Marseille is the second-largest city in France after Paris, the capital of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, and the oldest city in the country. Located on the Gulf de Lyon, which is part of the Mediterranean Sea, Marseille is the perfect blend of African and French culture. Known as the bridge between North Africa and Europe, Marseille is a city that will charm you with its beautiful blue waters and historic old town. There are so many things to do in Marseille that you can easily spend a few days in this seaside city.
From its dazzling Old Port to the legendary Chateau d’If, Marseille this Mediterranean City should not be missed when visiting Southern France.
Top Things to do in Marseille
The majority of the cool things to do in Marseille are located in the Vieux port/Le Panier part of town. This natural harbor has been used for the last 2400 years and is the perfect place to start off your exploration of the city.
1. Old Harbour – Le Vieux Port
Marseilles is one of our favorite cities in France. Le Vieux Port of Marseilles is stunning and filled with the raw energy that you would expect from any lively port city. Surrounded by historic buildings and filled with fishing boats and leisure crafts, the port feels as if it has stood still in time. And it should, the Old Port of Marseille dates back to 600 BC!
The old fort stands proudly at the water’s edge and the cathedrals look down over the main square. Other than the slick bistros and cafes lining the boulevards, it looks as if it could be the setting for an old pirate movie. We could imagine what it was like back in the 17th Century when schooners would come into the Vieux port filled with sailors. And it feels like it hasn’t changed a bit.
When visiting the Old Port, we suggest grabbing a spot at an outdoor patio with a glass of sparkling wine accompanied by fresh mussels to take in the energy and atmosphere.
When visiting Marseille, we suggest getting a Marseille City Pass – The city pass is valid for 1-3 days and lets you hop on hop off to see all the top tourist attractions. With unlimited access to public transportation plus a tour on the Tourist train to Notre-Dame de la Garde or through the Old Marseille. You’ll have entry to MUCEM, and Regards de Provence Museum, plus crossing Frioul Island, or If Island with entrance to Chateau D’If. There are plenty of discounts, entry to municipal museums, and a guided city tour. See details here.
2. Le Panier
When visiting Europe, we always love getting lost in the old towns of its historic cities. And Marseille is no different. Le Panier, The Old Quarter dates back to 600 BC when the ancient Greeks settled in these parts. It is the oldest district in Marseille and was originally called Massala when it was founded and eventually morphed into its French name today. It has been the center of immigration to the city creating a multicultural flare filled with excitement.
The narrow cobblestone streets lined with colorful shuddered windows make for a lovely walk through the daily lives of the locals and the area is filled with restaurants and cafes.
This guided audio tour lets you experience Le Panier, the historic district of Marseille where you’ll visit Vieux Port, City Hall, Saint Nicolas, and Saint-Jean forts, and the Notre Dame “Bonne Mère” Basilica.
3. Fort Saint-Jean
Standing front and center of the Old Town is one of the most visited monuments in Marseille. Fort Saint-Jean is connected by a footbridge to MuCEM (Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean). Fort Saint-Jean can’t be missed with its tall watchtower. Built by shipowners in the Middle Ages to fortify the area and defend Marseille from invaders.
3. MuCEM – Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean
It is fitting that this museum stands in one of Europe’s oldest cities. In 2013, Marseille was named a European Capital of Culture and The MuCEM – Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée was opened as part of its inauguration. The modern structure is a sharp contrast to the historic architecture lining the waterfront. Built between land and sea, MuCEM, is located beside Fort Saint-Jean bringing life to the area.
While the museum is dedicated to the history of European civilization and Mediterranean Culture, it is the building itself that has caught the attention of tourists. It is the newest of Marseille’s tourist attractions and is quickly becoming the most popular thing to do in Marseille.
4. Chateau d’If
Marseille is the setting for this famous novel, The Count of Monte Cristo written by Alexander Dumas, but Chateau d’If is not a fictional location. It is very real and this island prison stands just off the coast of Marseille in the Mediterranean Sea.
Originally built as a fortress, Chateau d’if was later used as a prison for political prisoners. Take the boat over to If Island (included in our CityPass) and then explore the cells of the famous political prisoners who suffered a dreary fate with no chance of escape.
Surprisingly, the cells of Chateau d’If were quite large. The higher-ranking prisoners paid for better cells that were spacious and even had fireplaces. The poorer prisoners were condemned to the lower dungeons which were intolerable and we were not able to see.
If you have read The Count of Monte Cristo or are familiar with any of the movies, Chateau d’If must be added to your list. Poor Edmond Dantes was sent to the prison island of Chateau d’If where he spent 14 years suffering at the hands of his tormentors before escaping and taking his revenge. Get your copy on Kindle or Paperback here.
€10 will get you a seat on the 20-minute ferry ride out to the island. You will have to pay another €5 once you arrive at Chateau d’If to see the sites. Or if you have a City Pass, the entry and crossing are included.
4. Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
Paris isn’t the only city with Notre Dame. Marseille city has its own Notre Dame, the Notre Dame de la Garde standing high on a hilltop keeping watch on its ships. This is a great place to head up for views of the city of Marseille and its port. Make sure to look up, a large Virgin Mary sits atop the bell tower keeping watch over the sailors.
Also known as La Bonne Mère, this viewpoint is not to be missed. The steep walk up 150 meters is worth it but if you don’t want to walk, you can catch the tourist train up to see the views and the giant gilded statue of the Virgin Mary. Arrive early to beat the rush of tourists as it is Marseille’s most famous attraction.
This full-day sightseeing tour includes a visit to the basilica Notre Dame de la Garde plus many more attractions including, MuCEM and the Villa Méditerranée, Saint-Victor Abbey, and its 4th-century crypt, and much more.
5. Marseille Cathedral – Cathédrale de la Major
When visiting Europe, we always “find our religion” (well, at least we find an interest in seeing its monuments) Cathédrale de la Major is a beautiful monument on the waterfront dating back to the 19th century.
Like many of the buildings in Marseille, The Cathedral blends Romanesque and Byzantine styles. It is a massive cathedral spanning 141 meters (462 feet). Its dome towers reach a height of 16 meters (52 feet) This cathedral reminded us of the Duomo in Florence, but with a far more beautiful setting.
6. Parc National des Calanques
A good day trip from Marseille is Calanques National Park. It is the only national park in Europe that is located near urban areas and is both on land and sea. It is located directly beside Marseilles en route to Cassis.
Calanques National Park is a large park at 520 square km (201 square miles) and it most certainly looks like something from the Greek Islands. It was designated a national park in 2012 and has great hiking trails and areas for kayaking and exploring the limestone cliffs and quiet coves.
Take a boat ride to see the stunning coast and hidden fishing villages that line the shore. This Catamaran tour to Calanques National Park. This 5-hour tour goes along the Mediterranean Sea between La Madrague and the town of Cassis, via Les Goudes and Callelongue. It is a wonderful way to explore the coast.
9. History Museum – Musée d’Histoire de Marseille
With Marseille being the oldest city in France, it is only fitting to visit the History Museum. The Musée d’Histoire de Marseille houses 4000 exhibits and interactive attractions showcasing the 26-century history of the city. Entrance to the History Museum is included in your City Pass.
10. Palais Longchamp
Palais Longchamp is a monument that was built to celebrate the completion of a long canal, The Canal de Marseille that supplies the city with water from the Durance River. It is a large green space with interconnected parks. It houses the Museum of Fine Arts dating back to 1801 and it is also home to the Natural History Museum. Its two wings are connected by a beautiful large water fountain and waterfall.
11. Abbaye Saint-Victor
If you haven’t gotten enough of the history in Marseille, pay a visit to Abbaye Saint-Victor. Not only will you learn about the city’s religious history, but it is also an Abbey with a view. The Basilica and the crypts have beautiful views of the Old City.
A great way to get around Marseille is to take a cycling tour. This 3.5-hour tour covers all the highlights of Marseille while taking in the fresh sea air. You’ll go through:
The Panier Neighborhood (the oldest district of Marseille)The Major CathedralThe new MuCem Museum areaThe Old Port (the main place in Marseille)The Pharo (where you have a beautiful view of the Old Port)Malmousque Little PortThe Vallon des AuffesThe Kennedy CornicheNotre Dame de la Garde (the “bonne mère”)The Abbaye of Saint-Victor
12. Vieille Charité
Vieille Charité was once an old almshouse (a building to help the poor) and is now a museum and cultural center. It is a hip area with a Bohemian vibe containing three tiers of art galleries, street art, and boutiques. This is a great place to get a feel for the local culture, and to do some shopping a the art market. There are many bars and cafes and it’s perfect for people watching. Plus there are two important museums in the complex, the Museum of Art of Africa and the Museum of Archaeology.
13. Parc Borély
Marseilles was lovely and anyone going to the south of France should make it a stop on their list. It is filled with history, beautiful architecture, and parks. Parc Borély is considered one of the most remarkable gardens in France. It was constructed in the 17th century and is composed of three different gardens. An English Garden, a French garden, a horse racing track connected by a botanical garden.
How to get to Marseille
Marseille is located in the south of France and you can fly to the Marseille Provence Airport which is just 27 km away. There are flights daily from all cities in Europe. International flights to Marseille connect via London, Paris, and Dublin.
The train is one of the easiest ways to get to Marseille and there are daily trains from Paris. Marseille’s main station is the Gare de Marseille St Charles.
The main bus station in Marseille is Gare St Charle (St. Charles bus station) and arrives from all over Europe.
Where to Stay in Marseille
When traveling through Europe, we often stay at Ibis or Etap hotels when traveling on a Budget. Now that we are a bit older, we prefer to splurge on higher-end accommodation, but we still think these are two great hotel chains.
Vieux Port – The best area to stay in Marseille is the Old Port. It is centrally located and easy to see most of the top Marseille attractions. It can be quite noisy and busy though.
Le Panier – The Old Town is another great option in the second arrondissement. Not far from the Old Port, there are several choices of accommodation. made up of three areas in Marseille and this is a good option for a quieter stay than the old port. Les Grands Carmes, Town Hall, and La Joliette.
Train Station – This is a good option that is a more affordable area, but it is still easy to get around. We stayed at the Ibis Hotel and found it to be quite pleasant.
Getting Around Marseille
We had a car while visiting Marseille, but traffic was busy, so we parked it and mostly walked. But because we had a car rental so we were very mobile in Marseille and had the freedom to stay outside the city while traveling on a Budget.
If you don’t want to walk, a Marseille City Pass is a great option. It lets you Ride Marseille’s public transport for free. Passes can be bought for 24, 48 or 72 hour and cover:
Free access to Marseille’s museums including – the Marine Museum, Natual History Museum, Fine Arts Museum, Palais Longchamp, and more. A Ride on the train to Notre-Dame de la Garde or le Panier old townGet tastings and discounts in certified boutiques.