When I mentioned I was heading to Marseille for a short break, I received a whole bunch of mixed reactions. From the gregarious ‘oh you’ll have an amazing time‘ to the slightly bemused ‘Why Marseille?‘ followed by mild horror ‘it’s a bit rough there you know’. More lent towards the latter, but as you all know I like to make up my own mind. I mean how bad can it be for a city that boasts 300 days of sunshine a year.
Feet on terra firma in France’s second and oldest city the vibrancy and eclectic charm of the multicultural port city began to quickly weave its magic. Marseille’s transformation was kick started when it became the European Capital of Culture in 2013.
From the bustling waterfront, sandy beaches and picturesque neighbourhoods to the rise of modern architecture, hip restaurants and cool museums this French-Mediterranean port has something for everyone. Reinvention aside, some of the edginess and grit still remain I’m pleased to say. It’s beauty doesn’t merely come from the impressive famed architecture, but also from how it co-exists with the cobbled alleyways and charming hidden corners steeped in centuries of history.
Where to stay
For a central location and epic views over Marseille’s harbour there is only one hotel. The five-star luxury hotel Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port perches at start of the Old Port and the glorious Mediterranean sea.
We were happy to call it home for our two night stay. There will be a review up on the blog soon.
What to do
Explore Vieux Port
Vieux Port, Marseille’s Old Port has been the lifeline of the city for the last two and half millenia. The Old Port today remains a thriving harbour for fishing, tourist boats and beautiful private yachts.
For some lively sea action head down in the morning when the fisherman arrive selling their catch of the day. It’s a real hive of activity with local chefs and housewives grabbing their piscatorial bargains.
Oh and you can also go and stare at yourself in the fabulous Miroir Ombriere, mirrored shade installation designed by Norman Foster. It’s a great place to absorb the city’s atmosphere among its many waterfront cafés and restaurants.
Get lost in Le Panier
From Vieux Port head into the labyrinth of winding narrow streets which make up Le Panier, Marseille’s oldest quarter. Walking among the beautifully coloured buildings, steep cobbled streets and cool hidden squares will feel like you’re stepping back in time.
I was so snap happy with the array of street art around every corner. My camera went into complete overdrive.
A photographers paradise with all the cute artisan shops and terraced houses with washing drying from the windows.
And obviously you’re spoilt for choice with backdrops to accentuate nonchalant poses in the sun.
Visit Cathédrale de la Major
Within the hillside district of Le Panier is also the impressive and striking 19th century Byzantine-style cathedral. Overlooking the sea perfect it’s for views and photographs.
It’s grand dimensions are similar to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, which allows it to accommodate up to 3,000 people!
Admire Palais Longchamp
One of Marseille’s most amazing buildings is home to the city’s museum of beaux-arts, natural history museum, botanical gardens and a zoo – impressive huh?!
We chose not to go inside but admired it with a bottle of vino from the street side café directly opposite. A wonderful way to enjoy an afternoon tipple!
Escape to Calanques National Park
If you want to see the bluest of blue sea, book a boat trip out Calanques. It’s one of Frances most beautiful and unspoilt seascapes.
Sailing around some of the coastline you could almost fool yourself into thinking you were off the coast of Thailand.
The 30-mile stretch of limestone cliffs rising out of the crystal-clear azure waters is a true paradise and a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city.
It’s easy to jump on a boat from Vieux Port. There are various companies offering different tours with a range of departure times.
Head to the top of Notre-Dame de la Garde
Standing majestically at Marseille’s highest point, the 19th century Neo-Byzantine basilica is Marseille’s most visited landmark and a symbol of the city.
Topped by a tall golden statue of the Virgin Mary and child, she is said to bestow protection over the fishermen.
From the hilltop you can see the most incredible 360 degree panoramas of the city. It’s a steep 1km walk from Vieux Port, or you can cheat like we did and catch the tourist train up. Advantages being you can arrive looking as fresh as a daisy instead of a hot, sweaty mess. We would’ve given it a go but sadly didn’t have time
couldn’t be arsed. On the return leg we did take the ‘athletic’ approach and walked back down to the port.
To Bouillabaisse or not?
So what is it? Bouillabaisse is a fish stew that comes specifically from Marseille. No longer a poor man’s stew, nowadays it takes on a slightly different guise as a cultural delicacy. The rich layered dish is made with six different types of local fish, saffron, fennel and a host of other ingredients.
It’s an acquired taste, so be sure you’re up for the challenge. Expect to pay at least €40 per head and most restaurants only take orders for more than two people.
If that doesn’t tickle your fancy you can always relax with some portside Pastis as the sun goes down – very civilised.
I’ll be honest as a vegetarian I found it difficult to indulge in the local cuisine as it’s obviously all seafood based. Fear not though there is plenty of pizza, pasta and panisse! Yes, that’s right I found something French which is also veggie friendly! Panisse is a delicious Provençal snack. A fritter made from dough mixed from chickpea flour, then fried. Extremely moreish – Bon Appetit!
Shop for Soap
No, I’m not insinuating you’re grubby. Savon de Marseille is famous and is still produced there. The traditional hard soap is made from vegetable oils and follows an old 600 year old recipe. It’s the perfect souvenir.
So have I convinced you to make a trip to Marseille? Have you been, what did you think? Let me know in the comments box below?
Here is the highlights video from our Marseille weekend:
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