Ah, Marseille. People usually either love or hate this sunny port city in coastal Provence. France’s third largest city is known for its eclectic neighborhoods, old trading port, rocky coastline, and charming singsong accent. Others aren’t so keen due to the city’s dirtiness, political corruption, and bad reputation. When I mentioned I would be spending a weekend in Marseille to my grandfather a few years ago he asked me why I wanted to visit a rundown port city! I assured that Marseille was far from run down.
Despite its rugged character, Marseille has some beautiful quarters and plenty of interesting things to do. One cold winter day, my friend Helen and I made a plan to escape gloomy Paris for the weekend. The last time I was in the south of France was on an exchange 10 years ago, so I was desperate to get back. We settled on Marseille hoping for some sunshine and warmth. It turned out to be much colder than expected, but the sunshine and sea breezes did the trick for curing our winter blues.
Just like Paris, Marseille has it’s own arrondissements, or administrative districts. With so many neighborhoods, it can be difficult to figure out where to explore. These are some of my favorite places I wandered around while spending a weekend in Marseille:
Strolling in Le Panier
The first part of Marseille I remember exploring after we checked into our Air Bnb was le Panier. This old quarter feels like it’s own little village filled with narrow streets, pastel buildings, and surprises around each corner. This neighborhood is the perfect place to take a leisurely walk and get that quaint provençal ambiance while in a big city.
Le panier, which means basket in French, actually gets its name from an inn called the “logis du panier” on the street “rue du panier.” The neighborhood has a melting pot history and was home to migrant fisherman, merchants, and sailors. Today, this corner of Marseille remains a multicultural hotspot.
Boutiques in Cours Julien
When we weren’t heading to a museum or going out to eat, we often wandered around different little streets and window shopping in the various boutiques. I love buying from local shops when looking for unique gifts for my family, or to find something special for myself as a souvenir. I don’t remember the names of all the stores we browsed through, but I believe the name of the neighborhood with lots of interesting shops is called Cours Julien.
Wandering around Le Vieux Port
My second favorite place to walk around was probably the old port, le vieux port. Some parts were a little touristy, but being next to the water felt so relaxing. It was so much fun looking at all the boats and wondering if we could make friends with some locals so we could go out on the water.
Spoiler alert: we didn’t make friends with any local sailors, but it would have been a chilly weekend for a sail anyway. We came back to this quarter at night and had drinks on a heated terrace while gazing out at the sea.
Noailles Spice Market
Our AirBnb was located right in the center of Marseille and it happened to be near a street with a spice market called the Marché de Noailles. I could exaggerate and say being in this market was like being in the middle of Marrakech, but I’ve never been so I can’t say for sure. This North African market however had so many wonderful products. Helen and I decided to cook our own dinner one night and we bought our produce from here. I also bought some spices and marzipan filled dates to bring back to Paris. Another interesting food store we visited was called l’épicerie idéale.
Marius and Fanny
Our first night at the AirBnb we discovered, our host had a wide variety of DVDs we could watch while we were there. We found a set of movies called Marius and Fanny, which were based off of provençal author Marcel Pagnol’s Trilogie marseillaise. This tale tells the story of a young man named Marius who works at his father’s café who is torn from staying in Marseille to be with the Fanny, the lovely girl next door, or following the call to the sea and becoming a sailor. If you are looking for French films or books I would highly recommend this series.
In addition to its diverse quarters, Marseille has some pretty interesting sights to see. If you are visiting just for the weekend like I did, here are a couple of the main sights to put on your list:
Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
The most iconic monument in Marseille would probably be the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. This basilica has a unique design and sits atop Marseille’s highest natural point, overlooking old port. It’s a bit of a climb to reach the the top, but the views are more than worth it. The belfry of this 19th century Catholic church features a golden statue of the Madonna and Child.
Just like in Marseille fashion, it was quite windy during our visit. If you didn’t already know, Provence is plagued by a strong wind called the Mistral.
If you visit one museum in Marseille, it should be the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, or the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. On the inside of the museum you can learn about the fascinating history of area.
On the outside, you can experience some modern artwork with architectural design of the building. After visiting some of the museums exhibits, we had fun just exploring and walking around the museum’s exterior. After that, we visited the Fort Saint-Jean right next door.
Where to Grab a Bite to Eat
Marseille is such a huge city with a variety of cuisines it’s not hard to find a good restaurant. Here are two of my favorite places I had a bite to eat while spending a weekend in Marseille:
Veggie Delights at Café l’écomotive
This is the first place where Helen and I ate in Marseille because it was super close to the train station and it had vegetarian options. They had a great affordable menu formula, so you could choose from a variety of salads, mains, and desserts.
A Secret Café in a Hardware Store: Musée Café at Maison Empereur
When Helen told me she knew about a secret café in Marseille I was immediately intrigued! To get to this clandestine coffee shop we needed to go through a home/hardware shop first. It was a little confusing navigating around the store, but once we headed upstairs we found the café. I loved the rustic vibe of the stone walls and wooded tables in the shop. in addition to serving hot beverages, this little café is also a small museum recounts the history of French manufacturers! After checking out the history, ordered tea, hot chocolate, and pastries, and discussed our favorite parts of the trip so far.
Although there is plenty to see in Marseille itself, there are quite a few day trips you can take if you want to see more of the south of France!
Helen and I chose to visit Montpellier during one of the days on our long weekend. I won’t get into the details because I’m planning on writing another blog post all about this city. However, I will say that this is one of the most beautiful cities in France I’ve ever visited!
Helen and I really wanted to visit the Calanques, which is a national park just outside Marseille with beautiful rocky cliffs and turquoise blue coves. We ultimately decided not to go on this trip because it was winter, we didn’t have the best clothes for hiking, and we didn’t have a lot of time since we were just visiting for the weekend. Next time I visit Marseille, I’m making it a priority to explore the Calanques!
Want to see more of Marseille? Check out Nicolas and Kristin on Instagram. Nicolas is a local marseillais who posts dreamy photos on his account unmediterraneen. Kristin is a fellow blogger and francophile who shares what it’s like moving to Marseille as an American in the Teaching Assistant Program in France. You can find her account round.trip here. And while I’m mentioning instagramers, I might as well self promote and tell you to check out my account if you aren’t following me already!
Thank you so much for reading and let me know what you’d be keen on visiting in Marseille!
À la prochaine,