A stunning coastline combines with its world-famous gastronomic heritage to give Marseille numerous romantic restaurants. Add in delectable local ingredients, such as freshly caught seafood and local Provençal vegetables, and you’ll have a mouthwatering start to your evening, creating stories for many years to come.
On the coastal road around Marseille – the Corniche Kennedy – you’ll find a cute little harbour tucked away from prying eyes called Vallon des Auffes. Chez Fonfon is perched on the side of the quay and it’s one of the big local masters in seafood and bouillabaisse. The latter normally needs to be ordered one or two days in advance. Everything about this place is romantic, from the cream-coloured tablecloths to the discrete service, which gives couples their privacy. You can sit and have a drink, watching the small fishing boats come and go, planning your future together.
Le Cercle Rouge is hidden away near the magnificent Saint-Vincent de Paul Church and La Canebière (one of Marseille’s main boulevards) on a small road often just used as an artery in the comings and goings of big city life. The restaurant is intimate, which adds to its charm, and the French-style tapas are divine. Taste the charming œufs cocotte (oven-baked eggs), flambéed prawns and pesto octopus. When you pay the bill, the staff let you choose an old 45 vinyl record from their collection to take with you; it’s a wonderful souvenir. The name of the restaurant, Le Cercle Rouge (the red circle), comes from a Buddhist saying and is also the title of a cult French gangster movie from 1970 starring heartthrob Alain Delon.
The Vieux Port of Marseille is a romantic place to watch the boats and people which pass through. Of the many restaurants lining the Old Harbour, one of the most lovely and laid-back is La Piscine. Established by French swimmer and Olympic gold medallist in backstroke and freestyle Florent Manaudou, the name, Swimming Pool, has many meanings. As well as his profession, it is a homage to the many sexy French films involving swimming pools, mainly 1969’s erotic La Piscine and the sultry Swimming Pool by director François Ozon from 2003. It also brings to mind a metaphor made about love by French actress Fanny Ardant, which is engraved on the restaurant wall, ‘En amour, il y a un temps pour plonger, mais il faut attendre que la piscine se remplisse si l’on ne veut pas plonger dans un bain de pieds‘. To translate, ‘In love, there is a time to dive in but you must wait until the swimming pool is full again to ensure you don’t dive into a foot bath.’ The views are sublime over the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde and the menu is full of sharing food, such as tapas. The chef also does a good brunch and provides lots of veggie options.
Open seven days a week, the top floor of Marseille’s rowing club has one of the most breathtaking city views. Overlooking the captivating Fort Saint-Jean and its neighbour, the Museum of European Cultural Civilisations (MUCEM), the rooftop offers the perfect vista for having a pre-dinner drink and eating on the terrace until the sun goes down. The tapas are on the larger side, so order a couple to share. A DJ will spin some French party classics and international favourites on weekend nights so you can dance with other revellers until midnight making new friends and memories with your loved ones.
Marseille has a very rocky coastline and only a handful of sandy beaches, which explains why there are far fewer beach clubs than in other places on the Côte d’Azur – there’s not much space to lay out the sun loungers. Bistrot Plage, which is located under a statue called the Door to the Orient, commemorating Africans who lost their lives for France, is one of the few beach clubs worth visiting. The scary-looking ladder to get into the sea will be a test of your relationship as you support each other climbing down the rocks to reach the water. Afterwards, head to the grass-floored bar area for a coffee or apéro; choose a pizza from the wood-fired oven to enjoy on the sofas; or better yet, book a table in the restaurant overhanging the water for lunch or dinner. It’s a very laid-back place and they occasionally hold a silent disco in the evenings.
El Picoteo is in the very residential fifth arrondissement, or suburb, of Marseille, but it’s just a 15-minute walk from all the action in the Vieux Port. Reserve a table on the leafy terrace (they have patio heaters in the winter) and start ordering sublime tapas dishes to share until you can’t eat anymore. They have all the favourites, such as patatas bravas, calamari and prawns, but they also serve several suggestions du moment. Try the spicy cuttlefish, mushrooms stuffed with goat’s cheese and hummus made from broad beans. The drinks menu focuses on wine from Chile, Argentina and Spain and the jugs of sangria are good value and a great way to start the night. When it gets dark, the tables are candlelit with the quiet chatter of other romantic couples on the terrace to keep you company.