Founded by the Greeks in 600 BC, Marseille is the oldest city in France. Its strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea means it has always been a crossroads, bringing together different peoples and cultures, sometimes from very distant places.
Visitors to Marseille encounter a chaotic atmosphere that is both delightful and, at the same time, very picturesque: the intense traffic, the fishmongers, everything in this city combines to offer a rich tapestry, whose every detail is lively and full of colour.
In Marseille, the food is fantastic, the people are lively and, above all, there are lots of interesting things to see. Also known as the "Naples" of France, this city contains a priceless historical heritage that earned it the title of Capital of Culture 2013, a nomination that has led it to redevelop of some of the main neighbourhoods.
When you come to Marseille, you naturally expect stunning views and truly sublime food, and with good reason. The city is synonymous with its iconic fish soup, bouillabaisse, typically prepared with rascasse, sea gurnard, dory, conger, capon fish, weever, sauces and vegetables. Another typical dish served in traditional restaurants is Marseillaise-style mussels, seasoned with tomato, which everyone should taste at least once in their lifetime.
Other typical local dishes are tapenade, an appetizer made from olives, anchovies and capers, and Panisse, a flat cake made from chickpea flour that will win you over with its simple goodness. Marseille has been home to a variety of ethnic groups for centuries, mainly from North Africa or the Orient. Their dishes figure large in the local cuisine and have become an integral part of the city's culture. For example, kemia, aperitifs that are usually served with the anise-based liqueur for which the region is renowned: Pastis.
Once you've eaten your fill of local delicacies, take a stroll down the Canebière, the most important artery of Marseille's old town. The name derives from the Provencal word "canabe", a reference to the intensive cultivation of hemp, which was used to make ropes and harnesses for ships. The street was inaugurated in 1666 by Louis XIV, although its period of greatest splendour came during France's Third Republic. The area is full of historic buildings, cafes and restaurants and, naturally, places of cultural interest for all tastes.
Let Costa Cruises help you discover this wonderful city, with its selection of 10 things to see in Marseille:
- Vieux Port (Old Port)
- Church of Saint Lawrence
- Our Lady of the Guard
- Le Panier district
- Vieille Charité
- Frioul Islands and Chateau d'If
- The calanques of Marseille
- The Corniche
- Prado Beaches
The Vieux Port district of Marseille has been inhabited for 2,600 years: the heart of the city, Vieux Port is home to sailing ships, fishermen, bars, theatres and is generally considered one of the most unspoilt and picturesque neighbourhoods anywhere in France. Take a trip to the Quai des Belges, the area where fishermen dock in Marseille early in the morning to unload fresh fish; naturally, this is also the starting point for various boat trips. The Quai can be reached via La Canebière, a large avenue that runs from the port through the city and also offers a good general overview of the city. No visit to Marseille would be complete without at least one stop at the fish market, an unforgettable taste of everyday life in Marseille.
Among the Vieux Port's various attractions is the ferry that takes you on a tour around the harbour, from Fort Saint Nicholas and Fort Saint Jean. Fort Saint Jean was built in order to defend the port, after the sack of Marseille by the Aragonese in 1423; Fort Saint Nicholas was built later, in 1660, with the aim of keeping the city's population under control. The two forts used to be connected by a beautiful bridge but, unfortunately, this was destroyed during the Second World War. Fort Saint Jean was also one of the nerve centres of the French revolution.
In Vieux Port, there are also very recent structures worthy of note, completed in 2013 following the city's designation as Capital of Culture. Among these “La tettoia”, a work by renowned architect, Norman Foster: this ‘artificial sky’ made of mirrored stainless-steel measures 46 x 22 metres and gives passers-by an unusual perspective on themselves and the city.
Don't miss the La Samaritaine brasserie, which has been a meeting point for inhabitants, serving excellent tea, since 1910 and is today one of the city's best-known landmarks. At the Vieux Port, you can also dine on Marseille's famous fish soup, Bouillabaisse, but be careful to avoid the more touristy places to ensure you are served a traditional, high quality dish.
Church of Saint Lawrence
Archaeologists believe that the Church of Saint Lawrence was built on the exact spot where the first Greek settlements were situated. At the foot of the hill where the Church stands, in fact, an ancient Ionic capital was discovered, probably belonging to the sanctuary of Apollo Delphinios. The Church of Saint Lawrence enjoys a magnificent view of Vieux Port, with its old and new buildings, and an extraordinary panorama over the blue waters of the sea. This is probably the oldest Christian place of worship in Marseille, and has survived to the present day thanks to restoration works carried out over the centuries. The interior is composed of three splendid naves, separated by square pillars supporting transversal arches and rising towards the barrel vaults. The apse, which is ribbed, was rebuilt in the seventeenth century to make room for the octagonal tower which later became the bell tower. The floor contains the slabs of a number of tombs, each of them bearing a number. Not to be missed is the apsidole on the left, which houses a Madonna with Child in dark wood, also known as the Black Madonna - in best Catalan style.
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Guard
The white bulk of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Guard silently surveys the chaotic city of Marseille. From here, you can admire a splendid panorama not only of the city, but also of the Mediterranean. Built in Romanesque-Byzantine style, the Cathedral is dominated by the Madonna, affectionately known by the people of Marseilles as Bonne-Mére. There are actually two churches here: a lower one in the form of a crypt, with a polychrome crucifix and a marble Our Lady of Sorrows. Then, there is the upper church, a sanctuary consecrated to the Virgin decorated with mosaics with a golden background, marble decorations and depictions of all the miracles performed by the Madonna.
As you might expect, he hill on which Our Lady of the Guard stands has always been an excellent observation point. In the fifteenth century, by order of Charles II of Anjou, this location was included in the list of look-out stations. In the course of time, the area became a place of worship, and already in the mid-nineteenth century the sanctuary had become too small for the many pilgrims who wanted to visit it. It was Monsignor Mazenot who decided to build a large basilica, the same one we can admire today.
The MuCEM, or Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, opened in 2013 when Marseille was still the Capital of Culture, and it consisted of a 45 thousand m2 exhibition, situated right at the entrance to Vieux Port. The futuristic silhouette of the MuCEM is the work of architects, Rudy Ricciotti and Roland Carta, and is located at pier J4, near the Villa Méditerranée. It is a cement cube with a classic design, dust-coloured and surmounted by a veil of lace-patterned cement that makes it possible also to look out at the sea from the inside.
The whole museum is dedicated to the cultures of the Mediterranean Basin, a very important project where each exhibition offers insights in a number of areas - anthropology, history, culture, archaeology and contemporary art - with the aim of offering curious and interested tourists a glimpse into the heart of the cultures that combined to breathe life into what we now know as Europe.
The MuCEM is the ideal location for permanent and temporary exhibitions, conferences, seminars and other cultural events, right in the heart of Marseille. The permanent collection houses around 200 artefacts, 135 thousand prints, drawings, posters and paintings, as well as 355,000 photographs and 150,000 books and magazines, created by combining several collections put together over 130 years and brought here from Trocadero Ethnography Museum, the Musée de l'Homme and National Museum of Art and Popular Tradition. The MuCEM features a suspended walkway that takes you directly to the Place d'Armes in Fort Saint Jean and an open space which hosts cultural shows. The museum is open every day except for Christmas and the 1st of January.
Le Panier District
At the back of the Marseilles city hall lies the historical town centre, an area known as Le Panier. The origin of the name is unknown, but could derive from the name of an ancient inn, "Le Logis du Panier". It is an ancient and labyrinthine neighbourhood, where the facades of the buildings are partly concealed by washing hung out to dry, old people sit by the roadside watching the world go by and children run around playing their endless games. This neighbourhood can only be visited on foot and every alleyway, each narrow, winding street, has something to offer the visitor. Don't miss Place des 13 Cantons, Place du Refuge, Place des Moulins and Vieille Charité.
In the heart of the Le Panier district stands Vieille Charité, a perfectly restored ancient alms-house. This unusual building was once home to the poor and the dispossessed, and its restoration triggered the renovation of the entire neighbourhood that houses it. The structure dates back to 1640, when the City Council decided to create a communal space dedicated to the poor of Marseille. Its construction was supervised by the king's architect, Pierre Puget, resulting in one of Provence's most suggestive sights which is also amongst France's most evocative architectural complexes. Vieille Charité is made up of four buildings spread over 3 floors, overlooking an inner courtyard with an Italian Baroque-style chapel in the middle. Currently the structure houses a multidisciplinary centre, the Museum of African, Oceanic and Amerindian Arts, the Marseille International Center for Poetry, the Cinéma Le Miroir, the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology and several exhibition halls.
Cathedral de la Major
Familiarly known as La Major, the Cathedral de la Major was built in neo-Byzantine style and is an imposing structure, about 146 meters high, which attracts attention tourists the moment they step foot in Marseille. The ancient Major was built in the mid-1100s and was divided to two with the construction of the new Major, the part of the church presently visible and open for visits. The renovations brought to light an enchanting early Christian baptistery which, however, has now been buried once more. The Ancient Major is situated beside the new one but is not presently open to visitors.
Many different materials were used in the construction of this extraordinary structure, such as green marble from Florence, white Carrara marble, stone from Calissanne and Gard, Italian onyx and Venetian mosaics. The facility can accommodate up to 3,000 worshipers
Frioul Islands and Chateau d'If
When he visited the Frioul Islands in 1516, François Ier immediately understood their strategic importance and ordered a fortress to be erected there which, however, soon changed function and became a prison. Many people died behind its bars, but its most famous prisoner was José Custodio Faria, whose name Alexandre Dumas immortalised in his novel, "The Count of Montecristo". The Chateau d'If, a place of death and last hopes, can still be visited today, reached through the regular maritime line that connects it to the mainland.
The Frioul Islands form a limestone barrier opposite the splendid city of Marseille, which is visible in the distance. This archipelago consists of four islands: Pomègues, Ratonneau, If and Tiboulen. The grim character of these mistral-scourged islands stands witness to its long history. The microclimate has given rise to many unique floral species, more than 200 in all. The islands are also a refuge for numerous sea birds and are the main home of the yellow-legged gull. The Frioul archipelago has belonged to the city of Marseille since 1971, while the village of Port Frioul was founded in 1974 and houses a few restaurants, a marina, an aquaculture farm and an organic sea bass farm.
On the island of Ratonneau, on the other hand, there is an old hospital, Hopital Caroline, built in the 19th century to treat yellow fever patients in a fairly quiet and secluded area. Currently the structure is in disuse, but a redevelopment project is underway to bring the site back into operation.
The Calanques of Marseille
No visit to Provence would be complete without a visit to Les Calanques, a paradise of coves scattered along the Marseille coast, one of the most beautiful natural sights in the area. The wild calanques are simply small coves of white rock, swept by the mistral wind and plunging down into crystalline seas. This strip of coastline, Les Calanques, is about 20 km long and has been protected since the 1970s because of the wealth of flora and fauna that it hosts. The area is almost inaccessible by car, except for a few sections - but much of Les Calanques can be visited on foot, although the hiking routes are very demanding. Another excellent idea is to explore these coves by boat: several trips are available from Marseilles. Don't miss the chance to enjoy the pristine beauty of this place and take some pictures of the famous cabanons, the colourful boatsheds, made even more picturesque, framed as they are by the backset of Les Calanques.
Of all the gullies, Sormiou is the largest and most famous and is, quite simply, a marvel to behold. Here, a diver from Cassis discovered a cave containing cave paintings from the prehistoric era; this is currently not open to the public, however. Also worth a visit are the Calanques de Callelongue, Morgiou, Port Pin, and Port Piou in Cassis.
La Corniche is the name of the very long, scenic road that goes through Marseille and runs along the coast. Originally dedicated to Kennedy, it can be reached by following the Quai de Rive-Neuve road and is a great place to admire some of the city's most exciting spots, such as Porte d'Orient and the Rapatriés monument. The route is particularly beautiful and evocative, overlooking luxury private villas on the way to the Prado beaches, an authentic seaside park within the city that houses some of its main tourist facilities. La Corniche was founded in 1848, not for tourism purposes but with the sole aim of giving work to 8,000 unemployed workers. The works, which lasted 15 years, gave rise to this road, which is also one of the most beautiful in the world. The tram line means it is also walk suitable for all, taking you as far as Cassis, from where you can gain entry to the Calanques National Park.
In the mid-1970s, work began on the construction of the Marseille metro, and this in turn led to a need to reclaim more land from the sea near the city. This was the beginning of the Prado Seaside Park, forty hectares of meadows, parks, playgrounds and six fantastic sand and gravel beaches: Gaston Deffere Beach, Borely Beach, Huveanune Beach, Bonnevienne Beach, Vieille Chappelle Beach and Pointe Rouge Beach. This project has made Marseille distinctly more attractive to tourists and, at the same time, has been a way of improving the quality of life for residents, who now have access to a very pleasant open-air space. In addition to a number of activities aimed at youngsters, such as the skate park, the area also hosts two museums: The Museum of Decorative Arts in Borely Castle and the Museum of Contemporary Art, easily identified by a large statue by the artist, César Baldaccini.
Visit Marseille with Costa cruises
Lively and colourful, Marseille will instantly win you over: take advantage of Costa Cruises excursions to discover some of the most beautiful places in this enchanting city, such as Vieux Port, Our Lady of the Guard and the MuCEM.