With a pedigree rooted in classical Greece and a fair claim to the mantle of France's second city, Marseille is an intense, high-octane place that never stops moving. In the last decade, this noisy, once-notoriously unglamorous port has morphed into a quietly cool influencer. With its eclectic choice of museums, churches and coastal parks in a sprawling metropolis famously stitched from 111 wildly diverse “villages,” Provence’s all-consuming capital deserves far more time than a quick weekend.

Rethink traditional sightseeing. The heartbeat of this ancient port on the Mediterranean in southern France is art de vivre à la Marseille. Bursting with on-trend cultural and culinary creativity, backdropped by history and anchored by seafaring tradition, local lifestyle is the real attraction – an exciting potpourri of old and new. Here are the best things to do in Marseille to really get under its salty, weathered, mistral-whipped skin.

Group of people catching the sunset at Vallon des Auffes, a mini fishing port in Marseille once home to many Italian and Spanish immigrants.
Catching the sunset at Vallon des Auffes, a friendly portside neighborhood © Adrienne Pitts / Lonely Planet

1. Find the best spots to watch the setting sun

End sultry summer days with locals on the chase for le plus beau (most beautiful) sunset. It’s a stiff hike up to the city’s highest point, crowned by the opulent Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, but the bird’s-eye views of the golden city at sunset are hard to beat. Nearby, the fashionable pavement terrace of Café de l’Abbaye ogles at the Vieux Port. Down by the water, snag a pew at portside La Caravelle for the reverse view.

For true sunset connoisseurs, Marseille’s rooftop bars – Rooftop Hôtel Hermes, R2, or the sizzling new rooftop bar at uber-cool Tuba in Les Goudes, perhaps – are the best place to watch the sun sink into the Med.

Local tip: A worthy out-of-town alternative: follow the crowd along the southbound corniche (coastal road) to the main beach strip Plages du Prado, or stop at a rocky inlet (reached by steps down) en route.

2. Savor Marseille flavors at an open-air market

There’s far more than fish and seafood in Marseille’s stockpot of culinary flavors. Eyeing up trays of ice and plastic crates displaying the catch of the day at the morning fish market on Quay des Belges is an intrinsic part of the Vieux Port experience. But to appreciate the port city’s full ethnic diversity, mooch the souq-esque labyrinth of open-air stalls at Marché des Capucins in the foodie neighborhood of Noailles.

Be it seasonal fruit and veg from Provence or papaya and pistachios from far-flung lands, Middle Eastern halvah (a syrupy sesame seed treat), or North African spices, this street market mirrors multicultural Marseille. Continue the flavorsome, world-food tour with lunch at one of the many ethnically diverse eateries on insanely hip Cours Julien.

3. Sail to Château d’If

No exploration of the seething Vieux Port – Marseille’s hectic heart and soul – is complete without a short boat trip to the photogenic island fortress of Château d’If, immortalized in Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The dark grizzly tales of various prisoners incarcerated in cells here are as compelling as the glorious views from the island of the Vieux Port, guarded by its own bewitching twinset of sturdy forts.

People visit the modern Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM)
MuCEM was inaugurated in 2013 when Marseille was the European Capital of Culture © Jorg Hackemann / Shutterstock

4. Dive into ancient Mediterranean civilization at MuCEM

Marseille’s ancient Mediterranean heritage comes to life inside its sharpest contemporary museum. For a unique perspective of top-drawer Musée des Civilisations d’Europe et de la Méditerranée, follow the footpath that helter-skelters between the glass wall of the cube-shaped building and its outer lace shell, designed in high-tech black concrete to echo the fishing nets cast around Marseille since inception. At night, the building is lit brilliantly blue. The museum’s vast and diverse collection is the key to understanding Marseille’s backstory.

Local tip: End in neighboring Fort St-Jean, in the peaceful Jardin des Migrations, where cultural diversity and migration in the region get a horticultural spin.

5. View prehistoric cave art at Cosquer Méditerranée 

From MuCEM, head next door to hi-tech Cosquer Méditerranée – the exciting new occupant of Villa Méditerranée, a contemporary white structure with a spectacular cantilever overhanging an ornamental pool. Opened in June 2022, the groundbreaking museum takes visitors into a replica of some of the world’s rarest Paleolithic art, engraved and painted by prehistoric people in a cave near Marseille. Firmly on dry land at the time, about 12km (7 miles) from the sea, Grotte Cosquer was later submerged by the rising ocean and remains buried and inaccessible at sea.

Armed with a multilingual headset, board a funfair-style exploratory vehicle to explore the dark replica cave and learn how and why this curious menagerie of prehistoric drawings came to be. End on the top floor with a fascinating exhibition on climate change dotted with a furry, life-size Megaloceros, chamois, penguin, steppe bison and cave lion. Species not extinct are taxidermied.

A waiter serves two people sat at a table outside a cafe with a blue facade
Get lost among the maze-like streets of Marseille's oldest area, Le Panier © Javier García Blanco / Getty Images

6. Lose yourself in Le Panier’s rabbit warren

The spot first settled by the ancient Greeks, gold-stone Le Panier or “The Basket” is named for its steep streets that smooch slowly uphill, where you'll find dusty sun-blazed squares, linen-strung back alleys and the occasional low-key cafe. Allow ample time to explore the art and archaeology museums inside La Vieille Charité, Le Panier’s original almshouse, designed by local architect Pierre Puget (1620–94), who went on to work for Louis XIV.

7. Experience bouillabaisse in every guise

Tracking down the “best” bouillabaisse in Marseille can inspire obsessive behavior among visiting epicureans. If your budget is bottomless, Michelin-starred L’Épuisette and Le Rhul are flawless addresses to sample the old-timer fish stew that traditionally includes four different types of fish and is served as two distinct courses (fish soup as entrée or starter, fileted fish as main course).

Further south along the coast in fishing village Les Goudes in the 8e arrondissement, vintage Le Grand Bar des Goudes and quirky La Baie des Singes, out on an irresistibly scenic limb on Cap Croisette, adopt a more rustic, down-to-earth approach. If it’s wacky you want, hit the Intercontinental Marseille Hôtel Dieu for a deconstructed Bouille-A-Baisse milkshake.

Local tip: L’Aromat at the Vieux Port cooks up bouillabaisse burgers with panisses (chickpea fries), and street-food fave Pain à l’Ail serves pains bouillabaisses (fish sandwiches) to scoff on the hop.

The cliffs of the Calanques are a natural wonder nestled near Marseille, France
Explore the limestone cliffs and coves of Les Calanques around Marseille © Getty Images / iStockphoto

8. Walk on the wild side in Les Calanques

Marseille’s great green escape is the Parc National des Calanques, an almost miraculous mashup of herbal-scented Mediterranean scrub, pine-strewn promontories, shimmering limestone cliffs and teeny clandestine coves cradling pocket-handkerchief beaches and sun-spangled jewel-blue water.

The best known (Calanques de Morgiou, Sormiou and d’En Vau) get hideously overrun with tourists (an online booking system is being trialed at Calanque de Sorgiton this summer to limit visitor numbers to 500 a day). Consider the 50-minute hike instead from the trailhead in Callelongue in the 8e arrondissement to Calanque de Marseilleveyre. Bring a picnic, ample water and your swimsuit.

Detour: An even better way to explore Les Calanques: paddle there with Raskas Kayak.

9. Shop in the Quartier des Créateurs

Explore the city’s bohemian heart with a shopping spree in Noailles’ creative backstreets. Boutiques specializing in vintage fashion – Sepia Swing Club for old-world glamor, Lilou Vintage for cool 1970s pieces, Marcel et Simone for 1940s to 1990s secondhand – are plentiful in the narrow and colorful, mural-tagged lanes around throbbing Cours Julien. Unsurprisingly, the area is nicknamed the “Creators Quartier.”

A couple of blocks west, curiosities fill France’s oldest hardware store, Maison Empereur (where, should you fall completely head over heels, you can stay overnight). Buy herbal concoctions to treat any ailment under the sun at Marseille’s legendary Herboristerie du Père Blaize and world spices at Saladin Épices du Monde on La Canebière. Its house-made ras el hanout, combining 22 different spices, is unmatched.

Planning tip: End your Noailles shopping spree with a couscous lunch at treasured 1920s icon Le Fémina chez Kachetel; an invigorating black-soap scrub and clove and clay massage at Hammam Rafik; and drinks, dinner and late-night dancing at Waaw.

10. Dance until dawn on an urban rooftop

Nightlife in France’s second-largest metropolis, with its small but friendly LGBTIQ+ scene and world-class electro and world music, seduces party lovers from all over the globe. In summer, the cutting-edge scene comes into its own when the dance party moves outside onto urban rooftops. April to October, catch top French and African artists and DJs spinning drill, trap, hip-hop, rap and rock in the open air at Le Baou de Marseille, R2 and the roof terrace at La Friche La Belle de Mai.

11. Eat pizza

Scoffing finger-licking, wood-fired pizza topped with anything and everything from seafaring squid ink and cuttlefish to Italianate tomato, rocket and parmesan cheese is as sacred in Marseille as its OM football team. The city purports to have put the world’s first pizza truck on the road in 1962, and there’s always a pizza truck parked up somewhere along the corniche (coastal road) near the Prado beaches. In town, join the hordes lining up to snag a table at veteran fave Chez Étienne in Le Panier, La Bonne Mère near Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, or L’eau à la Bouche towards the sea.

Hoardes of people relax on a sandy beach on a sunny day
Be as active or relaxed as you like at Marseille's range of great beaches © Kirsty Lee / Getty Images

12. Spend time on the beach

Hitting the beach in Marseille is as much a window on local life as an opportunity to flop in the sun and dip in the sea. From the high-adrenalin sands and unique underwater sculptures of downtown Marseille’s closest beach and volleyball hub, Plage des Catalans, to the completely untouched coves of nature-rich Les Calanques, Marseille sports a beach with your name on it. Decide your mood (family fun, water sports, back to nature, lunch on the sand) and style (powder-soft sand, shingle, rocks with a vintage ladder into the water) and hit the beach accordingly.

13. Delve into the modern and contemporary art scene

Hunting bold and sassy ceramic mosaics of pixelated aliens, Pastis bottles, octopuses, all sorts – hidden up high on building facades or underneath stairs, and always placed in situ in the dead of night by French street artist Invader – is a brilliant means of exploring backstreet Marseille from a less-touristed perspective.

Alternatively, you can focus on the city’s wealth of art museums and galleries dedicated to modern and contemporary art. Get acquainted with Marseille-born sculptor César Baldaccini (1921–98), after whom the French equivalent of the Oscars are named, at the Musée d’Art Contemporain. Seasonal contemporary art exhibitions at MAMO – the experimental rooftop art gallery crowning La Cité Radieuse – are a golden opportunity to catch the latest art trend and explore Le Corbuiser’s visionary modernist architecture.

Local tip: Kids particularly love hunting street art (and clocking up their finds on the smartphone Flash Invaders app).

14. Have some downtime in a city park

Marseille’s handsome choice of parks offer respite and green-fueled peace from the noisy, turbo-charged pace of the city. Several cradle romantic sea or city views and are a riveting window into local life backstage. Elegant Jardin du Pharo is the closest swathe of green to the center and is wildly popular with the after-work crowd, while weekends pack family-friendly Parc Borély to bursting. Jardin du Pierre Puget, on a hill above the Vieux Port, gets top billing for alfresco cocktails and creative, grassroots cuisine at garden bistro Sépia.

15. Meet Marseille’s new-gen chefs

Known for decades as rough-cut kitchen royalty of bouillabaisse and pizza, Marseille is turning heads with an exciting new generation of chefs. Reserve well in advance to score a spot at Alexandre Mazzia’s tiny Michelin triple-starred restaurant where world flavors – the chef was born in Congo – marry beautifully with those of the homegrown Med. For outstanding one-star market-driven cuisine by young female chef Coline Faulquier, bag a table at Signature.

For a taste of Paris in Marseille dine out with the chefs who’ve left the French capital for life by the sea: masters of raw fish Sylvain Roucayrol and Paul-Henri Bayart, from Caché in Paris, oversee the sizzling shared-plates menu at gourmet beach club Tuba. A trio of women working in finance ditched their Parisian day jobs to open Maison des Nines, a funky table d’hôte (shared-table dining) and pop-up brunch venue in epicurean Noailles. The party never stops at fiesta-fueled Splendido, a Parisian import by the Big Mamma group.

This article was first published May 24, 2022 and updated Jan 13, 2024.

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