Located in the south of France, Marseilles is the oldest city in France and its largest commercial harbor on the Mediterranean coast.
This multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city is the country’s third largest after Paris and Lyon in terms of metropolitan area and the second largest population-wise.
In the Middle Ages, the city’s main harbor was used by the crusaders to embark on their journey to Jerusalem. It rivaled those of the maritime republics of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice.
In 1720, half the city’s population perished in the plague because of the reluctance of local traders to impose quarantine on infected ships that came to port.
Marseilles may have once had the reputation of being a little dangerous and somewhat free and easy but today it is a magnificent coastal city and an excellent Mediterranean destination.
In a breathtaking hilltop location, this spectacular church stands on the summit of Marseille as its most important landmark, visible from afar.
The site was used in ancient times as an observation point, and during the Middle Ages, was the location of a pilgrimage chapel.
Today, the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is a beacon for the faithful, with an enormous gilded Madonna crowning the belfry.
Built in 1853-1864, the church features an opulent Neo-Byzantine-style interior of light and dark marble arches supporting gilded mosaic cupolas.
After seeing the interior, visitors can spend time on the splendid terrace.
Offering a marvelous view, the panorama extends from the red rooftops of Marseilles’ buildings and the old harbor, all the way to the Frioul Islands in the Mediterranean Sea.
Vieux Port (Old Harbor)
The Vieux Port represents the birthplace of Marseilles.
Surrounded by serene blue waters, the Old Port is located in the west of Marseilles near the Canebière Boulevard.
The lively waterfront is a focal point for tourists, and many say that this area is the best place to find authentic bouillabaisse, the flavorful seafood stew that is a specialty of Marseille.
Once an important commercial port, the Vieux Port is now used primarily by fishing boats and sports craft.
MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée)
A stunning complex of three different sites, this expansive museum features a wealth of discoveries.
The newest part of the museum is built on the former J4 Pier by the architect Rudy Ricciotti.
This section addresses themes such as the invention of gods, the treasures of the spice route, the visions of Jerusalem, and the seven wonders of the world.
The second stage of the museum is located in the vaulted rooms of the Fort Saint-Jean, a historic monument that dates back to the 12th century.
The Fort Saint-Jean also has spectacular Mediterranean gardens accessible by a suspended footbridge over the sea.
The third site is the Conservation Center (located in the Belle de Mai quarter), which offers a behind-the-scenes look into the work of the museum.
A short ferry ride away from the port of Marseilles, the Château d’If is located on the Ile d’If in the Frioul Islands archipelago, a nature conservation area that includes the tiny islands of If, Pomègues, Ratonneau, and Tiboulen.
The scenery is spectacular with protected coves, turquoise waters, pristine beaches, sandy creeks, and impressive limestone cliffs.
In this beautiful location, the Château d’If was built as a fortress by King François I in the 16th century. Soon after, the fortress was converted into a prison.
Musée d’Histoire de Marseille (History Museum)
In Le Panier quarter, just a few steps away from the Vieux Port, the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille tells the story of Marseilles from its Gallo-Greek origins through the Middle Ages to the present day.
Fitting for the oldest city in France, this museum offers an impressive collection of historical artifacts, covering 2,600 years of history.
The museum also has a park, the Jardin des Vestiges, which is an open-air museum for an excavation site. In the gardens, visitors can see the ruins of the ancient port of Massalia from the third-century BC.
Cathédrale de la Major
Beside the sea on a terrace in the northwest of the Le Panier quarter, the Cathédrale de la Major of Marseille boasts a picturesque location fitting of this port city.
The mighty cathedral stands high above the port installations, with its impressive domed towers-the highest rising 16 meters.
Constructed between 1852 and 1893 using a mixture of white and green limestone, the Cathedral blends Romanesque and Byzantine styles to a harmonious effect.
The interior is richly decorated with marble and mosaic; in the crypt lie the tombs of the Bishops of Marseilles.
With a length of 141 meters, the Cathédrale de la Major is the largest ecclesiastical building created in the 19th century.
Le Panier (Old Town)
Located on a hillside above the Vieux Port, this colorful neighborhood is the historic center and cultural heart of Marseille.
Le Panier is Marseille’s oldest quarter, inhabited since antiquity when the ancient Greeks settled here in 600 BC.
You’ll find plenty of authentic Algerian cuisine, local artisan boutiques, gourmet food shops, and art galleries.
This quarter is also a residential neighborhood, and the typical houses with shuttered window and lines of laundry provide evidence of the families who live there.
Visitors may begin a walking tour on the north side of the Vieux Port harbor basin at the Quai du Port and then walk up La Canebière, a vibrant boulevard that is abuzz with activity.
The quarter has several important monuments such as the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), which was built in the second half of the 17th century based on a Genoese architectural model.
Other landmarks include the Cathédrale de la Major and the Vieille Charité, which has a museum with interesting contemporary art exhibits.
Calanques National Park
The Parc National des Calanques offers the splendor of nature just 15 kilometers away from Marseilles on the way to the tiny fishing village of Cassis.
Located where the Mediterranean meets the Massif des Calanques mountains, the unique landscape is distinguished by majestic limestone rock walls with fjord-like coves.
The peaceful coves are filled with calm pools of saltwater that flows to and from the sea.
Visitors are dazzled by the water’s mesmerizing turquoise color as well as by the diverse plant species and rare wildlife, including the peregrine falcon.
Outdoor sports enthusiasts will find many things to do at Calanques National Park, such as swimming, kayaking, rock climbing, and hiking.
An excellent system of trails allows visitors to appreciate the pristine environment and gorgeous coastal views.
The largest Calanques, Port-Miou, En-Vau, and Port-Pin, can be reached by car or by ferry from Marseilles. It is also possible to take a guided boat tour or arrange a private boat trip.
Dedicated to the martyr Saint Victor, this house of worship once belonged to an abbey founded in the 5th century.
The foundations of the church date back to Early Christian and Carolingian times, although the turreted towers are from the 11th and 14th century.
In the crypt, there is the original catacomb chapel and the Grotto of Saint Victor.
The basilica also has a 13th-century Black Madonna.
The Vieille Charité is located on the Place des Moulins that lies at the highest point in Le Panier.
The building was created in 1640 when the Marseille Town Council decided to give the poor local inhabitants a decent place to reside, in compliance with a royal policy of “enclosing the poor.”
In 1749, a three-floor public hospital with four wings was added to the building.
There is a chapel at the center courtyard of the hospital complex.
Built from 1679 to 1707, the chapel is a wonderful example of Italian baroque architecture.
The facade of the Vieille Charité is more modern, dating from 1863.
Since 1986, the Vieille Charité building has been used to host scientific and cultural events and to house a museum, the Centre de la Vieille Charité
(Courtesy: Planetware, Google)