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The 12 best things to do in Marseille

France’s Mediterranean port city has it all, from picture-perfect coves to super-cool arts venues and decades-old independent shops

Houssine Bouchama
Written by
Houssine Bouchama
Translated by
Megan Carnegie
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France’s third-biggest metropolis (after Paris and Lyon), Marseille has been a Mediterranean melting pot ever since it was founded by Greek settlers an astonishing 2,600 years ago. In the past, it’s had a rough reputation as a town of sailors and gangsters. But in recent years, it’s been drawing an increasing number of visitors with its mash-up of must-visits: from the jaw-dropping vistas of the calanques and the beaches of every shape and size, to world-class museums and spectacular rooftop bars. Here’s our selection of the best things to do in one of Europe’s most ancient, fascinating and alive cities.

Best things to do in Marseille

Explore the majestic calanques
Photograph: Shutterstock

1. Explore the majestic calanques

With its clear blue waters and white limestone cliffs, dotted with spiny Mediterranean shrubs and pine trees, the Parc National des Calanques is a breathtaking sight. Its 25 otherworldly coves stretch around from the former Catalan fishing village Calanque de Samena to La Ciotat: heaven on earth for hikers, divers and beach bums. Ranking Marseille’s most spectacular calanques is like choosing a favourite child: Calanques de Niolon and Carry are best for adventurous dips, but if a top spot up were up for grabs, Calanque de Sormiou might clinch it. Access by car is tightly regulated, but this slice of paradise is fairly easy to reach on foot from Les Baumettes.

Party in a former tobacco factory
Photograph: Caroline Dutrey

2. Party in a former tobacco factory

Since it opened its doors in 1992, La Friche de la Belle de Mai has dedicated its 45,000 square metres to artistic forms of all kinds. Located in the Belle de Mai district, not far from Gare Saint Charles, it’s known for its kaleidoscopic program of contemporary art exhibitions, open-air cinema screenings, concerts, theatre, street art and club nights. When you reach your cultural capacity, recharge at its restaurant or café, marvel at some serious moves at FabLab’s skatepark, or enjoy an apéro on the rooftop. Although best enjoyed in summer, there is never a dull moment at La Friche.

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Get lost in Le Panier’s ancient warren of streets
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3. Get lost in Le Panier’s ancient warren of streets

Le Panier (‘the basket’) is an unmissable step back in time. Despite being Marseille’s oldest district – the Greeks first settled here in 600 BC – its maze of streets is bursting with charm. Enter through Passage Lorette, between the chic buildings of Rue de la République, and surrender to getting lost amid its steep and winding alleys. Replete with shaded terraces, street art frescoes, cute artisanal shops and glimpses of neighbourhood life, it’s hard not to love. Visit the immense former hospice Vieille Charité, which houses a museum of contemporary art and an archeology centre, before descending on Vanille Noire for a scoop (or two) of its inky black vanilla ice cream.

Dive deep into Mediterranean history and culture
Photograph: Shutterstock

4. Dive deep into Mediterranean history and culture

A newer addition to Marseille’s must-dos, MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée) opened in 2013 as the first major national museum dedicated to documenting twenty-first-century European and Mediterranean civilisations. Spread over three sites, there’s a lot of ground to cover, but the best view of its webbed cubic structure is from the rooftop patio. Algerian-born architect Rudy Ricciotti infused it with symbols from the world’s great religions and the latticework casts striking shadows depending on the time of day. As well as first-rate exhibitions and permanent collections, its bookshop is stellar too. 

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Browse the epic vinyl archive at Dizonord 2
Photograph: Dizonord

5. Browse the epic vinyl archive at Dizonord 2

After the success of their first store in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, vinyl heads Vincent Privat and Xavier Ehretsemann decided to expanded their reach to Marseille, with Dizonord 2. Head to the Réformés district for an eclectic mix of new and secondhand records, spanning everything from Afrofunk, synthpop, Bollywood and folk to zouk, French boogie, disco and field recordings. Don’t miss the selection of zines and electronic rave flyers from the 1990s and 2000s.

Tour an artist’s fever-dream
Photograph: Florian Touzet

6. Tour an artist’s fever-dream

En route to Sormiou, in a former fishing district, stands Pavillon Southway, an elegant nineteenth-century pavilion that’s found a new lease of life as a constantly evolving hybrid space, which can be visited by appointment. Part-art gallery and part-workshop, it’s the brainchild of Emmanuelle Luciani, a brilliant Marseillaise artist. Luciani’s also co-founder of the collective Southway Studio, which curates a range of ceramics, objets and paintings for the two exhibition spaces. The icing on the cake? You can drift off to sleep surrounded by Luciani’s works and dreamy frescoes with an overnight stay in Pavillon Southway’s cosy guest room.

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Explore the Côte Bleue by rail
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7. Explore the Côte Bleue by rail

The magic of Marseille is that you don’t need a car to sample its best bits. Holidaymakers have been taking the TER train to beach-hop between L’Estaque and Miramas since 1915. Sit on the carriage’s left side to admire the plunging views of the Côte Bleue as the train speeds along the mountainside from Gare St Charles. Sausset and La Couronne are the finest beaches along the line. Alight at L’Estaque for lunch at the chichi fregi stalls: long, thin doughnuts made from wheat and chickpea flour, and orange blossom water. Churros? Never heard of them.

Find design inspo at a chic concept store
Photograph: Nobuyoshi Tagaki

8. Find design inspo at a chic concept store

In 2019, Emma François, founder of the fashion label Sessùn, opened a concept store with serious soul. Housed in a former soap factory, this elegant white and terracotta space is filled with to-die-for pieces: ceramics by Lisa Allegra, terracotta by Mano Mani, interiors fabrics, home fragrances, ready-to-wear fashion, and books from independent publishers. A masterclass in curation, there’s very little you won’t lust after at Sessùn Alma. Nab a table at its central atrium restaurant and sample chef Aline Chemla’s constantly-shifting menu, with dishes like shredded lamb pitta, pickled onions and date chutney, or red kuri squash hummus.

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Stroll the monumental beachside boulevard
Photograph: Shutterstock

9. Stroll the monumental beachside boulevard

The Corniche Kennedy curves from the Plage des Catalans to the Prado, a three-mile walk overlooking the waves of the Mediterranean and the craggy Îles de Frioul archipelago on the horizon. It’s easily enjoyed on foot, even if aesthetically, it’s crying out for cruising along in a ’60s convertible. Treat yourself to a little swimming break at Anse de Maldormé, a pebble beach that’s well sheltered from the wind and very popular with Marseille’s residents in summer. Sitting above it is the three-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Petit Nice – needless to say, you’d be wise to book in advance. Finish at Le Prado for a much-deserved aperitif – our grand amour is La Cabane des Amis.

Peruse the iconic Maison Empereur
Photograph: Maison Empereur

10. Peruse the iconic Maison Empereur

Established in 1827 by Louis Empereur, Maison Empereur is the oldest hardware store in France and draws in more shoppers than ever thanks to its savvy switches to keep up with the times. Artfully arranged (and creatively crammed), there are thousands of products to ponder here, from fancy knives, glassware and kitchen utensils to soaps, baskets, and work tools. Many are locally sourced, or at least French, and it’s a struggle to leave empty-handed. To learn more about its history, explore the museum corner’s collection of iconic products, before a refresher in its tea room – and for the full Empereur experience, an overnight stay in its very own hotel room.

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Munch through multicultural menus
Photograph: Unsplash

11. Munch through multicultural menus

Although renowned for its bouillabaisse – a rich seafood stew, best served with bread and a garlicky aioli – Marseille’s food scene has many facets. Some 30 percent of the population have Italian ancestry, so pizza is an institution, especially when served from its roving food trucks. La Cantinetta or brother restaurant Otto are perfect for more of a sit-down Italian feast. For vibrant Egyptian fare, head to Le Souk de Nour d’Égypte, and for fish so fresh it’s almost still wriggling, dine at Le Château after a day of sunning and swimming at Calanque de Sormiou.

Shop homewares until you drop
Photograph: Florian Touzet

12. Shop homewares until you drop

The Sériés family has been helping furnish Marseillaise homes for over a century. Starting up under the name EMS Le Papier Peint in 1920, founder Marius Sériès sold wholesale decorative wallpaper. Maison Sériès is now under the helm of Marius’ great-grandchildren Amélie, Clémentine and Nicolas, and it’s a veritable palace of chic homewares. Browse French designer wallpapers, fabrics from the likes of the Designers Guild and Christian Lacroix, cushions, furniture, candles and contemporary art. Whether you’re an interiors nerd or a novice, this gem of a family business is not to be missed.

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