thematic guide to France
- a short guide
Marseilles is a city that only really opened up to tourism
at the very end of the twentieth century.
Major cathedral, from the entrance to the Mucem museum.
Marseille is the "oldest city in France"
one of the oldest in western Europe. The city was founded as
Massalia in around 600 BC, and soon developed into an important port in
the ancient Greek world. For the Greeks, and later for the Romans, it
was a major point of transition and trade between the civilisations of
the Mediterranean, and those of Gaul and northwest Europe.
And that, essentially, has been Marseilles' role ever since.
Located near the mouth of the Rhone - the greatest natural corridor
between the Mediterranean and the lands to the north, it has long been
one of the most important, when not the most important, port in France
– a role that explains its importance and its size, as
third largest urban area, to this day.
Rather in the same way
as Genoa or Naples, Marseilles' importance as a port rather hindered
its development as a tourist destination; and while other Mediterranean
ports like Barcelona and Valencia began to develop their tourism in the
1970's, Marseilles did not. Its port was too important. But
more recently, Marseilles has managed maintain its status as one of the
most important ports on the Mediterranean, and develop as a tourist
destination at the same time.
The paradox with Marseille is that although it stands proudly
beside the Mediterranean, it is not a seaside resort. The gentler and
flatter coast northwest of the city is occupied by the docks,
southwards from the "Old Port", the seashore is rocky, with no beaches
until the Plage du Prado, 6 km further south. So it's not a
to visit if the aim of the trip is solely or mainly to enjoy the beach.
The shoreline and the waterside ambiance, yes; but the beach, no.
Saint Jean from the top of King René's tower.
For a day-trip or a weekend break or short stay, Marseilles
ideal destination, specially during those times of the year when it
tends to be bathed in Mediterranean sunshine while much of France
further north is still struggling with spring or dampened by
autumn mists and showers. And getting to the tourist quarter of
Marseille around the Old Port is remarkably easy.
Access to Old Marseilles
The Old Port, though the tourist centre of the city, is directly
accessible from the north and west, and from the east, by motorway.
Indeed the motorway runs through a tunnel right under the Old Port.
From the north, enter Marseilles on the A55 motorway (not the A7) and
take exit 2 just before the tunnel – marked Centre ville.
the east, enter Marseilles on the A50 motorway, following signs for the
town centre and ports. Take the Prado-Carénage tunnel, which
becomes the Tunnel du Vieux Port. Exit immediately after the Tunnel du
Vieux Port, where you emerge right opposite the cathedral. There are
large paying car parks and street-parking in the vicinity.
For visitors arriving by train, it is less than a
kilometre's walk down from the Gare Saint Charles station to the Old
area around the Old Port is the tourism heart of Marseilles, and very
attractive too now that the 1970s motorway that formerly stood on
stilts between the town and the shore has been put down into a tunnel.
The most interesting and attractive sites of Marseilles can all be
reached on foot from a starting point at the Mucem, the Museum of
European and Mediterranean Civilisations.
central Marseilles tourist
Main central Marseille tourist sites.
Marseilles, around the Old Port.
Le Vieux Port - the old port
tourism mecca of Marseilles, the Old Port, the main port of Marseilles
for over two thousand years, is now a large marina, flanked on three
sides by restaurants bistros cafés and shops. At the inner
of the basin is the pleasure cruise terminal, from which visitors can
take boat trips round the port, out to the Island of If, or along the
coast to Cassis. for visitors staying more than a day in Marseilles, a
boat trip is a must, to experience the views of Marseille from the sea,
and the dramatic coastline to the southeast.
is a free ferry that operates across the Old Port, close to the
entrance. In recent years, services have been sporadic, and there is
talk about introducing a charge.
A short way to the south of the Old Port is the Abbaye St Victor,
current building dating from the 12th century church. The crypt
contains a collection of sarcophagi tombstones and decoration
dating from the 5th to the 12th centuries.
Open Tour - hop-on hop-off tour bus
Visit the sights of Marseilles with a Marseilles Open-tour hop-on
hop-off bus. More info and tickets here
Departs Vieux Port. Circuit includes the sea front, Fort St.
Nicolas, Notre Dame de la Garde and the Cathedral. 14 stops in all. One
day ticket 19 €, 2-days for 22 €
- the Museum of the
Mediterranean is a modern cultural and historical museum devoted to the
civilisations and culture of the Mediterranean. Tickets (2017) 9.50
Euros - or 14 € for a family ticket. An aerial walkway
Mucem to the Fort Saint Jean on the other side of the wharf.
Fort Saint Jean.
This is perhaps the most impressive historic site in
Marseilles - a seventeenth-century fortress, built by King Louis XIV,
that stands guard over the entrance to the Old Port. Included in the
Fort Saint Jean are the 15th century Tour du Roi René (King
tower), and the Commandery of the Knights Templar.
Access to the
Fort Saint Jean is free of charge; there is a charge only for access to
special displays which are part of the Mucem, and included in the price
of the Mucem ticket. Among the free attractions of the Fort Saint Jean
are the fine views over the old city, the old port and the sea, a
Mediterranean botanical garden, and the freedom to wander round the
ramparts and into some of the historic buildings, including the Tour du
Roi René. The upper terraces of the Fort Saint Jean are
connected by aerial walkways to the Mucem and to the Old City
The Eglise Saint Laurent
by an impressive aerial walkway from the Fort Saint Jean, this is one
of the older churches in Marseilles, a 12th - 13th century church built
in the Provençal romanesque style. It is simple and sobre,
marked contrast to the exuberance of the 19th century Sainte Marie
Majeure cathedral (la Major) a few hundred metres to the north. From
St. Laurent, it is an easy walk to the old town or to the cathedral or
to the Old Port.
the Sacré Coeur de Montmartre in Paris, the La Major
is a fine example of French 19th century neo-romano-byzantine
architecture, a sumptuous place of worship making fine decorative use
of white marble and red and green stone. In architectural
it is a pastiche, incorporating elements of style from different
historical periods and styles - towers and cupolas, decorative
stonework and mosaics. It is the only cathedral in France
in the nineteenth century.
Le Quartier du Panier - la Butte
The St. Laurent church stands at the southeast top of "la butte", the
hilly outcrop north of the Old Port. This is the oldest part of
Marseilles, an area occupied for over two and a half thousand years.
The old quarter here is known as the Quartier du Panier - a
network of narrow streets with small shops and restaurants and street
vendors. It is hardly 600 metres from end to end. Not to be missed in
the quartier du Panier is La
Vieille Charité, a former 17th
century hospice, with colonnaded facades round a central courtyard. The
complex contains several museums, including an archaeological museum
and a museum of Africa. Entry to the site is free, but there is a
charge for the museums and galleries.
"Champs Elysées" of Marseilles, La Canebière is
running northwest from the end of the Old Port. The Marseilles tourist
office is on the Cannebière, just up from the port.
Le Musée Cantini
best fine art museum in Marseilles is located in Rue Grignan, 400
metres southeast of the inner (eastern) end of the Old Port. The
Cantini museum specialises in art of the first half and middle
the twentieth century, covering Pointillism, Fauvism, Cubism,
Dada, abstract art, and Surrealism – and is one of
in France for this period. There are plenty of major works by
most important artists of the period, including Matisse, Signac, Dufy,
Marquet, Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Miró, Max Ernst, Arp,
Giacometti, Bacon and many many more. Entrance 5
In addition to a self-guided walking tour in and
around the area of the Old Port, as detailed above, there are a number
of other places further afield in Marseilles that merit a visit.
Notre Dame de la Garde
19th century neo-byzantine church, N-D de la Garde is unmissable, as it
can be seen from all over Marseilles. It stands at the highest point in
the city, about 160 metres above sea level, to the south of the Old
Port. Its domes and cupolas are abundantly decorated on the inside with
gilt mosaics. The building uses a similar blend of white and coloured
marble to that used in the building of La Major cathedral. It is
another fine example of exuberant 19th century architecture.
of the visitors who go up to the church do so to admire the spectacular
views that it offers over Marseilles, the coast, and the surrounding
landscape. It can be reached by taking bus line 60 form the old port. A
visit to Notre Dame de la Garde is included in one of the "little
tourist train" circuits. See below
The Chateau d'If
A must for the tourist in Marseilles. Boat trips to this island in
Marseilles bay depart from the Old Port. The
château is a fortress built in the 16th century by
François I, which featured in the famous novel by
Provençal writer Alexandre Dumas, the Count of Monte Cristo.
It was also used in the movie the French Connection. Explore the old
prison and enjoy the views of Marseilles from the sea.
Musée des Beaux Arts - Fine art museum
one of the great French privincial museums, the Marseille fine arts
museum has mostly paintings by French artists, though few works by the
great masters. It also includes four paintings by Rubens, one by
Tintoretto and one by Perugino.
Plages du Prado
The coastline south of the Old Port is rocky with few proper access
points to the water. The only
real beach in Marseille itself is the Plages du Prado, a A three
kilometre bus ride (line
83) from the Old Port, along the corniche to the south of the
city. Very busy during sunny weekends and in the school holidays. The
beach area is man-made, and was developed in the 1970s on a base of
rock and stone excavated for the building of the Marseilles metro
Rocky shorline, looking towards the Plages du Prado and the hills of
the Calanques National Park beyond.
The Little Train
And of course Marseilles has its "petits trains touristiques". Three
circuits possible, departing from the north side of the Old Port.
174 Quai du Port, about in the middle of the quay.
Madragues de Montredon
A small harbour at the southern end of
Marseilles, and the start of the Calanques national park. (See below).
Take bus 19 from Rond Point du Prado station on Metro 2
line as far as the terminus at Madrague Mont Rose. Easy access from
here to the harbour, then to trails / small roads along the rocky coast
to Callelongue. Great views and opportunities for swimming off the
the area - Around Marseilles
hinterland, Provence, is
more popular as a tourist area than Marseilles itself. There are plenty
of opportunities for day trips out from Marseilles, some accessible for
visitors who do not have a vehicle.
France's most recent National Park, created in 2012. The Calanques
are narrow inlets at the foot of the steep, sometimes
cliffs that characterise the coastline to the east of Marseilles. At
the heart of the Calanques is is the little seaside town of Cassis.
moored in a calanque at Cassis.
The hills behind the coast are arid limestone.
Hikers can access trails from the southern terminus of bus line 22 at
"Les Baumettes" (recommended). Connect to bus line 22 from Metro 2 or
Bus 83 lines at Rond Point du Prado.
They can also be reached from the terminus of Bus
line 20 at Callelongue.
Take care if leaving your car in an open car park
in this area. Lock all doors and do not leave valuables or bags visible
to prying eyes.
Aix en Provence
Accessible by local train (do not take the TGV!)
from Marseilles. A beautiful historic town that embodies the flavour of
Renowned wetland area and natural park to the west of Marseilles. An
hour's drive. See Camargue
guide. Not accessible by train.
Roman Nimes and Arles
Both towns are easily accessible by car or train from Marseille.
France and Nimes guide.
choice of carefully selected hotels and apartments in Marseilles.
These hotels are conveniently sited in or near the Old Port area, and
all have good write-ups. Click links for details
and to book at best rates
star hotels: *****
Intercontinental Hotel Dieu
Five star luxury in a 17th
century building 350 metres from the Old Port. Parking on site (daily
star hotels: ****
Hotel Beauvau vieux Port
- A four-star boutique hotel located on the Old Port, close to the
metro and bus. Rooms with view over the harbour. Private parking.
Radisson Blu Vieux Port
Between the Abbaye Saint
Victor and the Fort Saint Nicolas, on the south side of the Old Port.
Outdoor swimming pool. Public car park close by.(daily charge).
star hotels ***
Escale Oceania Vieux Port
Located at the foot of the
Canebière, 100 metres from the Old Port. Couldn't be more
central. Bus, metro and leisure boats right close by. Public
car park nearby.
Ibis Centre Vieux Port
- 500 metres from the Old Port, and close to the historic Quartier du
Panier and la vieille Charité. Good central location at
more three-star hotels
for a large selection of three star hotels in Marseille
- Small two-star hotel right on the Old Port, some
with view. Roof terrace with chairs and tables and harbour view.
Ibis Budget Vieux Port
- 500 metres from the Old Port, a modern budget hotel housed in a 16th
century sea captain's residence. Parking on site.
for a good list of two star budget hotels in
Apartments - gites
this link for short-stay apartments
here for classic city gites