Marseilles is a city that only really opened up to tourism at the very end of the twentieth century. Marseille is the "oldest city in France" and indeed one of the oldest in western Europe. The city was founded as Massalia in around 600 BC, and soon developed into an important port in the ancient Greek world. For the Greeks, and later for the Romans, it was a major point of transition and trade between the civilisations of the Mediterranean, and those of Gaul and northwest Europe.
The paradox with Marseille is that although it stands proudly beside the Mediterranean, it is not a seaside resort. The gentler and flatter coast northwest of the city is occupied by the docks, and southwards from the "Old Port", the seashore is rocky, with no beaches until the Plage du Prado, 6 km further south. So it's not a place to visit if the aim of the trip is solely or mainly to enjoy the beach. The shoreline and the waterside ambiance, yes; but the beach, no.
The area around the Old Port is the tourism heart of Marseilles, and very attractive too now that the 1970s motorway that formerly stood on stilts between the town and the shore has been put down into a tunnel.
Access to Old Marseilles
Main central Marseilles tourist sites.
Le Vieux Port - the old port
The tourism mecca of Marseilles, the Old Port, the main port of Marseilles for over two thousand years, is now a large marina, flanked on three sides by restaurants bistros cafés and shops. At the inner end of the basin is the pleasure cruise terminal, from which visitors can take boat trips round the port, out to the Island of If, or along the coast to Cassis. for visitors staying more than a day in Marseilles, a boat trip is a must, to experience the views of Marseille from the sea, and the dramatic coastline to the southeast.
Visit the sights of Marseilles with a Marseilles Open-tour hop-on hop-off bus. More info and tickets here. Departs Vieux Port. Circuit includes the sea front, Fort St. Nicolas, Notre Dame de la Garde and the Cathedral. 14 stops in all. One day ticket 19 €, 2-days for 22 €The Mucem
- the Museum of the Mediterranean is a modern cultural and historical museum devoted to the civilisations and culture of the Mediterranean. Tickets (2019) 9.50 Euros - or 14 € for a family ticket. An aerial walkway connects the Mucem to the Fort Saint Jean on the other side of the wharf.The Fort Saint Jean.
This is perhaps the most impressive historic site in Marseilles - a seventeenth-century fortress, built by King Louis XIV, that stands guard over the entrance to the Old Port. Included in the Fort Saint Jean are the 15th century Tour du Roi René (King René's tower), and the Commandery of the Knights Templar.
Accessible by an impressive aerial walkway from the Fort Saint Jean, this is one of the older churches in Marseilles, a 12th - 13th century church built in the Provençal romanesque style. It is simple and sobre, in marked contrast to the exuberance of the 19th century Sainte Marie Majeure cathedral (la Major) a few hundred metres to the north. From St. Laurent, it is an easy walk to the old town or to the cathedral or to the Old Port.La Major cathedral
Like the Sacré Coeur de Montmartre in Paris, the La Major cathedral is a fine example of French 19th century neo-romano-byzantine architecture, a sumptuous place of worship making fine decorative use of white marble and red and green stone. In architectural terms, it is a pastiche, incorporating elements of style from different historical periods and styles - towers and cupolas, decorative stonework and mosaics. It is the only cathedral in France built in the nineteenth century.Le Quartier du Panier - la Butte
The St. Laurent church stands at the southeast top of "la butte", the hilly outcrop north of the Old Port. This is the oldest part of Marseilles, an area occupied for over two and a half thousand years. The old quarter here is known as the Quartier du Panier - a network of narrow streets with small shops and restaurants and street vendors. It is hardly 600 metres from end to end. Not to be missed in the quartier du Panier is La Vieille Charité, a former 17th century hospice, with colonnaded facades round a central courtyard. The complex contains several museums, including an archaeological museum and a museum of Africa. Entry to the site is free, but there is a charge for the museums and galleries.La Canebière
The "Champs Elysées" of Marseilles, La Canebière is an avenue running northwest from the end of the Old Port. The Marseilles tourist office is on the Cannebière, just up from the port.Le Musée Cantini
The best fine art museum in Marseilles is located in Rue Grignan, 400 metres southeast of the inner (eastern) end of the Old Port. The Cantini museum specialises in art of the first half and middle of the twentieth century, covering Pointillism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, abstract art, and Surrealism – and is one of the best in France for this period. There are plenty of major works by the most important artists of the period, including Matisse, Signac, Dufy, Marquet, Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Miró, Max Ernst, Arp, Picasso, Giacometti, Bacon and many many more. Entrance 5 €uros (2018).
In addition to a self-guided walking tour in and around the area of the Old Port, as detailed above, there are a number of other places further afield in Marseilles that merit a visit.Notre Dame de la Garde
Another 19th century neo-byzantine church, N-D de la Garde is unmissable, as it can be seen from all over Marseilles. It stands at the highest point in the city, about 160 metres above sea level, to the south of the Old Port. Its domes and cupolas are abundantly decorated on the inside with gilt mosaics. The building uses a similar blend of white and coloured marble to that used in the building of La Major cathedral. It is another fine example of exuberant 19th century architecture. Most of the visitors who go up to the church do so to admire the spectacular views that it offers over Marseilles, the coast, and the surrounding landscape. It can be reached by taking bus line 60 form the old port. A visit to Notre Dame de la Garde is included in one of the "little tourist train" circuits. See belowThe Chateau d'If
A must for the tourist in Marseilles. Boat trips to this island in Marseilles bay depart from the Old Port. The château is a fortress built in the 16th century by François I, which featured in the famous novel by Provençal writer Alexandre Dumas, the Count of Monte Cristo. It was also used in the movie the French Connection. Explore the old prison and enjoy the views of Marseilles from the sea.Musée des Beaux Arts - Fine art museum
Not one of the great French privincial museums, the Marseille fine arts museum has mostly paintings by French artists, though few works by the great masters. It also includes four paintings by Rubens, one by Tintoretto and one by Perugino.Plages du Prado
The coastline south of the Old Port is rocky with few proper access points to the water. The only real beach in Marseille itself is the Plages du Prado, a A three kilometre bus ride (line 83) from the Old Port, along the corniche to the south of the city. Very busy during sunny weekends and in the school holidays. The beach area is man-made, and was developed in the 1970s on a base of rock and stone excavated for the building of the Marseilles metro system.The Little Train
And of course Marseilles has its "petits trains touristiques". Three circuits possible, departing from the north side of the Old Port. 174 Quai du Port, about in the middle of the quay.Madragues de Montredon A small harbour at the southern end of Marseilles, and the start of the Calanques national park. (See below). Take bus 19 from Rond Point du Prado station on Metro 2 line as far as the terminus at Madrague Mont Rose. Easy access from here to the harbour, then to trails / small roads along the rocky coast to Callelongue. Great views and opportunities for swimming off the rocks.. In the area - Around Marseilles
Aix en Provence
Accessible by local train (do not take the TGV!) from Marseilles. A beautiful historic town that embodies the flavour of Provence.The Camargue
Renowned wetland area and natural park to the west of Marseilles. An hour's drive. See Camargue guide. Not accessible by train.