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11 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Marseilles

Written by Lisa Alexander
Nov 17, 2020

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With a busy harbor and a vibrant urban energy, Marseilles appeals to visitors seeking an authentic tourist experience. This lively cosmopolitan city is France's oldest and the second largest after Paris.

The city has a distinctly Mediterranean ambience, from its red-tile roofed houses to the fishing boats in its port. Everywhere in Marseilles, visitors are close to the serene blue waters, whether walking along a charming old street with a view, or feeling the refreshing sea breeze.

The city's colorful, multiethnic heritage also makes Marseilles a fascinating place to visit. Considered the bridge between Europe and North Africa, Marseilles is home to a sizable emigrant population from Algeria. It's possible to find traditional Arab souks as easily as a classic French bouillabaisse.

Find out more about the top attractions and how to spend your time here with our list of the best things to do in Marseilles.

See also: Where to Stay in Marseilles

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

In a breathtaking hilltop location, this spectacular church is the most important landmark in Marseilles. The site was used in ancient times as an observation point, and during the Middle Ages, was the location of a pilgrimage chapel.

Today, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is a beacon for the faithful, with an enormous gilded Madonna crowning the belfry. Built in 1853-1864, the church features an opulent Neo-Byzantine-style interior of light and dark marble arches supporting gilded mosaic cupolas. The lavish design has a mesmerizing effect.

After seeing the interior, visitors can spend time on the splendid terrace. Offering a marvelous view, the panorama extends from the red roof tops of Marseilles' buildings and the old harbor, all the way to the Frioul Islands in the Mediterranean Sea.

Address: Rue Fort du Sanctuaire, Marseille

2. Abbaye Saint-Victor

Abbaye Saint-Victor
Abbaye Saint-Victor

This house of worship once belonged to an abbey founded in the 5th century. The abbey's basilica is one of the oldest buildings in Marseilles that is still intact, with foundations dating back to Early Christian and Carolingian times.

With its crenellated walls and towers, the foreboding exterior has the feel of a medieval fortress. Inside, the basilica reveals a simple and somber design, which gives it a special aura. The crypt houses sarcophagi of the 4th and 5th centuries, as well as the 11th-century tombstone of Abbot Isarnus.

The Abbaye Saint-Victor is open for visits on Tuesday afternoons and on additional days during the late summer.

Address: 3 Rue de l'Abbaye, Marseille

3. Explore the Vieux Port (Old Harbor)

Vieux Port (Old Harbor)
Vieux Port (Old Harbor)

The Vieux Port represents the birthplace of Marseilles. This is where the city began as a Greek port around 600 BC. Surrounded by serene blue waters, the Old Port is located in the west of Marseilles near the Canebière boulevard.

A stroll around this bustling harbor immerses visitors in the sights and sounds of a thriving Mediterranean port. The waterfront is a focal point for tourists, and many say it's one of the best places to visit in Marseilles for authentic local cuisine. Seafood restaurants specialize in bouillabaisse, the flavorful seafood stew that is the city's signature dish.

On the east side of the harbor, the Quai des Belges hosts a fish market every morning. Once an important commercial port, the Vieux Port is now used primarily by fishing boats and sports craft.

The Old Port is also the launching point for the ferries that sail to two popular tourist destinations: the Château d'If and the Calanques near Cassis.

4. Wander through the Colorful Streets of Le Panier (Old Town)

Le Panier (Old Town)
Le Panier (Old Town)

Splendidly situated on a hillside above the Vieux Port, this colorful neighborhood is the historic center and cultural heart of Marseilles. Le Panier is Marseilles' oldest quarter, inhabited since antiquity when the ancient Greeks settled here in 600 BC.

With its steep, narrow winding streets and quaint pastel buildings, this quarter offers a glimpse into the charming personality of Marseilles. Once a working class neighborhood, Le Panier is now a gentrified residential neighborhood, but the typical houses with shuttered windows and lines of laundry provide a glimpse of its old-fashioned character.

Visitors may begin a walking tour on the north side of the Vieux Port harbor basin at the Quai du Port and then walk up La Canebière, a vibrant boulevard that buzzes with activity.

Wandering through this atmospheric neighborhood leads to discoveries local artisan boutiques, gourmet food shops, and art galleries. There are also restaurants that serve authentic Algerian cuisine.

The quarter has several important monuments such as the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), which was built in the second half of the 17th century based on a Genoese architectural model. Other landmarks include the Cathédrale de la Major and the Vieille Charité, which has a museum with interesting contemporary art exhibits.

5. MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée)

MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée)
MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée) | Selden Vestrit / photo modified

A stunning complex of three different sites, this expansive museum features a wealth of discoveries. Through the museum's galleries, as well as lectures and film screenings, visitors can explore the history and culture of Mediterranean civilization.

The newest part of the museum is a dazzling ultra-modern building in an attractive seaside setting (on the former J4 Pier). This section displays permanent collections, as well as temporary exhibits. There is also a gourmet restaurant.

Another section of the museum is located in the vaulted rooms of the Fort Saint-Jean, a 12th-century monument that played a role during the Crusades. The Fort Saint-Jean includes lush Mediterranean gardens and a ramparts path where visitors can take in panoramic views of the coastline.

The third site is the Conservation Center (located in the Belle de Mai quarter), which offers a behind-the-scenes look into the work of the museum.

Address: 7 Promenade Robert Laffont, Marseille

Official site: http://www.mucem.org/en

6. Enjoy Nature Walks and Scenic Boat Tours at Calanques National Park

Sailboats at the Calanques
Sailboats at the Calanques

Between Marseilles and the quaint fishing village of Cassis is the Parc National des Calanques, a splendid nature site where the Mediterranean meets the Massif des Calanques mountains. The landscape is distinguished by majestic limestone rock walls with fjord-like coves ("calanque" translates to "cove") filled with pools of saltwater in mesmerizing turquoise hues.

Outdoor sports enthusiasts will find many things to do at Calanques National Park, such as swimming, kayaking, rock climbing, and hiking. An excellent system of trails allows visitors to appreciate the pristine environment and gorgeous coastal views.

For those who enjoy yachting and boat cruises, the fjords provide spectacular scenery on an idyllic journey through the tranquil maritime environment.

The largest calanques, Port-Miou, En-Vau, and Port-Pin, can be reached by car or by ferry from Marseilles. It is also possible to take a guided boat tour or arrange a private boat trip.

7. Château d'If

Château d'If
Château d'If

A short ferry ride away from the port of Marseilles, the Château d'If is located on the Ile d'If in the Frioul Islands archipelago, a nature conservation area that includes the tiny islands of If, Pomègues, Ratonneau, and Tiboulen.

The scenery is spectacular with protected coves, turquoise waters, pristine beaches, sandy creeks, and impressive limestone cliffs. Thanks to the Mediterranean sunshine, the light creates a spectacular effect on the water, and a microclimate allows rare floral species to flourish.

In this beautiful natural setting, the Château d'If was built as a fortress by King François I in the 16th century. Soon after, the fortress was converted into a prison. The location is depicted in Alexandre Dumas' novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

8. Musée d'Histoire de Marseille

Musée d'Histoire de Marseille
Musée d'Histoire de Marseille | Julien Carnot / photo modified

In Le Panier quarter, just a few steps away from the Vieux Port, the Musée d'Histoire de Marseille tells the story of Marseilles from its Gallo-Greek origins through the Middle Ages to the present day. The museum offers an impressive collection of historical artifacts, covering 2,600 years of history.

The archaeology and history collections come to life in this sleek modern museum's bright spacious rooms. The museum also has a garden, the Jardin des Vestiges, which is actually the excavation site of the 3rd-century BC port of Massalia.

Address: 2 Rue Henri-Barbusse, Marseille

9. Vieille Charité

Vieille Charité
Vieille Charité

The Vieille Charité is located on the Place des Moulins that lies at the highest point in Le Panier. The building was created in 1640 when the Town Council of Marseilles decided to give the poor local inhabitants a decent place to reside, in compliance with a royal policy of "enclosing the poor."

In 1749, a three-floor public hospital with four wings was added to the building. There is a chapel at the center courtyard of the hospital complex. Built from 1679 to 1707, the chapel is a wonderful example of Italian baroque architecture.

The facade of the Vieille Charité is more modern, dating from 1863. Upon close observation, visitors will notice the depiction of two pelicans feeding their young, to represent Charity looking after poor children.

Since 1986, the Vieille Charité building has been used to host scientific and cultural events and to house a museum, Le Centre de la Vieille Charité. This museum presents cultural events, ethnographic exhibits, and themed art expositions throughout the year.

Address: 2 Rue de la Charité, Marseille

10. Cathédrale de la Major

Cathédrale de la Major
Cathédrale de la Major

Near the northwest corner of Le Panier, the Cathédrale de la Major (Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure) stands majestically on an esplanade overlooking the waterfront. This ornate Neo-Byzantine cathedral seems to keep watch over the Old Port, with its soaring twin towers and 70-meter-high dome.

Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte commissioned the construction of this cathedral in 1852. Completed in 1893, the Cathédrale de la Major is the largest church (and the only cathedral) built in France during the 19th century. Its dimensions (142 meters long by 20 meters high) are similar in scale to Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome.

The lavish interior is richly decorated with Carrara marble and exquisite Venetian mosaics. An impressive assortment of statues is also found throughout the sanctuary.

At the foot of the cathedral is a plaza called "Les Voûtes," a popular gathering place filled with shops, restaurants, and cafés. Locals and tourists alike enjoy strolling through this happening area. In addition to the trendy scene, Les Voûtes also offers fabulous sea views.

Address: 10 Place de la Major, Marseille

11. Musée Cantini

Musée Cantini
Musée Cantini | Jeanne Menj / photo modified

Art lovers will appreciate the superb collection of modern and contemporary art found at the Musée Cantini, displayed within a 17th-century hôtel particulier (mansion). The local art collector Jules Cantini bought this elegant house in 1888, and he bequeathed it to the city of Marseilles in 1916.

The Musée Cantini boasts one of the country's most extensive assortments of modern art created between 1900 and 1960. Highlights of the collection include works by Raoul Dufy, Wassily Kandinsky, Max Ernst, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso.

A short walk from the Musée Cantini is the Cours Belsunce, a wide esplanade designed in the 17th century as a place for residents to enjoy leisurely strolls.

Address: 19 Rue Grignan, Marseille

Where to Stay in Marseilles for Sightseeing

Most major attractions in Marseilles are close to the old harbor area of Vieux Port and in Le Panier, the colorful and historic neighborhood of steep, narrow streets that wind up the hillside above the west side of Vieux Port. In these two quarters of Marseilles, you'll find these highly rated hotels:

  • Luxury Hotels: The Hôtel La Résidence du Vieux Port features exceptional views of the waterfront and the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde across the harbor. This four-star hotel has been recently redecorated in a retro 1950s style.

    The InterContinental Marseille - Hôtel-Dieu occupies a Historical Monument perched on a hilltop in Le Panier. This five-star hotel has a chic brasserie with an outdoor terrace, a Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurant, and an upscale spa with an indoor pool and fitness center.

    Overlooking the Vieux Port, the Sofitel Marseille Vieux-Port is nestled in a picturesque location next to a spacious park and near the Abbaye Saint-Victor. The five-star property has a spa, fitness center, and several restaurants.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: The three-star Hôtel Escale Oceania Marseille is just steps away from the Vieux Port in the city center near many restaurants and shops. Stylish modern guest rooms feature large windows, private balconies, and Italian-style "rain" showers.

    Located right on the waterfront, the Radisson Blu Hotel Marseille Vieux Port offers great views of the Old Port along with four-star amenities. Guests love the outdoor swimming pool and sun terrace area, as well as the gourmet restaurant with pleasant outdoor patio.

    The bright, spacious guest rooms at the four-star Grand Hôtel Beauvau Marseille Vieux Port - MGallery Collection are decorated in cheerful Provençal style. The hotel is near the Vieux Port in the city center.
  • Budget Hotels: The two-star Hôtel Hermès Vieux Port is a short walk to Le Panier quarter and has a rooftop terrace overlooking the Old Port. The services (24-hour front desk and concierge) are better than expected for a budget hotel.

    Near the train station and a 20-minute walk from the city center, the Ibis Marseille Centre Gare Saint-Charles provides basic accommodations at an affordable price. This three-star hotel has an airport shuttle service and a restaurant with pleasant outdoor seating.

Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Marseilles

  • Sightseeing in and around Marseilles: For the perfect combination of sightseeing and seaside scenery, consider the Provence, Marseilles, and Cassis Sightseeing Tour. This half-day itinerary includes a tour of the historic landmarks in Marseilles, a scenic drive along the Corniche des Crêtes, a stop in the Provençal fishing village of Cassis, and a 45-minute cruise through the Calanques National Park.
  • Provence Day Trip: If you want to experience the best of Provence, the Provence Countryside Tour is a great way to do it. This full-day adventure takes you to explore Avignon, the "City of Popes;" the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, surrounded by vine-covered hills; and the fortified medieval town of Les Baux-de-Provence.
  • Luberon Day Trip: Lavender fields, hilltop villages, and rugged mountain terrain are the highlights on the Perched Villages of the Luberon Day Trip. This full-day excursion begins with a scenic drive through the beautiful Luberon River Valley to see several charming medieval villages, and continues to the 12th-century Sénanque Abbey and the riverside town of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.

More Related Articles on PlanetWare.com

imageExploring the Provence Region: Marseilles is found in the heart of Provence, a favorite tourist destination in France. Many quaint hilltop towns and fishing villages, like Cassis, are easy day trips from Marseilles. Also not to be missed are Aix-en-Provence (30 kilometers away) and Avignon (100 kilometers away).

imageTraveling Off the Beaten Path: Slightly further afield (an hour's drive) is the unspoiled countryside of the Luberon region in Provence's Haut-Vaucluse, dotted with ancient abbeys and hilltop villages. About 120 kilometers away from Marseilles, the historic town of Nîmes is well worth the journey to see its ancient Roman monuments and top-notch museums.

imageSeaside Scenery and Beach Resorts: Around Marseilles, the coastline beckons with sunshine and beautiful Mediterranean scenery. The quintessential port town of Toulon is an hour's drive away, and the glamorous resort of Saint-Tropez, with its beautiful beaches, is a two-hour drive. Continuing along the Cote d'Azur are Cannes, Nice, and Monaco, famous for fancy beach clubs, upscale hotels, fine dining, and art museums.

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