Marseille is France’s second largest city and there are lots of free sights to see and activities to try out. From castle-hopping and rock-climbing to markers, parks and zoos, here are our top picks of free things to do.
Sit on the roof at MUCEM
The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations was one of Marseille’s flagship sights that was unveiled when it became European Capital of Culture in 2013. It sits on the waterfront connecting the old and new ports. It is free to get in, although you have to pay to see the exhibits. Wander across the impressive bridge linking it to the old district, Le Panier, and head to the rooftop for sublime views across the bay.
The Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is Marseille’s most iconic building, built on the highest point in the city. The basilica was completed in 1864 and the Virgin Mary statue on the top is said to watch over everyone. If you want a free view from the top, you’ll have to climb the hundreds of steps, otherwise, for a much more relaxing climb, he tourist train leaves from Le Vieux Port.
Peruse African herbs and spices at Marché Capucins
Marseille is a city built on the influx of African cultures. The market in the centre of the city is a great way to experience some of Africa’s many cultures, and you can browse the colourful herbs, spices and produce that aren’t common in Northern European or American cuisine. The market is open Monday to Saturday, from 8am to 7pm.
The fort of Saint Jean was built in 1660, occupied by the Germans, bombed by the Allies during Marseille’s liberation at the end of World War II, and then completely renovated when MUCEM became its new neighbour. It’s a grand opportunity to play queen or king, and run around for free through its small tunnels and impressive balconies overlooking the sea.
Parc Borély is one of Marseille’s best-kept secrets and lots of locals jog its paths and run around its impressive mansion. If jogging isn’t your thing, you can ‘hire’ a city bike for 30 minutes (it’s free for the first half hour) and ride around the park.
The Cours Julien used to be one of Marseille’s more seedy neighbourhoods but is undergoing a revival. Like any place that’s on the up, it’s still edgy but also a perfect place to listen to buskers. The graffiti is perfect for street art lovers and cool Instagram moments.
The Corniche Kennedy is the main road that skirts the Marseille coast. The coastline here is rocky and, if you head off the main road towards the sea, you’ll find lots of inlets with tiny beaches and large rocks. Watch the locals jump off the rocks and, if you’re feeling brave, take the plunge yourself. Don’t leave any valuables unattended and make sure that others jump off safely first before you head in.
There used to be a large tobacco factory along the railway tracks in Marseille but now it’s been turned into a cultural and community space. There are often free festivals here and, in the summer, the roof has free DJ nights and great sunset views. Watch the skaters try their tricks at the skate park and take in the cool vibe.
In the 19th century, Marseille had a water shortage and a massive cholera epidemic. After a long, ten-year engineering feat, it built miles of aqueducts to bring fresh water in from the River Durance, as well as a huge palace, Palais Longchamp, to commemorate the achievement. The park surrounding it used to house a zoo that has since closed down, but a recent project has put fake animals in place, using the same cages used to contain the real tigers and elephants. The castle is stunning and the park is run-down, but both are great places to relax and explore. Parc Longchamp, Boulevard du Jardin Zoologique Marseille, France, +33 49 155 2551
Hike the Calanques
The Calanques are one of France’s natural wonders. They are sea creeks that offer perfect hiking opportunities, and you can hike into and up them year-round. You can’t drive into the creeks in summer however, as they get overcrowded and it’s a fire risk. Spend a perfect day here with a picnic, swimming and hiking.
The Hotel Dieu used to be the city’s hospital for over 800 years, before it was converted into a hotel to coincide with Marseille’s crowning as the European Cultural Capital in 2013. It is now an actual hotel, run by the Intercontinental Hotel Group. The steps in front of it lead to the Old Port and are a great place to picnic or chill out during a sight-seeing break (MUCEM is five minutes away).
Marseille’s Old Port is really the cultural hub of the city; full of bars, restaurants, locals and tourists. Lots of people sit along the edge of the harbour, taking it all in. The fish market has taken place here every morning since 1909, from 8am to 1pm. Get there early to get the best choice of fish.
Many people come to the South of France to paint, thanks to the luminous quality of the light. It’s caused by the mixture of dry climate, high temperatures and the crazy Mistral wind. For about an hour most days, at dawn and at dusk, the sky takes on an ethereal, blue quality, which is beautiful to witness and great to photograph or paint.
Play empress at the Jardin du Pharo
Pharo’s Palace was built at the end of the 19th century as a gift from Napoleon III to his wife, the Empress Eugenie. After the fall of Napoleon’s empire, the palace became a hospital, and now its six hectares of gardens are open to the public, and packed on balmy days. It’s an ideal place to get views of the city’s most notable landmarks. Jardin du Pharo, Boulevard Charles Livon Marseille, France,+33 49 114 6495
Sculptures in the Palace of Pharo | djedj/Pixabay
Admire Brutalist architecture
Marseille had a staggering housing shortage at the end of World War II and the answer was provided by French architect, Le Corbusier. He created a ‘city within a city’, the Cité Radieuse. It’s a housing complex with everything its residents might need included: a supermarket, café, bar, school, doctor and rooftop pool. It’s free to get inside and a trip to the rooftop should be on every Marseille explorer’s itinerary.
The Marseillais have an expression they say when they want you to go away. They say, va te jeter aux Goudes (meaning ‘go throw yourself in the Goudes’) because it’s as far as you can go in Marseille along the coast before you get to the Calanques. Les Goudes is a little fishing village with a public beach and offers the perfect chance to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a while.