Immerse yourself in local life with a wander through Marseille’s busy streets, including along the famous La Canebière. Lined with hotels, shops, and restaurants, it used to be a very seedy street indeed, saturated with sailors from every nation. With Marseille’s ongoing urban regeneration, however, it is rapidly becoming the heart and soul of the city.
La Canebière joins the Vieux Port, dominated at its western end by the massive neoclassical forts of St-Jean and St-Nicolas. The harbor is filled with fishing craft and yachts and ringed by seafood restaurants. For a panoramic view, head to the Jardin du Pharo, a promontory facing the entrance to the Vieux-Port. From the terrace of the Château du Pharo, built by Napoleon III, you can clearly see the city’s old and new cathedrals, as well as the recently redeveloped docklands, now the Cité de la Méditerranée, which includes Fort Saint-Jean and the architectural wonder that is MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations).
North of the old port is Le Panier, Marseille’s Old Town. Small boutiques and designer ateliers now populate these once-sketchy streets. To the south, the corniche Président-J.-F.-Kennedy is a 4km (2 1/2-mile) promenade. You’ll pass villas and gardens facing the Mediterranean, before reaching the popular Plages du Prado. Patrolled by lifeguards in the summer, these spacious, sandy beaches have children's playgrounds, sun loungers, and waterside cafes. Serious hikers can continue south of here into the Parc National des Calanques, France’s newest national park. This series of stunning limestone cliffs, fjords, and rocky promontories stretches along the coast for 20km (12 miles) southeast of Marseille.
One of the easiest ways to see Marseille’s centrally located monuments is aboard the fleet of open-top Le Grand Tour Buses (www.marseillelegrandtour.com; Métro: Vieux-Port). You can hop off at any of 13 different stops en route and back on to the next bus in the day’s sequence, usually arriving between 1 and 2 hours later, depending on the season. The buses run four to eight times a day during each month except January. A 1-day pass costs 18€ adults and 16€ seniors and students with ID; the fare for children ages 4 to 11 is 8€. Two-day passes are also available for just a few euros more.
The motorized Trains Touristiques de Marseille (www.petit-train-marseille.com; tel. 04-91-25-24-69; Métro: Vieux-Port), or petit-trains, make circuits around town too. Year-round, train no. 1 drives a 75-minute round-trip to Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde and Basilique St-Victor. From April to mid-November, train no. 2 makes a 65-minute round-trip of old Marseille by way of the cathedral, Vieille Charité, and the Quartier du Panier. Both trains make a 30-minute stop for sightseeing en route. The trains depart from the quay just west of the Hôtel de Ville. The fare for both trains is 1 is 8€ adults and 4€ children.
Marseille’s Office de Tourisme offers two bilingual tours of the city center. The first explores the Vieux Port and Le Panier (included with purchase of a City Pass). The second meanders its way around cours Julien’s contemporary art galleries and street art (1 Sat per month at 3:30pm; 10€). In 2014, the Office de Tourisme also began leading bilingual guided tours of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse, site of Hôtel le Corbusier. Taking place from Tuesday to Saturday at 2:30pm and 4:30pm, tours cost 10€ per person and can be reserved through the tourist office. Private walking tours of the city’s historic, architectural, and foodie hotspots are run by the supremely well-informed Benedicte Sire, whose Urban Walks (www.urbanwalks.eu) cost from 35€ per person.
Boat tours to the Parc National des Calanques are popular. Many tour operators with different prices and formulas (for example, three Calanques in 2 hr./22€, or eight in 3 hr./28€) can be found on the quai des Belges at the Vieux-Port.
For an unusual way to see Marseille and its coastline, try one of the catamaran cruises offered by Levantin (www.levantin.fr; tel. 04-91-24-40-40). Levantin organizes a variety of tours, from sailing around Château d’If followed by a swim in Baie des Quarantaines (35€ per person), to sunset cruises with dinner and live music onboard (70€ per person). Tours depart from the Vieux Port’s quai d’Honneur, just outside of the Town Hall (Mairie). The staffed catamarans are also available for private hire. Goélette Alliance (www.goelette-alliance.com; tel. 06-11-63-47-44) offers more exclusive personalized tours at sea aboard a 27-m (88-foot) sailing yacht, departing from the same quay. The vessel can accommodate up to 27 passengers, and is priced from 1,500€ per half-day.
You can take a 25-min. ferry ride to the Château d’If (if.monuments-nationaux.fr), a national monument built by François I as a fortress to defend Marseille. Alexandre Dumas used it as a setting for the fictional adventures of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The château is open October to March 10am to 5pm (closed Monday); April to September daily 10am to 6pm. Entrance to the island is 6€ adults, free for children 17 and under. Boats leave approximately every 45 to 60 min., depending on the season; the round-trip transfer is 10.80€. For information, contact the Frioul If Express (www.frioul-if-express.com; tel. 04-96-11-03-50; Métro: Vieux-Port).
North of Marseille proper, L’Estaque was once a picturesque seaside village (although it now looks out over the city’s more urban skyline). It was painted by Provence’s artistic greats—including Cézanne, Renoir, and Braque—between the 1860s and 1920s. Today, visitors can tread these legendary footsteps and easel sites, following the “Painters’ Path” signposted around town (strolling time around 2 hr.). L’Estaque’s seafront stalls sell popular local snacks, including chichi frégi (sugar-topped fritters flavored with orange blossom water) and panisses (savory chickpea flour fritters). You can reach L’Estaque via bus no. 35 from Marseille’s place de la Joliette (journey time around 30 min). Between April and September, navette ferry service runs from the Vieux Port to L’Estaque for 3€ (journey time 40 min.).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.