The Le Panier neighborhood in Marseille
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What to Do in Marseille—and Planning Pitfalls to Avoid

As one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, the port city of Marseille in southern France has a long and colorful history—and for a good chunk of that time, Marseille was regarded by many as a seedy crossroads where travelers were better off passing through than lingering. 

Over the last decade and change, though, Marseille has undergone a transformation. The upgrade got going in 2013, when Marseille-Provence was chosen as the site for a full year's worth of exhibits, performances, and other artsy events as the European City of Culture.

The European Union as well as the French and regional governments poured tons of money into Marseille to get the place ready for its cultural close-up, improving public transit systems, installing a new conference center, and introducing state-of-the-art museums and other offerings. As a result, many of the 11 million visitors who flocked to the city over the course of that year came away raving about the new destination dynamo.

If you're looking for evidence of how major public investiment can revitalize a place, look no further. 

Mind you, Marseille still has some grit, with graffiti plastering many buildings, chaotic traffic, and a problem with pickpockets akin to what you’ll find in Rome. 

But Marseille also has some of the most compelling museums, performance spaces, galleries, bars, and clubs in all of France. And due to its extraordinary longevity, Marseille is chockablock with history and splendid architecture. What's more, the city's status as a gateway for immigration has resulted in some of the most exciting and diverse restaurant and shopping scenes in Europe. 

There's a lot to do—and some pitfalls to avoid. Here are 9 crucial things to know before you go. 

What to do in Marseille: an aerial view of the harbor
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It's not all about the port

Yes, the Old Port is the reason there’s a city here. In 600 B.C. Greek sailors discovered this fair harbor, recognized its worth, and built the city of Massalia around it. Today, some of Marseille’s most important museums as well as its handsome cathedral stand opposite the boat-crammed port. Just wandering around the waterfront and gawking at superyachts can be fun.

But because this is where massive cruise ships disgorge passengers by the thousands, the port area can get frenetically touristy.

Escape the crowds by spending your first few hours in the city on a walking tour. That will introduce you to the city’s souk-like markets—a center of life for a large community of North African immigrants—and the hilltop train station, where statues commemorate Marseille's past as a trade powerhouse. You'll also stroll to streets and buildings that were a center of intrigue during World War II (as depicted in the Netflix series Transatlantic), and you'll navigate Le Panier, the warren of very vertical streets that make up the city’s oldest neighborhood.

Recommended walking tours include those led by the Marseille office of tourism, and the foodie and history tours from Culinary Backstreets.

What to do in Marseille: Notre-Dame de la Garde
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You’re a fool if you don’t get the Marseille CityPass

Not only does the pass allow access to Marseille’s signature attractions, but it also gives the bearer free, unlimited transport to those sites and others on public trams, buses, ferries, the Metro, and the little tourist train that chugs up the steep hill to Notre-Dame de la Garde (pictured above).

Additionally, the passes—which can be purchased online for validity of 24, 48, or 72 hours—unlock discounts at a slew of local boutiques and eateries and on city tours. After doing the math, I decided the only way you’d spend less on a day in Marseille was if you contracted the flu and couldn't leave your hotel room to tour the city. (Note, however, that you probably won't need to buy a pass for kids, since they can enter many attractions for free.)

What to do in Marseille: Try bouillabaise, a classic Provencal treat.
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A seafood-packed gourmet meal is a must—so get reservations well in advance

Dining is a competitive sport in Marseille—reservations at the best places go fast. To avoid getting shut out, book a table far in advance to try a classic, worth-the-price-tag bouillabaisse (consider L’Épuisette) or to dine at a restaurant helmed by local star chefs such as Alexandre Mazzia, Gérald Passedat, and Julien Diaz.

What to do in Marseille: a meal at Chez Yassine
Pauline Frommer
But don't forget about the city's other renowned—and affordable—food specialties

A legacy of France's history of colonization in North Africa is the large numbers of immigrants from that region who have made couscous as much of a local specialty as bouillabaisse. You won’t need a reservation for couscous, or other classic casual dishes such as spicy lablabi chickpea soup, brik à l'oeuf egg pastry, or the tomatoey seafood stew (pictured above) at a joint like Chez Yassine—though you might have to wait in line. 

Another of Marseille's signature dishes, believe it or not, is pizza. Brought here by Neapolitan immigrants around 1900, pies are cooked in varieties reflecting the city’s polyglot populace, from the French half-and-half pizza (half Emmental cheese, half anchovies with red sauce) and Corsican boar sausage pizza to Armenian-style meat pizza and the traditional Neapolitan made with Italian cheeses and red sauce. Try a slice or five at Chez Etienne, Chez Sauveur, or La Bella Pizza.

What to do in Marseille: open barrels of dried foodstuffs in Noailles
Pauline Frommer
Even if you’re not a shopper, explore the open markets, boutiques, and food stores

Founded in 1827, Marseille’s Maison Empereur is billed as the oldest hardware store in France—though today it’s more of a department store for all sorts of artisanal goods. There are sniffing stations for rare perfumes, shirts and jackets made from cloth embossed with inimitable Provencal patterns, handcrafted furniture, specialty scissors, modern versions of 19th-century toys, cooking implements, candles, shaving kits, fine stationery, rococo lampshades, handsome metal plates, and, of course, a huge room full of soaps, the city’s most famous product for centuries. It feels like wandering through a museum where the treasures are for sale.

But that's just the beginning. The Maghreb community, made up of the thousands of people from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria who have settled in Marseille, have turned the lively Noailles neighborhood into a North African simulacrum. Stores feature pyramids of brightly colored spices sitting in open barrels, Tunisian pastries, mint teas, intricately patterned rugs, geometrically cut brass lamps, straw baskets, and so much else.

Impromptu flea markets often spring up on the street, with vendors laying out goods atop blankets on the pavement, in between fresh fruit and fish stands and street cafes. The aromas, the clothing styles, the dazzling colors—it's sensory overload of the best sort and feels like nowhere else in France. Whereas many of the country's immigrant communities are in the outer districts of cities, this one is right in the heart of town, next to the historic quarter.

What to do in Marseille: street art in Le Cours Julien
Pauline Frommer
Set aside half a day (and an evening) to explore the artsy side of Marseille, Le Cours Julien

The city's arts district, centered on Place de Notre Dame du Mont and the Cours Julien, is heaven for thrift shop fans and the best area to see the works of local designers and artists in postage-stamp boutiques, galleries, and all over the walls of buildings. After dark, Le Cours Julien is known for its excellent restaurants, live music venues, and the bar scene, which spills out onto terraces and cobblestoned corners, making the entire neighborhood a party.

Calanques National Park
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Explore nearby fjords and cliffs—but get a reservation first

Part of the metropolitan area of Marseille (stretching eastward to Cassis) is given over to calanques—fjords of limestone cliffs that rise starkly above itty-bitty beaches and the translucent blues and greens of the Mediterranean Sea. Calanques National Park is laced with hiking trails, some of which lead to pebble beaches, others to tiny fishing villages, and all sided by alternately spiky and pretty plants, including some rare halophilic ones that thrive in the salt sprays of the ocean. It’s an exquisite region that used to be a peaceful contrast to the raucous streets of Marseille.

Alas, the park has gotten overcrowded in recent years, with nearly 3,000 visitors a day threatening this fragile ecosytem. To help control the numbers, the government has established a system of free, advance reservations with caps on how many people can visit each day. Reservations usually open in early June for the coming summer season (reservations aren’t required the rest of the year). Be sure to book your free ticket as soon as you can—and you might want to avoid the most overloved spots: the Calanques de Morgiou, de Sormiou, and d’En Vau.

What to do in Marseille: the Chateau d'If
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Go straight to jail—twice

Set within Marseille’s bustling port, the Château d’If (pictured above) is the island fortress that was immortalized by Alexandre Dumas in his swashbuckling novel The Count of Monte Cristo. A visit here will elevate your Instagram game as well as introduce you to some of France's darkest history, relating to the prisoners jailed here over the centuries. Note: The Marseille CityPass gets you free entry and transportation.

After touring a historic prison, how about dining at a current one? Michelin-starred chef Gérald Passedat founded Les Beaux Mets ("The Beautiful Dishes") in Les Baumettes prison with the aim of teaching marketable skills to prisoners—and alleviating the staffing shortage currently bedeviling the French restaurant industry.

Incarcerated men act as the chefs, bussers, and waiters at the restaurant, which is set in a large, nicely decorated room within the house of detention. Guests are served a multicourse gourmet lunch that's about as far from prison food as you can get, and quite affordable. All in all, it's a fascinating foodie experience that supports a very good cause.

What to do in Marseille: the Mucem
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Concentrate on culture

As I mentioned at the start, there's a deep, unique vein of culture here, and it rewards visitors who mine it. That starts with the museums, which are different from what you’ll find in other French cities.

The Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée (Mucem), for example, explores the rather radical idea that European and Mediterranean countries like Egypt, France, Italy, Montenegro, Syria, Turkey, and Cyprus are far more alike than different. While the history section is a bit of a snooze, the exhibit on food across the region is wonderfully thought-provoking, and the special exhibitions are frequently blockbusters. Plus, the museum complex encompasses a fascinating range of buildings, from an important work of modern architecture to a historic fort.

Next door is an equally innovative museum-cum-amusement-park-ride called Cosquer Méditerranée, which transports guests via electric cart through a perfect replica of a French cave near Marseille where important and rare Paleolithic art was found.

These museums join many other worthwhile art, history, and culture attractions, not to mention concert venues and other performance spaces, that will go a long way toward convincing you that France's second city is second to none.