France Travel

A Weekend in Marseille

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.

A Weekend in Marseille
 Le Fort Saint-Jean

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.

Colorful Marseille

Marseille Neighborhoods

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:

The cutest little streets in le Panier

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.

Artisan giftshop in le Panier – can you spot the savon de Marseille?

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.

History of Marseille’s rue du panier

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.

le 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.

The stunning Old Port

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.

This boat is named “the Gift of Wind”

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.

There are so many interesting little shops around every corner!

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.

Climbing hilly streets to get the best panoramic views of the city

Sightseeing

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.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

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.

Windy hair don’t care

MUCEM

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.

MUCEM

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.

Views from inside MUCEM

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:

A Weekend in Marseille
Leaving the gare Saint-Charles

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.

Another pépite in the Panier

Day Trips

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!

Montpellier

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!

Place de la Comédie in Montpellier

The Calanques

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!

Calanques – Photo by Thibse on Unsplash

Marseille Bloggers

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!

Can you believe these views?

Thank you so much for reading and let me know what you’d be keen on visiting in Marseille!

À la prochaine,

Camden

16 comments

  1. I ❤ Marseille ! I lived for two years just off the Cours Julien and I still miss it so much !! You absolutely need to go see the calanques, they are almost otherworldly in their beauty. One of the last posts I published on my blog was all about my favorite trails in the calanques, and I planned a part 2 that's been in the works for….. *checks calendar* two years now…oops! Hoping to find some time to back to writing in 2021 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a wonderful post. Thanks to you when I retire and after I learn French I intend to investigate Marseille in detail. Your grandfather probably didn’t know what he thought he knew. You should take him with a grain of salt..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I visited Marseille twice, and I think it’s a gorgeous city. I stepped into that exact artisan shop in le Panier, and I believe I bought some savon marseillais there! But the true highlights of the city have got to be the Palais Longchamp, Vieux Port, and views of the city from Notre-Dame de la Garde. The calanques are a treat, too, but require a full day to experience it! I’d be keen on returning some day (and for some bouillabaisse)!

    PS I have a travel poem coming up inspired by Marseille. What timing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The shop is just too cute, how could you not stop in there? Thanks for your tip about the Calanques, I’ll definitely plan to go for a whole day next time I visit. I can’t wait to read your poem!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I lived in marseille for more than 10 years and I can assure you as a local, you cannot forget about the city’s dirtiness, political corruption, and bad reputation. Although it is not so much a rundown port city anymore, it’s a lovely place to visit but being there 24/7 can be a little bit more challenging!
    Well done on your choices for snacks and eating. Both your addresses are usually not the one mentioned by visitors. And they deserved to be!!
    I’l go and check the blogs/instagram accounts you mentioned right away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your perspective. I’m sure living there is much different than just visiting! Perpignan is kind of like Marseille in that way. I love the city’s charm, but it can be hard seeing all the litter and political tensions.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s too often the problem with the Mediterranean cities unfortunately. Which is crazy when you think about it, as the area is blessed with natural beauty….
        I was really happy to read your post about my daughter’s hometown (do you say hometown even if it’s a city??). I’m lucky to now go and visit regularly as a tourist! I can enjoy the good sides and not deal with the rest!

        Liked by 1 person

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