771km (479 miles) S of Paris; 187km (116 miles) SW of Nice; 31km (19 miles) S of Aix-en-Provence
Marseille is the France’s oldest metropolis. It was founded as a port by the Greeks in the 6th century b.c. Today it’s the second-largest city in France, as well as one of its most ethnically diverse, with nearly 1.5 million inhabitants.
Author Alexandre Dumas called teeming Marseille “the meeting place of the entire world.” Never was this statement truer than in 2013, when Marseille proudly held the prestigious role of European Capital of Culture. More than 11 million visitors funneled into the city. They took in a flurry of new cultural venues and landmark museums, as well as the completion of long-term architectural projects, in particular the old docklands neighborhood west of the Vieux Port. XL Airways (www.xl.com) even launched the first direct flight from New York to Marseille, making this vibrant city all the more accessible.
On a day-to-day basis, Marseille is utterly real, in a way that other gentrified, tourist-targeted villages in the region are decidedly not. A view from high up reveals the colorful Vieux Port, with its elegant old buildings, boat-filled harbor, and the Mediterranean beyond. Yet it’s a working city with many faces, both figuratively and literally.
Marseille is sprawling and can be down at heel in parts. But it’s also a cosmopolitan nexus of vibrant sounds, smells, and sights. The city’s age-old problems may include unemployment, the Mafia, and racial tension (around a quarter of the population is of North African descent, with significant Armenian, Jewish, and Asian communities), but civic pride is strong, and the city is firmly focused on the future, evidenced by the ongoing Euroméditerranée urban regeneration project (www.euromediterranee.fr).
The Capital of Culture crowds have now departed. But 2013’s legacy remains and a handful of Marseille’s newest projects came to fruition in early 2014. Therefore there’s never been a better time to visit the city than right now. From the vintage shops that pepper Le Panier’s backstreets to the boutique bolt-holes that are flinging open their doors, it’s evident that France’s second city has finally come of age.