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Tourist Places To Visit In Marseille
Sometimes an authentic tourist experience is what you truly crave on a trip to a foreign city. Other times you just want to blend into the region’s culture and become a part of its identity. Marseille is a city that gives you a chance to do both. Located along the Mediterranean coast in southern France, Marseille was founded by Greek sailors around 600 BC. An old harbour that is as ancient as the city’s origins, museums that are proof of Marseille’s exotic heritage, and a fascinating array of neighbourhoods that boast a distinct identity of their own; the vibrant diversity of Marseille will appeal to travellers of all tastes and backgrounds. Here are our recommendations for some of the best places to visit in Marseille.
Vieux-Port de Marseille
This ancient port of Marseille is more than 2500 years old and has become a part of the city’s identity. For the longest time, it was Marseille’s lifeline where one could witness hundreds of ships docked at this port at all times. Most of the main commercial docks were moved to other areas later on, but the old port remained as a part of Marseille’s history and is used today mostly for fishing boats and tourist boats. Visitors to the port area will find a number of bars, cafes and restaurants surrounding the port where you can enjoy delicious local meals while surrounded by the serene waters of the Mediterranean. It is a great place to begin your exploration of the city and then head to other local attractions, which are situated relatively close by.
Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde
This 19th-century Catholic, neo-Byzantine church is located on the hilltop la Garde at a height of 150 m above sea level, overlooking the city and the sea. One of the most popular tourist spots in Marseille, the basilica’s intricate architecture, stunning mosaics and murals, and breath-taking panoramic views of Marseille from the church draws thousands of visitors to the region every year. This church was built on the foundations of a 16th-century fort, which in turn was constructed out of the enlargement of a 13th-century chapel. A gilded statue of the Virgin Mary is situated at the top of the church’s tower that appears to watch over Marseille’s communities.
A steep 1 km walk from Vieux Port to the top of the hill will take you to the basilica. But there is also a tourist train and buses available from the port every twenty minutes that take you directly to the church since the climb to the top is usually not everyone’s cup of tea.
One of the most iconic landmarks of Marseille – Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée – commonly referred to as MuCEM, is a fascinating museum dedicated to Mediterranean and European traditions and civilisations. The building was constructed on a portion of reclaimed land at the entrance to Marseille’s waterfront and is connected to the 17th-century Fort de Saint-Jean located nearby through two cantilever footbridges. The exhibits in the museum can be best described as an eclectic range of art, artefacts and photographs that depict various aspects of Mediterranean culture. Most of these exhibits are complemented by short films and lectures that help visitors better understand the various displays and their Mediterranean relationships.
The expansive museum is spread over three complexes; the newest section deals with a variety of themes such as the invention of gods, secrets of the spice route and the wonders of the world; the second section is part of the Fort Saint-Jean and includes vaulted sections of the fort; the third section is the Conservation Centre where visitors can learn more about the workings of a museum.
Musée d’Histoire de Marseille
This local history museum – first of its kind in France – opened in 1983 and is the best place to discover the archaeological secrets of Marseille, France’s oldest city. The museum contains permanent exhibits that display Marseille’s history up to the 18th-century. True history geeks will be fascinated to discover a plethora of artefacts, maps and models that illustrate Marseille’s growth through the years, with an adjoining garden Jardin des Vestiges that contains archaeological remains of ancient ramparts, ports and a necropolis. One of the highlights of the museum is the hull of a ship that dates back to the 2nd or 3rd-century and was discovered in an excavation site of Vieux Port.
Cathédrale de la Major
Marseille’s cathedral overlooks the sea and enjoys a position from where visitors are offered a picturesque view of the city. The outside of the monument is covered in green and white limestone and is a majestic blend of Byzantine and Romanesque styles of architecture, while the interiors covered in marble and mosaics are in complete contrast to the outer surface in terms of design. At over 140 metres high, the cathedral appears as an imposing structure and stands taller than most other installations on the port, the views of which are spectacular from the cathedral’s vantage point. There are several impressively designed domed towers on the building as well; the tallest tower being 16 metres high.
Anyone familiar with ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ written by Alexander Dumas will immediately recognise the name of this island that was once a fort and then served as a prison during the 16th-century. The location of the prison served as the setting of Dumas’ lead character’s imprisonment, and a lot of guides who bring you here will tell you that the fictional character’s story is real. While that may not be entirely true, the only undeniable fact is that the scenery around the island is just as fascinating as its fictional history. Around 1.5 km away from the city and only accessible via boat, the island’s pristine beaches, craggy limestone cliffs and sparkling turquoise waters create a spectacular setting that will leave you mystified with its beauty.
On the highest point of the neighbourhood Le Panier on Place des Moulins, Vieille Charité is a building that was constructed in 1640 by the Marseille Town Council as a ‘decent abode’ for the poor residents of the city. Between the years of 1679 to 1707, a chapel was added to the residential complex, followed by the establishment of a three-floor hospital in 1749. The modern-looking façade of the building dates back to 1863, with the depiction of two pelicans feeding their young; a representation of the altruism that was shown to the poor with the construction of this building. At one point, the building also served as barracks for the French Foreign Legion. From 1986 onwards, Vieille Charité has been used to host exhibitions and is also home to the Museum of Archaeology and the Museum of Art of Africa, Oceania and America.
This old town of Marseille situated on a hillside above Vieux Port is the part of the city where the original Greek inhabitants settled in 600 BC. Their colony, known as Massalia, evolved into a neighbourhood that brought in waves of immigrants who settled here and turned it into a flourishing district. Today, the neighbourhood’s multicultural influence and its rural artsy ambience make it one of the most unique places in the city to spend an evening in or simply enjoy a stroll. Its narrow winding streets and long corridors that lead to old, hidden squares offer a glimpse into the charming personality of Marseille. There are also numerous shops, boutiques, galleries and cafes here that are a perfect complement to the town’s character.
One of Marseille’s absolute gems, La Cité Radieuse is an architectural masterpiece constructed between 1947 and 1952 by the Swiss architect Corbusier; his concept of Unité d’Habitation is a design that Cité Radieuse is based on and would continue to be repeated across Europe in later years. The design encapsulates the idea that homes and other amenities of a city can be transferred to a single building, which was successfully achieved with this structure. This 18-storey concrete building consisted of more than 300 apartments, a hotel, a library, a school and numerous small businesses operating from within the building; most of these businesses have since shut down.
MAMO is an art gallery here that puts up temporary exhibits from international architects. There are about 1000 people who still live here, and a tour of the building will take you through an original apartment that has been restored especially for visitors. Keep in mind that visitors touring the building are only allowed on the 3rd, 4th and 9th floors.