Prepare to be seduced by the vibrant port city of Marseille. This charming city in France's Provence region has undergone an extensive facelift for its reign as European Capital of Culture 2013, and now boasts world-class museums, galleries and performing arts. Allow yourself at least 48 hours to take in Marseille’s compelling sights, and the dramatic Les Calanques – Lonely Planet’s new Provence & the Côte d’Azur guide book has a perfect weekend itinerary for your trip, as well as all the information you’ll need to explore France’s sun-kissed south.
Day 1: Marseille's top sights
Start at the Vieux Port (Old Port), the city's birthplace where its maritime heritage thrives. Set yourself up for the day at La Caravelle - this standout, upstairs hideaway, styled with rich wood and leather, zinc bar and yellowing murals, has some coveted spots on the portside terrace and does a good breakfast.
Now breathe in the area's history: ships have docked here for almost three millennia. The main commercial docks were transferred to the Joliette area north of here in the 1840s, but the old port remains a thriving harbour for fishing boats (fresh-off-the-boat catches are sold each morning), pleasure yachts and tourists.
Next, stroll over to the brand new Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (www.mucem.org) for a spot of culture and shade. Refresh yourself with lunch at La Passarelle (52 rue du Plan Fourmiguier) - everything growing in the walled garden goes into something on the predominantly organic menu, and other products are strictly local.
Well fed, it’s time to hike up to the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde (or avoid the 1km walk by taking bus 60 or the tourist-train). Everywhere you go in Marseille, you see the opulent, domed 19th-century Romano-Byzantine basilica occupying Marseille’s highest point, La Garde. The hilltop gives 360-degree panoramas of the city’s sea of terracotta roofs below. Bullet marks and shrapnel scars on the northern facade evidence the fierce fighting of Marseille’s Battle of Liberation in 1944.
Alternatively, explore Le Panier, the site of the Greek town of Massilia. Grand Rue follows the ancient road and opens out into Place de Lenche, the location of the Greek market. It is still the place to shop for artisanal products. Don’t miss the Centre de la Vieille Charité, a former workhouse that now houses exhibitions.
Finish off your day by dining at nearby, excellent Le Café des Épices (4 rue du Lacydon)…think squid ink spaghetti with sesame and perfectly cooked scallops, or tender roasted potatoes with hints of coriander and citrus, topped by the catch of the day. Presentation is impeccable, decor is playful, staff are friendly, and the place fills up reliably (reservations essential).
Day 2: hop on a boat and chow down on bouillabaisse
On day two, take in magnificent turquoise waters at Les Calanques. This wild and spectacular 20km stretch of high, rocky promontories is occasionally interrupted by small idyllic beaches, some impossible to reach without a kayak. The Marseillais cherish the Calanques, and come to soak up sun or take a long hike. The promontories have been protected since 1975 and shelter an extraordinary wealth of flora and fauna: 900 plant species, Bonelli’s eagle, Europe’s largest lizard (60cm Eyed Lizard) and longest snake (2m Montpellier snake).
From October to June the best way to see the Calanques (including the 500 sq km of the rugged inland Massif des Calanques) is to hike the many maquis-lined trails. (During summer, trails close due to fire danger: take a boat tour, though they don’t stop to let you swim). Otherwise, drive or take public transport. Marseille’s tourist office leads guided walks (no kids under eight) and has information about trail closures.
Another option is to catch the Frioul If Express to revel in Monte Cristo intrigues at Château d’If, France’s equivalent to Alcatraz. Prisoners were housed according to class: the poorest at the bottom in windowless dungeons, the wealthiest in paid-for private cells.
Whichever excursion you choose, reward your exploration with bouillabaisse in postcard-pretty Vallon des Auffes. Originally cooked by fishermen from the scraps of their catch, bouillabaisse is Marseille’s signature dish. True bouillabaisse includes at least four different kinds of fish, and sometimes shellfish, which is why it’s served to a minimum of two people. Don’t trust tourist-traps that promise cheap bouillabaisse; the real McCoy costs about €55 per person and should be reserved 48 hours ahead, enough time to procure the correct ingredients.
It’s served in two parts: the broth (soupe de poisson), rich with tomato, saffron and fennel; and the cooked fish, deboned tableside and presented on a platter. On the side are croutons and rouille (a bread-thickened garlic-chilli pepper mayonnaise) and grated cheese, usually gruyère. Spread rouille on the crouton, top with cheese, and float it in the soup. Be prepared for a huge meal and tons of garlic.