Marseille is too big to simply be a resort town, and it’s too magnificent to just be another French city. The capital of the French Riviera is loud and bright, and is a great destination for a slow sea vacation and fun adventures. There’s a lot to do in the Mediterranean coastal city of Marseille. Here are ten of our favorite activities.
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Start your tour of the city with the Musee d’Historie de Marseille. Many items, including old ship hulls, will help you visit the past. It’s a great way to spend some time.
If you love history, another museum you’ll want to visit is the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM). It’s easy to find: Just look for the huge black cube near the old port. But keep in mind it’s best to only take the narrow bridge to the roof in good weather, since strong wind can make you lose your balance.
The Fine Arts Museum is great if you like paintings and sculptures. You can find works by famous French, Spanish and Italian artists and sculptors in the Palais Longchamp.
If you’re on vacation with kids, go to the Museum d’Historie Naturelle (Natural History Museum) in the same palace as the Fine Arts Museum. You’ll find stuffed animals, herbs, minerals and even gems.
Go to the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde
The city’s main tourist destination is the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde cathedral. It’s impressive in its power and immaculate style, although it isn’t a typical French style. If you love architecture and art, you should visit the cathedral and its museum.
If you want to admire Marseille and its sights from above, go to the roof. The view is wonderful, and your pictures will be amazing.
Enjoy the old port’s seafood
The Old Port is Marseille’ calling card and one of the largest in the Mediterranean Sea. People come here to appreciate the old buildings and try the delicacies in the local cafes. If you don’t want to go to restaurants, visit the nearby market. You’ll find mussels, sea urchins and other seafood that fishers catch daily.
Visit the Chateau d’If
One of the most mysterious and harsh places in Europe is the Chateau d’If. It’s a prison that became famous thanks to Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The Chateau d’If was built on the If island in the Frioul archipelago, 4 km from Marseille, and is open to visitors. Tourists can wander through the legendary prison’s maze and visit the so-called “dungeon” (the lowest floor) and go to Edmond Dantes’s cell. You can get to the museum by sea. There are boats that regularly go to the If island from Marseille’ Old Port.
Go to a night club or bar
If you’re a fan of the night life, Marseille has plenty of night clubs and bars to explore. We recommend reserving a table in advance. Places are booked in the summer.
Here are Marseille’ most popular clubs:
- Cafe de la Plage.
- Le Cubana Cafe.
- Lar Maronaise.
- Le New Orleans.
- Le Trolleybus.
Here are Marseille’ most popular bars:
- Il Caffe.
- La Maison Hantee.
- L’OM Cafe.
- La Samaritaine.
- Le Bar de la Marine.
Try aniseed vodka
Provence’s alcoholic beverage is pastis. It’s added to cocktails and sold as an appetizer or as an straight drink. Pastis is sold in most of Marseille’ establishments, including bars, restaurants, and cafes.
We don’t recommend drinking pastis on an empty stomach, so get some appetizers. It’s best to combine pastis with the local cuisine.
Attend a festival or holiday celebration
Marseille regularly hosts music and art festivals. The biggest are the following:
- “Holy music” in April.
- Music and culture of the diaspora in August.
- “Dance M” in September.
- “Southern fiesta” in October.
- A modern art “Bazaar” in November.
In June and August, you can see water competitions that have been held in the city for centuries. We recommend going to a modern yacht or speedboat race. Get tickets for festivals or other celebrations 2 months in advance if possible.
Wander the central quarters
If you want to experience the whole reality of the city, you can visit Marseille’ central quarters. It’s not a safe place for tourists on their own, so go with a group or a tour guide, and don’t bring any valuables with you. The worst places are the 13th, 14th and 15th districts. The police don’t even go there. African immigrants live in poverty in the central quarters, a reminder of the systemic racism that exists on the other side of many beautiful places. Marseille is sadly no exception.
Buy souvenirs and gifts
You can definitely find many souvenirs in the city markets:
- A ceramic cricket, the symbol of Marseille.
- Handmade santons (Christmas figures).
- Olive and lavender soap.
- Alcohol (pastis, liqueur, sweet wine, mint liqueur).
- Ceramic dishes.
- Essential oils.
- Navette de Marseille cookies.
- Olive oil.
For just 1 Euro you can get a mussel shell to put in your wallet — they say it will bring you good luck and riches.
Go for a ride!
Going for a ride with the wind in your face, enjoying the surroundings, is a great way to spend a hot Marseille summer afternoon. And you have a ton of options.
Marseille’ small train
There’s a small tour train that leaves from the Old Port’s banks and takes you around the city. It looks like a kid’s ride, but it’s immensely popular with tourists of all ages.
The train has three routes: to Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, around the old city, and to the Frioul islands. In the busy season, trains leave every 10 minutes. It’s an observation tour, which means that there’s only one stop in the middle then the train takes you back along a different route.
Tickets cost 8 euros and 4 euros for adults and children, respectively.
Renting a bike will save you time and let you quickly see the tourist sights. An hour rental costs 1 euro and the first 30 minutes are free. If you plan to use a bike everyday, it’ll be more efficient to buy a week pass.
Renting a car
You might want a car in two situations: if you’re staying far from the center or if you’d like to drive around the area, perhaps along beautiful coastline between Marseille and Cassis, or to visit Aix-en-Provence. It’s best to rent a car in advance. It’s cheaper and more reliable. Use this link, and your car will be waiting for you at the airport or train station.
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Keep in mind that driving a car around Marseille isn’t easy. There are reckless drivers, traffic jams and a complex street system. So, if you’re going to drive, be 100% sure in your abilities and comfort level.
Have a nice trip to the French Riviera!