Marseille is having a moment. Once poor cousin to Nice and Cannes, not everyone appreciated Marseille’s earthy vibe. No longer. It’s bonjour to swanky new museums, designer hotels, galleries and stylish restaurants. European Capital of Culture 2013, France’s second biggest city is getting some ooh la la.
The old port is the heart of Marseille, a glorious marina chock full of yachts and fishing boats. It’s a working harbour (the big boats don’t come in anymore), so head down about 8.30am to watch the fishermen offload their catch. Later, a seat in the sun at any of the many seafront cafés and bars should see you right. This is Provence after all. The sun will be shining.
Le Panier is the oldest part of the city, a lovely jumble of narrow streets, pastel painted houses and quirky shops. We also like the stylish boutiques of the Republique quarter. There are two imposing cathedrals, the old major and the new major, both of which are something to see. This 2,600-year-old city (the oldest in France, as it happens) has some impressive historic buildings, including its many forts.
Get your arty fix at any one of Marseille’s museums and galleries, including the incredible Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. There are also trendy boutiques along newly created tree-lined boulevards. Make the most of that shiny blue sea with a boat trip to one of the nearby islands, or a walk over the limestone cliffs of Calanques national park. With beaches, shopping, sunshine and a buzzy nightlife, there are a lot of things to fall in amour within Marseille.
Aix en Provence
Aix is classic France. Narrow streets, fountains, mansions on elegant avenues, Cezanne museum, it’s all here. And of course, it’s set in beautiful Provence, with its lavender fields, orchards, vineyards and cute-as-a-button villages. Take a camera, you’re going to need it.
This pretty fishing village is overlooked by a centuries-old chateau and surrounded by vineyards that produce highly regarded cassis wine. There is a fine sandy beach, Plage de la Grande Mer, just outside the port, and lunch alfresco on the harbour is an absolute must. Try a glass of kir – white wine spiked with cassis, a tangy blackcurrant liqueur. Or make it a kir royale, with champagne or prosecco! Heaven.
Pink flamingos and wild white horses roam this vast flat plain, giving it an otherworldly feel. You can see for miles – but even better is to get in amongst it. Horse riding, 4x4 safaris, bike hire or mini-cruises on the Petit Rhone will all take your breath away. We guarantee it.
Hit the beach
Plage des Catalans is a short walk from the town centre, a small, sandy beach that can be busy. Further out are Bain des Dames and Bonne Brise, small coves of sand and pebbles with superb views of Marseille. Prado Seaside Park is two kilometres of man-made sand and shingle beaches surrounded by 26 hectares of lawns, esplanades and play areas. You can get a boat directly from the harbour to the largest sandy beach, Pointe Rouge.
A small range of islands sits just off the coast. We recommend a boat trip out to explore them. Try the tiny island of If to visit the 16th-century chateau, home of Alexander Dumas’ fictional prisoner, the Count of Monte Cristo. Or the Frioul archipelago, home to a unique microclimate and the sleepy little village of Port Frioul.
Calanques National Park
For stunning coastal scenery, visit the jagged limestone coves and crystal clear waters of Calanques national park. Rugged and spectacular, over 20 kilometres of sheer cliffs and tiny coves are home to a vast array of flora and fauna. We think you’ll love spending time communing with nature here.
Marseille is famous for its pizza; dip into one of the food vans with wood ovens selling it all over the city. Bouillabaisse, a two-course meal of fish soup followed by the fish itself, was originally the fare of the local fishermen, and can be found all over the city.
Pieds et paquets – roughly translated, tripe and trotters – is not for the faint-hearted, but we encourage you to give it a try. And boat-shaped biscuits navettes, local to Marseille, are delicious little orange-flavoured pieces of sunshine. Savour it all with local speciality pastis. But be careful, this is strong stuff.
As you would expect, seafood features heavily on Marseille menus, and the best will have been landed that very morning. As fresh as it comes. Elsewhere there is everything on offer from fine dining to street markets brimming with food. Traditional Provencal bistros offer a taste of life like a local, and an abundance of very good, very well priced local wines usually help things go with a swing.
Tourists are just discovering the exciting new face of Marseille. This city has upped its game. No longer in the shadow of St Tropez or Cannes, Marseille is now firmly on the map.
There’s something for everyone, from culture lovers to young families. The beautiful marina is a wonderful place to hang out. Days are easily filled with galleries, museums, high-class restaurants and buzzy bars. There’s also great nightlife. Add a wide selection of beaches and some wonderful Provencal countryside, and you can see why a holiday here is a must.
Marseille is perfectly placed to explore Provence and the Camargue, and the wildlife and dramatic coastline add to the appeal. Getting out to sea and exploring the islands add an extra dimension to this vibrant and historic place.
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