I realize, Internet Stranger, that there is a possibility that you have never heard of Marseille, even though it is the second largest city in France. Like many “second cities”, it has a strong tradition of feuding with the largest city in its country, both in and out of the sporting arena. (You do not need me to tell you what the largest city in France is, I presume?) In essence, the Paris vs. Marseille rivalry is a classic case of the snobs against the slobs. Paris is elitist, Marseille is working class. Paris is in the north, Marseille is in the south. Paris has no weird Netflix shows starring Gerard Depardieu, Marseille has one…you get the drift.
Well, no one really needs me to convince them to go to Paris, but I urge you to give Marseille a try. It is a city with beautiful waters, fascinating history, charming museums, and delicious seafood. After 24 Hours there, I guarantee you’ll be so enamored of the city, you’ll want to sing “La Marseillaise”.
Morning: Explore Historic Marseille and the Port
You may be looking at the fancy boats in the photo above and saying, “Hmm, Travelerette. That doesn’t look very historic to me.” But in fact one of the main reasons to visit Marseille is because of its fascinating history. It is the oldest city in France, so old in fact that it was founded in 600 BC by a group of Phocaean sailors (who were coming from what is now Turkey). Back then it was called Massalia, which is a lot hard to say with a French accent than Marseille is.
We’re a lot luckier than those ancient sailors, though, because the Marseille tourism board helpfully provides four different color-coded walking tours so you can find the main historical points in the city. (There are signs and maps all around the city to help you stay on your tour.) I recommend the yellow route to take you along all the historical sights. If you can’t manage to see everything, just concentrate on…
the approximately top five best things to see in historic marseille
1) We begin our tour at the ruins outside the History Museum. We do not even need to go inside the museum to get a glimpse of Marseille’s history! The ruins of the ancient port of Marseille are kept intact in the museum’s Jardin des Vestiges. So if you’ve ever wanted to see what a lawn would look like if you plopped some Greek ruins in the middle of it, now’s your chance!
2) Your next stop should be the Eglise des Accoules at 8 Place Daviel, which is so old, it was originally built on top of a temple of Minerva. It is mostly famous for its bell tower, which looks like a fancy witch hat.
3) One of Marseille’s most famous exports is soap, so be sure to do a little shop stop at the soap shop, Savon de Marseille.
I’m not really a bar soap girl because of its tendency to get mushy and squishy in my suitcase, but their liquid soap is amazing! If you want something extra “Provency”, I recommend the lavender scent.
4) If you like unusual buildings, don’t miss the Maison Diamantee at 3 Rue de la Prison. Don’t let the “de la Prison” thing fool you. This house was never a prison. Its name means “The Diamond House” because of the crystalline shapes around its exterior. It was built in the 16th century and was possibly once the home of the Count of Provence. I wonder what kind of things the Count of Provence would do. Did he say, “Zey call me ze count because I love to count sings…un, deux, trois…hon hon hon?” I sure hope so!
5) This gorgeous building is the Hotel Dieu. But can you guess what it used to be? 100 points to Hufflepuff if you said hospital. There has been a hospital on this site since the Middle Ages when the hospital served as a home to people dying of bubonic plague. It’s come along way since then, baby, because now it’s a luxury hotel. I didn’t get to stay here when I was in Marseille, though. Instead I shared a hostel room with an old woman who would hiss at anyone who tried to look at her. So I imagine the Hotel Dieu is a slightly more relaxing experience.
6) Don’t miss the one room Musee des Docks Romains at 10 Place Vivaux. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “I need to look at some old pots. I don’t mean just old pots. I mean OLD POTS!!!!” then this is the place to be. Because Marseille was an important Roman port, there is a wealth of Roman artifacts that have been found in the city, and many of the artifacts relating to Roman trade are on display in this museum. New archaeological discoveries are being made all the time in Marseille, so any time you go, you’re liable to see the very latest in ancient pottery on display. Entry is 3 Euros.
7) Now that we’ve seen enough of Marseille’s ruins, it’s time to head to the present-day Vieux Port. You don’t even need to do any thinking here to have a good time, just ramble around and feast your eyes on those blueberry colored waters. Marseille has been a major center of trade for most of its history, but now the port is mainly used for pleasure boats and as a tourist attraction.
But what happened to all those Marseilliens who lost their blue collar jobs because of the death of the shipping industry? Did they all turn to the far-right for solace? Is this maybe why Marine Le Pen was able to advance to the second round in the French Presidential elections? Did I break my promise that you wouldn’t have to think at the Vieux Port? Yes to all of the above.
8) If you’re in the mood for one last quirky museum, check out the Soap Museum, which is connected to the Marius Fabre soap company, at 148 avenue Paul Bourret. It costs a couple of Euros to enter, but you get a free bar of Marius Fabre soap with the price of admission! I think more museums should give you a gift for coming. Like when I go to MoMA, they should give me a little Jackson Pollock in exchange for the 2500 dollars I give them as admission.
Soap making in Marseille is serious business. There’s even a union of Soap Manufacturers of Marseille to ensure standards of quality are maintained. People have been making soap in Provence since at least the year 400, though obviously methods of production are more sophisticated now. Traditional Provencal soap is made with vegetable oils and lye, cooked for 10 days, and then molded, dried, and shaped into adorable little bars. I suggest buying a whole bunch and saving them for when you forget to buy a present for someone. Then just pull one out and say you got it yourself in Marseille. Saved by the soap!
Lunch: La Crepe au Carre
Address: 40 Place aux Huiles
We’re going to have a big dinner, so lunch shouldn’t be too fancy. I stopped at a lovely crepe shop with outdoor seating and got a thin and fluffy crepe stuffed with creme fraiche and lardons (pork fat). So this was basically two fats in one, which is my idea of a delightful lunch. It paired perfectly with a tall glass of Breton hard cider. From soap manufacturing to combining fats to day drinking, the French really know how to live, let me tell you.
Early Afternoon: MUCEM
Address: 7 Promenade Robert Laffont,
Hours: 11-6 Every Day, Except Closed Tuesday
Price: 9.5 Euros
MUCEM is a shiny new museum that was created in honor of Marseille’s being named the European Capital of Culture in 2013. It is dedicated to Mediterranean and European civilizations. It has permanent exhibitions and temporary exhibitions, but if it’s your first time, I suggest sticking to the permanent exhibitions because there’s plenty to see there alone.
Because the museum is built right on the harbor, you’re going to want to visit the building for the stunning views of Marseille, even if you are not a museum junkie. But if you like learning new things, feast your eyes on these…
three fun facts about mediterranean civilization
1) The museum makes a pretty good case that Marseille could be considered the capital of the Mediterranean because of its long importance as a trading port and because of the amazing diversity of its population. Marseille is home to people from all over the Mediterranean region. In fact, the architect of MUCEM, Rudy Ricciotti, is a local boy with Italian and Algerian heritage. Marseille, c’est un vrai creuset culturel!
2) The three staples of the Mediterranean diet are wheat, olives, and grapes. This is why Mediterranean food is both healthy and delicious. But I’m a little concerned that their wine jugs are so enormous. This seems like much more than one family should consume during dinner. The first step is admitting that you have a problem, Marseille!
3) I had some idea about the staple crops of Provence, but I didn’t realize that sheep have traditionally been important animals in Marseille both for their wool and their meat, and apparently their heads, which need to be mounted on walls to scare off intruders. In fact, when Marseille was named Capital of Culture, they did a “running of the sheep” through the streets of Marseille to celebrate. That just sounds a whole lot cuter and safer than the running of the bulls. Well played, Marseille.
Travelerette Tip: Again, if you hate knowledge, just stroll around the gorgeous building’s exterior and snap photos of the stunning harbor. Own your shallowness!
Late Afternoon: Cathedral de La Major
Address: Place de la Major
Hours: 10-7 Every Day
The Cathedral de la Major should not be confused with the more famous Catholic church in Marseille, Notre Dame de la Garde. We’ll be visiting that basilica tomorrow. This cathedral was built in the 19th century, but it looks much older because it was designed to look like Roman/Mediterranean church complete with mosaics and lots of rounded arches. Voila!
Travelerette Tip: Take your time exploring the interior of the Cathedral. It’s almost as big as St. Peter’s in Rome, so there’s plenty to see. They even have a video about the construction of the cathedral, but it’s in French. Be sure to look down from time to time to ogle the fancy faux-Roman mosaics.
They certainly put a lot of time into getting the tile patterns just right. If you told me that this photo was taken in the ruin of a Roman villa, I would almost believe you. I mean, I wouldn’t actually believe you because I know I took this photo myself and I have never been to a Roman villa. But I would almost believe you.
Travelerette Treasure: Don’t miss the gorgeous doors to the Cathedral. I especially enjoy the pattern that looks like a sideways Christmas tree on top of the red door. I admire the over-the-top spirit that planned these doors and said, “We need black and white stripes! And lots of arches. And three little windows. And a miniature rose window. And BLUE!”
Evening: Le Panier
Le Panier is yet another one of Marseille’s adorable historic districts. In Greek Times, it used to be the marketplace, but now it’s a hodgepodge of quirky shops, artist haunts, and windy little side streets. Just don’t come here if you are agoraphobic because agora is Greek for marketplace.
Travelerette Tip: Le Panier has an incredible collection of street art, so you can spend a more than pleasant early evening strolling around checking out the colorful murals all over the neighborhood. My favorite was a multi-wall representation of all the main characters from the anime Princess Mononoke. I couldn’t even fit the whole thing into one shot. Observe:
I also found this set of tiles with positive messages on them. I speak French, so I can translate. For example, one says, “The smile has no price, the smile is free, so smile!”
That’s such a sweet sentiment, but not one hundred percent what I would expect to hear coming from a French person. I would expect more, “A smile makes you look American, smoke a cigarette instead.” But perhaps I am just trafficking in stereotypes.
Travelerette Treasure: My favorite restaurant in Le Panier is a small resto called Au Coeur du Panier on 18 rue du Panier. It serves fresh, local cuisine at outdoor tables, so you can sit in one of the quaint streets that is so characteristic of Le Panier and people watch. Because the place is so tiny, you should definitely make a reservation online here in advance or you won’t get a seat.
My meal kicked off with some scrumptious olive tapenade for no charge. Then I ordered one of the daily specials, which was an aioli. That might make you think my dinner consisted only of garlic mayo, but in Provence, le grand aioli is so much more than that.
This aioli special was my very own plate of cod, eggs, carrots, and colored cauliflower. (No one has dyed those cauliflowers; they are naturally orange and purple.) On the side was the fresh, pungent garlic mayonnaise known as aioli for me to dip my vegetables into. The whole thing was a pescatarian’s dream come true.
My dessert was a verrine de citron meringue. This is just a fancy way of saying “lemon meringue pie in a glass”. Lemon tart is very popular in Provence, and this one was perfectly tart with a pleasantly herbal taste. I wonder if there was lemon verbena in it or something. In general I love French desserts because they are never too sweet.
Travelerette Tale: Coincidentally, I was dining in Marseille when the French soccer team advanced to the semifinals in the Euro Cup and so I actually had the thrill of hearing people in Marseille standing in the streets while singing La Marseillaise (aka the French national anthem). It was just like being in Casablanca!
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Marseille!
What would you do with one day in Marseille? Do you think the running of the sheep is safe? And how many times can I link to the same clip from Casablanca in one post? Please leave your thoughts below!
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.