France’s second largest city, Marseille, throbs with vitality from where it sits on the Mediterranean Sea. Its scenic natural harbor has made it an important trade center for centuries. The city was bombed by Germany and Italy as well as the Allies during World War II, but it survived and today blends the old and the new in exciting ways. Marseille is a city just made for wandering around, from its historic old town to its blended architectural styles. While any time is a good time to visit this historic city, Marseille attractions really shines on sunny days.
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Once a 17th century almshouse caring for beggars, Vieille Charité is now a museum and cultural center. It later served as barracks for the French foreign Legion. Over the centuries, the building fell into disrepair with restoration taking place in the 1970s. Today, it is home to two important museums: the Museum of Archaeology and the Museum of art of Africa, Oceania and Amerindia, which includes engraved human skulls from South America and masks from Africa. The complex’s courtyard includes a Baroque chapel said to be architect Pierre Puget’s most original design.
The monument Palais Longchamp was created to celebrate the construction of the Canal de Marseille, which brings water from the Durance River to Marseille. The ornate building opened in 1869 after taking 30 years to build. The building presents a spectacular scene at night when it is lit up. Today, it houses the city’s natural history and fine arts museum. Part of the complex includes the Parc Longchamp, one of France’s notable gardens. The park once housed a zoo; these buildings can be visited today. The park also is home to notable statuary and a man-made grotto with water flowing through it, and a classical French garden.
The MuCEM, formally known as the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe, is devoted to the history and culture of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea from Beirut to Gibraltar. Indeed, it is built on land reclaimed from the sea. It is located next to Fort Saint Jean and opened in 2013 when Marseille was named a European Capital of Culture. The museum’s uber contemporary building represents modern Marseille. Visitors say exhibits could be somewhat better organized in how they display important artifacts and paintings.
Visitors to the Cathedrale de la Major rave over how the beauty of this Catholic church, its high ceilings and its fabulous mosaics. They also say it’s worth a visit just to see the views of the harbor. Cathedrals have been built on this site since the 5th century. The latest cathedral, built in a spectacular Byzantine Romanesque style, dates to the 19th century. This French national monument is the oldest church in the city, though it is not the most famous; that honor belongs to Notre Dame de la Garde.
Le Panier is the old town district of Marseille, which was called Massala when it was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. Much of Le Panier was destroyed during World War II, with the Nazi occupiers at one time blowing up 1,500 houses. The district is going through revitalization now, but its colorful vibrancy remains. One of the most popular things to do in Marseille is to explore the old town on foot, so make sure to wear comfy walking shoes. Plaques set in the ground make it easy to take a self-guided walking tour. The district is a good place to buy crafts and browse through art galleries.
Fort Saint-Jean is a massive waterfront fortress as the entrance to the Old Port. King Louis XIV ordered the fortress built, just as he did Fort Saint Nicholas on the other side of the harbor. It was used for political prisoners during the French Revolution, and later was a staging point for new French Foreign Legion recruits. Occupied by the German military, much of the fort was destroyed during World War II when a munitions depot exploded. The fort was restored 30 years later, and today is part of the MuCEM.
The Old Port, or Vieux Port, is a natural harbor that has seen use since the ancient Greek founded Marseille 2,400 years ago, though it now serves mainly as a popular tourist attraction. At one time, 18,000 ships a year berthed at the Old Port. Old Port is made for pleasant strolling and relaxing over a glass of wine at a sidewalk café. St. Victor’s Abbey, one of the oldest Christian churches in France, is located here, as is the lighthouse, the Phare de Sainte Marie and the Roman Dock Museum.
Château d’If is an island fortress in the Mediterranean Sea offshore from Marseille, about two miles from the Old Port. The fortifications take up pretty much the island of If. It was built in 1524 to defend Marseille from invaders approaching from the sea. It was successful at doing this. Which is a good thing since the fortress, with its many gun platforms, was shoddily built. The chateau later housed political prisoners; it is most famous as a setting for the 19th century novel “The Count of Monte Cristo”, written by Alexander Dumas. Travelers can reach it via boat from Marseille.
An observation post has sat atop Garde Hill since the 15th century. It was followed by a fort, which later served as the foundation for the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde. Today, a large statue of the Virgin Mary sits atop the bell tower watching over sailors, fishermen and this port city; it is one of Marseille’ landmarks. A sanctuary inside the church is also devoted to the Virgin Mary, whose feast day is celebrated August 5. The basilica is a popular destination for pilgrims.
Les Calanques are a series of miniature fjords to the south of Marseille near Cassis. The narrow inlets are encased in steep walls made of limestone or dolomite, and are highly scenic. Hiking even a portion of the rocky cliffs above the Mediterranean Sea and its fjords can take a day, with foot access restricted in summer due to extreme heat, while cruising through the inlets can be done in a couple of hours. Samna, south of Marseille, is considered a must-see calanque; it has a rocky beach and is popular with scuba divers.