Marseille may not be the most obvious destination for a city trip. The city has no world-famous attractions. Yet, tourism in Marseille is increasing. This multicultural city on the Mediterranean is a combination of French savoir vivre and African rhythms and smells, has colorful historic neighborhoods and a beautiful surrounding countryside. It is also France's oldest city, founded in the 6th century BC.
Marseille was founded by the Greeks, as one of their first trading posts in Western Europe. Already back then they realized the opportunities this place had to become an important port. Marseille's port tradition thus goes back almost 2500 years. Maritime transport and the fishing industry are still of crucial importance to the local economy. There is still a daily fish market on the Quai des Belges in the Old Port (Vieux-Port). This old port has a narrow entrance with on both sides a fort.
On one side of the water lies the Basilica of Saint Victor. Some parts of this church date back to the 5th century! Across the water lies the district of Le Panier, the oldest part of Marseille. The largest part of this neighborhood has been renovated and now houses restaurants, bars and art galleries. The center of this area is formed by La Vielle Charité, a former orphanage and hospital for the poor (built in the 17th and 18th centuries), which nowadays is a multicultural center. It features temporary exhibitions and houses various museums, including the Archeological Museum and the Museum of Art from Former French colonies in Africa, Oceania and Amerindia. Nearby you'll find the museum of the Fonds Régional d'Art Contemporain (FRAC).
The Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde towers over Marseille and, in a sense, watches the city. A huge statue of the Virgin Mary tops the basilica's bell tower. Many fishermen had their boats blessed here and you'll therefore see many scale models of boats hanging from the ceiling. From here, you also have a beautiful view over Marseille.
In and around Marseille
When you take the freeway, it takes you less than half an hour to get to Aix-en-Provence; a completely different city, but definitely worth a visit. Aix has medieval districts and stately neighborhoods from later centuries. From anywhere in Aix-en-Provence, you can see the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. Cézanne immortalized it many times in his paintings. Cézanne lived in Aix and so there is a special route, the Cézanne Trail, about his life and work.
Between Marseille and the fishing village of Cassis lie rugged cliffs, transected by narrow creeks. Further inland, the creeks broaden and often end near a beach (the so-called Calanques). There are walking trails through this rough area, but be careful, as the tracks can be very narrow and steep! Cassis has retained much of its original charm. You can make boat trips to the above-mentioned sheltered coves. This is often an easier way to reach the beaches than by land. The sea near Cassis is also very popular among windsurfers.
Further east, the coast between La Ciotat and Toulon is much hillier. La Ciotat is where the Lumière brothers produced their first projected motion picture in 1895. It is therefore the birthplace of motion picture and the town can pride itself on housing the world's oldest cinema, the Eden Theater. There are also beautiful beaches nearby and you can make a boat trip to the so-called Green Island (Île Verte).
Northwest of Marseille lies the historic city of Arles, which has both a Romanesque and medieval feel to it. Here you can still see many remnants from Roman times: 'Les Arènes', the arena where for example bullfights are held, an amphitheater and the famous Alyscamps Necropolis. Arles lies just north of the Camargue, the swampy area in the Rhône Delta. You have to leave the main road to discover the true beauty of this area. In the Camargue you'll find lakes and swamps which make it a rich bird habitat with for example flamingo colonies. Make sure to arm yourself against the large number of insects though!
If you are not familiar with the traffic situation in Marseille, it is best to avoid the center. Many of the narrow streets are one-way streets and it may therefore be difficult to find your way around. In summer, the city gets very busy and it may not be easy to find a parking space out on the street. Fortunately, there are many parking garages, both in and around the center, where you can leave your rental car at a reasonable rate.
Marseille Airport is located 25 kilometers northwest of the city. Marseille Airport has two terminals: Terminal 1 is for international flights and Terminal 3-4 for domestic flights. The airport lies right along the N-113. From Marseille, you can reach the airport by first taking the A-55, then the A-7 towards Avignon and next the exit to the D9. The road is clearly signposted.