Cosmopolite and sunny, the Mediterranean city has also become increasingly edgy in the past few years. Although it doesn’t strictly belong to the Riviera, which starts about 20 kilometers further East, Marseilles enjoys the same gorgeous natural setting, but without the whole ‘yacht culture’ going on from Cannes to Monaco.
Street cred’ & Arty vibes
Back in the days, the second most populated city in France after Paris has earned the reputation of being dangerous, dirty and ruled by the Mafia hand-in-hand with corrupt politicians. However, it has changed a lot in the past decades, and if there still are dangerous neighborhoods like in any big city in the world, Marseilles the capital of crime is nowadays merely a myth the national media like to fuel. And although it is slowly changing, this reputation encouraged the tourists to stick to more cliché destinations like the famous St-Tropez.
If you want to feel the rebel and alternative soul of the city, just hop off the subway at the station Notre-Damme-du-Mont and take a walk in the students and artists’ district of the Cours Julien, my favorite one. Wandering around, you will stumble across street musicians, arty libraries, thrift shops, small restaurants from all around the world and amazing street art everywhere!
Thus, Marseilles is one of those places you should visit while it is still off the beaten path: since 2013, the year it was European Capital of Culture, the city is experiencing gentrification and an increased flow of tourists in the summer. In preparation for 2013, huge infrastructures and modern buildings have been constructed, like the MuCEM, the Museum for Europe and the Mediterranean.
More generally, the cultural offer has increased considerably, with great museums, concert halls, and theaters. The MuCEM is probably one of the most popular, with its location on the iconic Old Harbour « Vieux Port » and its expositions about Mediterranean cultures. With an entrance fee of 5€ for students (9,50€ full price), a stunning architecture and very well-made exhibitions, this is the museum I would recommend if you should only visit one!
MuCEM English website: http://www.mucem.org/en
Another museum worth visiting is the Vieille Charité, located in the historic district of the Panier, this former hospice from the 17th century hosts temporary exhibitions, mostly about art and literature. If you have the occasion, you should also definitely check out the program of the Silo, a former storage silo from the time when the industrial harbor was located inside the city, abandoned for a while and recently turned into a concert hall with a great acoustic.
Slow down and enjoy the Southern way of life
However, no need of an ambitious bucket list to truly enjoy your stay, because there is only one thing you have to know: how and where to chill in Marseilles! This is something I always appreciate in my hometown: you can enjoy the energy of a big city in the center, but also take it slow, and enjoy some Mediterranean farniente.
For some nice terraces, avoid the Old Harbor, always crowded, and prefer the neighboring Place aux Huiles, more shaded and less hectic, or the Cours Julien for some cheap and relaxed cafés and bars, beloved by the local students. More touristy, but with a great view over the Mediterranean, you can also try the café of the MuCEM or the rooftop of the new shopping center called Les Terraces du Port.
And if you feel like going shopping, just walk down the St Férréol street, THE shopping street of the city center, perpendicular to the iconic Canebière. Additionally, its Haussmann buildings, and the nice square of the Préfecture it leads to, make it a pleasant little walk.
Of course, I cannot talk about relaxing in Marseilles without including some spots for swimming and sunbathing. Inside the city, you have the very popular Escale Borély, a series of beaches surrounded by parks, restaurants and ice-cream shops, a skate park and overlooked by a Ferris wheel (not worth the price of the ticket, though!).
A bit further away, one of my favorites places ever, which is not the best-kept secret anymore but still 100% worth it, is the inlet (‘calanque’ in French) of Morgiou. There is a hiking trail departing from the huge university campus of Luminy, which is easily accessible by car or by bus (take the 21 towards Luminy from the metro stations Castellane or Rond Point du Prado). The path is stunning, leading you through a typical Mediterranean landscape. It takes approximately 45min (2,5km) to reach the inlet, where you will be rewarded for your efforts by turquoise water, a cute picturesque harbor and cliffs to jump from. Note to bring you own food, there is nothing to buy there since the area is protected!
About cheap food and where to get it
Speaking of food, one of the most valuable advice you can get from a local is how not to blow your budget while traveling, so here are some insider tips!
- the Capucins market: located near the Canebière, right outside the Noailles metro station, the market of the Arab district takes place daily, is always animated and you can find cheap fruits of great quality. Note that you can only pay with cash there.
- Charly Pizza: offering literally the cheapest pizzas in town (and excellent), this family business is located right next to the Capucins market. A half of Margherita for 1€, 3 pizzas for 10€!
- Generally, if you are looking for cheap fast foods, go can’t go wrong with kababs, the great majority are very hygienic. On the contrary, avoid burger fast foods that don’t belong to a chain, they are a lot less safe.
- Discount supermarkets are Dia and Lidl, avoid Monoprix unless you want to get fancy!
Finally, there are a lot of must-sees I didn’t mention here, because you can easily find them in any tourist guide, but of course don’t miss out the Old Harbor, the new La Joliette hipster district, the Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica, the La Major cathedral, the Panier district, the Canebière boulevard and the view from the terrace of the St Charles train station!