Although it serves as a gateway to the glitzy French Riviera, the multicultural Marseille has long had a reputation for being a bit of a gritty port city. With a vibrant energy and an authentic feel, the The second-largest city in France is definitely fascinating to explore.
Marseille was founded in 600 BC alongside the Mediterranean Sea. Due to its importance as a trading hub, the city has long acted as a bridge between Europe and North Africa. As such, a diverse array of cultures and cuisines can be found in the area around its Old Port and in Le Panier – its colorful historic center.
Aside from getting lost amidst their mess of narrow streets, Marseille has impressive forts, churches and other tourist attractions to check out. Other things to do in Marseille include kayaking along the idyllic Cote d’Azur or taking a boat trip to the Château d’If – the famous setting of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo.
Map of Tourist Attractions in Marseille
In this post, we'll cover:
18. Palais du Pharo
Now a very grand conference center, the picturesque Palais du Pharo was originally built in 1858 for Napoleon III. Set in a scenic spot overlooking the entrance to the Old Port, its gardens offer up some absolutely stunning views of all the beautiful boats, buildings and busy marinas below.
Erected atop the prominent Pharo hill at the request of the last French emperor, the elegant ‘imperial residence’ showcases some exquisite architecture. Although larger and more luxurious than the Villa Eugenie in Biarritz after which it is modeled, the palace was never actually inhabited by Napoleon III and Eugenie. This is because the empire fell before the building was finally completed.
From the sprawling, well-kept lawn of Parc Emilie Duclaux alongside it, you can snap some pics of its facade and enjoy sweeping panoramas over the port. Sunsets are particularly memorable here as all the day’s fading rays paint the sea a mesmerizing mix of warm colors.
17. Parc Borely
Renowned for its remarkable gardens, the pretty and peaceful Parc Borély lies just half an hour’s bus journey down the coast from the center. A treat to stroll around slowly, the sizeable estate is home to lovely fountains, lakes and a charming old chateau.
Created back in the seventeenth century by the successful French ship owner and merchant Joseph Borely, its formal gardens now cover a huge area. While some are laid out ‘a la Francaise’, other parts are English in design or connect to its seaside promenade and horse race track. Expertly maintained, their flowerbeds, lawns and leafy paths are decorated with stupendous statues and water features.
Aside from ambling about, you can admire its gorgeous eighteenth-century country home and replica of Notre-Dame de la Garde. The former also now houses a decorative arts and fashion museum with the park’s lakefront cafe being a great spot to relax and enjoy a drink.
16. Musée d'Histoire de Marseille
For those interested in learning more about the seaport’s rich history, heritage and culture, the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille is an absolute must. Packed with enthralling artifacts and exhibits, it shines a light on more than 2,600 years of the city’s past.
First unveiled to the public back in 1983, it occupies a large part of the Centre Bourse shopping mall, not far from the Old Port. Taking you from the Greeks, Gauls and Romans right up to the present day, its well-done galleries display an impressive collection of archaeological findings.
Besides examining the remains of ancient shipwrecks, visitors can see intricately crafted ceramics, mosaics and jewellery pieces that date back millennia. Countless maps and models help explain just how the Mediterranean city grew and developed. Outside, you can even wander around the incredible ruins of an Ancient Greek port.
15. Abbaye Saint Victor
Another hugely interesting historic sight to hit up is the enormous Abbaye Saint Victor that overlooks the Old Port. Very castle-like in appearance, its imposing ramparts, eerie crypts and atmospheric-old basilica are fascinating to explore.
Named after the local soldier, saint and martyr Victor of Marseilles, the fortified abbey was founded in the fifth century by the Christian theologian John Cassian. While most of it was eventually rebuilt, its worn, weathered basilica with its simple, sombre, almost empty interior still stands. An excellent example of early Christian architecture, it was stripped of all its priceless treasures in 1794 when the abbey was dissolved by the pope.
Down in its crypt, however, there are some centuries-old sarcophagi to inspect with numerous saints once having been buried here. After venturing below ground, head up to its humongous walls for fine views over the port.
14. Cite Radieuse Le Corbusier
Just inland from Parc Borely is yet more amazing architecture to see. This time radically modern, the ‘Cite Radieuse’ was designed by the revered French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier. On top of snapping some photos of its vast facade, organized tours show you more of its innovative design features.
Part of his Unite d’Habitation project to provide people with spacious, sociable, high-quality housing after the war, the ginormous concrete high-rise was completed between 1947 and 1952. Enormously influential, the massive twelve-story building with its hundreds of apartments inspired the Brutalist style of architecture.
On tours, you’ll hear about the history and principles behind its unique, imaginative design and even get to enter one of the original 1950s-style flats. From its wide-open rooftop terrace, you can bask in breathtaking views over the striking structure’s surroundings.
13. Vallon des Auffes
In complete contrast to Le Corbusier’s modern masterpiece, the tiny fishing port of Vallon des Auffes feels stuck in time. Lying just south of the center along the corniche, its charming boat-filled harbor and colourful sea captains’ cabins are as picture-perfect as they come.
Tucked away in between Catalans Beach and Malmousque Bay, its small cove is almost surrounded on all sides by a jumble of buildings cascading their way down to the water. Still very traditional, the quiet fishing community has a couple of great seafood restaurants and bars to try out.
A photographer’s dream, the harbor, its boats and buildings look particularly spectacular at sunset when a soft glow illuminates everything. The three semicircular arches of the tall nineteenth-century bridge crossing over it also creates some fantastic photo opportunities.
12. Day trip to Aix-en-Provence
With its relaxed pace of life and lovely Old Town, the elegant Aix-en-Provence makes for a wonderful day trip from Marseille. Very different from the port city, its tree-lined streets are bordered by stately Baroque buildings with hundreds of fountains decorating all its pretty public squares.
As the Counts of Provence once lived here, its center is full of fabulous old buildings and aristocratic palaces. Vieil Aix is also home to the city’s attractive Italian-style town hall and soaring Saint-Savior Cathedral. Ambling along Cours Mirabeau is also a must as the graceful avenue is fringed by outdoor cafes and upmarket boutiques. You’ll find some of its finest fountains here, all adorned with sublime statues and shooting jets of water.
Also famed for being the birthplace of Paul Cezanne, the city, its bucolic countryside and lavender fields have been depicted countless times by the country’s painters. Despite lying only a half-an-hour train journey away, the quiet country town feels a world away from the vibrant port.
11. Walk La Corniche
A delightful way to see more of the city is to walk along the long Corniche that snakes its way down the coast from the Old Port. Besides enjoying the refreshing sea breeze and scenery, there are also pristine beaches, parks and viewpoints to stop off at.
Actually named after the US President John Kennedy, the five-kilometer-long road stretches from the Palais du Pharo right the way to the Plages du Prado in the south. Originally just a small coastal path, its scenic balcony has broadened considerably since opening back in 1863.
Overlooking the Mediterranean and its islands, it takes you by famous restaurants, luxury hotels and some impressive nineteenth-century mansions. The Corniche also bizarrely has the longest bench in the world for you to sit on which extends a considerable three kilometers in length!
10. Vieille Charite
Now home to outstanding art and archaeology museums and a cultural center, Vieille Charité initially started out life as an almshouse. Also exhibiting some brilliant Baroque architecture, its complex can be found right in the center of the Old Town.
Actually located at the highest point in Le Panier, its chapel, courtyard and all the arcaded galleries of its hospice were built between 1671 and 1749. After housing the poor, it later served as a barracks for the French Foreign Legion.
Restored in the seventies, its chapel with its grand portico, dome and Corinthian columns makes for a very fine sight as do the three floors of fetching arcades all around it. In addition to seeing oriental and classical antiquities in its archaeology museum, artifacts and artworks from Africa, Amerindia and Oceania are displayed in its other museum.
9. Palais Longchamp
Definitely one of the city’s most beautiful buildings, the majestic Palais Longchamp lies not far from the train station by the long, landscaped park of the same name. Now home to both Marseille’s fine arts and natural history museums, it also boasts a phenomenal fountain backed by dramatic statues and colonnades.
After taking thirty years to build at an enormous expense, the opulent palace was finally inaugurated back in 1869. It was actually commissioned to celebrate the construction of the Canal de Marseille. A major engineering achievement, the eighty-kilometer-long canal is still one of the main sources of water for the city.
Its huge sparkling waterfalls and basins perfectly highlight this as the astounding statue of a woman representing the Durance River stands at the center of its stone grotto. Already an epic view and photo opt during the day, at night it is magically lit up. After checking out its museums, take time to stroll about all the paths and pavilions behind the palace.
Not to be missed, the MuCEM provides a fascinating look at the history and culture of European and Mediterranean civilizations. Occupying a marvelous modern building alongside the sea, its galleries are packed with all kinds of interesting artifacts and exhibits.
Built right by Fort Saint-Jean on land reclaimed from the sea, the cutting-edge museum was unveiled in 2013 when Marseille was designated the European Capital of Culture. Along with the vast fortress alongside it, they represent the old and new faces of the seaside city.
Although it could be a bit better organized within, all its paintings, photos and installations still cover a lot of topics. Its incredible architecture, setting and views also make the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe well worth visiting.
7. Cathedrale de la Major
Just a short walk north of the museum is yet another of Marseille’s many architectural masterpieces: the colossal Cathedrale de la Major. Also overlooking the harbor, it is famous for its ornate interior, clad in marble, mosaics and murals.
Since the fifth century, a cathedral has stood here with the current Neo-Byzantine one only dating to the nineteenth century. Made out of red-and-white, striped stone, its long nave is fronted by two tall bell towers with a humongous dome lying behind them.
Inside is arguably even more eye-catching as colourful mosaics and murals decorate its floors, walls and ceilings. After marveling at its sheer size, scale and stunning artwork, you can always stop for a quick break in the lively plaza at its foot before continuing on with your sightseeing.
6. Le Panier
Right by the cathedral is the oldest and most atmospheric part of Marseille to explore. Known as Le Panier, its narrow, hilly streets are lots of fun to get lost in with its pastel-painted buildings now home to cool art galleries and cafes, restaurants, boutiques and bars.
First settled by the ancient Greeks around 600 BC, its warren of houses have long been home to the city’s working class. Although now quite gentrified, the vibrant neighborhood still somehow retains some of its traditional character and multicultural flair.
Aside from La Major and MuCEM, the trendy area has the Hotel de Ville and Vieille Charite to check out. Also bordering its steep staircases and streets are tons of little local restaurants and bars to try serving up tasty dishes from all around the Mediterranean.
5. Fort Saint-Jean
Another of its main attractions is the formidable Fort Saint-Jean which watches over the entrance to the Old Port. Connected to both the historic center and MuCEM by lofty footbridges, its sturdy walls and tower boast some of the town’s best views over the city and sea.
Originally occupied by the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John (from which it derives its name), the fort and Saint-Nicholas on the other side were built in 1660 upon the orders of Louis XIV. It later housed political prisoners during the French Revolution and was a barracks for the French Foreign Legion. In WWII it was occupied by the German military with much of it sadly destroyed after a munitions depot exploded
Now part of MuCEM, its old fortifications, vaulted rooms and verdant gardens are all lovely to amble around. After taking in its astonishing panoramas, carry on to the Old Port to see its sleek yachts and fishing boats from up close.
4. Old Port of Marseille
Humming with energy at any time of day, the Old Port is where life in the city started out, over 2,500 years ago. Long an important center for maritime trade in the Mediterranean, it now mostly attracts tourists, who come to walk by the water, see the boats and try its sumptuous seafood.
In its heyday, over 18,000 ships passed through the port each year, dropping off freight and taking on passengers. Much of it was unfortunately destroyed though during WWII when the Nazis dynamited its quays, bridges, cranes and sheds. You can however still see its two forts, Abbaye Saint Victor and Palais du Pharo overlooking its mast-filled marinas.
As well as strolling along enjoying its views and atmosphere, there are loads of excellent restaurants and bars to try out. You can also peruse the bustling Quai des Belges fish market or hop on ferries to both the Calanques and Château d’If.
3. Chateau d'If
Impossible to miss out, the Château d’If is famously one of the settings in Alexandre Dumas’ exciting novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Occupying almost all the small isle of the same name, the imposing fortress is one of the most popular places to visit in Marseille.
Due to its strategic setting at the entrance to the Old Port, the island was heavily fortified to protect the city from invaders. In 1524, the stocky, square castle was erected with its bleak prison cells later housing political and religious prisoners. The chateau’s isolated location and the dangerous currents around it made it one of the most feared jails in France.
As you approach on the ferry, you can snap some great photos of the bright white fort and brilliantly blue waters surrounding it. Dotted about are informative plaques that teach you more about its past.
2. Notre Dame de la Garde
Already visible from the isle is the ginormous basilica and glinting golden statue of Notre Dame de la Garde, far off in the distance. Perched atop the city’s highest hill, the lavish church is a must-visit for its exquisite architecture, artworks and astounding views over Marseille.
Known to locals as la Bonne Mere or ‘the Good Mother’, the beautiful Byzantine Revival-style basilica has benevolently watched over the port city’s sailors, fishermen and citizens since 1853. Up until that point, the church’s rocky outcrop had instead served as a fort and lookout point.
Atop its 41 meter-high bell tower is a monumental gold statue of the Madonna and Child. After ogling up at it, head inside to admire all the magnificent mosaics that decorate its chapels and cupolas. The city’s standout symbol and sight, Notre Dame’s glittering religious treasures and gorgeous views are the highlight of many people’s time in town.
1. Les Calanques
Just outside of Marseille though is an even more awe-inspiring place that you just have to visit if you can. Known as Les Calanques, the spectacular series of miniature fjords are absolutely incredible to kayak or cruise about thanks to their startling colors and spellbinding scenery.
Now protected as a national park, the steep-walled, white cliffs rear up dramatically above the bright blue waters below. Besides boating about and taking kayak trips, you can also hike and climb around its craggy rock formations. Some areas also have small beaches where you can swim in the alluring turquoise waters of the inlets.
One of the most picturesque parts of the French Riviera, their large, limestone valleys lie just south of town on the way to Cassis. With so many fun outdoor activities to try here, Les Calanques are by far the most memorable and magical day trip you can take from Marseille.
Where to Stay in Marseille
Many of Marseille’s accommodation options are clustered around the Old Port and Le Panier districts alongside. Both are close to most of the main tourist attractions in Marseille with the train station also lying nearby for trips along the coast or inland to Aix-en-Provence.
Actually overlooking the port is the outstanding New Hotel Le Quai. Besides its unbeatable location, the boutique hotel has tastefully decorated rooms and public spaces for guests to enjoy. Some of its suites come with private terraces that have delightful views over the boat-filled marinas below. The four-star stay also serves continental-style breakfast buffets in its elegant dining room.
Just a block away is the Hôtel Carré Vieux Port – another excellent option if you want to be near all of the action. Very laidback, the three-star family-run hotel has stylish, modern rooms for guests to stay in. While they don’t have views of the port, its friendly, welcoming staff more than makeup for it.
How to get There
Very well connected to the rest of the country, the city is served by Marseille-Provence International Airport. Daily flights arrive here from all around Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. From all its terminals, trains, buses and taxis can whisk you to the center in no time at all.
High-speed trains also take just three hours to reach Marseille from Paris with Lyon, Montpellier and Nice located even closer by. Its train network can also transport you as far as Brussels, Frankfurt and Geneva if need be. Long-distance buses and ferries from Sardinia and Corsica also arrive at the busy port city.
Approximate travel times:
- Aix-en-Provence – 30 minutes by car, 20 minutes by train
- Avignon – 1.5 hours by car, 1 hour 30 minutes by train
- Nice – 2 hours by car, 2 hours 30 minutes by train
- Arles – 1 hour by car, 1 hour by train
- Montpellier – 1.5 hours by car, 1 hour 30 minutes by train
- Toulouse – 3.5 hours by car, 3 hours by train
- Paris – 8 hours by car, 3 hours by train
Best Time to Visit Marseille
As Marseille acts as a gateway to the south of France, it sees vast numbers of tourists visit each summer. This means the city gets very packed and expensive in June, July and August. At this time, temperatures reach 25 to 28°C (77-82°F), perfect for lounging on the beach or swimming in the sea and enjoying some watersports.
While this does sound hot, its winds known as le mistral help cool things down a bit. During July, the hugely important Bastille Day is also held with countless other fun cultural events and festivals taking place in summer.
If you want to avoid the crowds and high prices, either April and May or September and October are your best bet. Average temperatures of 17 to 24°C (62 to 75°F) are ideal for sightseeing, and swimming is also possible in autumn if you don’t mind the cooler water.
Although Marseille receives the most sunlight of any French city, winter still sees a big drop in tourist numbers due to the colder weather. While you can find some tempting deals, you won’t really be able to make the most of southern France or enjoy all the vivid colours of Les Calanques. Its colourful Christmas market is good fun though with life starting up again in town around spring.