what black and white cookies are to New York City. An almost cult-like love exists for these beige-colored cookies with competing myths in existence for their creation including creating the cookie in honor of a washed up state of the Virgin protector of Seafarers or the more popular theory of the navette symbolizing the boat that brought the three Maries (Virgin, Salmo, and Magdalene) to Provence.
The most famous navettes can be found at Four des Navettes, but you can also check out Navettes des Acoules or La Maison Michel.
Day Excursions from Marseille
25. Take the boat to Château d’If
Explore the darker side of history with a visit to Château d’If, one of France’s most notorious prisons. Standing on the island of If, just off the coast of Marseille, the Château started off as a fortress and then later became a prison for dangerous political and religious prisoners. Similar to Alcatraz off the coast of San Francisco, the island’s position made escape deadly and nearly impossible.
The prison became even more famous with the publishing of “The Count of Monte Cristo” as the prison were Edmond Dantes makes his great escape after 14 years in prison.
You can book a boat tour out to the island and Château from Vieux Port.
26. Hike or Swim the Calanques
Just outside of Marseille, large, jagged limestone rocks jut out of the turquoise colored sea making for a beautiful landscape. There are many ways to access the Calanques. There are boat tours that leave out of Vieux Port that take you to view them from the sea and allow you to get in for a swim or two. You can also get there by bus or taxi. Arrange to arrive at the entrance to the National Park of Calanques and then hike to the coast to see and swim around the calanques.
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