The best things to do in Marseille

Marseille is the second biggest city of France after Paris and a capital of French region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur. It is also the oldest town of the country, built during Antiquity by Greek sailors and merchants from Phocaea. Marseille is nowadays the first French port and also a very cosmopolitan city due to the massive cultural and economic exchanges with Southern Europe, Middle East and North Africa. Its heritage made what Marseille is today: vibrant, chaotic, cosmopolitan and edgy city with lots of things to see and do.

We visit Marseille as a day trip and I’m going to share what we can do and see in one day. But first the logistics.

How to get to Marseille

  1. If you fly into Marseille, then you will land in Marseille Provence airport, located 26km from the city and 25 minutes away by car. There is Bus Terminal in between Terminal 1 International and Terminal 2 Domestic. Buy your ticket at the Ticket Office (Billetterie). Bus no. 91 goes to Marseille Bus station at Gare Saint Charles.
  2. If you come by train. Marseille has Gare Saint Charles which connects main line train and Regional train. There is direct train from Aix-en-Provence TGV to Gare Saint Charles which takes 15 minutes journey.
    Gare Saint Charles is located in the city center and it is situated in an elevated position overlooking the city. The most famous feature of this station is the flight of stairs that links Marseille St Charles to the city center. If you are traveling with suitcases, take the metro line 1 which will take you to the old port. The metro stop name is “Vieux-Port – Hôtel de Ville”. Otherwise take a taxi from the train station.
  3. If you are coming from Aix-en-Provence take bus no 50 from Gare Routiere to Gare St Charles

Marseille Gare Saint Charles

I want to write some facts about Marseille Gare Saint Charles because this train station has several interesting features traveler need to know about if they are going to travel to and from this station

  1. Marseille train station is called Gare Saint Charles, but pls take note that when you use SNCF Connect to look up journeys and book tickets for rail travel to or from Marseille, use ‘Marseille’ as the station name and not Marseille St-Charles.
  2. Marseilles St Charles is a terminus station so it’s comparatively easy to use. The platforms/tracks are on the same level as the main concourse, which also houses ticket and information offices and the access to the metro station. So changing trains simply involves walking from one platform to another via the main concourse, which is convenient as Marseille is where connections have to be made when traveling by train along the Mediterranean coast in France, between locations to the east such as Toulon, Nice and Cannes, and locations to the west such as Nimes and Montpellier.
  3. Marseille bus station is located in the same building as the train station. When looking at the departure screens don’t confuse the buses with the trains – the bus departure screens are labelled Gare Routière.
  4. Marseille Train Station is situated in an elevated position overlooking the city, so on a fine day the best location to wait for a train is on the huge terrace in front of the station with its magnificent views. The most famous feature of the station is the flight of stairs that links Marseille St Charles to the city center. If you are arriving or leaving with suitcases, take the metro line 1 which will take you to city center. The Metro station in the old port is named ‘Vieux-Port – Hôtel de Ville’.
  5. If you are traveling by train usually it is most comfortable to find accommodation within 5 minutes walk to the station. DON’T! Unless you want to haul your suitcases and deal with the flight of stairs. Many of the accommodation options that are nearby, are at the foot of the staircase that links the station to the town, spectacular, but awkward if you have suitcase. The best option is to hop on Metro Line 1 and opt to stay near the port in the heart of town.

Best things to do in Marseille

1. Le Vieux Port

One day in Marseille should start with the Vieux Port or Old Port. The Port of Marseille is one of the busiest ports on the Mediterranean Sea. It lies to the west of the French Riviera on the Gulf of Lion about 135 kilometers west of Cannes and some 200 nautical miles northeast of Barcelona in Spain. The Port of Marseille is an important commercial center. In 2005, over 826 thousand people lived in the Port of Marseille, and more than 1.3 million lived in the metropolitan area.It is also the throbbing cultural heart of the city, making for a lively city break for those willing to dive in and discover a different side of South France. The waters are filled with fishing boats, yachts, and sometimes a cruiser. Walk along the old part by the Quai des Belges at the start of the day and you’ll see the bustling fish market, a famed Marseille landmark. Fresh fish off the boat flop around in their buckets as you see local chefs picking up the catch of the day for their restaurants. The Old Port is also the starting point for many excursions from taking a boat to the island of Marseille or visit the Calanques to taking petit train to take you thru the city.

2. See the oldest building in Marseille

Hôtel de Cabre is actually the oldest building in the Marseille, dating back to the 1500s. It’s actually been moved from its original location. Hôtel de Cabre was moved after WWII up one block and was even rotated 90 degrees. Look for a street sign on two sides of the building and find a new street sign for rue de la Bonneterie. This historical building currently isn’t used much now except for a hair salon on the first floor. 

3. Walk through the picturesque neighbourhoods of Le Panier

Le Panier District is situated north of the Port and it is one of Marseille’s oldest and more picturesque neighbourhoods. Le Panier is a great place for a little history. This is where the Greeks settled when they arrived in the city. From Hotel de Cabre keep walking to the North, passing thru Hotel Dieu Intercontinental Marseille and start climbing the flight of stairs to Le Panier. Once you reach Le Panier District, walk thru the winding roads, stop and take picture of the frescoes on the sides of buildings and reflecting on how Marseille used to be. Wander some more thru the lovely streets and stop at Place des Pistoles for a drink on the terrace of if it is already lunch time it is a great place to have a break and sit down for lunch.

4. Visit Marseille New Port and Cathedral La Major

Marseille has 2 Ports: the Old Port and the New Port and they are located next to each other, separated by Fort Saint-Jean. The new Port is nowhere as pretty as the Old Port but it is worth visiting and the port is an important seaport for containerized cargoes. Cathedrale de la Major, the oldest church in the city of Marseille is situated in the New Port. Constructed with a wonderful blend of Romanesque and Byzantine architecture it is one of the most important national monuments in France. It is also one of the largest churches in France, because at one point it was two separate churches. The size rivals that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. You can enter the Cathedral for free to admire the architecture and impressive materials used to make this majestic Cathedral.

5. MUCEM and Fort Saint Jean

From the new port walk a bit further until you’ll reach MUCEM and Fort Saint-Jean. MUCEM is the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. It is one of the very rare museums dedicated to the culture of the Mediterranean region, and it ranks among the top 50 most visited museums in the world. Spread across a huge area of 40,000 square meters, MUCEM contains various permanent and temporary exhibition spaces related to Mediterranean civilizations. Just after the museum is Fort Saint-Jean, the old fortification walls of Marseille. Fort Saint-Jean signal the start of the Marseille Old Port and you can get some great views from here. You can also enter the Fort Saint-Jean as a part of MUCEM. Go up to the top and look out for the narrow pedestrian bridge that leads to Fort Saint-Jean. This offers a jaw-dropping view of the architectural stunner, a webbed concrete cube that evokes Arabic motifs. Marvel at the design on the rooftop patio, then via the exterior walkways that descend through the latticework. On the ground floor of MUCEM, the bookstore stocks postcards and books on Marseille. Note that MUCEM’s exhibitions require an entrance fee.

6. Visit Basilica Notre Dame De La Garde

The grand Catholic Church of Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is a 19th-century Romano-Byzantine basilica and it was built on the ruins of an ancient fort. This is the basilica that you see towering over the Marseille Old Port. Perched atop the city’s highest natural elevation spot, the view from here is spectacular. You can see a 360-degree views of the Old Port and Marseille city.
Going to Basilica Notre Dame is a must but getting there is a bit of a hassle. There are 2 ways to get there:
1. On Foot: walk uphill for about 30 minutes. It’s not the nicest walk and it can get quite steep. Not a good idea in a summer afternoon.
2. Taking Bus no 60 to the top and then walk back down (or take the bus back down). Bus no 60 comes every 15 minutes and there are stops all along the port that you can get on at. We hopped on to the Bus stop not far from MUCEM and on our way back get off in Vieux Port. Bus Stop final destination is the Basilica. It costs 2 eur and you can buy a ticket from the driver.
3. Alternatively you can always take a Taxi to and back.

7. Discover Greek Archaeological ruins in front of Marseille History Museum
There’s an Old Greek Archaeological site in front of the new Marseille History Museum. You can see these ruins for free. These ruins were only discovered when they were building the new Gallery Lafayette shopping mall next door. In fact, before they began construction, this part of the city was a parking lot! If you still have time you can also go inside the Museum.

You are probably pretty tired by now so it is time to walk back to Marseille Old Port and sit down for dinner. Or enjoy some Apéro and drink if it’s not dinner time yet. The French people take their dinner at 8pm which is pretty late for me and take some time to get used too. A little bit about Apéro, short for apéritif, is sacred in France: an hour or so before dinner where you can unwind over a cocktail (or two) and a few snacks. It’s not about getting drunk: it’s about spending time together and preparing your palate for the meal to follow. I was not aware about it when I went to France back in 2014. As I now stay for about a month with my sister’s family I am more immersed with the culture.

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