Marseille: The Oldest City of France

Marseille…the Naples of France.

Anonymous

A couple locals we talked to said Marseille is like the Naples of France. We take that to mean that it is an underrated city, quirky with a lot of history and charm! Also, both places have their own language that the rest of the country has a problem understanding at times. 

We had a great time exploring Marseille and its rich history as well as indulging in all of their amazing cuisine for four days and three nights! Here are our top recommendations for Marseille.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde 

This church was so breathtaking both inside and out! You can see it perched on top of the mountain as you walk along the port. It is like a beacon of light that makes you want to see if it is that stunning up close. It was for us! 

The outside has a beautiful white color with grey pattern and right at the top is this jaw-dropping gold colored statue. This Catholic Church was built upon the natural highest point of Marseille on top of an ancient fort. To get people up there, Gustave Eiffel (the engineer that is mostly known for building the Eiffel Tower), built an astonishing funicular. As years passed though and the automobile started becoming the prime source of transportation, they decided to close down the funicular indefinitely. Unfortunately, all we have now are the models and old pictures to see what the funicular looked like when it was there. The ironic part is that they are discussing maybe building another funicular to give tourists another way to get up there. Hopefully, if they do that, then they will replicate what Gustave Eiffel created before.  

There is so much history that this church endured. During WWII, the German Army took the church and placed blockhouses. One French soldier knew a hidden way to get into the building without the German Army knowing and they were able to take it back. Before that there was a lot of fighting going on in the area and you can still see to this day the bullet holes on parts of the exterior of the church. 

Once inside be sure you go to the lower level of the church, so you can see the crypt with Romanesque style architecture. Also go into the upper part of the church where mass takes place and you’ll see Neo-Byzantine style with brightly colored mosaics. 

Parc Longchamp

One of the highlights was to see the Parc Longchamp! This amazing structure took about 30 years to complete and was built to celebrate the construction of the canal that became the main source of drinking water for Marseille. The exquisite fountain is called the château d’eau (or “water castle”). Behind this structure you will also see a nice park where you can walk or layout and enjoy the fresh air.  

Fort Saint-Jean and MuCEM

There are two places right next to each other that we recommend you go enjoy: MuCEM (or Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations) and Fort Saint-Jean

The MuCEM is hard to miss since it is this beautiful iron rod building that looks a lot like a coral. We did not have the time to explore the exhibits of the museum, but we have heard that it is great. If you find time, then you need to do it! The museum is open every day except Tuesday. But you can still go through their security to enjoy their gardens and exterior spaces for free, which is what we did! Then we took the bridge to make our way to the Fort Saint-Jean. 

If you don’t want to use the bridge that connects the museum to Fort Saint-Jean, there is another entrance near the Église Saint-Laurent de Marseille Catholic Church. Also, on this side there is a nice view point before you cross the bridge. Once you are inside, you can learn about the history and watch some short clips. It also has some amazing overlook areas of Marseille where you can get some nice photos. We also noticed a lot of wooden lounge chairs. While we were there a lot of people were taking advantage of the nice day and laying out on the chairs. 

Cathedral Major 

Another spectacular church to visit is the Cathedral Major. Right next to this church is the smaller cathedral that was built in the 12th century. The newer and grander one was built in the 19th century. It is a Byzantine Roman style catholic church. It is such a large church and is so beautiful both on the inside and outside. This church is known as being one of the largest cathedrals in France that has around 3,000 seats. Give yourself some time to just walk all the way around the church and enjoy its splendor. 

La Vieille Charite 

This building was originally used as an almshouse, which helped give the poor a place to live while still helping them get employment. It began with around 800 people and grew to more than a thousand in the 18th century. However, the chapel or dome building was built before the rest during the 17th and 18th centuries. Now the building is a museum that houses many cultural and educational resources. We were unable to go in because they closed right when we got there, but we were able to enjoy its beauty from the gated entrance. 

Jardin du Pharo 

We never got the time to go inside the palace, but we did enjoy admiring it from afar. Napoleon III (or Napoleon I’s nephew) built it for his wife, Eugenie de Montijo. The palace was finished, but was never furnished because of the revolution that took place in 1870. Now this building and its rooms are used to hold conferences and conventions. 

Fort Saint-Nicolas 

This is another building that we didn’t have time to go into, but we got to see it from all different angles along the port. In the Middle Ages there used to be a small chapel. There was an attack on the city and as a result it took a few years for the chapel to be rebuilt. Then in the 1700’s they built the fort that you now see there. Skipping forward in time to the 19th century, the fort became a prison and at one point it held over 500 prisoners. If you wish to go inside, I’ve read that you need to contact the Office of Tourism. 

Monument Aux Morts de l’Armée d’Orient et des Terres Lointaines

While we were on our day tour we passed by the Monument aux Morts de l’Armée d’Orient et des Terres Lointaines or war memorial. It is a memorable monument that is dedicated to the fallen army of the East or the French army that fought during WWI on the Eastern Front. They wanted to have statues that represented the fighters of the army. One of them is a female statue with wings to represent bravery. It is stunning and shows a lot of emotion. 

InterContinental Marseille – Hotel Dieu

We were given the history of the building on our e-scooter tour. It is now an InterContinental hotel; however, the structure drips with history. It started off as Marseille’s largest hospital and was around when the Bubonic Plague reached Marseille in the 14th century. It spent over 800 years as a hospital before it was switched over to a hotel. Renovations of the building took place and the InterContinental opened its doors in the year 2013. 

Gare de Marseille-Saint-Charles

These gorgeously embellished stairs lead you up to Marseille’s main train station. The stairs really give the train station the wow factor with their ornate statues and light posts. Every aspect of these stairs had a lot of thought that went into them. Some of the sculptures represent maritime themes, since this is a port city. You can also see on either side of the stairs some elaborate sculptures that represent Asia and Africa. 

Walk Around Cours Julien 

This area is a very trendy part of town. There is a lot of colorful graffiti that bring the streets to life and when we were there on Saturday there was a market going on. There were all of these vendors that were selling vintage and handmade crafts. You can also find around this area a lot of restaurants and shops to partake in the local culture.

Savon de Marseille

One very popular souvenir to get in Marseille is the Savon de Marseille. It is a handmade soap that has been a craft since as far back as the 9th century. However, the soap was recreated in the 17th century to contain vegetable oil and no animal additives. Be aware that some stores now will try and sell you fake Savon de Marseille soap. The place we went to that has the real soap is La Grande Savonnerie. The staff there was also very friendly and excited to share the production process. There are very few stores that still sell the handcrafted soap. It will take a soap master about two weeks to make it. It is said that they heat the ingredients for ten days in a cauldron: olive oil, alkaline ash from sea plants, and the salted water from the Mediterranean Sea. Then it is poured into pits, so it can harden. This long time tradition that is still being done today makes it a great gift for someone or a great souvenir for yourself! One of the soaps that seemed to be the most popular one was the olive oil soap.

Activities To Do While You are in Marseille

Small-Group Guided E-Scooter Tour

One of the things that had been on our list to try was an e-scooter tour, so we were so excited when we saw an opportunity to do one in Marseille! Make sure to wear comfortable shoes since you will be scooting around for about 2 hours. They do provide you with a helmet and a bright pink vest, so they know how to pick you out from the crowd. The company was nice enough to give us a couple minutes to practice on our own to figure out the acceleration and brake controls. 

This tour was a great way to see a lot of Marseille and cover a lot more ground! It was also nice going around with a local guide because every so often we would stop and hear about the history of a place. Also, we enjoyed the fact that they stayed true to their word and kept the groups small. It made it easier for us to stay together and we were able to hear the guide. 

Small-Group Day Tour to Aix-en-Provence and Cassis     

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves on this full day excursion that took us to Aix-en-Provence and Cassis from Marseille. It was a small intimate group and our tour guide was amazing! He was just so informative and really tried to make all of our experiences memorable. Even though it rained off and on the whole day it did not take away from our fun! 

We started off by visiting Aix-en-Provence which is a historic and beautiful town. During the tour we walked by so many stunning fountains, picturesque statues, and quaint alleyways. The tour guide takes you on a journey through history, explaining how the layout of the streets dates back to the Roman times before taking you to the local market square, which is the heart of the town today. We also stopped at the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur d’Aix-en-Provence. Architecturally, this church shows Baroque, Gothic, and Romanesque styles. Also, this church was built and reconstructed from the 12th to the 19th centuries. It is interesting to see the subtle transformation throughout the ages. Also, fun fact, the impressionist artist Cezanne is from Aix-en-Provence.

Moving along there was a point during our tour where our guide took us into La Cure Gourmande. It was this cute sweet shop where you can get some cookies in these cute tins as a souvenir. Also, you must try the calisson or traditional French candy. The body of the candy has a fruit and almond taste with a gelatin like consistency along with a royal icing on top. The history we heard behind the candy was that King Rene of Anjou asked the chef to make a dessert in honor of his wife and he created these. 

Then we drove around the Route des Cretes. We stopped at this overlook area to look down on the bay and the Cap Canaille. We then made the rest of the way down to Cassis, which is this small fishing port. Here we were given the chance to walk around and go shopping, eat lunch, or what we ended up choosing: a boat tour. We had to pay extra, but it was worth it and we still had enough time when we got back to grab a sandwich to go. The boat tour took you through the Massif des Calanques, which is a rugged natural landscape of seaside canyons. The boat hugged the cliff’s edge and went into each of the coves. The water, in one of the coves, was an electric blue. It was so beautiful and if you look close enough you can also see blue fish in there.

The tour finished by exploring the city of Marseille, including a stop at Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. You can read more about it above. 

Marseille Restaurants

Marseille had a lot to offer in terms of great cuisine! Below we’ve made a list of restaurants, pastry shops, and dessert places we enjoyed immensely. First though we want you to be aware of some other local cuisines that you will need to try if you get the chance. 

An iconic and very Marseille dish is the bouillabaisse (or fish stew). This dish was first created by the fishermen here, who would take the rockfish and shellfish that the restaurants didn’t want and put it in a caldron with water and some herbs.  Nowadays, bouillabaisse is quite expensive because they use fish stock and saffron. They started selling this to the upper class customers in the 19th century. For that reason it was a little too pricey for us, so we didn’t get it.  However, if you want to splurge and indulge in the local upper scale cuisine, then let us know what you think. It sounded good to us! 

Two other things to try, that a lot of the port restaurants will have are tapenade and mussels. Tapenade is made from finely chopped olives, capers, and olive oil. In some regions it is a puree made of anchovies, black olives, capers, garlic and olive oil. Either way you will eat the spread with a crouton or bread. Then there are the mussels — in this region, the ones you should try are the moules marinière. These are mussels that are served with plenty of garlic, onion, and herbes de provence (this is a blend of local dried herbs that usually contain: savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, and oregano).    

Now for the places we went to that we enjoyed.

Le Bouchon Provençal

It was a beautiful evening, so we picked Le Bouchon Provencal so we could enjoy sitting outside. They served some amazing French cuisine! We started off by sharing a basket of panisse (or chickpea puree French fries) with an aioli sauce. We were pleasantly surprised by the flavor and how they were still able to make the French fries a little crisp on the outside. As you decide what to order, be sure to also look at their specialty menu board. We ended up sharing from the list a side salad, eggplant puree on toast, and one of the most unique things we have had which was beef bone marrow. The texture had a very gelatinous consistency. We liked it and we were happy we got to try something new, but we would not recommend this dish to everyone (i.e., if you are not a fan of gelatin or meat). We also tried a specialty mac and cheese (we have had better), and chicken cordon bleu, which we thought was amazing! Finally, we topped off our meal by sharing a decadent and delicious dessert. 

Patisserie Sylvain Depuichaffray

This pastry shop was so cute and quaint. You can either take the food to go or there is seating in the other room. While we were here we got coffee and tried a fun juice by Atelier Patrick Font with a pure pink grapefruit juice flavor. All of the pastries and desserts looked amazing, but we ended up going with this almond croissant with shaved almonds and powdered sugar on top AND a cream type filling on the inside. It was so good! We were tempted to go back here and get another one, but we wanted to try some other bakeries in the area. 

La Broceliande

One day for lunch we went to La Broceliande, which is a crepe restaurant. The inside and the menus were so whimsical and enchanting! The inside had a fake tree and foliage all around the walls. Then the names of the crepes were names like Arthur, Goblin, and Gollum. The first crepe we shared was a savory one that had cheese and some thinly sliced meat. Then we shared a sweet crepe, which ended up being our favorite! It was emmenthal cheese, goat cheese, honey and mixed herbs. 

Le Souk

One of our favorite overall meals while we were in Marseille would have to be the Moroccan restaurant Le Souk. We would recommend you make a reservation ahead of time or do what we did and go right when it opens (we were a group of two though, so that might have made a difference as well). Everything on the menu looked good to us and we were excited to try Moroccan cuisine for the first time! We started off by sharing a pot of fresh mint tea. It was so good that we went ahead and ordered another. Then we shared a souk salad, which was an assortment of hot and cold appetizers. On the plate there was salad, fried fish, cheese, samosa (fried pastry with filling inside), and different types of vegetable purees (our favorite of the two was the colorful red one). Then we shared vegetable couscous, which consists of a bowl of couscous and a bowl of very well-seasoned vegetables in broth. Then they give you three small separate bowls of chickpeas, raisins and a spicy sauce. You have free range to put as little or as much as you want. We also wanted to try a traditional dish called tajine, which is the name of the pot that the food is being cooked in. The one we ended up getting was the tajine warzazate, which is lamb, candied pears, onion, almonds, and raisins. Everything we had here was so flavorful and we were so excited to try it all! Fair warning though that everything we got was WAY TOO MUCH for two people. We say this portion is a better fit for a family of 4. However, we do not regret it because we wanted to try it all! 

Vanilla Noire 

One of the desserts we saw mentioned on a few bloggers sites was the ice cream at Vanilla Noire. The cup of ice cream did not disappoint! It is their black ice cream, which is colored by vanilla pods. For this reason it gives the ice cream this distinctive bittersweet and delightful taste. 

Les Navettes des Accoules

There are a lot of biscuits sold here, but the ones we got were the original/classic navettes. The original ones have multiple stories to them and originally were made many years ago from the Provencal region. You can see these biscuits being sold all around Provencal, but the ones that are sold in Marseille will look like a little boat (since it is a boat town). If the plain butter biscuit does not speak to you, then they do sell some with different spices. 

Le Pain de l’Opéra

Another pastry shop that we ended up really enjoying was the Le Pain de l’Opéra. We had their coffee and we both had a donut filled pastry. This donut though is not hollowed out like the ones in the States. Instead it looked more like a hot dog bun. It also was topped off nicely with some powdered sugar. We really enjoyed what we got, but everything they had in their shop looked good. There was a lot less seating options, so it seemed more like a takeaway place.

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