Marseille has a reputation for being a little gritty, a little unsafe, a little unrefined, a little brutalist. Not worth going to according to many, especially compared to some of the more attractive neighbouring cities and towns, like Aix en Provence, Montpelier and Nice. And yet France’s second largest city has always intrigued me, perhaps since it came on my radar when it surprisingly became the European City of Culture in 2013. Or perhaps even as early as 2012, when I read Mama Shelter had opened there.
So when an opportunity to arose to spend 24 hours here (it was actually a little less), I jumped at it. And came away so grateful I did. Marseille is without a doubt one of the coolest cities I’ve visited in a long time, with each of its districts so utterly contrasting you practically feel like you’re in a different city. It has it all: art and culture (with contemporary art leading the way), a diverse mixture of architecture, a bustling, revived port, fabulous shopping and interesting restaurants. It has heaps of atmosphere, life and soul.
Here are my top recommendations for a (very worthwhile) weekend in Marseille:
64 Rue de la Loubière, 13006 Marseille
Philip Starck designed, modern, quirky, fun. At worst (and perhaps unfairly) it could be described as a five star hostel – not that there are any shared dorms or bathrooms – but more for the brilliant communal areas, designed for people to mix and meet and have fun. The guests are impossibly trendy, young couples mostly. On the weekend DJs play, there is great bar, a 4 metre long table football game, affordable drinks, an apparently incredible Sunday Brunch. The staff are all smiles and so welcoming you start to question whether you’re in France. The rooms vary in size (and price) but even our room (the Snug, the smallest) was immaculate, functional, comfortable but still felt like a treat. Starck quirks like Sylvester and Batman masks hang from the wall; fun is encouraged at all times. The price point feels impossibly low, I paid 80 euros for a night (without breakfast). 5/5
There is so much to see and do that we couldn’t fit it all in given the time we had. Must the must-dos are:
- Mucem – the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. Extraordinary not just because of it’s incredible architecture – unusual, eye-catching, photogenic – but also because of the exhibitions it has (when we were there Ai Wei Wei was exhibiting). But even if art isn’t your thing, make sure you walk through the museum and up to the top floor, from which you can access the fantastic roof terrace* (with brilliant views of the Cathedral and the port) and from there a metal bridge which links you directly with Le Fort Saint Jeanand the Old Port.
- Marseille Cathedral – this beautiful Roman Catholic cathedral is a must visit, even if just from the outside. Its black and white facade remind me a little of that of the cathedral in Orvieto, Italy, or even Siena. It’s striking and stands out against the port, contrasting wonderfully with the Mucem in front of it.
- The Old Port – Central to the city and completely restored in 2013, with the Notre Dame Cathedral overlooking high on a hill, this does truly feel like the heart of Marseille. From the fish market in the morning until the buskers in the evening, there is always something going on, always something to catch your eye, something to stir the imagination.
- Le Panier – Meaning ‘the basket’, this beautiful colourful ‘quarter’ is the oldest – and my favourite – part of Marseille. It feels like you’re in a little village rather than a large city, with steep narrow twisting alleys, coloured shop fronts and sun drenched courtyards. Yes, it’s a little touristy at parts, but that does not take away from the fact that it’s brilliant for shopping and small cafes, and for soaking up Marseille’s diverse cultural heritage.
- Cours Julien and surroundings – If you stay at Mama Shelter, you’ll walk straight through the Cours Julien to the Old Port. But even if you’re staying elsewhere, make sure you visit this bohemian quarter, teeming with life and dance and street art. Known now as one of Marseille’s hippest areas with a mixture of designer boutiques, artist workshops and graffiti works of art, it’s brilliant fun to walk through and gives you a real taste of the city.
- Le Fort Saint Jean – Best accessed as per the above. I loved the contrast of the old with the new of the Mucem right next door to Marseille’s fort, which was built in 1660 by Louis XIV. The walk through the fort takes you through the history of Marseille (which is extensive) in a wonderful way.
Turns out the food in Marseille is rather good too. While known for its traditional bouillabaise (which we never figured out how to pronounce), the food varies hugely depending on where you are in the city, with a good mix of French, North African and Sub-Saharan African food. For brunch/lunch in and around the Old Port, either opt for Le Mole Cafe du Fort (more affordable) or Le Mole Passedat* (on the roof terrace of Mucem) run by famous French Michelin chef Gerard Passedat (see his restaurant options here). For something more casual Victor Cafe and Le Petit Boucan are meant to be fun. Close to Mama Shelter Coogee is meant to be great (especially for coffee) but it was shut for the summer when we were there, and Le Fantastique looks wonderful too, with a lovely terrace. If you’re looking for a coffee on the go, then grab one at Loustic.
For dinner you have tonnes of options, especially around the Port. We had a romantic dinner at Cafe des Espices, slightly set back from the Port but on a fairy-light lit square surrounded by huge pots of olive trees. The food and service were impeccable, and they served our favourite Chateau la Coste Rosé. Other recommended restaurants in that area are Chez Fonfon (which specialises in bouillabaise), Chez Madie les Galinette. A little further away but still on the sea front is Le Peron, which comes highly recommended.
I’m usually more of an online shopper than a window shopper – apart from the odd Zara/Mango splurge. Marseille however, offers such fantastic shopping that even I couldn’t resist. And I’m not just talking some of my favourite French brands like Maje, Sandro, Claudie Pierot and Cottoniers des Comptoir, I highly recommend visiting the following concept/vintage/homeware/antique shops(and packing an extra suitcase):
- Bazar du Panier – Who can resist a shopfront like this? To be honest I loved all the little boutiques on the Rue du Panier, selling cotton dresses, tasseled pillows, straw bags and hats and colourful scarves.
- Chez Lucas – Brilliant antique shop. Was obsessed with a 1940s print of ‘Nationale Cigarette’ from the French Indochine days, but it was simply too huge to take with me.
- Rita – A true concept store, with beautiful homeware, pretty clothes and a little coffee shop too.
- La Maison Marseillaise – The ultimate homeware design boutique.
- Bazardeluxe – Quite wanted to buy everything in this shop and ship it home with me. I don’t recommend coming here at the start of your holiday with limited luggage space. I ended up buying six glasses (half price) for a bargain 16 euros, totally worth shlepping around the Provence for a week.
- Allan Joseph – This shop was beautiful to walk through but equally painful when looking at the prices. Stunning clothes, interiors and smell, but with the price point you’d expect from a shop selling Isabel Marant (i.e out of my budget).