Though France’s second-largest city, locals liken the vibrant port city of Marseille to “111 villages”. Each one boasts its own personality, ensuring there is no shortage of things to do in Marseille. With its 2,600-year history, multicultural mix and prime perch on the Mediterranean, Marseille appeals to city hoppers and beach goers alike. Once you’ve spent 24 hours in Marseille, you’ll be tempted to stay longer.
Fuel up at Bar de la Relève
This hipster all-day café has regulars popping in from morning to night, hence why co-owner Greg calls it a “bar des copains” (friends’ bar). For breakfast, choose a classic French petit déjeuner of coffee, fresh-squeezed OJ and a croissant or homemade cake. Grab an outdoor seat to watch the Marseillais stroll by or snag a cosy interior table along the mirrored wall.
Give thanks to the ‘Good Mother’
Once fuelled up, bus or climb up the hill to Notre-Dame de la Garde. This Roman-Byzantine basilica is nicknamed “la Bonne Mère” (“the Good Mother”) for its golden Virgin and Child statue that watches over the city. The magnificently mosaicked church is decorated with ex-votos (wooden boats and oil paintings of ships) that worshippers have brought to thank her for her protection.
Outside, Marseille’s highest point – no new construction can be taller by law – serves up sweeping 360-degree views, giving you a good lay of the land before venturing into the city. Early visits also help avoid the swell of cruise trip passengers, though Sunday morning mass adds to the crowds. You can’t miss the World War II bullet holes that scar the church’s exterior walls.
Walk the bridge between ancient and modern history
Take the bus down to the Fort Saint-Jean, one of two 17th-century forts that guard the Vieux Port. Enter at the arched entrance, cross the courtyard, and climb the staircase in the galvanised metal building. Here, you can choose your own adventure: wander the narrow paths, chill on a wooden chaise or stroll the Jardin des Migrations, an allegorical garden that recounts the history of Marseille’s agricultural trade.
Once you reach the top of the fort, look out for the narrow pedestrian bridge that leads to MUCEM: the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. This offers a jaw-dropping view of the architectural stunner, a webbed concrete cube that evokes Arabic motifs. Marvel at the design on the rooftop patio, then via the exterior walkways that descend through the latticework. On the ground floor, the bookstore stocks postcards and books on Marseille. Note that MUCEM’s exhibitions require an entrance fee.
Savour the catch of the day
Stroll back into town to the Boîte à Sardine. Though named “tinned sardines”, this nautical-themed kitsch spot dishes up the freshest catch in town. Each day, owner and fishmonger Fabien Rugi sources seafood from independent fishermen. He claims that co-owner and chef Céline Bonnieu “can cook any fish in the Mediterranean”. Think garlicky squid à la provençale and broiled mackerel blanketed in herb sauce. Don’t miss the sea anemone beignets (fritters), a hard-to-find seafood treat.
Shop heritage and global goods
Head down Marseille’s main drag, the Canébiere, to Noailles. Known as the ‘belly of Marseille’, the neighbourhood brims with food stalls and eateries, with many serving North African specialities. Scoop up spices at Saladin along the central artery, Rue Longue des Capucins. Nearby, Jiji Palme d’Or is a treasure trove of Maghrebi ceramics, rugs and straw bags. Also on Rue d’Aubagne, find Maison Empereur, France’s oldest hardware store, and Père Blaize, a 19th-century herbalist. Foodies should pop into Epicerie l’Idéal, a market café run by a friendly food journalist. Perk up with a coffee or pick up snacks and a bottle of rosé for a beachside happy hour.
Hit the beach
From the Vieux Port, take the bus towards Fausse Monnaie or a bike with the city’s bike-sharing system, Vélo. Once you arrive, descend the Anse de la Fausse Monnaie staircase to a picturesque little port. Cross under the arched bridge to the beach, where the flat rocks are ideal for sunbathing, picnicking or watching teens cliff-dive from the Corniche Kennedy. For an easier entry into the sea, continue along the path to the pebbled cove of Anse de Maldormé. While swimming season stretches from April to October, sunny winter days are equally lovely for seaside strolls.
Sample local specialities: panisses and pastis
Apèro (aka happy hour) is revered in Marseille. At Café de l’Abbaye, pair your drinks with one of the city’s best views – a glorious panorama of the Gothic Abbaye Saint-Victor, Fort Saint-Nicolas and hundreds of boats moored in the port below. Hipsters gather at outdoor tables and spill onto the sidewalk, clutching cones of panisses (local chickpea fritters) and perching their pastis (anise-flavoured spirit and apéritif), beer and rosé on a stone wall.
When you get hungry for dinner, take a ten-minute walk to Sepia. This charming chalet serves seasonal, locally sourced cuisine and is beside a verdant park. Chef Paul Langlère trained in Michelin-star kitchens before opening his own ‘bistronomic’ place. Its name (“squid ink” in French) pays homage to Marseille’s favourite seafood.
Rainy day alternative: listen to jazz and tuck into comfort food
If it’s raining or the blustery mistral wind is blowing, have your happy hour at La Caravelle instead. A cabaret for sailors in the 1920s, this old-timey bar charms with red velvet chairs, vintage boats and golden maps painted on the walls. On most Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights, La Caravelle swings with jazz bands after 8pm. It does get busy, so reservations are encouraged.
For dinner, walk a few blocks to Les Buvards. One of Marseille’s few bar à vins is one of France’s first natural ones. Owners Fred and Laetitia are happy and well equipped to guide you – they know many of the winemakers personally. Fred cooks comfort fare in the tiniest kitchen, like homemade pâté de campagne and a homey plat du jour in a cast-iron cocotte dish. Les Buvards is also an ideal spot for dining solo.
Pair your drink with a bird’s-eye view
In spite of its address on the bustling Vieux Port, the Hotel Hermès’s tiny rooftop bar remains a secret known only to locals. To find it, take the lift to the fifth floor of the hotel, and then head right towards the staircase up to the roof. Perched above the tidy rows of boats, you feel like you can practically touch the sunset. Wave to the Bonne Mère beaming across the port and order a mojito, a spritz and a cheese or charcuterie board. With limited seating, come early to ensure you’ll get into this bar, which is open to the public from May to December. Want off-season access? Just book a night at the hotel.
Sip cocktails at Gaspard
For drinks that can be savoured all year long, head across the port. Gaspard is one part elegant hotel bar, one part nautical Mediterranean backdrop, and one part mixologist paradise, shaken and strained into one of Marseille’s best cocktail bars. Beneath fishnet lamps at the fish tank bar, sip beautiful cocktails crafted from an array of spirits and house-made syrups. Feeling adventurous? Name a spirit and an adjective (i.e. sour, herbal, or spicy) and the savvy staff will create a bespoke beverage. Check Gaspard’s social media for monthly chef collabs that the owner, Ben, organises.
End the night on a high note
Light up the night at La Friche, the former tobacco factory-turned-creative space. Its sprawling 740-square-metre (8,000-square-foot) roof hosts DJs, outdoor movies and one of the best sunset views in town. Inside, see plays and dance performances at the Grand and Petit Plateau theatres, or dance until dawn at the Cabaret Aléatoire club. Throughout the year, the Friche puts on a diverse mix of festivals: from craft beer to breakdancing.