Last Updated on January 6, 2024 by April Verge
Are you looking for what to do in Marseille? This guide has you covered – keep reading!
Many people refer to Marseille as the next Barcelona. Despite having the same shimmering Mediterranean coastline, Marseille’s attractions are generally significantly less crowded and far more reasonably priced.
Marseille, which is on the border of southern France and North Africa, has a strong sense of identity and is known for its gastronomic delights, rich history, and avant-garde art. It is also the source of the French national song, La Marseillaise.
Large populations still reside and work in the city’s center, close to Le Vieux Port, its vibrant cultural center. Despite the city’s massive regeneration—some may even argue gentrification—it offers visitors who are ready to explore a new side of the south of France a vibrant and engrossing city break.
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If you are in a hurry, here’s a summary of what to do in Marseille:
Where Is Marseille Located?
Marseille is the capital of the historic region of Provence in Southern France. Marseille is the oldest city in the Hexagone and the oldest seaside city in the world. It is located in the Bouches-du-Rhône department, which is part of the Provence–Alpes–Côte d’Azur region.
Why Visit Marseille?
Known in English as Marseilles, or Marseille in French, Marseille is the second most populated city in France after Paris. If you count the surrounding urban areas, Marseille would be ranked third after Lyon.
With sometimes scary crime statistics, and a gritty exterior, the city has suffered a bad reputation for decades. Many travelers prefer nearby towns such as Aix-en-Provence, or the charming fishing town of la Ciotat instead.
In fact, Marseille is the complete opposite of Nice; there are no fancy boulevards, nor is there much luxury shopping to be found. Instead, there is a shimmering turquoise sea and a mixture of cultures and traditions.
Marseille is becoming a must-visit location along the Provençal coastline, as its reputation begins to change. For more inspiration, check out my one-day Marseille itinerary.
There is something for everyone in the second-largest city in France. With the guide below, you can find interesting and exciting things to do in Marseille, whether you’re only planning to stay for a day in Marseille or are a frequent visitor.
When visiting Marseille, I suggest getting a Marseille City Pass – You can hop on and off to view all the major tourist attractions with the city pass, which is good for 1 to 3 days. Including unrestricted use of public transit and a trip by the Tourist train to Notre-Dame de la Garde or Old Marseille. In addition to crossing Frioul Island or If Island and entering Chateau D’If, you will have access to MUCEM and the Regards de Provence Museum. Numerous savings are available, along with guided city tours and free admission to municipal museums. See details here.
What to Do in Marseille, France
Visit the Iconic Notre-Dame de la Garde
The tallest structure in Marseille is the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde. At 150 meters (490 feet) above sea level, King François I made the decision to construct this structure in order to defend Marseille from potential attackers.
It is said that the Virgin Mary atop the structure keeps watch over the entire city. One of the first locations in Marseille to visit in order to become oriented and observe how the city has been influenced by the nearby mountains and coast.
The best way to observe the breathtaking views and the Byzantine architecture is to hike up the hill and ascend the several steps to reach the summit.
Every day, a fifteen-minute train departs from Le Vieux Port, Marseille’s historic port, for those who are less active or mobile. There is also a public bus (#49), but it still involves a steep seven-minute walk.
The hill is the ideal location for a romantic evening picnic or to watch the Bastille Day fireworks, but because there are no stores nearby, bring plenty of food. Walking down is a far faster option than standing in heavy summertime traffic to catch the bus.
The basilica Notre Dame de la Garde is one of the many attractions included in this city sightseeing tour, along with a visit to MuCEM and the Palais Longchamp, and much more.
Explore the Historic Vieux-Port (Old Port)
One of my favorite French cities is Marseille. Marseille’s Le Vieux Port is breathtaking and exudes the unadulterated vitality one would anticipate from a bustling port city. The harbor, surrounded by old buildings and teeming with pleasure boats and fishing vessels, seems to be frozen in time. It makes sense—the Old Port of Marseille is as old as 600 BC!
Standing boldly at the edge of the water, the historic fort commands a view of the main square from the cathedrals. Apart from the chic bistros and cafes that line the boulevards, the area appears fit for the backdrop of an antiquated pirate film. I could picture what it was like when schooners carrying seamen would dock at Vieux port in the seventeenth century. And it doesn’t seem to have altered at all.
I recommend taking in the vibe and bustle of the Old Port by securing a seat on an outdoor patio and enjoying a bottle of sparkling wine and some freshly shucked mussels.
Take a Boat Tour of the Calanques
Parc National des Calanques is a great day trip destination near Marseille. It is the only national park in Europe to be found both on land and in the sea, and it is situated close to cities. On the way to Cassis, it’s just next to Marseilles.
At 520 square kilometers (201 square miles), Calanques National Park is a sizable park that unmistakably resembles a location from the Greek Islands. It features excellent hiking paths, places for kayaking, and calm coves for exploring the limestone cliffs. It was named a national park in 2012.
If one were to rank Marseille’s most stunning calanques, it would be similar to selecting a favorite child: Calanques de Niolon and Carry are the greatest for daring dips, while Calanque d’en Vau would win first place!
See the breathtaking coastline and tucked-away fishing communities by taking a boat trip. This trip to Calanques National Park by catamaran. Les Goudes and Callelongue are on this five-hour journey that follows the Mediterranean Sea between La Madrague and Cassis. It’s an excellent way to see the shore.
Discover the Vibrant Street Art Scene
Marseille has a thriving street art scene, with murals and graffiti adorning many of the city’s buildings. The best way to explore this vibrant art form is by taking a walking tour of the city’s street art hotspots.
One of the best areas to explore is the Cours Julien district, where you’ll find colorful murals, stencils, and tags on almost every wall. There are also plenty of independent boutiques, cafes, and bars in the area, making it a great spot to spend an afternoon.
Stroll Through the Picturesque Le Panier Neighborhood
Le Panier (meaning basket in French, named after a nearby 17th-century inn) is tucked away between the Vieux Port and the posh new La Joliette neighborhood. Strolling along the narrow streets, stopping to take pictures of the frescoes on building walls, and thinking back to Marseille’s past is one of the best things to do in the city.
Visit the imposing Cathédrale La Major to cap off the thirty-minute walk. Constructed during the 12th and 19th centuries, La Major boasts remarkable Byzantine domes and turrets, accompanied by exquisite murals and mosaics. Les Halles de la Major, a culinary concept kitchen café, has just been added to the walkway beneath. Excellent for lovers of gastronomy, architecture, and history.
With the help of this guided audio tour, you can explore Le Panier, Marseille’s historic neighborhood, which includes the Notre Dame “Bonne Mère” Basilica, the Vieux Port, City Hall, and the forts of Saint Nicolas and Saint-Jean.
Sample Local Seafood Dishes at the Fish Market
Marseille is famous for its seafood, and there’s no better place to sample it than at the city’s fish market. Located in the Vieux-Port, the market is a bustling hub of activity, with vendors selling everything from fresh fish to oysters and shellfish.
Be sure to sample some of the local Marseille cuisine, such as bouillabaisse, a traditional fish soup made with local fish and seafood. There are also plenty of seafood restaurants in the area, making it a great spot for lunch or dinner.
Visit the Stunning Palais Longchamp
In the 1800s, the city’s authorities had to figure out how to supply the city with clean water during a cholera outbreak. After years of planning and construction, the beautiful Palace Longchamp was constructed to mark the completion of the intricate plan to build over 52 miles (85 km) of aqueducts from the Durance river.
Visiting the modest Natural History Museum, the botanical gardens, the observatory, and the numerous playgrounds is one of the best family-friendly things to do in Marseille today.
A café is located at the summit of numerous steps, where you can treat the youngsters to ice cream or enjoy a beer with your friends. Live concerts take place on the grounds during the summer.
Learn About Marseille’s History at the MuCEM Museum
For visitors of all ages, MuCEM is a must-see in Marseille. The striking structure by the water serves as the centerpiece for Marseille’s transformation from a dilapidated seaside town to an elegant Mediterranean resort.
Inside, there are both permanent and temporary art exhibits on a variety of topics, including football, recycling, and love.
Two restaurants, both designed by local chef Gérald Passedat, offer enticingly delicious delicacies.
Le Môle is a great all-you-can-eat lunch buffet that is both upscale and reasonably priced, while La Table seats guests at communal tables of 20 for dinner.
There are ice cream parlors, pop-up concept stores, and summer evening parties where guests are free to explore the museum while DJs spin records in the basement. All else, children are adequately taken care of and access is simple.
Look Around Fort Saint-Jean’s Walkways
A military stronghold since the 12th century, Louis XIV constructed this fort near the port’s entrance in 1660, commenting that the Marseillais are “extremely fond of old fortresses.”
German-occupied during World War II and blasted by the Allies upon liberation, the Fort Saint Jean has undergone extensive renovations, including the addition of a gorgeous promenade that links it to Le Panier, Marseille’s oldest neighborhood.
Unless you stop to take in the Instagram-worthy sea views, a visit exploring the quaint historic nooks and crannies takes no more than an hour. If mobility is a concern, there is little seating and steep ramps. There is also little area for small children.
Visit Parc Borély to avoid the heat and noise
A wealthy local merchant named Louis Borély had the vision to construct a country estate that would “surpass all others in terms of size and splendour” after returning from Egypt in 1767.
Currently known as Park Borély, it serves as a haven for well-heeled residents to get away from the heat and bustle of the city—though sometimes it is too crowded.
Nationally recognized as “one of the most remarkable gardens in France,” renowned French writer Marcel Pagnol reminisced about his early visits to this location.
Though the home is stunning, visitors are more interested in the gardens. Rent bikes and ride the vast network of paths and grass. Check out the playgrounds and observe individuals playing football or practicing martial arts. Choose to work out at the outdoor gym or read a book by the lake while attempting to avoid upsetting the ducks and badgers.
Perhaps stop by the botanical gardens or get a crêpe from the café. A golf club and hippodrome (horse track) are next door, and there’s a sandy beach across from it where you may swim in the afternoon to cool off if you still need more.
Relax on the Beaches of Prado or Pointe Rouge
No visit to Marseille is complete without a trip to the beach, and there are plenty of options to choose from. Two of the most popular beaches are Prado and Pointe Rouge, which offer clean sand, clear water, and plenty of amenities.
Be sure to bring sunscreen and plenty of water, as the Mediterranean sun can be intense during the summer months. There are also plenty of cafes and restaurants in the area, making it a great spot for a drink or a bite to eat.
Enjoy the Literary Atmosphere While Reading the Count of Monte Cristo
Standing on this little island, twenty minutes by boat from Marseille’s harbor, King François determined in 1516 that it would be the ideal location for a stronghold to protect Marseille from invasion.
Never attacked, Château d’If was converted to a jail in the 19th century due to the high tidal waves that made escape difficult.
Richer inmates paid for fireplaces, spacious mattresses, and views of the sea, while thousands of impoverished political prisoners were housed in dungeons on the lowest floor until the jail closed in 1890.
Although no one is known to have escaped, Edouard Dantès, the protagonist of Alexandre Dumas’s critically acclaimed novel The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), was falsely imprisoned at the prison.
Boats depart from Le Vieux Port, and the prison closes on Monday. Make sure to check the schedule carefully, as not all boats arrive to the island. As with many of Marseille’s tourist attractions, the paths are uneven, so wear appropriate footwear. There is also very little shade, so bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and lotion.
Enjoy the Nightlife in the Trendy Cours Julien District
The Cours Julien district is one of Marseille’s trendiest neighborhoods, and a great spot to experience the city’s vibrant nightlife. The area is full of independent boutiques, cafes, and bars, and is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike.
Be sure to explore the area’s backstreets, where you’ll find hidden bars and clubs that offer a more intimate and authentic nightlife experience. There are also plenty of restaurants in the area, making it a great spot for dinner or a late-night snack.
How to Get To Marseille
Located approximately 27 kilometers away, the Marseille Provence Airport serves the southern region of France, including Marseille. From every city in Europe, there are daily flights. Flying to Marseille from outside makes connections through London, Paris, and Dublin.
There are daily trains from Paris to Marseille, making it one of the easiest ways to travel there. The Gare de Marseille St Charles is Marseille’s major train station.
Buses from all across Europe arrive at Marseille’s main bus station, Gare St Charle, also known as St. Charles bus station.
How to Get Around Marseille
Being one of the largest cities in France, you won’t be able to see everything in a single visit. Many of the tourist attractions are located around the Vieux-Port and Le Panier districts and are best seen by foot.
An excellent alternative if you don’t want to walk is the Marseille City Pass. It entitles you the free use of Marseille’s public transportation. The following are covered by 24-, 48-, or 72-hour passes:
- Free access to Marseille’s museums including – the Marine Museum, Natual History Museum, Fine Arts Museum, Palais Longchamp, and more.
- A Ride on the train to Notre-Dame de la Garde or le Panier old town
- Get tastings and discounts in certified boutiques.
It should also be noted that Marseille is also one of the only French cities, along with Paris and Lyon, to be divided into districts called arrondissements.
Public transport is fairly well developed and as well as buses and trams, there are two metro lines; M1 and M2 connect east to west and north to south.
Frequently Asked Questions About Marseille
Is Marseille safe?
Tourist areas in Marseille are generally safe. However, visitors should be aware of various scams that target tourists, as well as pickpockets. I personally suggest wearing a crossbody bag like this one at all times.
What are the best free things to do in Marseille?
Those visiting Marseille on a budget have plenty to do. Among the best free things to do in Marseille are visiting the old port, sitting on the rooftop at MUCEM, taking in the view from the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, and relaxing on one of the many beaches in the area.