France Travelogue

Popular Travel Destinations

Recently Reviewed Hotels Around France

See all France Travelogues

Marseilles Travel Guide

  • Submitted by: Alan L. Bailey
  • Submission Date: 10th Feb 2005

Copyright 1993, Alan L. Bailey

The Airbus 320 was cruising above France's central massif and a lady from Avignon, sitting in my aisle's window seat, was pointing out the Alps -- how on a clear day in late November the snow-peaked mountains extend forever -- when the pilot announced the plane would begin its descent to the Marseille airport. The weather, he said, was 45 degrees with strong winds gusting to 35 mph from the north that had provided a tailwind, so the Airbus would be landing about 15 minutes ahead of schedule. My aisle companion uttered an exasperating sigh, not for the early landing, but the wind, explaining, 'It's the mistral. You really never get use to it.''

And for the first four days of my eight-day trip to Marseille to research a novel, the mistral roared down the Rhone Valley, producing a dry cold that chills to the bone for a wintry welcome to the south of France, but clearing the skies to display magnificent panoramas from Marseille's highest spot: the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde that sits on top of a 525-foot limestone crag. On the fifth day, the mistral ceased and the ferry service, postponed by the wind, resumed to Chateau d'If, the 16th-century island prison fortress in the bay made famous by Alexandre Dumas in 'The Count of Monte Christo.' At the Chateau's parapets, I saw another Marseille, now with heavy brown smog burying the industrial northern districts and drifting to the southern, affluent residential arrondissements. The clear skies brought by the mystical mistral were gone. By midday, thick smog covered this Mediterranean city of a million people, reminding me that Marseille, while it can sparkle briefly around its Vieux Port (old port), is an industrial seaport that is not aging gracefully.

What to See in Marseille

The Vieux Port founded by the Greeks 2,600 years ago, remains the heart of Marseille with its fish market at Quai des Belges beginning just after sunrise daily and with the 1,200 pleasure and fishing boats moored in the harbor, still guarded by 17th-century bastions, Fort Saint Nicholas on the south, a French Foreign Legion post, and Fort Saint Jean on the north, now city offices. The three quays around the U-shaped Vieux Port are broad esplanades attracting strollers and dog-walkers. At night sodium-vapor lights cast a well-lit orange tint over the port. The quays are washed every morning so the old port, despite the heavy pedestrian and poodle traffic, stays remarkably clean.

In the 19th century Marseille embarked on a building program that enhanced its maritime lifeline and created the city's magnificent architecture. Construction started on the modern port around the bend at Fort Saint Jean and now stretches north for 12 miles along the coast. During the Second Empire, work began the Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica and La Major Cathedral, both in the ornate Romanesque-Byzantine style; the Longchamp Palace with its colonnades and fountains, and the Pharo Palace, former residence of Empress Eug nie, wife of Napoleon III, with a commanding view of both the old and modern ports.

The Cathedral, a few blocks north of the Vieux Port along the Quai de la Tourette, was the largest church -- 460 feet long and 230 feet high under its dome -- built in Europe in the 19th century, completed in 1892 after 40 years of construction. The twin-tower entrance showcases its 'Romanesque' influence while the rear cascades into a series of Byzantine domes. The Cathedral is open from 9 a.m. to noon, 2-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday and closed on Monday. Admission is free.

Marseille's signature is firmly written at Notre Dame de la Garde, the city's highest location. On top of the 151-foot tall belfry is a bronze statue gilded in gold leaf of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus with outstretched arms as if to protect the city. At night floodlights shine on the 31-foot tall statue. Inside the church, ship models hang from the ceilings as offerings from seafarers. The interior is layered in gray and maroon marble with mosaics on gold and blue backgrounds. From the parvis, the panorama takes in Marseille basin from the Mediterranean Sea to the west, the Estaque chain to the north, the Etoile chain to the northeast, the mountains of Garlaban and Saint Cyr to the east and southeast and the Marseilleveyre massif to the south. The church is open daily from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Admission is free. It's about a 45-minute walk, mostly uphill from the port, or take Bus Number 60 that runs between Cours Ballard, adjacent to the port, and the Basilica. The bus ticket is $1.48 (8F; rate for story 1F = $0.185), the price of one bus, metro or tram ticket good for 70 minutes of travel on the city's transportation system.

Longchamp Palace, at the intersection of Montricher, Philippon and Longchamp boulevards, disguises a water tower within its fountains, and on either side of the colonnades are museums. On the left, the Museum of Fine Arts houses paintings by Rubens and others in the Flemish schools as well as those in the French, Italian and Provencal schools. Several 17th-century sculptures by Pierre Puget, a native of Marseille, are exhibited, but unfortunately pushed into corners. The Museum of Natural History, on the right, contains examples of the flora and fauna of the Provence, including 2,918 species of multi-colored butterflies collected by Louis Bigot. Both museums are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except the Natural History Museum is closed on Monday. Admission is $1.85 (10F) each. Metro: Cinq Avenues Longchamp.

Marseille has nine other museums. The most interesting, I thought, is the city's Museum of History at Centre Bourse, a shopping mall one block east of the Vieux Port. In 1967 when work on the mall's foundation revealed ruins dating from the Greek and Roman times, construction was halted to allow archaeologists to excavate the site. In 1974 they found a hull section of a Roman galley that has since been 'freeze-dried' and is maintained in a climate-controlled room at the museum. Pottery and other artifacts uncovered during the archaeological dig are displayed. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to noon and 2-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. It is closed on Sunday and Monday. Admission is $1.85 (10F). Metro: Vieux Port.

A few blocks south of the Vieux Port on rue Sainte is Saint Victor Abbey, founded in the 5th century. The twin towers with parapets, built in the 11th and 13th centuries, give the church a fortress appearance. The crypts contain the original abbey's chapel and catacombs with dozens of 3th- and 4th-century sarcophagi exhibited. The abbey is open from 8 a.m. to noon, 2-8 p.m. daily. Admission to the nave is free, but $1.85 (10F) to the underground crypt.

During World War II in 1943, the Germans dynamited much of the city's medieval quarter north of the Vieux Port because of Resistance activities. What is left of these narrow, warren-like streets can still be seen between Place des Moulins and the Vieille Charite, a 18th-century hospice. The restored hospice has three levels surrounding a courtyard with a dome chapel. It now houses an arts center and city museum offices. The Vieille Charite is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday and Saturday. Architect Fernand Pouillon designed the old town's post-war buildings and his stacked cube-like apartments along Quai du Port, for example, contrast sharply with the remaining 17th-century facade on the quay, Hotel de Ville (City Hall).

Chateau d'If, the 16th-century prison fortress in the bay, features the ground-floor cell with a tunnel that Edmond Dantes, the future Count of Monte Christo, dug allowing him to visit fellow prisoner Abbe Faria, from whom he received the Monte Christo fortune that enabled Dantes to carry out his revenge. A 'touristy' experience since Dantes existed only in the imagination of Dumas and his readers. So who dug the tunnel? Maybe the Huguenots since mostly these Protestants were imprisoned there during France's religious strife. Admission to the prison is $4.63 (25F). The ferry departs the docks at Quai des Belges, next to the fish market, daily every 90 minutes, starting at 9 a.m., weather permitting, and ending about 4 p.m. Since the fortress does not have a wind-sheltered docking facility, the shuttle boat, which also serves the community at Frioul, will not stop at d'If on windy days. The round-trip to d'If is $6.48 (35F), or $10.18 (55F) to both d'If and Frioul.

About four miles south of the Vieux Port, off Avenue du Prado, is Parc Borely, a lovely park with a small lake ideal for leisurely strolls. The park contains a horseracing track, admission $4.63 (25F), and the city's botanical gardens, admission $1.85 (10F). The gardens grow the plants and trees of the Provence, making it a good place to go to identify the Provencal flora, such as the popular platane d'orient tree, often called by English-speakers the plane tree. The park opens after sunrise and closes at 9 p.m. daily. From the port to the park, take Bus Number 83. The bus travels along Marseille's southern coastal road, Corniche President Kennedy, site of many villas overlooking the sea.

Marseille's Office of Tourism provides private, English-speaking guides. The cost is $92.50 (500F) for a half-day, or $166.50 (900F) for a 9-hour day, with an additional $12 (65F) language supplement. During the summer, group tours are available. Contact: Office of Tourism, 4 La Canebiere, 13001 Marseille. Telephone: Fax:

In sightseeing, remember that Marseille is a city subject to the same crime problems of other urban centers with high unemployment. I stopped at the U.S. Consulate, 9 rue Armeny, next to the Prefecture, and asked about crimes against Americans. A spokesman said the chief complaint was purse-snatching by France's infamous le picketpocket. I journeyed throughout Marseille during the daylight without problems, but I stayed in the well lit, populated Vieux Port area at night, mainly because the metro stops running at 9 p.m.

Where to eat

The best of Marseille lies in its restaurants, more than a 100 of which are in the Vieux Port area. Most are located in a 16-block pedestrian zone south of the port, locally called Place Thiars, bounded by Quai de Rive Neuve, Cours Ballard, Rue Sainte and Rue Fort Notre Dame. It's popular with Marseillais since an underground parking garage is located here at Cours d'Estienne d'Orves. On just one street in Place Thiars, Rue Saint Saens, I counted 18 restaurants. Most offer their version of the famous dish of Marseille, bouillabaisse. Most waiters are friendly and speak English. And be forewarned of the French custom of taking their dogs with them into the restaurant for dinner. My favorite restaurants were:

Les Arcenaulx, 25 Cours d'Estienne d'Orves, 13001 Marseille, Telephone: Excellent traditional Provencal food is served in limestone rooms with exposed wooden beams and classical music in the background. Each table has a tablecloth with a different Provencal design. You enter the dining rooms through a library-bookstore that stays open while the restaurant is serving. Fixed price menus range between $33 (180F) to $43 (225F). Ice creams and sorbets are named after literary characters; as example, Anna Karenina is lemon sorbet with vodka, a concoction that might make you jump in front of a train.

Miramar, 12 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille. Telephone: Some of the city's best seafood is cooked here. The bouillabaisse is well presented with six different regional fish species. In a chair at the table next to me, a dachshund with pleading dark eyes stared at me while I ate my bouillabaisse, which costs $48 (260F).

Sauveur, 4 et 5 Quai de Rive Neuve, 13001 Marseille. Telephone: The only restaurant to offer a non-smoking section, its specialty, however, is Italian food, and its pizzas are very good. A pizza for one runs about $12 (65F).

La Charpenterie, 22 rue de la Paix, 13001 Marseille. Telephone: The downstairs dining room seats a cozy 16 people at five butcher-block tables lit by candles, an ideal romantic spot. Fixed price menu ranges between $18 (98F) and $29.60 (160F).

La Samaritaine, 2 Quai du Port et 1 rue de la Republique, 13002 Marseille. Telephone: At city's busiest intersection, this brasserie, restaurant and caf glacier is a fun location for people watching while drinking the caf, which costs $2.75 (15F), about double the coffee prices at the port, but the other places don't give you the view, either. La Goulue, 6 Place Daviel, 13002 Marseille. Telephone: Just north of the port near Htel Dieu, a hospital. The restaurant's chef, Cyrille, loves to visit with tourists, discussing his and other restaurants and chatting about his wife's six years of living in the United States. Fixed price at lunch is $16.65 (90F), although you can order a la carte, such as a calzone for $7.77 (42F).

Snack Wimpy Sandwiches, 11 rue Reine Elisabeth, 13002 Marseille. No telephone. One of several small take-out food shops in the port where you can get inexpensive sandwiches such as a croque-monsieur for $1.85 (10F). A croque-monsieur is a hot ham and open-faced cheese sandwich.

Where to stay

The tourist office can provide a list of more than 60 hotels in Marseille. My choices are those at the Vieux Port with a view of the activity, such as the fish market.

Hotel Pullman Beauvau, 4 rue Beauvau, 13001 Marseille. Telephone: Fax: This remodeled, 18th-century hotel has 72 rooms -- several non-smoking decorated in the Provencal style and furnished in Second Empire pieces. Double with view is $148 (800F).

Residence du Vieux Port, 18 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille. Telephone: Fax: A double apartment with view is $92.25 (500F).

Grand Hotel de Geneve, 3 bis rue Reine-Elisabeth, 13001 Marseille. Telephone: Fax Double with view is $83.25 (450F).

Where to shop

Souleiado, 101 rue Paradis, 13006 Marseille. Telephone: The shop carries traditional Provencal clothes and fabrics. A scarf with a simple lavender and white pattern starts at $18.50 (100F) while a shawl with rich splashes of color can cost up to $66.50 (360F).

Felio Chapellerie, 4 Place Gabriel Peri, 13001 Marseille. Telephone An alpaca casquette, a sports cap popular with Marseillais, costs $50.88 (275F).

Atelier Marcel Carbonel, 47 rue Neuve Sainte Catherine, 13007 Marseille. Telephone: Fax: A maker of santons, the clay figurines used in nativity scenes, the artist provides a catalog free on request. Santon is the Provencal word for saints. The city sponsors a santon fair during the final five weeks of every year on the sidewalks of La Canebiere. Santons cost between $3.70 (20F) to $74 (400F).

If you miss the mall scene, there is Centre Bourse, a block east of the port. It has 60 shops and seven restaurants, anchored by Nouvelles Galeries, an upscale department store with a supermarket. Along with a deli, the supermarket offers gift items such as three jars of Provencal honey -- wild flowers, lavender and Provence -- for $11.10 (60F). The mall is a popular local hangout, especially since cafe is $1.10 (6F), the lowest price downtown. A cognac costs $7 (38F). The mall hours are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and it does not close for two hours at lunch like some businesses and city offices.

The city's ritzy shopping district is along rue Saint Ferreol, a pedestrian concourse stretching south nine blocks from Centre Bourse, across La Canebiere to the Prefecture. The largest department store is Galeries Lafayette, 40 rue Saint Ferreol, 13001 Marseille. Telephone: Galeries Lafayette was the only place in Marseille I did a double-take on a price tag. A genuine New York Yankees, Made in the USA, Official Major League Baseball, long-sleeve sweatshirt, was priced at $126.75 (685F), double the cost of a Boston Celtics basketball sweatshirt next to it.

Future Events

The Marseille Philharmonic Orchestra and the Marseille Opera have regular seasons beginning in the fall at the Municipal Opera, 2 rue Moliere. If you plan to attend any Opera or concerts, I should mention that a 10-foot black iron grill fence surrounds the Art Deco-style, 1,800-seat Municipal Opera because the neighborhood has deteriorated into Marseille's red light district. When I attended a performance in late November (1992), the street mix of elegantly attired symphony patrons at the Opera and the scantily dressed hookers -- even with a chill index below freezing -- at the Hotel Relax and the Sex Shop.

Ticket prices for the performances range between $11 to $53 (60F to 290F) by mail from Marseille Concerts, 56 rue Paradis, 13006 Marseille, telephone or fax

From mid-June to mid-July every year along Cours Belsunce, taraiettes fair (Foire l'ail et aux taraiettes). A Provencal (langue d'oc) word, taraiettes are miniature pottery toys such as a clay nightingale containing soapy water in which a child would blow through the tail, creating a whistle and bubbles.

Every July at Parc Borely the Marseille newspaper, Le Provencal, sponsors contests to determine to the Provencal boules champion (Concours de Petanque de Provencal et de la Marseillaise). In September 1993 at the Odeon, 162 La Canebiere, the 10th annual International Festival of Women in Film (Festival Internationale de Cinema au Feminin) is tentatively scheduled.

The city's office of culture publishes an excellent 178-page pocket guide to Marseille's theaters, cinemas and cultural places. The guide (Guide des lieux culturels de Marseille) is free by requesting it: Office de la Culture Marseille, 38 rue Saint Ferreol, 13001 Marseille; telephone or fax

For More Information about Marseille

(Note: The following addresses are repeated.)
Marseille Office of Tourism, 4 La Canebiere, 13001 Marseille.
Telephone: or fax:
Office de la Culture Marseille, 38 rue Saint Ferreol, 13001
Marseille; telephone or fax

Getting there, getting around and weather

Marseille, with a population of 1,071,000 people, is France's third largest city after Paris and Lyons. It's located on the Mediterranean Sea. You can get there by air from the United States via connecting international flights with British Airways or Air France at Heathrow Airport in London, or connecting flights may be secured with Air France or Air Inter at airports in Paris. There are no direct flights between airports in the United States and Marseille.

By train, the high-speed Train a Grande Vitesse (TGV) has daily service between Paris and Marseille, and between Nice and Marseille.

By road, Marseille is the end of Autoroute 7, one of France's main north-south freeways. East-west freeways also connect Marseille with the Nice and the Cote d'Azur.

Taxi fares are negotiable and some taxis do not have meters. Generally the 20-minute ride from the airport to the Vieux Port is $32 (about 175F). The shuttle bus from airport to Saint Charles train station is $7 (38F). A taxi from Saint Charles train station to the Vieux Port is $6.50 (about 35F).

One ticket for bus, metro or tram is good for 70 minutes, including stop-and-go travelling. As an example, you can take a bus, get off to shop at a store and then take the metro to another location so long as it's within the 70-minute time limit. One ticket is $1.50 (8F). A carnet of six tickets can be bought for $6.65 (36F). I would not recommend renting a car in Marseille because traffic jams are frequent and parking is almost non-existent.

Weather in Marseille: In the winter, the high is 50 degrees, and the low is 35 degrees with eight rainy days. The mistral frequently occurs from November to March and can produce wind gusts in excess of 50 mph, dropping the wind chill index to zero. In the spring, the high is 71; the low is 52 with eight rainy days. In the summer, the high is 84; the low is 63 with two rainy days. In the fall, the high is 58; the low is 43 with nine rainy days. (All temperatures are in Fahrenheit degrees and are averages.)

Alan L. Bailey --


The Rec.Travel Library
More on Europe
More on France