Marseille – a city in France I had wanted to visit for as long as I had been taking French classes. The second most populous city in France. A major port, and a city with a rich history and a lot of multiculturalism. I finally was able to make it there as part of our Provence trip, and it was… a mixed experience. So, is Marseille worth visiting?
It ended up not being our favorite city. Part of it was that we found it less charming than the smaller cities we had visited, or even Nice or Paris; several areas of the city were much dirtier and there was more graffiti and trash. Part of it were things that were just our bad luck — e.g. we had some really bad weather days (50mph winds nonstop for two days).
However, there are still some really cool spots and features in Marseille and perhaps on a different trip I would end with a different impression of the city. As it was, here is our breakdown on things to do, what we thought of them, and our overall recommendation to the question, “Is Marseille worth visiting?”
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Marseille has the biggest port in France (and the 7th largest in Europe) and so walking around the port was impressive. It’s really a nice area – there are lots of cafes around and the sidewalk around the port is wide and well-developed.
It was fun to watch people working on or fixing boats, bringing them in and out, unloading fish or cargo, etc. This is a must visit area – though expect it to smell like, well, fish. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get to see a big protest like we did!
Made famous by the fictional Count of Monte Cristo and its protagonist, Edmond Dantès, the prison island right by Marseille is a really cool half-day expedition. You can actually easily see the island and the prison from the city – it’s not far at all. For us, this was for sure the coolest thing to do in Marseille and a huge plus in the “is Marseille worth visiting?” question.
There are a two ferry operators in the Marseille port – you buy your ferry ticket right there for about 10 euro. The ferry ticket is separate from the chateau ticket. It’s about 20 minutes by ferry to the island and you get a pretty view of the Mediterranean and Marseille from the sea.
Once you get to the island, you dock and head up to the ticket counter and buy your ticket for the self-guided Chateau d’If tour. Alternatively, you can also buy your ticket in advance and skip the line.
Then you are free to wander and explore the island. We headed right into the prison. There were several levels with differing quality cells to look at (I wouldn’t rate any as 5-star accommodations) and you can go in many of the cells.
There was even one spot that had a tunnel between cells that Matthew climbed through. Although Edmond Dantès was fictional, they have definitely catered to tourists by designating one cell as Dantès’ and “recreating” it somewhat.
There were also a few other cells designated as being the cells of other famous people. We found the exhibit about the history of Chateau d’If to be a surprisingly fun read.
The chateau/prison is arranged with an inner courtyard open to the sky and cells lining it. It’s definitely worth exploring both levels. There are also several towers with circular stairs you can climb. If you continue climbing past the second level, you can get to a couple different rooftop balcony areas, with pretty views over the island and the sea.
Besides the chateau, you can also walk around the island or see a few other small buildings. It is a small island so there’s not a ton of things to explore, and the vegetation is rather scrubby (you wouldn’t exactly expect manicured gardens at a prison, though) so we mostly enjoyed getting different perspectives of the prison and the cool views over the sea.
When you have decided you are done, head back to the dock where you were dropped off and wait for another ferry to come along and bring you back – ferries come frequently (every 20 minutes or so), so you shouldn’t have to wait long.
Do note, if the weather is bad, the ferries won’t sail out to the island. We actually had to push this off a few days because of the crazy wind the first couple days we were there.
Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica
Notre Dame de la Garde was a great spot to visit. It’s an old basilica on a hill overlooking the city and the sea. I love that kind of thing! The church is free to visit, open from 7am-6pm, although it is closed during services. The views looking over the sea and the city really were spectacular!
Cathédrale La Major
This stunning cathedral sits right on the sea and is so beautiful! I love grand, old churches, so I was so bummed that the cathedral was inexplicably closed the entire time we were in Marseille! Based on pictures I’ve seen and how beautiful the outside is, I’m certain the inside is worth a stop to admire when you are in Marseille. Even if you can’t go in, the outside is really unique and striking and a nice walk by.
Normally I love European old towns, but Marseille’s old town, known as Le Panier, was just so sad. There was almost no one there – visitors, shoppers, tourists, or even merchants, really. There was a lot of graffiti and more garbage than other places.
It had a rather abandoned feel and personally, we felt it lacked a lot of the charm compared to many of the other old towns we’ve visited in France or Europe. This was one of the things that left us with a sad impression and probably tainted Marseille as a whole for us.
This large and central street had a bit of a Parisian feel to it – it was a wide boulevard with architecture and a look and feel very similar to Paris. I quite enjoyed it! La Canebière starts right in the middle of the port, so it’s easy to access and it’s worth a stroll down.
The MuCEM is the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean. It is a prominent, modern building that sits right on the coast and at the corner of the port. It’s a notable museum, fairly new (opened in 2013) and one that I think Marseille is pretty proud of! If you like museums, you absolutely should visit MuCEM.
Day Trips from Marseille
There are many excellent day trips from Marseille, but the one you absolutely must do is hike to the calanques outside of the town of Cassis. The calanques are rocky inlets in from the Mediterranean. The hike takes you to several calanques, hugging the coast, and takes you down to calanque d’En Vau, with steep, white limestone walls and turquoise water. It’s an absolutely gorgeous hike!
Other options for day trips include Aix-en-Provence, a beautiful town full of fountains and charming little streets 45 minutes north of Marseille. It is also an easy day trip and should definitely be considered for a Marseille itinerary.
Or you could consider visiting Pont du Gard, an enormous Roman aqueduct that spans a river, or the Sentier du Littoral, a serene, off the beaten path trail along the coast of Antibes. You could also visit Moustiers Sainte Marie and the Gorge du Verdon – a picturesque mountain village.
Nice is another city we’ve loved! Since Nice is over 2 hours away by car and there are many things to do in Nice, I would actually plan to spend a couple days there.
Where to Stay
Marseille does have some great hotels to stay at. If/when you visit Marseille, here are a few good lodging options:
Mid-range: The Maisons du Monde Hôtel is a really unique boutique-style hotel right in the heart of Marseille. The rooms are so cool and inventive, with interesting wallpaper and lots of greenery. The staff is incredibly helpful and the location is super conveniently located right on the Old Port. Check current rates here
Luxury: The C2 Hotel is located on a pretty street just a few blocks from the Old Port. The building has a lot of classic old French details, especially in the main lobby and the dining room, while the rooms are nice and modern, but with beautiful balconies overlooking the street. Check current rates here
How to Get Around on Day Trips
We’ve done just about every mode of transportation in southern France – train, bus, and rental car – and there are pros and cons to each! Within cities in southern France, we’ve not needed any form of transportation – everything is close enough to walk! But when you are heading to visit another city, you’ll need some sort of transportation.
Renting a car gives you the most flexibility, but it is also the most hands-on option (need to navigate, find parking, etc). Thankfully, driving in France is fairly straightforward, road conditions are good, and traffic on the freeways isn’t bad at all.
Driving in the downtown areas of the cities (Marseille, Nice) was not my favorite, but worth it to get the flexibility. We chose this option on our second trip to southern France because some places we wanted to hit weren’t easily accessible to train and much less convenient by bus.
Most cars in France are manual transmission, so if that’s going to be a problem you’ll want to make your car reservation as early as possible (limited number of automatic cars) and be prepared to spend a little more.
If the places you want to visit are easily accessible by train this is an excellent option for getting around southern France. You don’t have to mess with parking, tolls, driving in narrow old towns, or navigating.
However, sometimes the train routes do not connect directly to the places you want to visit. Plus, there is always less flexibility when you aren’t driving yourself.
This is the cheapest option, but honestly, this is my least favorite option because it’s the slowest. Buses can take a long time! It’s a good option though if you don’t need to go far. For example, if I was staying in Nice and wanted to visit Villefranche-sur-Mer, the village riiiiiight next to Nice, I wouldn’t take the train. It’s close enough to just take the bus.
So, which one to choose?
I would choose a car if…
- You want to get places really early or stay late
- If you are planning on going a new place everyday or almost every day
- If the places you want to visit aren’t easily accessible by train (no direct route or the direct route is much slower than the driving time)
I would choose the train if…
- You don’t want to deal with the hassle of parking and navigating
- You are only doing a couple of day trips
- You want the experience of taking the train in France
- The places you want to go are easily accessible by train from where you’re staying
I would choose the bus if…
- You are on an incredibly tight budget
- The places you want to visit are super close to where you are staying
How Many Days Do You Need?
I think that two full days in Marseille is a perfect amount of time to hit up all the things to do in Marseille. I would plan a few more days for day trip to nearby cities and hikes!
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Securing some travel insurance is an important part of prepping for any international trip – you never know when something might happen, and your regular insurance generally won’t cover you overseas. Costs for a medical emergency on vacation can add up extremely fast, so it’s just better to be safe than sorry. (If covid has taught me anything, it’s that you never know what could happen!)
I like booking insurance at Insure My Trip, as they offer a variety of plans with different coverages to choose from, so you can find the right option for you. Plus, they have great customer support if you need help before, during, or after your trip.
Is Marseille Worth Visiting – The Breakdown
- Chateau d’If
- The Port
- Cathédrale La Major
- La Canebière street
- Day Trips
- Notre Dame de la Garde
The Less than Awesome:
- Le Panier
- High amounts of graffiti and garbage in some areas
After All That, Is Marseille Worth Visiting?
It depends. For me, even though it was not my favorite city ever, I am glad I went and had the experience of visiting Marseille. I’m happy to be able to say I’ve visited. It has some very unique areas and we made some fun memories. The Chateau d’If and the Port were high points.
However, if this is your first time in the south of France, or have limited time, I would absolutely recommend going somewhere else. Provence and the French Riviera are chock full of beautiful, adorable, charming towns and cities, so I would definitely go to Nice and then visit other smaller towns and cities nearby.
So, is Marseille worth visiting? I do think yes, but only after having visited other places in southern France first!