Marseille has many beautiful buildings, whether it’s the magnificent cathedrals and water palace or Corbusier’s brutalist “city within a city”. Here’s our run-down of the most beautiful buildings this city has to offer.
Any guide to Marseille’s beautiful buildings has to begin with the most famous. The Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde sits on the highest point in Marseille and overlooks everything. It was completed in 1864 in a Roman-Byzantine style – domes, mosaic, multi-coloured stones. It’s a key starting point for any new visitor to the city, to take in the panoramic views or wander through the beautiful building. Take the tourist train from Le Vieux Port for an easier climb up the hill.
In the 19th century, Marseille’s council became obsessed with water. More specifically, how to bring it to Marseille from the river Durance, particularly because of the cholera epidemic that was sweeping the city. In 1839, the city began to build the 85km canal which took ten years and involved the construction of 18 aqueduct bridges. The 19th century palace that sits here is the crowning glory – a huge edifice to celebrate the water that finally arrived after all the hard work. It is simply stunning. It now houses the Natural History museum as well as the Museum of Fine Arts. Not to be missed.
The Museum of European & Mediterranean Civilisations sits pride of place on the waterfront at the corner of the old and new port areas. It was opened to commemorate Marseille being crowned the European Capital of Culture in 2013. It is simply staggering, housing permanent and temporary art exhibitions, as well as bars and restaurants. Head to the roof for pre-dinner cocktails or to have a picnic.
The old fort, at the entrance to the old port was built by Louis 14th in 1660. He is quoted as saying that “the inhabitants of Marseille are extremely fond of nice fortresses. We wanted to have our own at the entrance to this great port.” It was occupied by the Germans in World War II and then bombed during the liberation of Marseille. It remained in a shabby state until the government completely renovated it and it is now connected to the oldest district of Marseille, Le Panier and to the new MUCEM building by two bridges. The views are stunning and so are the overhead walkways.
Just opposite the MUCEM building and the old Fort Saint-Jean, you’ll find the Cathédrale La Major. The building is actually two cathedrals, one built in the 12th century and another built on the same site in the 19th century. The new one was built in a Byzantine style – multicoloured brickwork, domes and turrets. It is staggeringly big and classified as a national monument. There are also lots of great new restaurants on the promenade underneath.
Château d’If is an old island fortress just off the coast of Marseille, opposite the MUCEM and Fort Saint-Jean. After it became useless as a military outpost, it was turned into a prison because the strong currents acted as a deterrent for potential escapees. It’s very small but well worth a visit, for its cultural significance alone. It was here that Alexandre Dumas, wrongly imprisoned his hero in his bestseller, The Count of Monte Cristo. Read our guide to the Château before you go.
The Hotel Dieu is now an actual hotel, run by the Intercontinental Hotel Group. It’s one of the best locations to stay, overlooking the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de la Garde and a five minute walk from the MUCEM and Fort Saint Jean. If the hotel is too pricey for your taste, have a picnic on the public steps below it that lead down to the Vieux Port. The building was a hospital for more than 800 years before it became a hotel in 2013 (in conjunction with Marseille’s celebrations as the European Capital of Culture).
The Saint Vincent de Paul Church is absolutely stunning but it can be easily overlooked. It sits on the top of the Canebière, the main thoroughfare that leads uphill from the Old Port. It’s not always the cleanest part of town and because it sits at a major tram and road intersection in Marseille, it’s noisy and chaotic. The building though is absolutely stunning, particularly when viewed from afar. It was built in a gothic style at the end of the 19th century.
Every major district in France has a préfecture – it’s one of the main government administrative centres. The one in Marseille is beautiful. It was built in the mid-19th century and became a listed building in 1979. It has lots of beautiful statues inside and out, like the ones of Emperor Constantin. Today it’s a main focal point for locals, either to protest (there’s a big square out front) or to eat their lunch (it’s at the end of one of the main shopping streets in Marseille).
At the end of World War II, the city lacked affordable housing and good facilities for its people. They entrusted the famous French architect Corbusier with his vision of a “city within a city”. He spent months designing the perfect affordable housing unit that included flats, shops, schools, a doctors surgery and a restaurant. The apartments are now incredibly sought after but still staggeringly beautiful in their design concept. It’s technically a private complex but you can go up to the roof for the sea view at any time and they also run tours. Not to be missed. Check out our guide here.