Don’t Count Out Marseille

Don’t Count Out Marseille

“If you are going to drive to Marseille, please, please, please purchase the insurance,” our rental car agent in Avignon warns us as we contemplate the high cost of adding comprehensive coverage to our agreement. “You see, the young people like to break into cars,” she continues in her soothing French accent, “so be sure you remove the GPS from the windshield whenever you park the car.”

One morning over breakfast at our Avignon B&B, our host asks where we’re headed next. When we tell her that our next destination is Marseille, she frowns and says, “You must be careful in Marseille. Be very careful with your car.” I’m noticing a pattern.

“When we went to Marseille, we went to the church at the top of the hill, took some pictures, and left,” her husband chimes in, recalling a visit he and his wife made to the city awhile ago, clearly perturbed by the fact that we want to visit at all.

“Go to the church and be sure to try the bouillabaisse,” his wife concludes, giving us at least two good things to look forward to when there.

I’m undeterred by these warnings. I know what I signed up for by including Marseille in our itinerary. Despite all of the negative articles and less than favorable travel forum comments I’ve read about the city, my gut tells me that Marseille’s not going to be as bad as everyone’s made it out to be.

A few days later, we speed along the highway leading from Avignon through Aix-en-Provence, down to Marseille, and the scenery changes from largely undeveloped rural land to the outskirts of a congested seaside city marred with graffiti. I feel at home. Clothes dry on lines extending from old tenement buildings, some of which resemble housing projects that still exist in some of America’s inner cities.

As we drive along, I think back to an article I read that mentioned that Marseille is comparable to Detroit. That’s saying a lot in light of the fact that Anthony Bourdain compared Detroit to Chernobyl on a recent episode of CNN’s “Parts Unknown”. From what I see of the city from the highway, indirect comparisons of Marseille to Chernobyl and even direct comparisons of Marseille to Detroit are drastic. Over the course of our short stay in the city, I realized that such comparisons are completely unwarranted and totally off base.

Sure, we walked through a few sketchy-looking areas of town, but even then, I felt safer than I do exploring certain parts of Los Angeles. Contrary to the warnings to skip Marseille, I discovered a handful of reasons why it’s a visit worthy Provençal destination. In this post, I explore just a few of the reasons why you shouldn’t count out Marseille.

Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille taken from the roof of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM)

European Capital of Culture

After Paris, Marseille is the second largest city in France. Like Paris, Marseille is divided into arrondissements and it even has its own Arc de Triomphe-like structure called Porte d’Aix which stands within view from Cours Belsunce. And like Paris, you’ll even find several buildings constructed in the Haussmann style that’s so prevalent in the City of Light. There are probably numerous other comparisons that can be drawn between Marseille and Paris which has long since established itself as a world cultural hub. But Marseille is now really starting to rise in the cultural ranks as well.

In 2013, the EU named Marseille the European Capital of Culture. By way of background, each year, the EU awards a city with this designation, and for a year, the designated city is required to organize a series of cultural events that have a strong European element. In addition to giving cities like Marseille the opportunity to change their image, this recognition is also the perfect opportunity for cities to generate certain socio-economic and cultural benefits.

Today, Marseille boasts 24 museums, 42 theatres, the Opéra de Marseille, art galleries, and more.

Vieux Port

One thing that Paris definitely doesn’t have is easy access to the ocean or a port like Marseille’s Vieux Port (“Old Port”). Around the port, you’ll find several bars, restaurants, cafes, and gelaterias to choose from. Here, you’ll also find a huge Ferris wheel, docked fishing boats and yachts, and boats that take customers on tours of the Calanques. The Vieux Port is definitely a bustling part of the city that offers something for many interests.

This painting on display in the Chamber of Commerce is indicative of some of the traders and immigrants who’ve influenced Marseille’s cultural makeup
This painting on display in the Chamber of Commerce is indicative of some of the traders and immigrants who’ve influenced Marseille’s cultural makeup

Cultural Crossroads

Given Marseille’s location on the Mediterranean, the city has always been a hub for immigration. Greeks and Italians started arriving in Marseille in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, and Russians, Armenians, Vietnamese, Corsicans, the Spanish, and North Africans have all followed suit. In more recent times, Sub-Saharan Africans, the Pied-Noirs from former French Algeria, and the Comoros from the archipelago off of Africa’s eastern coast, now also call Marseille home.

All of these cultural influences make for diverse residents, assorted cultural offerings, and more importantly for food lovers like me, eclectic restaurant options.

Remains of Massalia can be found in front of a shopping center near Vieux Port
Remains of Massalia can be found in front of a shopping center near Vieux Port

Rich History

People have been living in and around Marseille for almost 30,000 years, and Massalia, the oldest Greek settlement in France in present day Marseille was established around 600 BC. Massalia was one of the most important trading ports of the ancient world.

Temples in honor of Apollo of Delphi and Artemis of Ephesus were erected in the city, and Christianity was first introduced when the city came under Roman rule. According to tradition, Mary Magdalene and her brother Lazarus evangelized Marseille.

During the 18th century, the Great Plague of Marseille claimed 100,000 lives in the city and surrounding provinces. Also in the 18th century, the locals supported the French Revolution by sending 500 volunteers to Paris to defend the revolutionary government, and as they marched, they sang a rallying song called “La Marseillaise” which is now the French national anthem.

Fast forwarding to the 20th century, Marseille was bombed by Germans and Italians during WWII, and in 1943, over 4,000 Jews were taken from Marseille and deported to Nazi-occupied Poland where they were murdered. Much of the city was rebuilt following the war during the 1950s.

The Calanques

Similar to fjords, calanques are steep limestone or dolomite walled inlets, coves, or bays found along the Mediterranean coast. The Calanques of Marseille start on the outskirts of the city in a small fishing village and stretch to Cassis. I will write more about the Calanques in a separate post, but whenever you’re in Marseille, you should definitely take a cruise to gain a full appreciation for these natural marvels.

Le Panier

One of my absolute favorite parts of exploring Marseille was wandering through the photographic alleys of Le Panier. This neighborhood is the site of the historic Greek colony of Massalia. The streets are narrow, there are several stairs, and the colorful buildings are old and utterly charming. Again, I will write more about Le Panier in a separate post, but this is an area of Marseille that shouldn’t be missed.



Have you been to Marseille? Do you think it’s a city that’s worth visiting? 

  • Mourad
  • Pingback: Old Port of Marseille | free walking tour()

  • What a great post. We heard the same things when planning our visit. Everyone was like ..oh..don’t go there, lots of theft..blah blah blah. We did not listen, and thank goodness we didn’t . It was absolutely gorgeous. We walked..a lot! We took the bus and train from the airport at night. We got the passes, but rarely used them as we preferred to walk and discover the city. We would definitely go back, the food, the people, everything was great. Lovely place. Maybe if we keep writing about it, more people will discover it. Good job.

    • Dana Carmel

      It pays to have a mind of your own and not be deterred by negativity. It just really goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its cover. It sounds like you really got a well rounded experience of Marseille. I believe we did as well despite the fact that we were only there for a short time. But I think that when you move through a city as the locals do, it really helps you to quickly get a sense of what life is like there. Anyway, I’m glad that you share the same appreciation for Marseille. Thanks for reading!

  • I find it absurd the amount of negative press Marseille gets. Yes it has problems related to poverty, tough economic times, immigration and unemployment but which large city doesn’t? And the thing is no visitor would ever stray into the areas off limits out in the suburbs. The old town, harbour and all the newly renovated dock area near the MuCEM are all worthy of European Capital of Culture status and more. I LOVE Marseille, have been several times and will keep going back. It’s a beautiful, dynamic city with so much to offer. I’m happy to read your postive write-up and look forward to those follow up posts.

    • Dana Carmel

      Although this was my first time going to Marseille, I totally agree. But as someone who’s been there multiple times, it’s good to know that you continue to have such positive experiences in the city. Whenever I return to France, I’d love to go back to Marseille and continue to explore it! Thanks for reading and for your comment.

  • Wonderful post! I have been to Provence a few times, never Marseille but Cassis, not far away. I have been hiking in the calanques, so beautiful. I could definitely visit Marseille to:)

    • Dana Carmel

      The next time I visit the Calanques, I’d definitely like to hike there. We saw several people hiking during our boat tour. I’d love to revisit in warmer weather. Hopefully you’ll get to Marseille soon!

  • How can this ever be described to Detroit is beyond me. What a beautiful are and I’m so glad you showed us a wonderful city. It’s always nice to follow your own path and be pleasantly surprised. I’ve never heard of the Calanques but that’s my kind of area. Great read, Dana.

    • Dana Carmel

      I’m guessing that as a fellow SoCal resident, you would love the Calanques, Mary. Hopefully you guys can make it to Marseille someday.

  • I never listen to naysayers when it comes to travel destinations. I usually like places that other people don’t, so I am sure I like Marseille too. 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      I’m learning to tune out the naysayers. Sometimes they’re totally wrong. Glad we got to see Marseille for ourselves and hopefully you’ll make it there too.

  • Marseille was certainly NOT on my list. I guess I need to revised that 🙂 Just followed you on Facebook as well – cool site. Looking forward to connect! Torsten

    • Dana Carmel

      Torsten – so glad this post convinced you to give Marseille a shot. It really is a beautiful city with a lot to offer. Thanks so much for reading and connecting on Facebook! I’ve returned the ‘Like’.

  • Aren’t you glad you didn’t listen to the naysayers? I’ve never been but would love to take advantage of all that culture.
    Very informative & I love your pictures.

    • Dana Carmel

      I sure am, Leigh! In retrospect, I can’t understand why they don’t see the value in visiting Marseille. Glad you enjoyed this post!

  • Hi Dana, what an informative and insightful post about Marsailles. I haven’t been and honestly what I only knew about it, other than being a port city, is that it has great food. (Why I know? Because one of my fave French resto here in NYC is named “Marsailles” and specialized food from that region:) I had no idea about its Greek connection. I haven’t heard about Calanques either. I learned a lot of something new today. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for it.

    • Dana Carmel

      I’m going to have to put Marsailles on my list of restaurants to try the next time I’m in NYC. Thanks for the recommendation. While in Marseille, we actually tried Corsican food which was really good. Glad you enjoyed this post and found it useful!

  • I didn’t realize that so many people were against visiting Marseille. From what you’ve shown us, it looks great. I think I’d like to visit the Calanques someday based on your great photo.

    • Dana Carmel

      The Calanques are gorgeous. I’d love to go back in the summer. I’ve seen pictures of the Calanques in warmer weather, and the water is even more beautiful.

  • Very informative post, Dana!

    We should always be careful wherever we go and even though I never been to Marseille, I don’t think it’s as bad as people say and you just showed us how it can be great!

    • Dana Carmel

      It really is a great city! I’m glad I didn’t let others’ negative opinions deter me. Sometimes you just have to go see a place for yourself. Hopefully you’ll make it there someday.

  • Hey Dana, its my second time here and I’m liking what I’m seeing so far. The first time I was on your blog was when I read about that mouth watering Shrimp Po’boy. I love the clean pictures of the port in this post. I guess I will be one your avid reader.

    • Dana Carmel

      Peter – thanks so much for coming back and continuing to read and for your comments!

  • I really liked Marseille too! Especially the Calanques and the vieux port! I was only there for a day, so I didn’t get to explore enough of the city. Le Panier seems amazing! Curious to find out more about that neighbourhood!

    • Dana Carmel

      I will definitely be writing more about Le Panier – it’s such a cute neighborhood. Hopefully you’ll get to go back someday and spend a bit more time there.

  • Great info. thanks for sharing!

    • Dana Carmel

      You’re welcome, and thanks for reading!


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