With over 300 sunny days per year, it’s no surprise that Marseille’s best nightlife centres on open-air venues and sweeping coastal views. Whether it’s lounging on the rooftops or sipping cocktails with your feet in the sand, Marseille’s nightlife has something for everyone.
The seasons dictate the evening rhythms in France’s second-largest city; at the height of summer, many Marseillais leave town, so venues rest empty. It’s at these times that the remaining residents, and tourists in the know, spend the day on loungers with easy access to the sea and beachside glasses of rosé wine, in bars that turn host lively DJ sets with a Balearic vibe. Spring and autumn can be the liveliest across the entire city, with people packing into every available outdoor space, while winter is spent in enclosed patios in atmospheric courtyard brasseries that are open late.
Established in part of a sprawling renovated factory, Cabaret Aléatoire offers something off the electronic beaten path (aléatoire meaning “random” in French). Organiser Nina Vernard calls the venue “a true industrial cathedral, offering up mass every weekend”, with clubbers partying in vast, strobe-filled caverns. She adds, “This is an inclusive place, for anyone hoping to discover new electronic artists as much as internationally renowned stars.”
Many of the nightlife options that take in Marseille’s exceptional coastal panoramas are offered by large multinational hotels with rooftop restaurants promising karaoke at sky-high prices. Near the Vieux Port – the central harbour and beating heart of the strolling crowds on sunny evenings – is Marseille’s Rowing Club, located down an inauspicious side road at the very end of the marina. It’s an easygoing but stylish venue, with tapas-style French delicacies served early evening followed by a DJ set of summer classics. As you’d expect of a rowing club, the waterside views are sublime over Marseille’s Fort Saint-Jean.
Le Petit Pavillon is one of a few buildings etched into the rock skirting Marseille’s coastline, literally hanging off the cliff overlooking Château d’If, the fortress where the fictional Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned. By day, this is the place to hire a sun lounger (they do a lounger and lunch deal for €30 / £27) and relax with a drink, carefully feeling your way down the iron ladder to cool off in the sea below. Take a shower just before sunset and change into your little black dress or trouser equivalent (beachwear is strictly a no-no) to party at one of the liveliest seaside venues in the summer months. Booking in advance is absolutely essential.
In one direction sits the architecturally striking MuCEM, the Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean, and a short walk in the other are the chic, independent stores of the refurbished dockside called Terasses du Port. Brothers Jonathan and Michael Nakache run the White Rabbit rock bar, offering “wacky nights out for concert lovers with shooters that hit hard”. This is a no-frills hipster hangout, with live music every weekend, local beer on tap, pizza and a decent happy hour (Monday to Saturday, 5.30pm to 8pm). In summer, it’s common after the live music ends to find a DJ set up on the waterfront outside letting rip a little Queen: “Don’t stop me now….”
Of all the bars surrounding the Vieux Port (many of which are tourist traps), La Caravelle, which is the word for an old-fashioned sailing ship, is one of the most convivial. Sit on the sunny balcony eating the home-made set menu (think stuffed squid with chocolate mousse to finish), enjoying the cocktails and listening to some live music, eclectic in taste, ranging from pop to salsa. It’s one of the few bars where it isn’t necessary to eat to get a good table – some nights they don’t actually serve food at all. The management encourages musical chairs and lively conversation.
This boutique hotel (one of a chain of 13 in France) is firmly established on Marseille’s nightlife scene, and is situated not far from the bars and clubs of gritty neighbourhood Cours Julien. Taking pride in its Mediterranean setting, the taste in food and drink is distinctly southern French, fused with international flavours – think cocktails made from pastis, boukha (a Tunisian fig aperitif) and raki (anise-flavoured Albanian liqueur). Food is served at wooden tables, where groups of twenty- and thirtysomethings make rowdy conversation into the early hours.
In the increasingly gentrified Boulevard Chave, there are many delicatessens, organic wine bars and local fromageries (cheese shops). Along this tree-lined residential avenue, the one go-to place for a lively soirée is Le Trois Quarts, a corner brasserie and pub where, at the weekends, people spill out onto the street. Nathan Levy, one of the three owners, says, “Le Trois Quarts distinguishes itself by making everyone feel welcome as part of the family.” The minimalistic menu includes favourites such as fresh ravioli and beef stew, with an interesting cocktail list. Be sure to try the Sean Penn: a mix of pisco (South American spirit), lemon, champagne and egg whites. The crowd is low-key chic, looking for a decent but fairly relaxed local night out.
Running the length of Marseille’s large St Charles train station is Friche la Belle de Mai, a hub of innovation set within an old tobacco warehouse. Wander the skate park and gardens early evening, peruse the interesting selection of arty books in the café and take in a visual arts exhibition. Eat at Les Grandes Tables, which calls itself a “genuine, creative laboratory” offering sustainable bites, and watch the crowds shopping at the farmer’s market on Monday nights. Better yet, take in the weekend sunset on the top of the building, overlooking the rooftops of Marseille, listening to the DJs, drinking a local brew, surrounded by groups of friends or families watching their kids play ball.
Probably the most well known of Marseille’s summer parties, Marsatac was founded over 20 years ago to showcase the best local hip-hop artists in the region – it has since extended to electronic music. The three-day event has moved around the city as it has outgrown smaller venues and now attracts 40,000 people to over 35 sound stages, a long way from the 2,500 people who first turned up. Laurence Chansigaud, one of the directors, says, “Our ethos is still the same as it was, with an average age of 25, half of whom are students.” Additionally, she says they were the first festival in the region to introduce strict environmental rules, which have since been used as a benchmark for other local festivals.
At the beginning of July, the hot ticket to have in Marseille is for the Delta Festival – a series of “villages” installed each year across the shoreline, offering as much a place to party as to check your eco-credentials. Amble through a selection of these “villages”, eating from the fresh fruit market and one of 20 food trucks in the Village Gastronomique. Get your adrenaline flowing playing Wipeout and Gladiator on the large inflatables in the Sport Village. Try out the latest virtual-reality toys in the Village des Possibles, and get your plastic-free water boxes and portable eco-ashtrays in the Sustainable Village. What’s more, you can do this while listening to the best house DJs and taking a dip in the warm waters of the Mediterranean.
From the beginning of June to early September, head out to sea to have an evening drink (an apéro) on the deck of a boat. Each boat hosts about 40 to 60 people and has a live music theme, ranging from DJs to jazz bands to salsa-influenced music groups. It’s the perfect opportunity to dance on sea legs, watching the sun go down, well away from the onshore crowds. Book your tickets in advance online.