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.
The major arteries divide Marseille into 16 arrondissements. Like Paris, the last two digits of a postal code tell you within which arrondissement an address is located. Visitors tend to spend most of their time in four main neighborhoods. The first is the Vieux Port, the atmospheric natural harbor that’s a focal point for the city center. From here, the wide La Canebière boulevard runs eastwards, bisected by Marseille’s most popular shopping avenues. To the north lies Le Panier, the original Old Town, crisscrossed by a pastel network of undulating alleyways. This neighborhood’s western edge is trimmed by former docklands, which have been completed redeveloped over the past few years. Southeast of the Vieux Port, the alternative neighborhood around cours Julien is home to convivial restaurants and one-off boutiques aplenty. And come summertime, action shifts to the Plages du Prado, a strip of beaches due south of the city center.
Le Défi de Monte-Cristo also known as the Monte-Cristo Challenge, is inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ 19th-century novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. In the story, main character Edmond Dantès escapes from Château d’If by swimming to the French mainland. In late June, hundreds of participants battle it out to replicate Dantès’ 5-km swim, each one hoping to win the race’s Euro 3.000,00 prize. The city’s Festival de Marseille, a citywide celebration of music, dance, and arts, is held from mid-June to mid-July. As summer winds down, Septembre en Mer celebrates any and everything sea-related, from boating and paddle-boarding to Mediterranean cuisine and an environmentally sound coastline. The city’s most popular music festival since its inception in 1992 is Fiesta des Suds. It’s held annually in late October. Live acts include prominent South American and African bands, as well as big international names such as Patti Smith.
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 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 southeast of Marseille.
Only Paris and the French Riviera can compete with Marseille for its breadth and diversity of merchandise. Your best bet is a trip to the streets just southeast of the Vieux-Port, crowded with stores of all kinds. Rue Paradis and rue Saint Ferréol have many of the same upscale fashion boutiques found in Paris, as well as a Galeries Lafayette, France’s largest chain department store. For more bohemian wear, try cours Julien and rue de la Tour for richly brocaded and beaded items on offer in North African boutiques.
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 and racial tension 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).