“You’re from France? Oh, I love Paris!” – I stopped counting the number of times I’ve heard this sentence since I started traveling. Going abroad makes you realize how we usually stick to “must-sees” and capitals when it comes to choosing itineraries and feeling entitled to give a legitimate feedback about a country. Trying to convince people that my home country is much more than cafes, the Eiffel tower, good cheese and wine has been a big mission of mine for the past years. Take France’ second biggest city, Marseille, for instance: a microcosm of paradoxes, diversity and off-the-beaten-track hot spots. I convinced some of my girlfriends to go spend a week there this summer and we had a great time. So great actually, that I thought it was time for Marseille to be featured in a Travelettes guide.

Marseille_Guide

An Overview

The atmosphere in Marseille differs dramatically than the one you will find in Paris. The two cities have opposing identities: the buzzing capital and French heritage on the one side; the South, the Mediterranean feeling and the proximity to the African continent on the other. The Marseillais are usually pictured as way more laid-back, outgoing and approachable than their Parisian counterparts. But what makes the city such an enjoyable place to me, is actually the mix of different influences: a multi-ethnic vibe, a rich cultural life and a providential location, as Marseille is located right between the mountains and the sea, in a region where the weather is generally warm and sunny. Sounds perfect, right?

Getting Around

Though the downtown area is easily walkable, you’ll find an extensive public transportation system in Marseille. I mostly walked and used the metro and tramway during my stay, as the network covers most of the places in the city. You also have the opportunity to rent a  city bike at stations all around town. Driving is fairly easy as well, though I have to admit that it can be quite a hassle to find a parking spot. My advice would be to use your car only to go on day trips outside of Marseille. Last but not least, remember that you can enjoy a free (and quick!) ferry boat ride around the Old Port of the city.

Things to do

Experience life in the city-centre

Your first stop should be Le Panier (literally « The Basket »), my favorite neighborhood in Marseille. It is the oldest in the city and is historically the most ancient village in the whole country. Inhabited by many Corsicans as well as families who emigrated from North Africa a few decades ago, it is the ideal place to experience the melting pot characterizing Marseille. Walk along the narrow and colourful lanes of the neighbourhood and enjoy the unique atmosphere you can find there: one of a little town inside the city, where the locals like to escape to when the neighboring Old Port becomes too touristy.

Le Panier

Le Panier

If you, just like me, have a major sweet tooth, you need to try what is known as Marseille’s best ice-cream when you’re in. Le Glacier du Roi is always crowded, victim of its success. There are 12 home-made flavours during the week, 24 on the weekend and among them, unique local ice-creams such as the Navetissimo, which is named after a typical biscuit from Marseille. Another great spot to munch on great and affordable food is Bar des 13 Coins, a small place offering all sorts of tapas, cheeses and other typical dishes for lunch and dinner.

Vieux Port

When leaving Le Panier, you arrive at the Old Port, which is the symbol of the city and its epicentre. It is Marseille’s most cultural and historical area. The Old Port is a place where locals and tourists like to gather, have a drink or just sit around for hours, looking at boats come and go or just people-watch. If you like the seaside, get aboard the boat tour that will take you to If Castle, the Marseille Bay or the Calanques, narrow steep-walled inlets characterized by their crystal clear turquoise water, found all over the region. Seeing those places from the sea will make you want to visit them by foot as well, but we’ll come to that later on. For more info about the boat tour, click here.

Notre Dame de la Garde

If sailing is really not your thing, there is a small train going around the city, taking you to Marseille’s other iconic landmark: Notre Dame de la Garde. After riding along the city’s Corniche (sea shore) and watching what is known as the longest bench in the world (not as impressive as it sounds though, just to give you the heads up!), you’ll get to this massive basilica, located at the top of one of Marseille’s highest hills. The church, nicknamed La Bonne Mere (“The Good Mother”) by the locals, is considered the guardian of seamen and fishermen since the Middle-Ages. The view from up there is breath-taking and includes all the major touristic attractions of the city.

Vue Marseille

Vue Marseille

Back in Old Port, there are a few more places worth checking out. The cafes and restaurants at Place aux Huiles, a small square surrounding an old fountain. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (the since the Middle-Ages) always holds great exhibitions. And if you’re a shopaholic, walk down Cannebiere, which is Marseille’s longest avenue: it crosses Saint Ferreol Street, a pedestrian area bustling with French shops and big department stores.

MuceM

Place aux huiles

Enjoy Marseille’s diversity to the fullest

Though tourists usually stick to the city centre, other parts of Marseille are just as interesting. Walk a little further down the Cannebiere and you will get to Noailles, one of my favorite places of all. There, you’ll find plenty of North-African and Comorian shops and feel like in Algiers or Moroni in an instant. Twice a week, a local market is set up in the streets: stalls of dates, olives and honey perfume the whole neighbourhood and add in to the popular and family atmosphere that reigns over the place.

Noailles

However, my favorite oriental food in Marseille can be found in another place. Head to Cours Julien and make sure to eat at least once in Fayrouz, a Lebanese restaurant both delicious and affordable; their plate of mezze is simply the best in the city. Cours Julien itself is a particularly unique place: the artsy neighbourhood is where the youth of Marseille likes to meet for a drink or to leave its trace on the walls. The area is the local kingdom of street-art and self-expression. There, far away from the luxurious sailing boats of the Old Port, you will discover a new facet of Marseille.

Cours Julien

When it comes to unexpected areas of interest, the most surprising place in the city to me, is a site that soon became my favorite sunset spot, as it is located right behind… a mall. I know, not the typical setting to watch the sky slowly turn pink, right? You just need to trust me on this one. Les Terrasses du Port was built just a year ago and is already one of the trendiest spots in Marseille even though it is located a little outside the centre. That’s all thanks to its 2,600 square meters of terrace that offers a beautiful panorama on the Joliette’s port (one of the most famous in the city), making it the perfect site to enjoy the night slowly setting in.

Terrasses du Port

Explore the surroundings and fall in love

Another one of Marseille’s major point of interests is actually located outside the city – but it would be a crime not to mention it in this guide. You simply cannot leave the area without taking at least a day-trip to the Calanques National Park. Located along the coastline of the French Riviera, this protected natural area stretches over 30 kilometres. The many paths to the different calanques start at the park entrance and are surrounded by limestone cliffs all the way. Eventually you will hit a lagoon-like creek and thank me for this advice!

Calanques

My friends and I opted for a day-trip to Sormiou, one of the best-known calanques in the region. Though the weather was hot and we were mostly walking uphill, it was still a very pleasant trek and definitely worth it. As we were hiking, we soon could see the cliffs falling abruptly in the turquoise Mediterranean Sea ahead of us and the setting was simply magnificent. Little did we know, however, that the beauty we witnessed from far away was nothing compared to what we would experience once we would get there. Sormiou is simply one of the most astonishing (and small) beaches I have ever been to. I always thought water this blue only existed in places like Mexico, the Maldives or Thailand and it was a great surprise to discover this little corner of paradise in my home country.

Calanques

Other beautiful calanques can be accessed from the charming little town Cassis, located on the sea-side as well. Walking through the village’s ancient streets before heading back to the big city of Marseille is certainly the best way to finish your trip.

Take a final stroll through the town’s colorful alleys and enjoy its peaceful atmosphere. Then, just like the locals, sit at one of the town’s sunny café terraces; look around you and witness another France, a place where the Eiffel tower is replaced by fishing boats and the Tuileries Garden by the Mediterranean sea. Take in this other French feeling, go back home with it and spread the word,

Calanques

Even though Paris will always hold a special place in my heart, Marseille seduced me in just a few days. I enjoyed trekking for hours to get to these little heavenly beaches, munching on Lebanese food in street-art paradise and playing the tourist with my girlfriends around town. I took pictures on the train, walked around the cobbled streets of Le Panier and talked to the locals, who told me about the neighborhood’s old days and every day life in the south of France.

Port Marseille

When came the last day of our stay, as I was sitting in the Old Port watching the boats come and go, I enjoyed one more time the laid-back atmosphere and the sun on my face, closed my eyes and realized that it had been a while since my last French holiday. Nowadays, traveling has become so easy that we tend to go far away without even getting to know our own country and take advantage of its diversity. In other words, Marseille reminded me of something I had forgotten lately: there is no need to necessarily go abroad for a complete change of scenery.

All photos by Elisa Fourt.

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This post was written by Elisa Fourt.
Elisa Fourt was part of the Travelettes team from 2015 to 2017.  Elisa usually describes herself as a world citizen. She has lived, studied, worked and traveled in more than 60 countries throughout her life and she loves to share her passion for the world with others. When she is not planning her next trip or writing about the last one, Elisa likes to help people in need and get involved in various not-for-profit projects. She currently works for a NGO in the Middle-East. Follow her on Instagram @lisou.me