100 years in Marseille

Alex Brown delves into why France’s seaside labyrinth of colliding cultures is worth a visit

The South of France may seem like an unlikely contender for an overlooked travel destination. Since the 18th century, the dazzling southeastern corner of the French coastline has attracted a plethora of affluent visitors from aristocracy to celebrities. Today, it remains a symbol for wealth, good taste and quintessential “Euro Summer” vibes. Set apart from this glamour, however, lies Marseille, France’s second-largest city. Marseille has, for years, fallen victim to its unfavourable reputation as a city more associated with grit than glitz and is thus often bypassed by tourists visiting the region in favour of its more refined neighbours such as St. Tropez, Cannes or Nice. In doing so, they miss out on one of France’s most interesting, exciting and dynamic cities.

Marseille is a city brimming with history. First settled by the Ancient Greeks 2600 years ago, the city is the oldest in France and has been full of life ever since. As an important port city, Marseille quickly became a melting pot of cultures and languages from all over the Mediterranean. Its position on the southern coast made it the gateway to France for North African migrants; it experienced a particularly high influx following the independence of various former French colonies such as Algeria and Tunisia in the 1960s. As a result, Marseille is a truly diverse city teeming with life. Here, multiculturalism invades the heart of the city, with bustling immigrant neighbourhoods just walking distance from the city centre. Unlike Paris, which banishes its immigrant populations to the outskirts or banlieues and maintains the central arrondissements for the wealthy, Marseille invites its immigrants in. Immigrants and their descendants form the lifeblood of this city, imposing their sounds, flavours and histories and refusing to be left unseen.

Following in the footsteps of those who arrived in Marseille over the centuries, the gateway to the city–- the Vieux Port or Old Port – is the perfect place to start your visit. Here, you can take a stroll around the ancient marina, enjoy live music and people-watch as the paths of locals and tourists converge. Although lined with restaurants and bars, those directly on the front tend to be more costly, so it’s worthwhile veering slightly off track to the squares Place aux Huiles or Place Thiars if you’re looking to dine in this area.

“Previously infamous as the headquarters of the drug trafficking route ‘The French Connection’, famously storied in the classic 1971 film, Le Panier is now a hip area filled with cafes, concept stores and perhaps too many Air BnBs”

Rising above the other, northern side of the Old Port sits the historic area Le Panier or “The Basket” in English. This site is Marseille’s oldest area and has undergone quite a transformation in the past few decades. Previously infamous as the headquarters of the drug trafficking route “The French Connection”, famously storied in the classic 1971 film of the same name, Le Panier is now a hip area filled with cafes, concept stores and perhaps too many Air BnBs.

Marseille is not necessarily a city for traditional sightseeing, apart from the Sacre Coeur Basilica, which looks down upon the city from its mount. The city is somewhat lacking in traditional tourist attractions; the streets become the main attraction as the city invites you to discover its hidden gems. One of these, set slightly aback from the city centre, is the neighbourhood of Cours Julien. This is undeniably the coolest neighbourhood in Marseille and the perfect place for young people visiting the city to explore. At the centre lies a large square lined with cafes and restaurants from which streets and laneways spider out. It seems every inch of this part of town is covered in graffiti and street art, modern phenomena that record recent history. It is a living museum for the undeniable personality of Marseille and its people. As well as offering many food spots, Cours Julien is great for second-hand shopping enthusiasts. Mélanine Vintage and Digger Club are particularly good, but just wandering the streets reveals plenty of other gems.

“Corbusier, a leading modernist architect of the mid-20th century, unveiled the complex in 1952 to be an exemplar of post-war, modernist living”

Marseille is also notable for its museums. During its designated time as European Capital of Culture in 2013, Marseille developed its cultural scene due to the EU’s multibillion-dollar investment. It was during this period that the city began to attract more tourists and shake off its more seedy reputation, constructing The Museum of Civilizations and Cultures of Europe (MUCEM). MUCEM covers Mediterranean history from all angles, from traditional Mediterranean cuisine to the history of Marseille and its invasions. The museum, like most in France, is free for EU citizens under the age of 26, however it may be worthwhile paying to access the temporary exhibitions which I found to be the most interesting. Even if history is not your thing, the museum is worth a visit for its architectural excellence alone, surrounded by water and enclosed in a cage-like structure which references fishing nets and Marseille’s maritime history. For fans of architecture, Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse or “City of Lights” is not to be missed. Corbusier, a leading modernist architect of the mid-20th century, unveiled the complex in 1952 to be an exemplar of post-war, modernist living. Upon its completion, the complex included shops, apartments, offices and artist studios and is still lived in today. You can visit for free or book in advance through the Marseille tourism office to enjoy a guided tour and understand more about Corbusier’s vision.

Marseille’s location on the southern coast and its status as France’s sunniest city makes it a good place to hit the beach. The city beaches such as Plage du Maldormé and the Prado beaches are great spots closer to town but the real gems lie slightly farther afield, in the protected national park known as the Calanques. Just a half-hour bus ride away (we took the B1 bus towards Luminy from Castellane), the Calanques offer a refreshing escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. Here, hiking trails lead you to secluded, fjord like coves where rugged cliffs plunge into the sparkling Mediterranean sea. We recommend some of the more accessible coves, the Calanque du Sugiton and Calanque de Morgiou, each with a beautiful and manageable one hour hike. As a fragile and protected natural area, the Calanques have suffered considerable erosion due to mass tourism. As a result of this, visitors wishing to hike to the Calanque de Sugiton must book in advance during the summer season. It’s worthwhile keeping this in mind and making sure you are respectful of the national park during your visit.

“Marseille is a city with a strong personality which divides opinions and should not be overlooked”

Marseille is a city that has undergone an immense transformation in the past 100 years and continues to evolve today. It is a city with a strong personality which divides opinions. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Marseille should be on everyone’s travel bucket list and ought not be overlooked. For young people especially, it offers a breath of fresh air compared to its more stuffy neighbours and is more kind to the wallet. Faced with the approaching winter months, there is perhaps no better time to plan your escape to this sunny city.