Marseille has very controversial reputation among French cities, however its location beats most of the arguments. While the city doesn’t have that many things to offer, outdoors activities are fascinating and food scene will make any sophisticated gourmet satisfied.
Easter adds two extra days to one weekend every year making it a perfect opportunity to have a relaxed journey at no extra cost. The winter was cold and warm sunny destination was a priority. In 2017 Easter happened to be in mid-April when southern France starts receiving its yearly portion of sun. Thanks to Eurostar, there is now a direct train from London to Marseille so we thought no further. Taking almost seven hours for an outbound journey, it’s an adventure on its own. After passing border checks we sat back in our seats, relaxed and prepared to enjoy the trip.
The train arrives right to the city centre where bright sun, reflected from white limestone, welcomes you. Sunglasses may be a really handy accessory any time of the year. Yet you won’t be able to keep your head straight and have a look around as you’ll have to keep an eye on rubbish equally distributed all around this part of town. It’s a shame for a city with almost 2600 years history to welcome tourists like that but Marseille tries its best to recover the image.
Our accommodation, kindly provided by Christophe at MarseilleCity, was conveniently located right next to the city centre. It is not a luxurious hotel nor it is comfortable family apartment, but the location, fresh breakfasts and authentic Marseillaise house have something attractive, I will recommend staying at this place for a short trip (I can hardly imagine anyone coming for a long trip here).
Finally, after sorting out logistics questions, we started exploring the city. As I said, the history of Marseille started about 2600 years ago. Being a largest port in that part of Mediterranean, Marseille was flourishing as a trading city for centuries and it still keeps the status of second largest French city. There are two historical areas within the city: Panier and Old port (Vieux port). There is also a New port which serves large cargo ships and huge cruisers, the Old port is mostly regarded as a marina and touristic meeting point.
Our first stop was Cathédrale La Major, a huge cathedral standing right next to the sea. It is one of two major cathedrals within the city and it also serves as a nice background for wedding photos thanks to its location. For adventurous museum goers there’s two popular museum next to the cathedral: Musée Regards de Provence and Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. I believe they are quite popular among both locals and tourists but this time we didn’t want to spend to much time wandering around museum exhibits but take the biggest portion of sunshine possible instead (and we even overachieved the goal but I’ll tell about it a bit later).
Vieux port doesn’t have many things to offer but any improvised or scheduled tour around the city usually starts here. Whether you would like to take a guided bus tour, board a ferry to the islands or start an improvised walking tour, visit La Maison Du Pastis first. You can try famous southern refreshing drink or even buy a bootle of this fragrant spirit. Just don’t forget the water or you’ll be dead drunk in a short while. We decided to take a relatively inexpensive (€8) return trip via tourist bus to the most famous cathedral and the highest point of the city, Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. A big cathedral, surrounded by trees is topped with golden statue of the Virgin Mary. From there opens the most beautiful view over the city. The height hides all the negative points and keeps only the small southern houses and the sea visible. Tourist bus has 30 minutes stop there and brings everyone back to the Old port afterwards.
French cuisine doesn’t need any endorsements and French food is regarded as one of the best options all over the world. Every French region has its own cooking traditions and Provence, of which Marseille is the capital, is not an exception. The most famous meal in Marseille is, of course, Bouillabaisse – a soup made from various types of fresh caught fish and seasoned with potatoes and saffron. Developed from a regular lunch of fishermen to regionally protected recipe it is now a must-have part of each French fine dining venue. Virtually every restaurant in Marseille offers Bouillabaisse but there’s not that many places where you can try real, authentic soup. Be prepared to spend some money though as a Bouillabaisse meal starts at €40-50 per person. We have chosen L’Hippocampe Vieux Port Marseille as Bouillabaisse provider, where this two-course meal will cost you “just” around €50 per person. Together with a bottle of local rosé it makes up the most touristy meal possible.
Outdoors activities is what Marseille really worth visiting for. Thinking of hiking, walking along the seashore or fancy a swim? This is all possible around Marseille. A big natural park Parc national des Calanques sits right next to the city. Calanque is a narrow inlet formed of limestone and other stones available in the region. Adventurous tourists may try hiking or exploring it wading through tons of limestone. We opted for a boat trip around the whole park starting at the Old port. While you can barely notice tiny ripples in the Old port, the Mediterranean turned to be pretty restless these days. I was literally about to be thrown overboard a couple of times and so were our fellow passengers. Exciting adventure can easily be turned into constant three-hour long sickness, so be sure to be ready for mighty waves.
This wasn’t the only boat trip we had. Yet another attraction around Marseille is Frioul archipelago. One of the isles is home to famous If castle where Edmond Dantes was imprisoned. However we weren’t able to visit the castle because the boat is not able to moor next to it while the waves are so high, there’s honestly nothing to do. The castle is pretty old so they won’t let you in the old rooms and hallways and the island itself is no bigger than Trafalgar square in London. The most of the day we’ve spent on the other two islands. Strong wind, constant sunshine, calming sound of waves and medieval artefacts found all around the isles – this is a bottom line of the visit, what could possibly go wrong? Living in London has the downsides. One of them is constant lack of sunshine. Being careless enough to forget about suncream and aggressive rays of Mediterranean sun hurts for at least a week after you return from the trip. So, wherever you come from, don’t forget about the suncream in Marseille!
The rest of the day we spent wandering around the city centre. The Old city or the Panier is, probably, the nicest area in Marseille. It has everything: narrow streets, craft shops with local products and quiet restaurants. Locals and tourists come here to enjoy the real Marseille however small it is.
This sums up the short Easter break in one of the largest French cities. The city itself leaves mixed feelings. The streets are dirty, the restaurants are expensive and the city itself has limited tourism potential. At the same time, Marseille has a few peaceful places where many people would love to be lost, the nature is stunning with all the beauties within 30 minutes reach and the food is French (needless to say more). Marseille is surely worth visiting for a short trip which, who knows, will make you want to buy a house next to the sea (I’ve heard the property prices are relatively low there).
How to get there?
Marseille airport has good coverage with connections with European cities. For those who live close, train may be worth a try. Marseille St Charles station is located right next to city centre and has links with both French and European cities (including London).
Where to stay?
You can find an option for any budget, Marseille offers both inexpensive hostel and luxury 5-star accommodations. We’ve chosen a mid-range option at MarseilleCity for around €60 per night.
What to eat?
French cuisine doesn’t need extra promotion, it is well-known and French chefs are regarded as the best in the world. Marseille, in particular, is famous for its Bouillabaisse. You can try it in most of the restaurants around city centre. For the most authentic fine-dining options I recommend L’Hippocampe Vieux Port Marseille with generous portion of Bouillabaisse for €55 per person. On a cheaper side, you may give a try to any restaurant serving fresh fish and/or seafood. If you’re visiting Frioul islands, my recommendation is La Brazerade where you can enjoy moules frites (mussels and fries). Wrap up your day with a bottle of rosé and a great view over the Old port at La Caravelle.
What to do?
Don’t spend too much time in the city. Visit a couple of museums and have a relaxed trip to Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. Get out of this limestone jungle afterwards. Marseille has great outdoors activities to offer. Enjoy a boat trip around Les Calanques or go exploring Frioul islands. Or do both.
How to get around?
City centre is relatively small, you can easily cover it by foot. For longer distances, Marseille has any kind of public transportation including metro, trams and buses. Single trip costs €1.70. Boat trips all start in the Old port. Ferry to Frioul islands is usually departing every 30 minutes and may have a stop at the If castle. Boat trips around Les Calanques depart 4 times a day with 2 shorter journeys around 11 in the morning and longer ones around 2pm.