At first glance, it might be hard to spot green patches in the hectic port city of Marseille in southern France.
City dwellers tend to gravitate along the coast, toward the iconic Massif des Calanques or to the people-packed quays framing the Vieux Port and surrounding pedestrian, cafe-packed squares for their daily dose of fresh air and flânerie (casual strolling).
Yet if you hike up hills, duck behind stone walls, poke around palaces or promenade toward the sea, a surprisingly diverse crop of parks and gardens emerges, featuring lush emerald lawns, lavish flowerbeds and the occasional children’s playground. Here’s our list of the best parks in Marseille.
Jardin du Pharo provides a lovely, quick getaway
When the relentless din of screeching scooters and impatient motorists gets too much, escape to the immaculate pea-green lawns of these elegant palace gardens. No more than 15 minutes on foot from the Vieux Port (along Quai de Rive Neuve) or 10 minutes by bus, Jardin du Pharo is the closest swathe of green to Marseille’s city center.
The gardens date to the mid-19th century, when they were laid out to adorn Napoleon III’s grandiose Palais du Pharo; the views over the port and old Marseille are unparalleled. Come summer, what feels like half the city descends upon the park for alfresco picnics and sunset aperitifs. Follow suit.
Jardin des Migrations has the best Mediterranean flora
Planted on sea-facing slopes within the defensive walls of Fort St-Jean, this dry garden provides an alternative perspective on cultural diversity and plant migration in the Mediterranean region. Fifteen themed “gardens” evoke traditional uses of plants, both native to the area and exotic, in Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures.
The resultant horticultural mosaic is magnificent. Amble through scented orange and fig groves, saffron and wild weed gardens; a potager packed with the vegetables that go into Provence’s emblematic ratatouille; and a garden planted with the seven herbs traditionally harvested at midsummer to ward off evil. Stroll alleys of myrtle and pomegranate trees inspired by Granada’s Alhambra, and a path planted with aromatic herbs found in the signature garrigue (scrubland) of Les Calanques. End on a natural high of a different types with drinks and sea views – truly celestial at sunset – at Fort St-Jean’s summer bar, Bar sur la Mer.
Enjoy craft cocktails at Jardin de la Colline Puget
Sparkling waterfalls, weathered sculptures, ivy-stitched grottoes and glamorous vintage stone staircases contribute to the storybook enchantment of Marseille’s oldest public garden, landscaped in 1801 on the slopes of Colline Puget. It’s a short, stiff climb up from the Vieux Port, but the reward at the top is perfect peace and a bird’s eye of the Lego-like city far below. As you approach, give a nod to Pierre Puget (1620–94), the Marseillais painter and architect (he designed the eponymous gardens at the Château de Versailles) whose statue stands sentry at the garden entrance.
Don’t hike up here without reserving a table first at Sépia, a bucolic bistro at the western end of the garden with deliciously leafy views and a menu built around local produce. Chef Paul Langière roasts zero-kilometer fish, squid and octopus, as well as meat and vegetables, in a charcoal oven, and sources clams, oysters and other shellfish fresh from the Camargue. At dusk, join locals at Julis, the chef’s summertime cocktail bar that offers tapas, alfresco seating and glorious city views.
Take a jog in Parc Borély
After work and on weekends, outdoors enthusiasts flock to the city’s largest park, 3 miles (5km) south of the Vieux Port, to jog, bike, walk the dog or simply wander scenic paths shaded by elms, hop trees and towering palms. Picnic tables are prime real estate, while younger children can’t get enough of the pedal-powered cars to rent at the entrance, the twin set of playgrounds, the ornamental lake with fountains and several snack bars selling ice cream.
The centerpiece château was built for a wealthy ship owner in the 18th century. Its graceful salons showcase rare pieces of furniture, ceramics, fashion garments and decorative arts from the 18th century to the present day. Equally intriguing is a miniature replica of Marseille’s Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, as well as botanical gardens with 3000 types of flora and a giant wood-and-bamboo insect hotel.
Literature buffs and cinephiles will enjoy Parc de la Buzine
It’s a bit of a schlep to Marseille’s 11e arrondissement – just over 8 miles (13km) by bicycle or e-bike or an hour by metro and bus (metro to Castellane stop, then line 50 to Centre Commercial La Valentine and line 51 to Château de la Buzine). But for anyone interested in French literature or film, Parc de la Buzine offers an inspiring day trip.
Château de la Buzine, with its 19th-century gold-stone façade and witch-hat turrets, was once home to Marseillais novelist and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol (1895–1974). Today, springtime irises, wild asparagus, magnolias and majestic Lebanese cedars pepper its manicured gardens, and scenic walking paths spaghetti through its adjoining wooded park.
Bookend park explorations with a poke around the château. The permanent exhibition in La Cité du Cinema explores cinema history; temporary exhibitions cover subjects from Pagnol to James Bond; and art films screened in the movie theater with vintage balconies and orchestra pit are a romantic taste of the past.
Play on the beach at Parc Balnéaire du Prado
Not many cities boast a seaside park like Marseille’s Parc Balnéaire du Prado – an action-packed, 2.2 mile(3.5km)-long strip of beaches, created in the 1970s from backfill from excavations for Marseille’s metro. Flat grassy lawns separate the shingle beach from traffic-choked Promenade Georges Pompidou; the “Bowl” skate park here is hailed by riders worldwide. Mini golf, multi-sport playgrounds, street workout stations, water sports and nautical activities provide a range of activities to pursue. Or you can simply swim, then flop on the beach.
Go biking and hiking in Parc Pastré
Grab a city bike or e-bike at the Vieux Port for a 6-mile (10km) spin along the coastal road, past the beaches of Prado and La Pointe Rouge, to Parc Pastré. Sprawling next to the rolling hills of Marseilleveyre and a Provençal bastide with burnt-ocher facade, this vast 297-acre park is the green lung of Marseille.
Well-marked trails in the park ensure endless (additional) biking and hiking: around the château, ornamental ponds and waterfalls, along a canal and into forest. Wannabe Tarzans can swing through the treetops at tree-climbing park Pastré Aventure, while many more trails lead from the park into the beautifully wild and untouched Parc National des Calanques.
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