Marseille is one of my favorite cities in France. I’ve had many people, predominantly French, give me really weird looks when I say this. To be honest, I hated Marseille day 1. We took the train in from Cannes to Marseille. Our host told us that the walk from the Gare (train station) to the apartment we rented would be quick. I can see this being true if we had not had our luggage with us. She also neglected to tell us that to get to the house we’d have to climb stairs…a lot of them. I was miserable. Marseille smelled of sewers, its streets were dirty, there were plenty of beggars on the street, and I was ready to leave.
All these negative feelings changed day 2 when we went exploring. Marseille has everything I love in a city:
- Fabulous beaches
- Incredible food
- GORGEOUS CHURCHES
- Lots of stairs
- A lovely port
- Marché des Capucins
Let’s go into these with more detail.
Marseille Travel Tips
There are tons of beaches in Marseille (possibly one of the reasons I love this city). Unlike Cannes, one does not have to pay 40 Euros to go. A lot of people go to one of Marseille’s artificial beaches: The Plages de Corbière. These are located neat L’Estaque, and are considered the beginning of the Blue Coast. Corbière consist of 1) the Plage de la Lave 2) Plage de la Batterie (which are both sandy), and the Plage du Fortin (this one is a pebble beach). Be warned, when I was there the water was freezing (unlike Cannes where the water was quite comfortable). Not an issue for me; as long as there is sand and crystal clear water (which is certainly the case in Marseille) I have no issues. The Corbiere beaches are super easy to get to. Rent an electric bike and you’ll be there in a jiffy. You can also take the 35 bus to get there, get off at the last stop. If you keep going past Corbière, you will reach more and more residential areas. Park your car (or bike) and walk, Chances are you will run into small rocky beaches. These are frequented by locals who put out their towels on the rocks and dip in whenever they need to cool off. You will see yachts docked in the middle of the water and people (and their dogs happily jumping into the water). There are also paid beaches, but I’m not a fan of paying for my fun in the sun. You really can’t go wrong, but you want to find the secluded tiny rocky outcrops where locals sunbathe. This will be your best beach experience.
When you put people from all different cultures, you get political strife and amazing food. You’ve got both in Marseille. Let’s put it this way, you’ve got France’s largest port as a venue. Because of its proximity to Italy, it is said that 40% of the city’s population is of Italian origin. Add a little bit of Greece to the mix, and you’ve got the stock to start the soup. Russians, Armenians, Corsicans, and Spanish were added to the pot in the early 1900’s. North Africans arrived in the mid-1900’s and now, you’ve got a huge influx of Muslims (I know…this is not a country, but a religion with some very strict dietary lines), peppered with, Chinese, and Vietnamese. This means great food, you can head to the Muslim market and get a gorgeous Shawarma, dine at Michelin starred restaurants, and have the catch of the day made for you in a restaurant across the port right after it has been caught. This is a beautiful thing.
You’ve got the Marseille Cathedral (my 2nd fave), The Reformed Protestant Church, Notre Dame De La Garde (my fave). They are all gorgeous and so worth visiting.
Want buns of steel? Go to Marseille. Much like San Francisco, there are tons, and tons, and tons of hills. You’ll be able to bounce a quarter off your tush after walking this city. Good stuff if you have a fitbit.
The old port is simply lovely. When you go there early in the morning, you can see fishing boats headed to work. These same fishing boats come back before noon and all the restaurants in the area can be seen purchasing the daily catch. The Vieux Port is populated with all different types of boats. There are the working man’s fishing boats and even smaller yachts. Around the area, there are art galleries, museums and (of course) churches. There are tons of places to eat: pizzerias (which are awesome and tastes very similar to pizza from Naples), Indian restaurants, doner places, Michelin starred restaurants and tons of bistros. Make sure to find a place that offers Bouillabaisse. You can also pick up boats at the Vieux Port to some cool locations including Pointe Rouge (a gorgeous beach), Chateau d’If (of the Count of Monte Cristo), Iles de Frioul (those are the rocky islands you see in the distance in some of my pics – lovely beaches & animal life), Calanques (known for rock climbing and hiking…which they are cutting back on because it is damaging the environment – you can grab boat tours to Calanques – it will cost you around 22€), and Cassis.
Marché des Capucins
You never know where you will end up as you walk through the streets of Marseille. One day I ended up at the Marché des Capucins. Unlike your typical French farmer’s markets (which I love and document on FriendsEAT), this market is an Arabic market. I would say 99,99% of the vendors and shoppers are part of Marseille’s Arabic/North African community. It is crowded and tight. There you can get exotic fruits and veggies, North African pastries and pretty much anything you desire for a very cheap cost (even cheaper if you bargain). To get there, get off at the Noailles metro stop.
Should you go?
YES! Marseille is gritty and known for being highly populated by immigrants. It is known for being an easy place to get drugs and for an easy place to get robbed. I was not robbed or pickpocketed. Most of the people I met in Marseille were gentle and sweet. The food was fantastic and the beaches crystal clear. There is an incredible amount of art (and obviously lots of churches). I say give Marseille a chance, you’ll love it as much as I do. I will advise you not to walk alone at night and to keep your passport in a safe place…just in case.
Where to Stay
I stayed at a lovely Airbnb apartment in the old town. It had an almost full kitchen, 1 bedroom, and a gorgeous view of the old Cathedral. At night, we’d sit on the balcony drinking wine betting on who could take the best photo of the sunset. We watched some crazy french films and struggled with our bags up 4 sets of stairs, but I would not change a second of it.
How to get to Marseille
Planes: First you fly to France. You can fly to Paris and then fly into Marseille Provence Airport or take the TVG train to. Nice My preferred way of reaching Marseille is to fly to Nice and take the TVG train to Marseille (as you will see below with various options:
Train: Take the TGV (3 hours from Paris and 2.5 hours from Nice) to the Gare Saint Charles. It is located in the center of town. VERY IMPORTANT – before you board the train, make sure to stamp your ticket in one of the yellow machines (usually located at the entrance of the gate), otherwise you may get a ticket. If your destination is the Vieux Port (the old port), take the metro line 1 (towards La Fourragère).
Bus: I’m not a bus fan, but they can save you quite a bit of cash. Check out the navette bus. It runs every 15 minutes from terminal 1 and goes directly to Gare Saint Charles.
Car: Don’t drive. The people in Marseille drive like crap. Save yourself the aggravation (also, parking in the old town can be challenging…really challenging).
Boat: There are cruises that go to Marseille, but these won’t give you enough time to fall in love with the city. I’d skip this route.
Have other questions about Marseille? Need more Marseille Travel Tips? Leave your question in the comments.