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Marseille Cruises

Fort St. Jean

About Marseille

France’s oldest city, Marseille is rich in historic treasures. Paleolithic cave paintings dating back tens of thousands of years have been found in underwater caves near the Calanque of Morgiou. Settled by the Greeks around 600 BC, Massalia, as it was once called, was one of the major trading posts of the ancient world. Then as now, the city enjoys a dramatic setting, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and rocky hills of limestone.

Marseille became part of France in the 1480s, and under French rule it remained a key trading port. It also served as France’s main military base on the Mediterranean. Growth soared during the 19th century as manufacturing took hold, but the city’s fortunes declined during World War II, when it was occupied by Nazis and badly damaged by bombing. Reconstruction that began in the 1950s restored the city to what we see today.

Now, Marseille is one of Europe’s largest and most important port cities. With a booming economy and rapid redevelopment of its docklands, it may come as no surprise that among the populations of French cities, that of Marseille is second only to Paris.

Marseille Lifestyle and Culture

Marseille is a true melting pot of cultures imported from neighboring countries such as Italy, Spain and Tunisia. It retains the artsy, old-world charm that inspired the paintings of Renoir and Cézanne.

Two 17th-century fortresses dominate the charming Vieux Port, or Old Port, the natural harbor that hosts all manner of watercraft, from sleek elegant yachts to old-style fishing boats. Its picturesque quay, built on the order of Louis XII and Louis XIII, is one of the world’s most romantic walks, lined with dozens of cafés and shops that invite long lingering stays. Among them, spice markets and hookah shops bring a flavor of North Africa to this French cultural capital, a product of the city’s thriving Moroccan and Tunisian populations.

Also worth exploring is the city center, graced by La Canebière, the boulevard often compared to Paris’s Champs-Élysées. It’s easy to find an ideal café along this elegant street in which to settle. As you stroll, views of the city’s splendid hilltop Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica are never far.

Marseille Sights and Landmarks

Marseille offers around 20 museums to choose from, many of them housed in local historic buildings. The Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization) explores the history, culture and civilization of the region with anthropological exhibits, art and film. Opened in 2013, the building is a modern marvel, combining technical prowess and visual power in elegant concrete lacework. The museum is linked by a footbridge to the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean, from which you can enjoy sweeping views of the Vieux Port and the Mediterranean.

The Notre Dame de la Garde basilica, perched high above the city, is Marseille’s most iconic building, adorned with Roman-Byzantine style domes and mosaics. The culmination of projects taken on under Napoleon III, it combines a lower church with a crypt and a high church devoted to the Virgin Mary.

Rebuilt in the 11th century, Saint-Victor Abbey was one of the most prestigious religious centers in the South of France. The main church features fine altars, stained glass and a 14th-century stone carving of Vincent himself. Don’t miss the crypt, which was reopened as part of a major restoration program.

The Centre de la Vieille Charité (Center of Old Charity) is a breathtaking architectural complex built as a charity shelter. It now functions as a museum. Visit its central chapel and stunning arcaded courtyard, built of golden-pink limestone mined just north of Marseille.

Marseille Entertainment and Activities

The Old Port is the heart of the city. Ships have docked here for more than two millennia. Today, bars, brasseries and cafés line the port’s southern quay. Le Panier is Marseille’s oldest district and a great place for wandering cobblestone steps and discovering hidden squares and narrow alleys draped with laundry. Meaning “basket” in French, Le Panier is the former site of the marketplace in ancient times. While it is navigable on foot, the Petit Train provides a fun option for getting around. For a picnic and beautiful views, head to the Pharo Gardens, one of the city’s cherished green spaces.

Just outside of Marseille is Calanques National Park, home to a series of miniature fjords. From the town of Cassis, a short hike will reward you with vistas of deep blue waters and steep limestone cliffs. A tram is available to help you cover greater distances. Wear appropriate footwear, as the polished rocks can be quite slippery.

Marseille Restaurants and Shopping

With its location on the Mediterranean, it’s not surprising that seafood plays a major role in Marseille’s cuisine. The city’s signature dish is bouillabaisse, a stew made from freshly caught fish. But it’s not just the dish itself that’s the draw. The ceremonial serving includes broth first, then fish, then croutons and a spicy saffron garnish. For an excellent bouillabaisse, visit Chez Fonfon, which offers other great seafood dishes as well.

L’Arome is a small, understated bistro serving French classics in a relaxed setting. But don’t let its simplicity fool you: reservations are a must. For fine dining elegance with stunning sea views, dine at Le Petit Nice in the hotel of the same name.

For a diversion from traditional French fare, opt for Le Café des Epices, which fuses exotic spices and Caribbean flavors to create Mediterranean cuisine with a twist. Enjoy the night air while dining on its outdoor terrace.

Anise-flavored pastis is Provence’s favorite apertif. You may sample some before buying at La Maison du Pastis. Soap is another specialty of the city and La Grande Savonnerie is a small maker that specializes in genuine Marseille soap, made with olive oil and shaped into cubes. To get all of your shopping done in one place, visit Centre Bourse, a massive shopping center near the Old Port.