The Calanques, outside of Marseille, are a must-see natural wonder. Here’s our guide on where to find them, what to do there, what to see nearby and when it’s best to go.
The Calanques are a series of rocky cliffs and bays between the city of Marseille and the town of Cassis, in the south of France. They’re essentially inlets that have been formed in the limestone cliffs, leaving behind a series of beautiful little bays. The word Calanques, comes from calanche in Corsican and calancas in Occitan, which means “inlet”. The area has a very specific eco-system (with no soil – the plants live in the limestone) and has been a protected area since 2012, when the entire 20 mile stretch of Calanques was designated a national park.
Many of the Calanques are actually closed in the height of summer, because the risk of fire is too great. Sometimes people are allowed through to hike, but cars are banned from June 1st to September 30th. May to June is the best time to go, when the weather is amazing before the heat and Autumnal rain arrives. But it’s worth saying that the Calanques are beautiful any time of the year and well worth a visit (if you’re allowed in).
You can also approach the Calanques from the sea, so kayaking from Marseille or Cassis is an option. There are lots of boating tours that leave from the harbour in Cassis that visit all the Calanques. If you want to stop off and swim, hire a boat from the same place. There are lots of hiking excursions from Cassis too. The Tourist Office in Cassis offers links to tour companies and also lots of practical advice on visiting the region.
Le Château restaurant is in the Calanque Sormiou, right at the water’s edge. It’s a favourite with locals and tourists, who come to swim and then eat gloriously fresh fish or bouillabaisse with a glass of local wine.
Opening hours: Daily, 12pm to 3pm. Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm to 9.30pm. Closed Sunday evenings.
Parc national des Calanques, Route du Feu de la Calanque de Sormiou, Marseille +33 (0)4 91 25 08 69
Le Lunch is open from May 30th each year until October 15th. It’s a more low-key option than Le Château, although it’s still pricey (it’s a captive market, there isn’t anywhere else to go in the area). Eat some nice fresh fish or seafood overlooking the sea.
Opening hours: 12pm to 2.30pm, Monday to Saturday. (12pm to 3pm Sundays). 8pm to 10pm, daily.
Parc national des Calanques, Calanque de Sormiou, Marseille +33 (0)4 91 25 05 37
Remember that all the Calanques can get extraordinarily busy. If you don’t book a table at one of the restaurants, it can be incredibly difficult to eat, particularly as these places are not open all day. Don’t forget though, you can always buy a beer or a soft drink from the bar to go with a picnic.
There are no natural freshwater sources in the Calanques, so you must take lots of water. Parking is limited – even when you are allowed to drive down to the bottom – and on occasion you may have to park at the top and walk down. Take sturdy shoes and don’t forget your swimsuit, sun cream and towel for the well-earned swim at the bottom.
People adore the small little fishing town of Cassis. It has a great beach (with seaside restaurants), a cute harbour, chic shops and wonderful ice cream parlours. Parking can be a nightmare so either get there early in the day, or use the Park and Ride service from the top of the hill, taking the bus down into town. Make sure you have change to pay for the parking and bus tickets. It’s a great place to idle away a few hours, watching the people and boats go by.