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A weekend in Marseille in 10 must-do activities

Posted by Michel on July 1, 2022

If you are planning to spend a weekend in Marseille, France’s second largest city in terms of population (868,000 in 2018) and founded in 600 BC by Greek merchants from Phocaea, organising your time will not be easy. There are many things to see and do, from culture and architecture to food and drink and the sublime natural surroundings. To help you in your choices, we have selected 10 things to do, which we believe are essential for anyone discovering the city of Phocaea.

#1 Doing the markets

Let’s start with an undeniable attraction for all lovers of good things: a stroll through the city’s markets. Two in particular are attractions in their own right, due to their liveliness and the diversity of products on offer.

The fish market

To get to know the atmosphere of Marseille, don’t hesitate to start on the Quai de la Fraternité in the Vieux-Port and its fish market fishermen, who have come to sell the spoils of their nightly sea escapade at the auction.
Such an early morning walk, in the sunshine of the seaside and in sight of the boats, will help to reveal the authenticity of this city with its formidably rich history. Before setting off again, admire the shade house and its mirrors, and make the most of this atypical construction for some unusual photos!

Le marché de Noailles

Noailles). Endroit très populaire et empreint d’exotisme, vous y passerez un moment d’exception à vous

In the same vein, the 1st arrondissement will welcome you from Monday to Saturday at the Capucins (or Noailles) market. A very popular and exotic place, you will spend an exceptional moment here, intoxicated by the scents of spices, fruits and vegetables that rival each other in freshness and quality.
Before leaving, take a look at two shops created at the beginning of the 19th century: Père Blaise’s herbalist shop and the Empereur hardware store.

#2 Notre-Dame de la Garde

Let’s move on to more architectural pursuits with a visit to the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, nicknamed the “Good Mother” by the people of Marseille. It was consecrated in 1864, having been built in a Romanesque-Byzantine style by the Protestant architect Henri-Jacques Espérandieu in place of a 13th century chapel. In the course of history, the site was reinforced by the walls of a fort, which allowed the present basilica to be raised. Since the Middle Ages, the building has been considered the guardian of sailors and fishermen.

#3 The MuCEM

Let’s continue with the MuCEM – or Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations – inaugurated in 2013 when Marseille was European Capital of Culture. You will be able to discover models representing Marseille at different times since Antiquity, a piece of the Berlin Wall, a bookshop with 30,000 books and, of course, multiple collections on permanent or temporary display. Note the impressive presence of 350,000 photographs and 200,000 posters.

The outdoor walkways also offer breathtaking views. Taking the one overlooking the sea will give you access to Fort Saint-Jean and its fantastic view of the Old Port.

#4 Le quartier du Panier

While strolling through the streets of Marseille, don’t hesitate for a second to guide your steps towards the Panier district, certainly the most picturesque of the city. It is also the oldest, as this is where the city of Greek merchants was once established. For the anecdote, the Mistral district which animates the television series Plus belle la vie is directly inspired by the Panier district. A pleasant conviviality reigns here, thanks to the narrow coloured streets, designer shops and numerous café terraces along the way. Be careful, however: no staircase allergies!

#5 Le Cours Julien

This district, located not far from the Old Port, is one of the liveliest in Marseille, day and night. Until the 1960s, it was the nerve centre of the fruit and vegetable wholesale and retail trade. The desire to relieve congestion in the city centre led to the relocation of these activities to the Arnavaux district, and the spaces of the Cours Julien were thus used by various artists and related activities.
Numerous art galleries, designer and music-related shops, second-hand clothes shops, restaurants and bars have joined forces with musicians and street artists to make this a very popular cosmopolitan place. A real street-art escapade also awaits you, thanks to its open-air artists’ gallery.

#6 Le vallon des Auffes

When you are hungry, the Auffes valley is the perfect setting for an enchanting meal between colourful huts and typical boats. This small traditional port is a haven of peace, wedged between two cliffs and which seems frozen in another time. It is said to have some of the best restaurants in Marseille.
Facing the sea and the undisputed stronghold of fishermen, the Auffes valley takes its name from the alfa – or auffo in Provençal – which is a granulate used to produce the ropes of fishing boats (in particular). An authentic immersion awaits you!

#7 La cathédrale de La Major

Let’s go back to Marseille’s architecture, thanks to the Sainte-Marie-Majeure cathedral, nicknamed La Major by the people of Marseille and which is the work of the architect Léon Vaudoyer. Completed in 1893 after Louis Napoleon Bonaparte laid the first stone in 1852, this neo-Byzantine style building is located in La Joliette, whose commercial port allowed ships from all over the world to marvel at the city’s power.
The largest cathedral built since the Middle Ages, its dimensions are comparable to those of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, allowing it to accommodate 3000 people. Including you!

#8 The beaches of the Prado

A little further south, a well-deserved rest awaits you at the Prado beaches. The largest beach in Marseille is artificial, and was developed in the 1970s to make use of the unused coastline. On the sand or on a café terrace, you can watch the many board sports enthusiasts meeting on the water or in the Marseille bowl. Lawns allow for other family games, and if the heat is on, the unusual flavours of the local ice cream parlours will delight your taste buds.

#9 The Frioul Islands

Less than three kilometres from the coast, the Frioul Islands are one of the 111 districts of Marseille. There are four of them: Pomègues, Ratonneau, Tiboulen and If, on which François I had a fortress erected in 1516 (the château d’If), whose isolated location quickly gave it the status of a prison. It remained a prison until 1890 when it was opened to the public.

These islands inspired Dumas to write the adventures of Edmond Dantès. Around and within them, there are numerous vestiges and great natural riches to be observed, with endemic flora and a developed fauna, particularly in terms of birds. They belong to the Calanques biodiversity reserve.

#10 The Calanques Natural Park

It is impossible to leave Marseille without visiting the sublime Parc national des Calanques, a term derived from the Provençal calanco meaning “steep”. For the uninitiated, these are narrow but deep valleys carved into the limestone by the sea, often aided by a river bed. A stretch of coastline 20 kilometres long and four kilometres wide, with an ecosystem of its own: the crumbly limestone and extreme aridity are not conducive to vegetation, and numerous scree slopes can be seen almost everywhere: it is difficult to find flat ground.
Many walkers, hikers and climbers love this very special place, which is worth spending an hour or two here, at least to bathe in its heavenly blue water…

Marseille has a multitude of surprises in store for tourists who are not used to finding peace and quiet in an urban environment. Special mention for this city which has become one of the largest in France, with industries, business districts and a captivating heritage, while preserving a natural park on its doorstep, picturesque places and a village-like authenticity. A weekend probably won’t be enough to explore every wonder listed here, but don’t worry: you can go back!

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