Last Updated on March 11, 2023

Marseille is a beautiful historic city in the south of France and an extremely popular tourist destination. This Mediterranean port has a rich and storied past, beginning as a Greek trading colony around 600 B.C. and thriving throughout ancient times as a Greek and Roman commerce center.

It has seen Celts, Germans, Normans, Saracens, and others come and go. Through wars, pestilence, feast, and famine, Marseilles has taken it all in stride, giving the city a unique seasoning from its many pages of history.

Today, Marseille is the second most populous city in France. Residing in the Provence region, Marseille is famous for its wine and seafood. Its mild, sunny Mediterranean climate is a siren’s call to European and world travelers eager to embrace the culture and ambience of this remarkable seaside destination.

Whether its quaint alleyways, bustling markets, its waterfront or stunning views that interest you, here are some of the top Marseille attractions that should be experienced as you fall in love with this coastal treasure.

Vieux Port – the Old Port of Marseille

This has been the heart of the city since ancient times. The Vieux Port forms the natural harbor of Marseille and remains one of the most popular parts of town for tourists and locals alike.

In 2013, the area was largely pedestrianized, making it that much more appealing to visitors meandering its quays and dining among the many restaurants sporting wharf-side views. Here, guests can enjoy a café, lunch, or seafood dinner in an outdoor seating while watching life unfold all around them.

At the Old Port’s Quai des Belges, the latest catch is still brought ashore each morning to be sold at the waterfront fish market.

Vieux Port is located at the end of La Canebière, tucked between Fort Saint-Jean and Fort Saint-Nicholas. An eco-friendly ferry boat departs from the town hall several times a day taking visitors from one side of the port to the other.

Chateau d’If

Situated on a small island one and a half kilometers off the coast, the lonely Chateau d’If served as both a fortress and a prison for many years. Built in the sixteenth century, it was more of a deterrent than an actively used defensive fortification. Its functioning prison however, saw use well into the 19th century.

This castle-prison’s main claim to fame is its use as one of the main settings for Alexandre Dumas’s well-loved novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. One roughly hewn dungeon is named the Edmond Dantès Cell in honor of the novel’s protagonist, the man who becomes the Count of Monte Cristo.

Today, both the citadel and its prison are open for tours.

Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MUCEM)

MUCEM is built on reclaimed land at the entrance to the harbour. The modern building is linked to the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean and a former port terminal called the J4 incorporating them into the museum. The two sites are linked by a high 130-meter-long footbridge. A second footbridge links the Fort Saint-Jean to the Esplanade de la Tourette, near the church of St Laurent in the Panier quarter.

MUCEM’s permanent collection charts the historical and cultural cross-fertilization in the Mediterranean basin reflecting Marseille’s storied past as one of the oldest European communities. The museum’s reach is far more than archeological, utilizing an interdisciplinary approach to showcase society through the ages up to modern times with displays from ancient artifacts to modern oil paintings.

Palais Longchamps

The Palais Longchamps is a stunningly beautiful palace with a spectacular water feature for which it is highly famed. On the grounds you can find the natural history museum as well as the Musee de Beaux arts.

Le Panier

Le Panier– or the Basket – is a section of the city reflecting the charm of Old Marseille and showcasing the true character of this historic city. Walking through its narrow winding streets and delightful squares is like a step back in time.

Here visitors and locals meander past workshops, restaurants, boutiques and terraced homes enjoying the sights and sounds of Marseille. It is a wonderful place to spend time relaxing, shopping, and dining in true Marseille French fashion.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

Dominating the skyline to the south of the old Port, this monument stands tall like a sentinel over the town. Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is a 19th-century neo-Byzantine church sports a large golden statue of the Virgin and Child at the top of its impressive tower to watch over Marseille’s maritime communities. Views from the church are spectacular.

The basilica was built into the lower levels of a renaissance-era fortress that also included a chapel. The structure stands 150 meters above the water and it’s quite a hike to get up there. However, a tourist train departing regularly from the Old Port provides a less strenuous option for visitors.

Abbaye Saint Victor

This abbey was built during the 11th century around the later Roman period. The most notable aspect of this building, besides the beautiful Romanesque architecture, is that it was built using a crypt as its foundation. The crypts of the abbey were once a Greek era quarry that later served as a necropolis from 2 BC onward until Christian times.

Steeped in history, the Abbey has seen both splendor and ruin.

In 1794, the abbey was stripped of all its treasures and relics and the building itself was relegated to a warehouse, prison and barracks. The only surviving element of the Abbey today is the church of St. Victor, dedicated by Pope Benedict IX in 1040 and rebuilt in 1200. In the 19th century the abbey was given a full makeover when it was restored to its former glory, and in 1934 it was made into a minor basilica in 1934 by Pope Pius XI.

Marseille History Museum

Here you’ll find a variety of both historical and archaeological displays. Originally the site of a future shopping mall, important archeological discoveries during excavations led to a major redevelopment of the project.

Within the Centre Bourse shopping arcade now sits the Marseille History Museum, opened in 1983 to showcase the on-site impressive Greek, Roman, and Medieval finds that include a necropolis, classic ramparts and some port buildings.

The museum building is entered from within the centre itself, opening out onto the Jardin des Vestiges, an outdoor garden containing the excavated archeological ruins of the ancient port and its docks and warehouses. A temporary exhibition hall for supports various themed events pertinent to the history of Marseille while a permanent exhibition hall displays the various remains discovered.

Calanque en Vau

The Calanque d’en Vau is a national park in Marseille with a dramatic landscape of craggy white limestone cliffs, narrow bays, hidden coves with postage stamp beaches and crystal-clear cerulean waters. Promontories covered with Mediterranean scrub and pine trees add a green touch to this painter’s palette of natural beauty.

There are many rocky walls here which are great for those with a love for climbing and trail paths for hikers.

The beautiful beaches are ideal for relaxing and soaking up the glorious sunshine that Marseille experiences in the summertime. Guided kayaking adventures are popular and a visit to the indescribably beautiful cove at Calanque d’En Vau is a treat.

Porte d’Aix

The Porte d’Aix is a triumphal arch that once served as the town’s main entrance. Built in the 1700s, it sits over the road from Aix-en-Provence, a former major thoroughfare.

Europeans love their arches and the people of Marseille are no exception as this monument remains one of the most prominent photo spots in the city.

Author

  • Michael Kompanik

    Michael Kompanik is a retired Navy CAPT and San Diego freelance journalist. His love of Europe began with his NATO assignment to Naples, Italy in the 90s where he traveled extensively to 17 European countries. Since then, trips to Europe are always on his radar.

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