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Discover the Most Loved and Hated City in Provence

Why visit Marseille when it has a bad reputation? Here is the story of my adopted city and the reasons why you should definitely put it on your travel list, and why you’ll fall in love with its unique charm. Here are the 10 best things to do in Marseille in 2022.

By Liz Lemarchand

When I first moved to Marseille, I never in a million years thought I would stay here for 22 years (and counting). I even had a friend who actually gasped out loud when I told him the news of my move.

Isn’t it dangerous there?”, he said. “I heard that it’s full of crime and gangs.”

It’s true that Marseille’s reputation precedes itself. Some people say it’s the Naples of France; a port city, dirty, chaotic and a bit rough around the edges. Most people’s exposure to Marseille is limited to movies like The French Connection, or more recently, Stillwater; none paint the picture of a pretty and touristy city. And then there’s what people hear about Marseille in the news, constantly showing it as a city filled with problems. All in all, there are a lot of things about it that might put you off or even shock you, if you’re expecting a cute small southern town.

But then, there are those of us that have gotten to know this city so well, that despite all of its flaws, we can’t imagine living anywhere else.

That Marseille Charm

Marseille is indeed unlike any other French city. It is the epitome of a dichotomy. The city center is gritty and aggressive. Its energy is electric, vibrant and authentic. Access to the Mediterranean is as easy as taking a bus to the beach or using your metro card to hop on a boat to the Frioul islands just off the coast, transporting you far away from the daily grind. It is the gateway to the Côte d’Azur and Provence; the stunning beauty of the Calanques and lavender fields for as far as the eye can see.

Marseille is one of the few cities on earth where everyone really is free to be themselves without judgment, and there’s something for everyone –quite literally. From the bourgeois elite living along the coastal Corniche in the 7th arrondissement, to the diverse ethnic communities that make up the vibrancy of neighborhoods like Noailles just off La Canebière. At the end of the day, your experience of the city will depend on what part of it you choose to spend your time in.

But no matter where you find yourself in, there is an openness about the city that makes it easy for those moving here to connect with others. Striking up conversations with people happens naturally throughout the day. And I’m not just talking about speaking with the local baker or your hairdresser. The friends of your friends become yours, as do the parents of your children’s friends. It’s the kind of city where no one cares about what you do or how much money you make, or what you can offer them. They’ll speak to you just for the sake of getting to know who you are, even if you never see them again.

Marseille’s cultural diversity secured its title of European Capital of Culture in 2013, and since then, tourism has boomed. While tourists used to pass through Marseille, spending a day only to visit the Notre Dame de la Garde –the Basilica overlooking the city (also known as La Bonne Mère) or shop on the Vieux Port (the old port at the very heart of the city), now they are choosing to stay a bit longer.

And when they do, it’s for a reason. They’re met by some of Marseille’s hidden treasures: small art galleries, theaters, impromptu wine tastings (yes! This is France, after all. No lack of good wines around), music festivals, yoga in the park… not to mention day trips to places like Aix-en-Provence or Cassis, only 30 minutes away.

Marseille is an exception to the rule. And when you’ve lived here long enough, you learn that sometimes there is a good reason to park on the sidewalk or drive the wrong way up a one-way street. You get used to the chaos and actually start appreciating it for the excitement it brings into your life. For those of you looking to get to know the real Marseille, here is a list of 10 things to do and see that you won’t find in the guidebooks.

Find a “Vide Greniers”

A “vide grenier” literally translated means an empty attic, but is a street version of a garage sale. Not only will you be exposed to bargains that would make any shopper happy, but you’ll also get a feel for the local community of that neighborhood. Listings for vide greniers in Marseille can be found online or by looking at fliers posted around town.

Hike Pomègues Island

The Frioul Islands just off the coast of Marseille offer a vacation within your vacation. The Frioul archipelago is composed of two islands (Ratonneau and Pomègues) that are linked together by a dyke. The boat ride is 30 minutes and costs a little over 10 € per person. Spend the day there and hike out to the village Allemand (an abandoned German fortress from the second world war) on the extremity of Pomègues. Make sure to bring food and loads of water with you because on this side of the island there are no restaurants or shops (they are all centered at the arrival port on Ratonneau).

You want to stay at Pomègues for sunset time. It’s the best spot to watch it because you are facing West.

You can take the boat to Frioul right from the Vieux Port (a very popular place in Marseille filled with bars and restaurants overlooking the boats, yachts and the sea.

Pastis, Panisse & Pétanque (in Estaque)

Right next to the boat departures for the Frioul is another ferry boat that goes to Estaque (16th arrondissement) on the northern side of Marseille. Not only was Estaque the subject of many great impressionist paintings by famous greats including Cezanne, it is also home to panisse (a savory pancake made from chickpeas) pastis (an anise-flavored aperitif that all the locals enjoy) and pétanque (the French version of Italian bocce ball).

You can watch the locals play or bring your own balls to one of the many little parks created specifically for that purpose. When you’re done, you can head to the Corbières beach (the only white sand beach in Marseille) by taking the 35 bus all the way to the end of the line (about 10 minutes from the center of Estaque).

Sign up for a Free Class

There are many associations in Marseille that give classes (for yoga, acting, singing, cooking…) and most will allow you to take your first class for free. Forget signing up for French classes- there is no better way to improve your language skills than to do an activity like this in French.

Take Photos of Street Art

The Cours Julien (6th arrondissement) neighborhood is home to some of Marseille’s best street art, but you’ll find painted murals that are worth the detour in Le Panier (2nd arrondissement) as well. Wandering around side streets will provide you with a labyrinth of colors to explore, and it’s home to the mesmerizing Cathédrale La Major with its marble interior, murals and neo-Byzantine facade; restaurants and La Vieille Charité. All within walking distance of the touristy Vieux Port.

Meet-up with Expats

There are several English-speaking Marseille expat groups on Facebook or through apps. Many organize meet-ups in town which are a fun way to get to know other people who are either passing through or who have made Marseille their new home.

Buy Spices in Noailles

Noailles is a neighborhood that resembles a Moroccan souk so much that you would think you were no longer in France. There is an outdoor market every day that you can walk through to buy fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, oriental pastries and spices. While you must be careful of pick-pockets here, it is a worthwhile experience to take in the sights and smells. You can even hop into a restaurant to taste authentic, homemade couscous.

Roller-blade the Corniche

The Corniche is the coastal road that runs from the Vieux Port all the way down to Les Goudes at the very southern tip of the city. The main strip (between the Catalans and Prado beaches) provides magnificent views of the Mediterranean sea and is a nice (relatively) flat runway for rollerbladers and bikers alike.

And if you’re more of a walker, the trip will not disappoint either. Try to be around the Corniche for sunrise or sunset as the colors in the sky will definitely make an impression.

People Watch

People-watching is a sport you can literally do anywhere, but in Marseille, there really is plenty to feed your curiosity. For me, sitting on La Pleine (5th arrondissement) on the terrace of an outdoor café provides a show each time. Granted, you will likely see some crazy-looking people as part of the mix, but if you can take the grit and the skateboarders, it’s worth it.

Ride the Grande Roue

La Grande Roue is Marseille’s ferris wheel. There’s one permanently installed at the Escale Borely (by Prado beach) and one that is set up each December around Christmas on the Vieux Port. It’s nice because it gives you a bird’s-eye view of the city, the sea and the surrounding mountains. Marseille sprawls out over a vast territory. Seeing it from up high gives you a better understanding of just how expansive it is.

Marseille is not a town for everyone and most people either love it or hate it. While I have chosen to adopt this city as my home, most will just get a small taste of what life here is like. By all means, do what the guide books tell you, AND if you really want to get to know Marseille like those of us who live here do, try one or more of the ideas above.

Bonne journée!


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