When is a French city not a French city? Perhaps when it’s a port that cemented its place on the map a millennium before the idea of France came into focus. Perhaps when it’s an urban hotspot revelling in an outsider vibe, turning its back on Paris and gazing instead towards the Mediterranean, which has long been its lifeblood. Perhaps when it’s a swirling, multicultural metropolis, gloriously shaped by centuries of immigration, whose identity spreads beyond the classic notion of Frenchness.
Marseille is just such a city. Founded as ‘Massalia’ in 600BC by Greek settlers from the Ionian outpost of Phocaea (now Foça in modern-day Anatolia, Turkey), it’s not so much a location that became part of France as a historic enclave around which France grew up.
Of course, to argue that Marseille is not a fragment of France is nonsense; its early birth makes it the nation’s oldest city. It’s also the third biggest and second most populous. It’s capital of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, as well as being the main metropolis on the south coast — a brute amid the gilded elegance of Cannes, Nice and Saint-Tropez.
And naturally, it offers numerous flashes of Gallic glamour: the seafood restaurants of the Vieux Port; the armada of yachts in this wide harbour; the hilltop Notre-Dame de la Garde — one of France’s greatest basilicas; the nest of lanes in the once run-down but now gentrified district of Le Panier; the beaches, where locals bask on the sand.
But Marseille also walks a separate path. The Noailles quarter is a North African exclave, its streets abuzz with the sounds and smells of the souk; its Libyan shops and Algerian restaurants and cafes underlining the city’s deep-seated status as a melting pot. The bars on the lively square of La Plaine dispense a noise at odds with the restrained chic of the Cote D’Azur. The Musée d’Histoire de Marseille preserves archaeological slivers of the city’s Greek origins. And the Parc National des Calanques, 10 miles east, retreats into prehistory; its dramatic limestone ravines showcasing a France far removed from seafront promenades.
For all this, Marseille has long been overlooked, its light hidden behind Parisian style and Lyonnais gourmet swagger. Until now, that is. This year, the city has stepped into the spotlight as the European Capital of Culture. Now is its time. Vive la différence.
See & do
Notre-Dame de la Garde: Topped by a golden statue of the Virgin and Child, Notre-Dame de la Garde is Marseille’s most prominent religious landmark, visible wherever you are in the city. Completed in 1864, it combines architectural majesty with quiet piety, while its huge veranda offers 490ft-high views across the rooftops. www.notredamedelagarde.com
Musée Regards de Provence: Housed in a former sanitarium on the waterfront, this museum opened in March as one of the key contributions to 2013’s cultural party. It focuses on paintings of the Provence landscape, with works by the likes of Paul Guigou, Auguste Chabaud and Pierre Ambrogiani. www.museeregardsdeprovence.com
Centre de la Vieille Charité: The narrow alleyways and stone staircases of Le Panier are best explored on foot and at random, but the district’s must-see moment is the Centre de la Vieille Charité – a former poorhouse constructed by locally-born 17th-century architect Pierre Puget. This sweeping structure now stages temporary exhibitions. www.vieille-charite-marseille.org
Musée d’Histoire de Marseille: Rebooted for 2013, this museum traces the city’s tale back to its Greek foundation stones – literally in the case of the Jardin des Vestiges, which contains archaeological splinters from Marseille’s formative moments. Other exhibits look at the city that grew under Rome and Louis XIV. http://musee-histoire-de-marseille.marseille.fr
Mémorial de la Marseillaise: Though composed in Strasbourg in 1792, France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise, was adopted most lustily by Marseille rabble-rousers, thus earning its name. This museum dissects the port’s relationship with this revolutionary ditty. www.memorial-marseillaise.com
Palais Longchamp: North east of the centre in the 4th arrondissement, the extravagant 19th-century Palais Longchamp proffers elaborate water features and graceful gardens, plus two museums: the soft sculptures of the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the fossils of the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle. http://musee-des-beaux-arts.marseille.fr www.museum-marseille.org
Fort Saint-Jean: This stone fortification at the north corner of the Vieux Port has been Marseille’s guard dog since 1660. From May, it hosts the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) — another 2013 debutante, with a focus on the civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean. www.mucem.org
Château d’if: Tucked half a mile offshore on a rocky islet, this fortress is Marseille’s Alcatraz — a stronghold where political prisoners were held between the 17th and 19th centuries (including, fictionally, Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo). Ferries depart from the Vieux Port. www.frioul-if-express.com www.if.monuments-nationaux.fr
Like a local
Gorge yourself: Reached by taking the 21 bus from the Vieux Port to the end of the route at Luminy (45 minutes), the Parc National des Calanques is a wonderful place to walk amid spectacular limestone cliffs and gorges. www.parcsnationaux.fr
Lazy afternoons: Marseillais turn up in their droves to relax on the urban beach of Plage des Catalans, just south of the Vieux Port, and in the leafy space of the Jardin du Pharo, where you can watch the ferry from Algiers moor up alongside Fort Saint-Jean.
On the move: Marseille’s treasures can be accessed using its excellent, integrated network of trams, buses and Metro lines. All three forms of transport are covered by the City Pass (€22 (£18) for 24 hours; €29 (£24) for 48 hours), which also covers admission to 15 museums. It can be bought at the main tourist office, next to the Vieux Port. www.rtm.fr www.marseille-tourisme.com
Square deals: Official titled Place Jean-Jaurès, but colloquially known as La Plaine, this square hosts a market from 8am-1pm, Thursday to Saturday, where you can pick up flowers, fruit, vegetables and other foodstuffs.
Upwardly mobile: A clear sign of Le Panier’s transformation from salty ghetto into one of the city’s chicer quarters, Place Aux Huiles sells myriad varieties of olive oil and other Provencal delicacies. www.29placeauxhuiles.com
Souks in the city: Rue d’Aubagne, at the heart of Noailles, specialises in shops whose cluttered, aromatic shelves — heavy with dates, figs and spices — would not be out of place in Tangier or Tunis.
Retail therapy: As a major city, Marseille also has all the modern shopping options you’d expect. There are stores galore along its main avenue, La Canebière (which forges east from the port) and in the Centre Bourse mall. www.centre-bourse.com
Marseille does a real mix of flavours: Arabic tastes in Noailles and Gallic options on Place Notre-Dame du Mont. The Vieux Port can be costly, but it also has several gems.
£ Le Fournil de la Rue d’Aubagne: Rue d’Aubagne is abuzz with hole-in-the-wall places peering across the Mediterranean at North Africa, and this unfussy bakery is a fine lunchtime pit-stop, serving exotic Arabic flatbreads and pizzas. T: 00 33 4 9133 3067.
££ Le Goût des Choses: The pick of the restaurants that dot Place Notre-Dame du Mont, the casually arty Le Gout des Choses has earned its classic reputation with dishes such as lamb cooked with honey and almonds. www.legoutdeschoses.fr
£££ Le Miramar: Dining options abound on the north side of the Vieux Port, where al fresco seating creates a merry burble. Le Miramar is famed for its take on the city’s culinary signature, bouillabaisse. www.lemiramar.fr
Although cheaper than Cannes or Nice, Marseille still has the same exorbitant room fees that afflict much of southern France. However, reasonable deals can be found.
£ Hotel Carré Vieux Port: Ideally positioned a block back from the Vieux Port, and just off La Canebière, this pleasant three-star does basic comforts without unnecessary frills. Rooms are a little on the small side, but are perfect for a weekend. www.hvpm.fr
££ Grand Hotel Beauvau: Next to the Hotel Carré Vieux Port on Rue Beauvau, this four-star stalwart with views of the port has been in business long enough to have welcomed Chopin back in 1839. www.accorhotels.com
£££ Hotel Dieu: Housed in a former 18th-century hospital building, the launch of Hotel Dieu — reconfigured as an InterContinental property just in time for the 2013 celebrations — is the latest symbol of Le Panier’s resurgence. www.ihg.com
As in any sizeable city, Marseille’s nightlife prospects range from unpretentious watering holes for a quick tipple to style-bible bars for outré cocktails into the wee hours.
Au Petit Nice: La Plaine hits new highs after dusk — nowhere more so than in this cafe-bar on the edge of the square. Beers, including a few local brews, are unlikely to break your budget at €2 (£1.69). T: 00 33 4 9148 4304.
Polikarpov: Knowingly cool retreat on the south side of the Vieux Port. Open nightly until 1.30am, it delivers a sharp selection of vodkas and potent spirits, a louche atmosphere and disc-spinners spiralling through a raft of genres. www.lepolikarpov.com
La Dame Noir: Hang-out on the popular drag of Place Notre-Dame du Mont that merges late-night dance beats with a hip ambience and — inevitably — a Japanese canteen. Open Tuesday to Saturday, with DJ sets from Thursday to Saturday. www.ladamenoir.fr
Marseille Provence Airport is 17 miles north west of the city centre. British Airways flies from Heathrow, Ryanair has services from Stansted, East Midlands and Edinburgh. EasyJet offers flights from Gatwick, plus a summer service (22 June-21 September) from Bristol. www.ba.com www.ryanair.com www.easyjet.com
Average flight time: 1h55m.
A shuttle bus runs between the airport and Marseille-Saint-Charles train station, taking 25 minutes and leaving every 20 minutes between 5am and midnight: €8 (£6.76) single, €12.80 (£10.82) return. Official airport taxis cost from €50 (£42). Trams, buses and two Metro lines criss-cross the centre. www.navettemarseilleaeroport.com www.taxis-aeroport.com www.rtm.fr
When to go
Like all cities in the south of France, Marseille can be unbearably hot at the height of summer, but it basks in blissfully warm temperatures in spring and autumn.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.16.
International dial code: 00 33 4.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three nights at the four-star Radisson Blu Hotel, Marseille Vieux Port from for £629 per person (based on two sharing) on a B&B basis, including return flights and private car transfers. www.kirkerholidays.com
Marseille as European Capital of Culture 2013: www.marseillecityofculture.eu
The Rough Guide to Provence and the Côte d’Azur. RRP: £12.99.
Published in Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)