The entrance to Marseille’s Vieux Port (which is to the right) seen from Jardin du Pharo.
On the left in the photo is the new black latticed block of MuCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (note that it is not seen on the older curved tiling of the Jardin’s viewpoint). On the right of MuCEM and connected by a pencil thin walkway is Fort Saint-Jean, a terrific space dotted with art, gardens, creative seating, play areas and magnificent views. Behind MuCEM (no, it isn’t on top! ) Marseille’s stripey Cathédral can be seen. Far to the left the new port, Grand Port Maritime de Marseille, lurks inconspicuously.
Marseille has mild, damp winters and mostly warm, dry summers. Best months are arguably May to August as the months with least rainfall and most comfortable range of temperatures, especially if you wish to indulge in beach activities.
Marseilles is the sunniest and driest major city in France with over 2, 800 hours of sunshine thanks to the cold, dry Mistral wind that blows down the Rhône Valley and brings blue skies and sunny weather to large parts of the south of France.
December – February are the coldest months with average temperatures of 12C (54F) to 4C (39F) at night. July and August are the hottest months averaging about 27C (81F) to 19C (66F) at night.
Although the advent of the Mistral may seem a blessing it’s often actually forceful and quite unpleasant, dropping temperatures in winter suddenly by up to -10C and in summertime making an equally sudden and brutal appearance, wrecking garden parties and making beach lounging unviable. It also seems impossible to predict! Crossed fingers then!
Another occasional unwelcome and unpredictable visitor is the hot and humid Sirocco wind blowing in from North Africa, sometimes carrying clouds of fine sand but always creating a windy and possibly oppressive atmosphere. The Sirocco doesn’t usually blow strongly for long, 12 to 24 hours being the norm, but it can reach gale force and take beach activities or relaxed walks right off the agenda.
The Sirocco can strike at any time but springtime is the most common season to experience this unpleasant event.
The biggest French port and city on the Mediterranean Sea, Marseille has a history of human habitation over 30, 000 years, proven by palaeolithic cave paintings in the nearby Cosquer Cave carbon dated to 27, 000 BC.
The first substantial settlement here was Greek, around 600 BC, and was called Massalia.
Massalia became a major trading centre for the region, later forging an alliance with the Romans, offering trade benefits in exchange for military assistance against territory-hungry neighbours such as Carthage and Etruscans.
Sadly Massalia backed the wrong side in a Roman civil war and as a consequence lost their independence in 49 BC, but continued to develop under Roman rule and survived the collapse of the Roman Empire without breaking a sweat.
Since then control of this superbly defensible port went from Romans to Visigoths and more-or-less into French hands when it became a republic in the 12th century. From that time Marseilles was under the command of various French Kings, Counts and Dukes until the French Revolution in 1792 when the city sent a battalion of volunteers to Paris to help with putting down the aristocracy. These men sang a revolutionary song called La Marseillaise which is now, of course, the national anthem of France.
La Palais de la Bourse housing la Musée de la Marine et de l’Économie de Marseille, on the city’s main thoroughfare La Canebiére, a kilometre long avenue starting from the Old Port.
The red vehicle is one of the three main tourist bus sightseeing options, City Tours. This is the one to use if you want to see the inner city such as Palais Longchamps as it does that as well as the same port and a longer corniche route than the other two ‘buses’.
Usefully it stops twice on its route, 30 minutes outside Notre Dame and 20 minutes outside Palais Longchamps. Otherwise you cannot hop back on. Cost €20 per day.
The other two transports are a double-decker, Open Tour hop on/hop off red bus and the little but long, white open-sided Petit Train. We used the Open Tour bus for one day at a pricey €19 but due to the waiting time of 45 minutes between buses we spent much of the day walking.
The Petit Train, on the other hand, is much cheaper at €6 per ride, but if you get off – and you absolutely have to get off to investigate Notre Dame de la Garde for example, you then have to pay another €6 to get on again.
Marseilles Old Town
A Vieux Panier (old town) street between the Vieux Port and the Cathedral.
Marseilles Old Town is a quaint place with plenty of character though I might be cautious about walking there late at night after a skinful. Or not. After three days there I’m hardly an expert. But then again in my experience of occasional muggings committed against my august person around the world they tend to happen: a) after dark b) after a few drinks c) in poorly lit, less affluent, less busy streets. Vieux Panier Photos
One of many beaches in or around the city seen in early July. This is Plage du Grand Roucas Blanc in the Parc Balneaire du Prado beach zone, about 20 minutes from the Vieux Port by bus #23.
Things to do and see in Marseille
n. b. Most of the city’s attractions are around the Vieux Port or nearby, making tourist accommodation decisions pretty simple. Stay near the port!
The main exception is Palais Longchamp, a grand building in central north region of Marseille that houses several excellent museums such as La Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille (a fine arts museum) and the Natural History Museum. Just opposite Palais Longchamp is the Grobet-Labadié museum, home to a superb collection of European objets d’art.
Another popular museum is the Marseille History Museum, Musée d’Histoire de Marseille, focusing on the city’s long and dramatic history and includes Greek and Roman artefacts. It’s located in the Centre Bourse.
• The panoramic views from Notre Dame de la Garde up on the hill overlooking the port are terrific but the interior decor is even more special and make this one unmissable sight.
• The new MuCEM or Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée if you prefer the full Monty, is of great interest to many (with modest entry fee) but also the vast, connected and strange Fort Saint-Jean annexe hovering over the port entrance and accessed by a spindly walkway (for free) offers a great outdoor experience with varied viewpoints and curiosities.
• The Old Port/Vieux-Port offers a delightful and scenic walk (best on the north quai) with the view up to Notre Dame de la Garde, various boats in all shapes and sizes and the two massive forts of St Nicolas and St Jean presiding over the entrance to the port.
People with a life (as opposed to photographers) need to investigate party boats of all sorts, from house music blitz boats to sophisticated fine wine cruises, leaving from the port in the late summer afternoons. The area is packed with cafés, bars and restaurants.
• Le Panier district, Marseille’s Old Town.
• La Vieille Charité in the Old Town, large and classically impressive building in a courtyard lined with cloisters. It houses an archeological museum and a gallery of African and Asian art.
• The medieval Abbey of Saint-Victor is one of the oldest places of Christian worship in Europe and has a very cool and atmospheric nave and crypt that is entirely free-to-enter.
• The Cathédrale de Sainte Marie Majeure between the new port and the Old Town.
• The old Hôtel-Dieu, a gorgeous building dramatically uplifted behind City Hall that is now an Intercontinental Hotel. Now that’s the place to stay if the wallet is willing!
• The Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), a baroque 17th century building beside the port.
• Rue St Ferreol is the main shopping street in Marseille, running perpendicular to the port and beginning about three blocks up Ave. La Canebiére.
• The Palais de la Bourse (photo above) is a 19th-century building that contains a small museum encompassing the maritime history of Marseille and a collection of models of ships.
• The beaches! There are a dozen beaches large and small along the coast east of the port, with good bus services and occasionally large car parks (pay, but not extortionate).
• Beyond Marseille’s beaches the wild and mountainous Calanques National Park begins, a cluster of very scenic, rocky sea gorges stretching along the coast to Cassis, with fantastic hiking trails and some small, unmanicured, but very beautiful beaches.
• navigation around and parking in town is extremely difficult so ensure you have a decent satnav system and somewhere lined up to leave the motor. The exception is the Corniche/coast road/beaches which are simple to navigate (turn right and you’re in the sea! ) and there is quite a lot of parking if you get there reasonably early.
• the random winds, Mistral or Sirocco, can be tiresome, making walking and beach use unpleasant, though on a positive note they presumably blow clouds away and dry the place out, thus making the city dry and unusually sunny.
• some areas are a bit dodgy, especially northern Marseille and possibly the old town at night.