In all honesty I’d never been that drawn to visiting Marseille; France’s second largest city on its southern shores. Certainly, articles like this one in the Guardian didn’t exactly fill me with a sense of touristy anticipation. I imagine that the Marseille Tourist Board had a great day on the day an article came out with a headline of ‘Corrupt, dangerous and brutal to its poor’! Nevertheless, Marseille was the European Capital of Culture in 2013 and has a wealth of history, museums and a vibrant old port filled with great restaurants and bars. In fact, other than the fear brought on by the reported corruption, danger and brutality, Marseille was a great place to visit! Yes, it has its gritty side, but what city doesn’t and that grit is more than offset by a whole host of positives waiting to be explored.
Marseille Provence Airport sits roughly 25km from the city center and has a whole bunch of decent connection options into the city. In my opinion the best option is the airport bus. The bus operates from right outside the main terminal and drops you off at Gare de Marseille Saint Charles (a.k.a the main train station in the city center for us non-Franophones). It’s cheap, easy and direct (I’ve provided the website link in the additional resources section). Just remember to buy your ticket at the ticket office before boarding; I missed the first bus because I hadn’t bought a ticket thinking you could buy one from the driver (it took me and the driver a couple of minutes to adjust our respective ‘Franglish’ to understand what each other was saying). The second option to get to the city is by train (again arriving at the main station in the city). The only problem with this option is that you have to get the free shuttle bus from the Terminal to the train station. I personally couldn’t be bothered with the extra faff considering there was a direct bus available that didn’t require any transfers (it probably works out about the same amount of time I would imagine). However, if you really want to check out the train then I’ve provided a link where you can find out more information below. The final option is by car. There is a taxi station right outside the main terminal building and a whole host of rental car companies just a across the road (on-site) but both are probably costs you can do without given the ease and comfort of the bus.
Marseille is a pretty walkable city if you’re that way inclined. However, if you’re not then it also has a fairly comprehensive metro, tram and bus system that can get you basically anywhere you might want to see. I’ve provided a link to the entire network map in the additional resources section – prepare to have your mind blown by a rainbow colour explosion of metro, tram, bus, and ferry lines swirling all over the place! Tickets can be purchased at stations and range from 1 hour, to multi-trip, to multi-day options which allow unlimited travel and maximum flexibility. The full list of ticket options can be found here.
If you’re planning on taking public transport and seeing most of the sights then you might want to consider purchasing a Marseille City Pass; the ultimate ‘I’m a Tourist’ statement. It can be purchased on a 24, 48 or 72 hour basis, includes free access to the metro and bus network and incorporates free entry to a whole host of city of museums, the tourist train to Notre-Dame de la Garde, discounted prices for the hop-on-hop-off bus and a visit to Chateau d’If (via ferry). What more could you ever want!
Marseille has the usual big city hop-on hop-off bus but not the usual brand (the one that seems to have taken over the world is ‘City Sightseeing’). Marseille’s version is called L’Open Tour and I’ve included the link to their website in the additional resources section. As you know from my other posts, I’m not always a massive fan of these buses but they do typically provide an easy way of getting around without the hassle of negotiating a sometimes tricky public transport network. That probably sums up the Marseille version fairly well. I certainly wouldn’t use it for its informative audio as it wasn’t all that informative. In fact the audio got stuck on an endless loop of the same song for about an hour that had me contemplating my own existence. The route covers 13 stops (significantly less than others I’ve seen) but hits most of the major sites (but doesn’t go far enough East to reach Palais Longchamp which is disappointing). In honesty, I would probably stick to public transport in Marseille because of its ease and extensive coverage!
Old Port (Vieux Port): If there’s only one place you’re going to visit over the course of your trip to Marseille then the Old Port will be that place. Pretty much all roads lead to the port and it’s a good place to head to for a stroll, some seafood and a few drinks. Unfortunately they’ve erected an unsightly Ferris Wheel on one corner which ruins the ambience a bit (it’s a very poor man’s London Eye) but nonetheless it’s one of the best spots to hang out during the evening hours as the sun goes down. You’ll also head here if you want to pick up the hop-on-hop-off bus and the tourist train as this is the starting point for both. If you’re a photographer then this is also a good spot to get some harbour pictures with Notre-Dame de la Garde looming on the hill in the background.
Palais Longchamp: Located in the 4th arrondissement of Marseille the Palais Longchamp was actually built as a rather grandiose way to celebrate the construction of a canal bringing water to Marseille from the Durance River in 1939 (or at least that’s when construction started; it actually took over 30 years to build – a pretty elaborate celebration of water!). These days the Palais plays host to the Museum of Fine Arts (East Wing), National History Museum (West Wing) and the Botanical Garden. However, the real highlight of the show is the Chateau d’eau which is massive water fountain, flanked by lions and tigers (stone one of course), right in the middle of it all!
Notre-Dame de la Garde: This is one of the major tourist attractions in Marseille and is visible high up on its hilled perch from almost everywhere across the city. It’s a Catholic Basilica dating back to 1864 that has basically become the symbol of Marseille – particularly the gold-leaf statue of Madonna and Child that sits atop the belfry. In addition to being able to wander for free around the lower, Romanesque, and upper, Neo-Byzantine, churches the location on top of the limestone outcrop also provides the best views across Marseille; making it perfect for photographers looking for a great sunset photo.
Chateau d’If: The alure of Chateau d’If comes on two fronts. The first is that it was the island fort setting for Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ – for those more in to movies than books it’s the one where Jim Caviezel plays Edmond Dantes. The second is that the island on which the fortress-prison is located provides excellent views of Marseille Old Port. Express boats to the island operate from the Old Port and take about 20 minutes. Just note that the ferry fee and the castle fee are separate, so if you’re only going for the views then you might be best just taking the full round trip on the ferry which provides all the views you could wish for of both the fort and the old port.
Marseille Cathedral (Cathédrale de Marseille Notre Dame de Major): The cathedral sits between the old and new ports and just across from Fort Saint-Jean. It also sits within the area known as Le Panier which is a great place to take a stroll around and bask in the sunshine at one of the numerous cafes and restaurants. Also nearby is the Centre de la Vieille Charité which hosts a neoclassical chapel and an arched arcade courtyard that is pretty darn impressive. Centre de la Vieille Charité is also home to the Musée d’Archéologie Méditerranéenne and the Musée d’Arts Africains, Océaniens et Améridiens making spending some time in this area well worthwhile.
Parc National des Calanques: Let’s start with a translation. The Calanques are inlets very similar in style to the Norwegian Fjords except sunnier and with the emerald waters of the vastly warmer Mediterranean lapping at their shores (sounds delightful, right?!?). The National Park is a 12-mile stretch of coastline dotted with these inlets where you’ll find protected parkland, hiking trails, secluded beaches (some only accessible by water), snorkeling, swimming and some fairly impressive diversity when it comes to flora and fauna. The Park is a really easy day trip from Marseille which makes it very popular with the locals; particularly as its accessible by boat, private car (until you get to the Park), public transport and kayak (the latter being far more strenuous). Boat trips and kayaks can both be arranged from the Old Port and I have included website links for both in the additional resources section. If you’re hoping to get there by public transport then check out the public transport network map I’ve linked below.
Parc Borély: Playing host to a wide variety of gardens and the Borely Castle Museum of Decorative Arts, Parc Borély is located on the outskirts of the city in the 8th arrondissement. If you have a car then it’s worth taking the fairly short trip out for a relaxing walk around the gardens. If you don’t have a car then it’s a fairly strenuous journey with the nearest (but not close) metro station being the Rond Point du Prado on line 2. Buses will get you closer but it’s much easier if you have a car. The good news is that the gardens are free!
Airport Bus Website: http://www.navettemarseilleaeroport.com/
Airport Train Information: http://www.marseille-airport.com/access-car-parks/access/trains
Marseille Public Transport Network Map: http://www.rtm.fr/sites/default/files/planreseau.pdf
Marseille City Pass Website: http://resa.marseille-tourisme.com/en/to-do/a628602/city-pass/showdetails
Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus Website: http://www.marseille.opentour.com/en/
Calanques Cruises Website: http://www.croisieres-marseille-calanques.com/?lang=en
Calanques Kayaking Trips Website: http://www.destination-calanques.fr/