Before 2004, Marseille, though located in a splendid harbour of the Mediterranean coast and boasting a substantial heritage as the oldest city in France, could not be deemed a tourist spot. Its inhabitants, les Marseillais, were reduced to demeaning cliches and caricatured nationwide as heavy-accented, destitute football hooligans.
Then, Plus belle la vie (Life’s so sweet) began to air and everything changed. The soap opera, set in the historic town centre, quickly became one of the most popular shows ever broadcast on French television. The rest of the country suddenly realised that, indeed, life can be sweet in Marseille. Winter does not exist there. Every road leads to the infinity of deep-blue sea or to the steepness of white hills dotted with pines and olive trees. In the ochre and narrow streets, people happily engage in chatting and bantering rather than ignoring each other in a very Parisian fashion.
Marseille definitively established its touristic reputation after its highly successful stint as European Capital of Culture in 2013. Since then, at the entrance of the harbour, the dramatic promenade that links the fortifications of the austere Fort Saint-Jean to the latticework shell of the new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM), the cultural institution that embodies the renewal of the whole city, has never been empty of wanderers.
Is it still possible to experience the diversity that has defined Marseille since its beginnings? Some locals, a bit bewildered by the sudden influx of visitors, might wonder. But as an almost outsider observer – since I must confess that I was not born and bred in Marseille – I can assure you that it is.
The city centre is full of charming museums that are free for every EU student under 25 and are far from being overcrowded. In the Vieille Charité, an architectural masterpiece conceived by the famous classical sculptor Puget, the largest French collection of Mexican popular art is displayed. The accumulation of masks and other papier-mâché artefacts is stunning. A few 100 metres away the Marseille Museum of History, on top of offering creative museography and plentiful archaeological collections, houses the remains of the ancient Greek colony that once was Marseille in its Garden of Ruins.
After so much culture, it might be time for a break. If you look for an invigorating pause, the best pizzas in Marseille can be purchased at Pizza Charly, 24 rue des Feuillants. To enjoy them in splendid scenery, you can walk up to the Parc Longchamp, a public garden embellished by a monumental “water castle”, an English landscape garden and quaint zoo buildings where pop sculptures have nowadays replaced actual animals. You can also head down the Canebière to the Old Port, from its marina to its pedestrian streets.
If you plan to stay more than one day in Marseille, it is worth visiting one or two districts removed from the Old Port. The best way to reach them is boarding on one of the affordable shuttle boats operated by the local public transport company. It will lead you in thirty minutes up to L’Estaque, widely considered as the most authentic neighbourhood of Marseille. Besides, L’Estaque and its beaches are the perfect setting for enjoying the sunset while discovering two famous typically Provencal snacks, the panisses (fried chickpea flour cakes) and chichi frégi (large donuts flavoured with olive oil and orange blossom water). If possible, wait until the night for the return trip: it is a rare chance to see one of the busiest cities in France at rest.