We are traveling from Avignon, our home base in Provence, down to Marseille, after first visiting Aix-en-Provence. It’s better to visit Aix first because of their morning markets, then continue further south to Marseille, and when finished with the daytrip, backtrack to Avignon by the same TGV route in a big round-trip. These trains are so fast it only takes about 15 minutes from one city to the next, making the visit so easy to don’t want to pass it up.
To take the TGV from Aix, walk to the bus station, as explained above in the Aix chapter, then ride a shuttle bus for a few minutes (3.5 euro) to the TGV station. Or you could take a slower train from the old Aix station, an easy, free walk from the center and 43-minute ride to Marseille.
Our touring plan for Marseille is quite modest -- just take a stroll through the main section of downtown and marina for several hours in a brief look to get a feeling for the place. Obviously you could spend much more time here to thoroughly explore the various neighborhoods, museums, and even the regional coastal areas such as Cassis. There are various package tours and boat rides you could enjoy that would easily take up a full day.
Major new developments have been transforming Marseille from a scruffy, worn-out town into the glistening City of Culture, as it was designated in 2013. There are large new shopping centers, many gourmet restaurants, innovative museums, a revitalized urban core, modernized tram system, and transformation of historic buildings into deluxe hotels. Renovations include wider sidewalks and revitalized inner harbor, which have combined to create one of Europe’s most up-and-coming “new” cities, even though it is the oldest city in France and one of the oldest on the continent.
But in our big scheme of covering Provence and Côte d’Azur in two weeks, a few hours will do nicely, which you could extend right into the evening. The way this day is structured, visiting Aix in the morning through lunch should get you to Marseille by mid-afternoon. This is a nice time to be out walking, which also gives flexibility to lengthen the visit and have dinner in one of the many fine restaurants, especially famous for seafood...bouillabaisse anyone?
Upon arriving at St-Charles Station in Marseille, it only takes a couple minutes to walk to the main street, La Canebière, so you're immediately in the center of town strolling along a grand boulevard. The name Canebière is from the Greek 'cannabis' (hemp; rope-walk), not a reflection on modern culture or prior drug wars, but one of various reminders of the ancestral Greek culture. See below for a little history – yes, the ancients Greeks were big here.
Marseille has the second-largest population in France, and strolling along this fine street makes it seem like you are in a smaller version of Paris. The sidewalks are wide, a tram runs down the middle, shops and cafés line both sides, scooters glide by, lots of people are out strolling, trees provide greenery, four-story buildings create a human scale, and you are gliding along slightly downhill.
Several side streets that are mostly for pedestrians and lined with more shops offer tempting detours, especially rues de Rome, d’Aubagne, Saint-Ferréol, and Paradis. You can easily walk up one for a few blocks, then cross over to the next and return to La Canabière, zigzagging your way along.
How could this get much better?
Yes. It gets even better when you reach the waterfront end of La Canebière at the vast marina, and with more major streets peeling off in various directions. This total walk from the train station to waterfront is only 1,000 meters, which takes 15 minutes at normal walking speed, but probably longer because you want to stop and detour along the way, adding another 15 minutes at least.
The Tourist Office is at 11, la Canebière, offering maps and information. They have an excellent free brochure with a walking tour map of the Old Town that we are heading for soon. This is all available as free downloads on their excellent web site, http://www.marseille-tourisme.com/
Across the street you’ll see the impressive neoclassical facade of the Bourse, which houses the Chamber of Commerce, established in 1599, the oldest in France. Take a quick peek inside to appreciate the large rotunda and impressive interior – maybe one of their regular exhibits is happening. One block behind that on Cours Belunce is downtown’s main shopping mall, the Centre Bourse, with a Galeries Lafayette, FNAC, and several dozen typical shops. Then continue to the waterfront, one block away.
The old port and neighborhoods around it are the most interesting parts of Marseille for the visitor. It is a wonderful marina, about 80 acres in size with 2,000 pleasure boats -- sailboats, big yachts, fishing boats, excursion and motor craft. In season you can get boat rides to view the famous Calanques, picturesque rocky coves, along the coastline. The tranquility of this “Vieux Port” has been protected because cruise and cargo ships around the bend in a different harbor, busiest in the nation.
Capital of Provence, with metropolitan population of 1.3 million, Marseille was historically the most important trade center of France and for 2,500 years this Old Port is where all the action took place. Walk along the right side of the marina on the Quai du Port, passing many attractive sidewalk restaurants that might tempt you back later. Views of the boats tied up on both sides of the basin to 50 long piers are quite lovely. Total length of this marina section is only 600 meters, very easy and enjoyable.
Just before reaching the end of the marina, cross the street at the traffic light, and continue on Quai du Port another short block, then walk up two levels of the stone St-Laurent steps to a terrace where you will get the best view of Marseille. At the edge of this terrace you’ll enjoy a grand vista of the marina and the two forts from the 17th century, Saint-Jean and Saint-Nicolas, guarding each side of the harbor mouth.
Continue along the terrace to a black metal pedestrian bridge that leads to the more terraces and the spectacular Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. Opened here in 2013, this bold modern building built on reclaimed land in the harbor is dedicated to Mediterranean civilization, past and present. Called MuCEM (in French: Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée), the building is a cube of 15,000 square meters surrounded by a latticework shell of fiber reinforced concrete, houses exhibits on two different levels, with a café on the roof and a cluster of gourmet restaurants inside supervised by Michelin 3-star chef, Gérald Passedat. One million artifacts make up the permanent collection, with continuous special exhibits as well, representing dozens of cultures. This bold architecture was designed by Rudy Ricciotti in collaboration with the architect Roland Carta.
If you would like to explore the modern face of new Marseille, which is being created in one of Europe’s largest renewal projects, continue north from MuCEM along the waterfront for another mile (1500 m). Three major shopping and dining complexes have sprung up in this stretch along the commercial waterfront – a project that will be ongoing for 20 more years but is already showing impressive results.
Here you will find the Terrasse du Port, Provence’s biggest shopping mall, featuring Printemps and190 stores spread over 4 levels. Another new shopping and restaurant area, Les Docks, has sprouted up along the way in the former harbor headquarters, a large mixed-use complex. Les Voûtes de la Major is the third leg of this new cluster, featuring many high-end shops and a large indoor food hall, Les Halles, in a historic arcaded building below the Cathédral la Major.
This splendid new section of the city could obviously take all day for the determined shopper, museum lover and seeker of contemporary splendor. If you find yourself in that category, consider restructuring this day so that it only visits Marseille, and save Aix-en-Provence for another day. For now we’ll assume you are just taking a look along this glittering new shore from the MuCEM terrace and then continuing the walking tour.
The Old Town, called Le Panier, extends out from the museum, but was totally rebuilt after World War II because the occupying German army systematically demolished nearly the entire old section to root out resistance fighters.
After the war this zone was rebuilt in the old style with the narrow lanes, but frankly it is still a bit scruffy, with lots of graffiti scrawled on beat-up old buildings -- which makes it all the more interesting as a neighborhood in transition, becoming a newly-hip, authentic, bohemian space, away from the tourist crowd.
The urban explorer will enjoy various pedestrian lanes here and picturesque staircase streets, with a scatter of neighborhood shops and cafés. There is peaceful and quiet atmosphere in this Old Town, which seems quite safe to walk through during the daytime. Shoppers will appreciate the little boutiques and craft stores selling handmade goods made in the area -- ceramics, jewelry, artsy items at reasonable prices.
Upon plunging into the Old Town from the museum terrace, you will be assisted by a helpful red line that has been painted directly on the sidewalk to guide your way so that you don't get lost. This is cleverly matched by a red line on the free map provided by the Tourist Office. However, you might be tempted to deviate from suggested routes and explore whatever lane, staircase or plaza looks good. For example Place de Lenche is not on the red line but makes a good starting point, easily reached from the museum terrace along busy Rue St-Laurent. On a nice day Place de Lenche is filled with outdoor restaurant tables, making it one of those normal-but-special places for the visitor.=
On the other hand if you want to see the cathedral, a giant neo-Byzantine edifice constructed in the late 19th century, exit the other corner of Place de Lenche on Rue de la Cathedral. A contrary option for time-constricted walkers who just want the minimal shortcut out of this Old Town, is depart Place de Lenche from the northwest corner on Montée des Accoules. Then walk up the staircase and straight across five blocks, coming out by Rue Caisserie, then turn right, back to the harbor, all in 10 minutes. However that quick getaway will deprive you of several characteristic narrow lanes, which most hardy travelers enjoy.
For best results through the scenic Old Town, get back on the suggested red line by departing Place de Lenche along narrow, delightful Rue de l'Évêché for two blocks to Place des Cantons. This connects with Rue de Petit Puits, Rue du Panier (which gives its name to this district), and connects with Rue de Moulins, a picturesque staircase street leading into a quiet residential plaza. At this point you can find a direct route out along Montée des Accoules downhill, down, down, down towards the port, ending up at Place Jules Verne and Hôtel de Ville by the marina. This will require a little bit of up and down, after all this neighborhood is on a hill, but just follow the lanes and you’ll easily find your way back to the marina.
You'll now be walking along the waterfront promenade lined with a dozen cafés and restaurants fronting the harbor. At the end of the quay there is another lovely street you might enjoy a short stroll along, the busy Rue de la République, a major boulevard designed by Haussmann with wide sidewalks and shops for blocks. If interested, walk up one side four blocks to the round Place Sadi-Carnot, where the tram joins in, turn around and walk back the other way, returning to the port.
A pleasant and comfortable section of the waterfront is across the marina on the south side, with a series of broad avenues, plazas, pedestrian streets and many restaurants. Walk past the top of the port on Quai de la Fraternité to Cours J. Ballard and explore the four blocks leading from here along the waterfront to Place aux Huiles, with side lanes for pedestrians only. Running through the middle is a classic pedestrian street, Rue Saint-Saëns, leading to Place Thiars. The city’s largest outdoor plaza is one block inland with many outdoor restaurants, Cours Honoré d'Estienne d'Orves, in an open space that was created in the 1980s after community activists successfully pressured the government to demolish a huge multi-level parking lot and put the cars underground.
Obviously there's a lot more to see in Marseille but we've just been doing a little reconnaissance, a little walk through some of the main highlights. It is one of the most visited cities in all of France, with 4 million annual tourists, so there are many more things to see. For example there are a dozen museums, hilltop viewpoints, modern architectural landmarks, bouillabaisse, tourist tram, bicycle tours, old churches, wine tastings, etc. However, our stroll through the center has shown you the real heart of the city in all its authentic diversity.
You could easily walk back from the Old Port to the train station, which is just 800 meters slightly uphill from this part of town, but instead, try the metro, with a convenient entrance across the street from the marina. It's very easy to get around on this underground train – just a couple of stops from the harbor to the station. It's the only metro station on record with a big fish tank, which has been here for many years -- the fish are doing quite nicely. It's a good diversion to check them out while waiting for the next train, which arrives in a few minutes.
When you get out of the metro at the St-Charles Station it's easy to find your way -- just follow the signs. Everything is very clean, safe and well lit, and they have big escalators. The metro is deep underground so don't climb up the steep staircase outside the building, even if you walked here – go inside and take the escalators. It just takes a few minutes to arrive in the central station platform area.
They have done an incredible job of rebuilding and expanding and modernizing this train station in recent years. It seems to have doubled in size and become on indoor shopping mall and entertainment center. You might even see musicians – how nice to have a piano available for the public. Anybody can just sit down and start playing.
You can get direct trains to many parts of the country from here. Paris is only 3 hours away by TGV – quite remarkable. We are continuing our journey back to Avignon, only 35 minutes away by TGV. To recap: we spent about three hours in Marseille walking from the train station to marina to Old Town and depart.
People have lived in the area at least from 20,000 B.C. as shown by early cave paintings of that date. Recognized as the oldest town in France and one of the oldest in Europe, Marseille was founded about 600 B.C. by Phoceans, a Greek culture from the coast of Turkey who named it Massilia. This seafaring society established many coastal towns along the Mediterranean, including Nice, Antibes, La Ciotat, and St-Gilles, and they explored part of the coasts of Africa, but Massilia was their most important.
Ages passed, and other Greek settlers arrived, bringing with them corn, wine, and olive trees, and the people of Massilia became expert in the manufacture of jewelry and the first soap in the world, according to Pliny.
With increasing Roman influence by the 5th century B.C. Marseille became an important trading center with goods brought by ships across the Mediterranean and transferred to the Rhone River for delivery north into Gaul. Romans constructed a town but the spirit and population base of the founding Greeks kept those ancient cultural traditions alive.
Massilia invoked the aid of Rome but retained her independence until, having sided with Pompey in the Civil War, it was besieged and captured by Julius Caesar in 49 B.C. and yet maintained its status as a free city, with a diminished importance.
After the fall of Rome the town was sacked by the Visigoths and the Burgundians and destroyed by the Saracens, but recovering from these disasters it became part of the Kingdom of Arles, governed by a viscount and bishop. In 1218 it became independent, but then conquered by Charles of Anjou about 1250, it fell under the sway of the Counts of Provence. It was sacked by Aragon in 1423 who ruled over it until annexation to France in 1482.
On several other occasions the citizens showed their independent spirit, as in refusing to recognize Henri IV until 1596, and also joining the War of the Fronde, which attempted to prevent the absolute power of the monarchy. It was therefore deprived of its privileges by Louis XIV in 1660, who invaded and built the two forts we see today at the mouth of the harbor to subjugate the locals.
Marseille became the main Mediterranean port for France during the 18th century, with continued economic growth. The prosperity of Marseille as a seaport was greatly increased by the conquest of Algiers (1830), defeat of the Barbary pirates and the construction of the Suez Canal (1869).
During the 20th century Marseille became known for its extensive organized crime networks. After WWII, much of the city was rebuilt during the 1950s. From the 1950s onward, the city served as an entrance port for over a million immigrants to France. In 1962, there was a large influx from the newly independent Algeria, including around 150,000 returned Algerian settlers. Many immigrants have stayed and given the city a French-African quarter with a large market.
Currently, Marseille is a major French center for trade and industry, with excellent roads, seaport and airport. Marseille Provence Airport, is the fourth largest in France. Marseille was recently named the most dynamic of France's large cities, with 7,200 companies created in the city since 2000.