771km (479 miles) S of Paris; 187km (116 miles) SW of Nice; 31km (19 miles) S of Aix-en-Provence
Marseille is France’s electrifying second city. With nearly 2 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area, it best embodies the vibrancy, energy, and multiculturalism of modern France. The cuisine is epic too.
It’s also the country’s oldest metropolis, founded as a port by the Greeks in the 6th century B.C. Author Alexandre Dumas called teeming Marseille “the meeting place of the entire world.” It’s a working city with many faces, both figuratively and literally. A view from high up reveals the colorful Vieux Port, with its elegant old buildings, boat-filled harbor, and the Mediterranean beyond. The city is sprawling but it’s also a cosmopolitan nexus of vibrant sounds, smells, and sights—unlike any other place in France.
Marseille’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, too), 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). Marseille proudly held the title of European Capital of Culture in 2013, sparking the construction of a flurry of new cultural venues, the creation of landmark museums, and the completion of long-term architectural projects, particularly in the old docklands neighborhood west of the Vieux Port. Further new sites will follow as Marseille hosts the Olympic marina and sailing competition for the 2024 Paris Olympiad, plus soccer games in its landmark 67,000-seat Stade Vélodrome stadium. More than anywhere else, Marseille is the nation’s foodie go-to, with street food so good that tourism bosses regularly host food bloggers ready to Instagram the city’s eats. France’s second city has finally come of age.
Few know that France’s national anthem was actually composed in Strasbourg. Originally titled “War Song of the Army of the Rhine,” it was written in a single night by army captain Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle in 1792. That same year, revolutionaries from Marseille (who had been given printed copies) marched into Paris singing it. In their honor, the song became known as “La Marseillaise” and was quickly adopted as the rallying cry of the French Revolution. It was officially declared the national anthem of France in 1795, only to be banned by Napoleon during the Empire, Louis XVIII in 1815, and Napoleon III in 1830. The anthem was reinstated for good in 1879.