Simply taking in the energy of daily life that unfolds on every café-clad square and boat-fringed quay is a blockbuster attraction in this charismatic, intoxicating city in France’s hot south – and it’s gratuit.

Marseille might no longer be as cheap as it once was, but this ancient ‘Cité Phocéenne’ (Phocaean City) presents good-value compared to Paris, Lyon and other French cities. With savvy planning and smart intel, visitors can even tap into France’s second-largest city without spending a cent.

Museum lovers note: permanent collections in municipal museums, including Musée des Beaux Arts (fine art), Musée d’Histoire de Marseille (history), Musée Cantini (modern art) and Centre de la Vieille Charité (African, Oceanic and Pacific art and culture) in the atmospheric old-world quartier of Le Panier, are free; only temporary exhibitions command an admission fee. Or visit Marseille in May when museums and monuments across the city open their doors for free, from sundown to sunrise, during the annual Nuit des Musées.

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Watch local life unfold at the Vieux Port

There is no more evocative spot to understand Marseille and feast on the Vieux Port’s frenzied smorgasbord of everyday sights, raucous sounds and fishy smells than the spot where it all began in 600 BC. For millennia, fishermen have sold the catch of the day from the waterfront quays here and the old port’s fish market is an iconic Marseille institution.

To appreciate the big picture, walk around the entire horseshoe, from star-shaped Fort St-Nicolas guarding the southern side of the harbor to Fort St-Jean on its northern side. On Quai des Belges, snap funky shots of local life reflected in Sir Norman Foster’s giant mirrored canopy, cut from a 46m x 22m panel of polished stainless steel panel and suspended dramatically above the waterfront quay as a hybrid sunshade-art installation.

The famous European harbour view on the Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille
Enjoy sunset views on the terrace of Basilica Notre Dame de Garde in Marseille © vichie81 / Shutterstock

Experience a sacred high at Basilica Notre Dame de Garde

Views of the port city and its timeless oceanic location unfold from the terrace of Basilica Notre Dame de Garde –  where the sunset show is breathtaking. The opulent Romano-Byzantine church teeters on the highest point of the seafaring city, protecting sailors with a 9.7m-tall statue of the Bonne Mère (‘Good Mother’) since the 19th century.

Marseille’s totemic Cathédrale de la Major, built in green Florentine marble and slate-grey stone from Cassis village further along the coast, is another church worth exploring. Watch for free organ and classical music concerts – stunning acoustics – at fortress-esque Abbaye St-Victor.

Tune in to multi-cultural Marseille on Cours Julien

No single street provides such a vivid snapshot of multicultural Marseille than Cours Julien (‘Cours Ju’ to locals): think fun, funky, deliciously gourmet and a riot of color with its street-art murals. World-food eateries lining the elongated square cook up fusion, French, African, Creole, every cuisine under the Marseille sun – aptly so given this was the site of Marseille’s central fruit and veg market from 1860 until the 1970s.

Markets continue to set the street pulse racing several days of the week: flowers and an organic farmers’ market on Wednesday, antique books some Saturdays, and antiquarian stamps on Sunday. From Cours Julien mooch through the aromatic, North African spice-laden Marché des Capucins in the increasingly foodie neighborhood of Noailles.

Snorkel in the big blue to uncover subaquatic art

One of the most unique and coolest – literally – museums to recently open in Marseille is free. Don swimsuit, snorkel, mask and tuba to ogle at underwater sculptures in the groundbreaking Musée Subaquatique de Marseille. The underwater art museum is easily accessible from urban beach Plage des Catalans – swim 100m from the sandy shore – and is as much about encouraging biodiversity and environmental protection, as thrilling visitors with 10 giant sculptures languishing 5m deep on the sea bed.

Pre- or post-dip, watch bronzed bikini-clad volleyball players thrash it out on Plage des Catalans’ golden-sand volleyball court.

Colorful kayaks in the famous French fjords of Calanques national park
The trails alog Les Calanques national park provide panoramic views of sparkling turquoise waters © Gaspar Janos / Shutterstock

Ride on exhilarating sea views along the coast

Grab a cheap-as-chips, public-sharing Levélo city bike (free for the first 30 minutes, then €1 an hour) from one of 130 stations in town and go for a spin south along Corniche Président John F Kennedy. Mesmerizing bay views unfurl along the wide, smooth, coastal promenade as you cruise south to the boat-filled fishing cove of Vallon des Auffes and beyond to Marseille’s main beach strip, Plages du Prado. Frolic on the modest dunes backing the succession of sandy beaches and give a nod to Jules’ Cantini’s marble copy of Michelangelo’s David. If you happen to be in town in summer 2024, the huge bay here will host the nautical events of the Paris Summer Olympics.

From here, Ave Pierre Mendès France ribbons along the coast for another 8km to the tranquil fishing village of Les Goudes and beyond to Cap Croisette, a beauty spot with teeny wild-sand beach and beautiful views of the uninhabited islet of Île Maïre. In the nearby seaside hamlet of Callelongue, park up and hike along well-signposted trails into national park-protected Les Calanques. To say sea views along the entire footpath are exhilarating is an understatement.

Spiral staircase and modernist apartment in Marseille, inspired by Cité Radieuse
View impressive modern architecture in Marseille, including Unesco World Heritage site Cité Radieuse © Chris Hellier / Getty

Learn about modern architecture at Cité Radieuse

It was in Marseille that modern urban living in Europe was redefined in the 1950s by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. His radical, 337-apartment block is said to have inspired apartment buildings all over the continent is now a Unesco World Heritage site. The Marseille tourist office runs excellent guided tours for a small fee (€15), but parts of the groundbreaking ‘vertical city-garden’ can be roamed independently – and for free.

Upon arriving at the La Cité Radieuse, sign the visitors’ book at reception and press the button to beckon the lift: the third and fourth floors of the 17-storey building can be freely explored. End on the stunning rooftop terrace.

Smell the flowers in a city park

Marseille bustles with busy street markets, noisy scooters, traffic and – in summer – tourists, but its green spaces are harder to find. City parks are a short walk from the city center, but are free to enjoy and promise a sweet perfumed respite from the urban mayhem. Follow serenity-seeking locals to 17th-century Parc Borély, Marseille’s prettiest park complete with ornamental lake, chateau, floral botanical gardens and giant insect hotel.

Castle Chateau d'If is one of the many sites you can discover in Marseille on a guided tour
Take a guided tour with a volunteer in Marseille and you'll discover architectural wonders © Romrodphoto / Shutterstock

Delve into hidden city corners on a guided tour

Architecture, street art, football, stairs with sea views and hidden corners of the city are among the varied themes explored by local volunteer guides on walking tours run by Marseille Provence Greeters. Guided walks can be booked online, last about two hours, are free (donations welcome), and present a golden opportunity to chat with a local.

Explore Marseille’s artistic rooftops

While entry to the flagship MUCEM and its fascinating exhibitions exploring European and Mediterranean civilization commands an admission fee, its vertigo-inducing rooftop and elevated walkways doesn’t cost a cent. The eye-catching building – an icon of contemporary Marseille – was designed by Algerian-born, Marseille-schooled architect Rudy Ricciotti and Roland Carta, and promises bird’s eye panoramas. Back down on firm soil, roam the free museum gardens.

May to October, the huge rooftop at Friche La Belle de Mai – an upcycled tobacco factory – rocks with some fantastic free concerts (usually African or other world music), DJ sets, movie screenings and alternative cultural events.

Let your hair down at a Marseillais festival

From midsummer’s Fête de la Musique, to costumed street celebrations around Mardi Gras during Marseille’s carnival or the traditional fireworks at the Vieux Port on 14 July, festivals in Marseille promise a good party. Best up, dozens are free and provide a precious opportunity to hobnob with locals, become acquainted with French musicians and other artists, and occasionally dance until dawn. The city’s festival calendar embraces everything from music and dance, to theater, cinema, circus and storytelling – Marseille tourist office has the complete lowdown.

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