Welcome to the oldest city in France: Marseille! This French Grande Dame, the second-largest city after Paris, lies comfortably along the Mediterranean Sea where the sun shines 300 days a year. Known as the ‘Cité Phocéenne’, after the Greek settlers from Phocaea who built the port in 600 BC, you can easily spend a couple of days here absorbing this vibrant city. Let me guide you through the main highlights.
Notre-Dame de la Garde
The fun part of discovering Marseille is that some of the highlights give you breathtaking views of other highlights. Let me start with the city’s well-known icon: the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. This basilica watches over Marseille from a limestone hill. Standing in front of the church, the city lies at your feet. I could see as far as the Château d’If on the Frioul Islands and the Fort Saint-Jean. And beyond! From the old harbour, it takes a little over half an hour to walk up to the basilica. Or you can take ‘le Petit Train’, also leaving from the Vieux-Port.
Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves
When walking back down to the city centre, the lively square of Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves offers a nice little break. Therefore, it is the perfect spot to have a ‘jaune’, the famous Provençal aperitif called pastis. Well, depending on the hour of the day, of course… The square is pedestrian-only and flanked with colourful facades and plenty of restaurants and pubs. The statue in the centre of the square represents Milo of Croton. He was a Greek wrestler who lived in the 6th century BC. It is a replica of the original one created by Pierre Puget in 1682, which now stands in the Louvre in Paris.
Two steps from the Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves is another emblematic place in Marseille: the Vieux-Port, or the Old Harbour. Since way back in the 6th century BC, the port has played an important role. Initially for the founders of so-called ‘Massilia’: the seafarers and traders who originated from the ancient Greek city Phocaea. However, even today marine life plays a vital part in Marseille’s everyday life. Their Port Fos is the biggest in France, while the Vieux-Port forms the beating heart of the city centre. Not only for pleasure boating purposes though roh, as you can still buy the catch of the day from local fishermen at the legendary fish market. Every morning between 08h00 and 13h00 you will find them in the harbour, on the side of the Quai des Belges.
I can recommend a leisurely walk along the harbour with its gently oscillating sailboats while the sunlight playfully shimmers on the water. Then, time for some culture! The next highlight is the Sain-Jean Fortress, which is one of the two knight’s castles that watches over the port. Both Fort Saint-Jean and Fort Saint-Nicolas, facing each other at the harbour entrance, were built in the 17th century by order of Louis XIV. Fort Saint-Jean is also part of the Mucem, short for Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation, along with the modern J4 building. I first entered the fortress by taking the footbridge Passerelle Parvis-Saint-Jean. Here, I bought my ticket that also allowed me entrance to the J4 building. A guided route took me on a journey through Marseille’s history. And climbing the stairs of the tower called Tour du Roi René, brought me even higher. It is the best spot in town to marvel over the view of the Vieux-Port from above.
After this plunge into history, it was time to cross the clear water of the Mediterranean Sea. Another fancy footbridge took me right into the architectural masterpiece of the J4 Building. Although this part of the Mucem brilliantly explains Mediterranean history, showing multiple facets and combining it with contemporary art exhibitions, it was the building itself that fascinated me the most. You might love it or hate it, but there’s no doubt that it’s memorable and has a Bilbao effect on Marseille. Designed by Rudy Ricciotti, the contemporary cube with sides 72 metres high, looks like contemporary lacework made out of black concrete. Coming from the Fort Saint-Jean, I entered the building on the top-level, arriving at a delightful terrace. Here you will find two restaurants: the upscale La Table and partly self-service La Cuisine. I walked round the museum by following the two ramps that wind around the exterior of the building. Thanks to the open spaces in the design, I had a beautiful view over the Big Blue and the Fort Saint-Jean, while the reflecting sunlight created a fascinating kaleidoscope effect.
On to the last highlight of this Marseille city guide. Via the locally known Cathédrale de la Major, I arrived at the oldest neighbourhood in Marseille: Le Panier. Literally translated as “The Basket”, this well-known part of the city has undergone quite a transformation. From a rough district that was once best avoided and was nicknamed ‘coupe gorge’ or cut-troat, to the colourful and artistic neighbourhood it is today. Wander around the main street Rue du Panier and sniff out some ‘couleur locale’ in the little, serpentining streets between the Place de Lenche and the square at Rue des Pistoles. And remember: Le Panier is also known for its street art. This means that you will find the coolest examples around every corner.