Preening and pampered, tagged and trendy, rumoured – wrongly! - to be ruled by mobsters, prey to all hoodlums, Marseille spins the visitor in a ballet, sometimes improvised, sometimes choreographed, from its Greek and Roman origins to the modernity of the 21st century. In its dance of the seven veils, Marseille reveals the many monuments, picturesque spots and museums in its 111 neighbourhoods and 16 arrondissements. Let's make a quick tour of the town - exhausting maybe but not exhaustive!
One of the best times to be there is in the early morning when the golden light of the sun reflects off the old façades and shimmers across the water and the fishermen bring their catch to the very typical fish market. Although you won't meet Marcel Pagnol's character Honorine the fishmonger you will always find quality fresh fish.
But also in the evening, when the quarter lights up for wild nights in the restaurants and bistros around the port, such as Bar de la Marine on the left bank (where Marius, another Pagnol character, worked) and the jazz clubs, discos and piano bars on the Place Thiars and Cours Honoré d'Estienne d'Orves.
And, it must be said, during the day... The British architect Norman Foster and French urban landscaper Michel Desvigne were chosen in December 2010 to carry out the city centre urban design project. The Ombrière du Vieux Port is, literally, the reflection of it.
In 2013 the MUCEM opened its doors. Situated at the entrance to the port next to the Fort Saint Jean (17th century), this museum was built on land reclaimed from the sea.
Estaque bridge of Marseille
Fish market on the old port of Marseille
MuCEM, Cathédrale la Major and Fort St Jean à Marseille
Vieux port of Marseille by night
On that right bank you will find the neighbourhood of Le Panier, the oldest quarter of Marseille. It was here, to the north of the port, that the Greeks founded Massalia and where the city was concentrated up until the 17th century, welcoming successive waves of immigrants ever since.
This warren of small streets, to discover on foot, of course, or with the sightseeing train, still has many buildings that survived WWII: the Maison Diamantée with its façade of diamond-shaped studs and the Hôtel de Cabre (1535), the oldest existing house in Marseille, which was moved a block and swivelled 90° to bring it into alignment with the new streets in 1954. The oldest edifice is the Notre-Dame-des-Accoules church built in the 11th century and altered in the 12th and 14th centuries, and the newborn is the first Boules Museum ever opened, in 2015.
The Hôtel Dieu, the Place des Moulins, where a few windmills still remain, and the Place de Lenche are worth seeing as well.
But the star of the neighbourhood is the Vieille Charité.
Designed by the Marseille architect/painter/sculptor Pierre Paul Puget, it was a home for the needy and the poor built between 1671 and 1749 with a three-storey arched gallery around an inner courtyard and a chapel surmounted by an elliptical cupola in the centre. It served as a hospice until the end of the 19th century before being used as barracks and finally by the homeless as a makeshift shelter.
Following restoration work between 1961 and 1986, the buildings today house a cultural centre and museums presenting temporary exhibitions as well as the permanent collections of African, Oceanian and Amerindian art and Mediterranean archaeology.
The Vieille Charité also has a very good art bookshop, a library and even a cinema.
The Vieille Charité in Marseille: the Puget chapel and its cupola
Festive atmosphere in the streets of Marseille
The arcades of the Old Charity in Marseille
The Old Charity in Marseille
The famous Canebière gets its start at the Old Port. This main avenue, great for shopping and lined with Haussmanian buildings, gets its name from "canebe" or the hemp used by rope-makers working there in the Middle Ages. Unless you want to believe one of the city's old-timers who claims that, following the landing of the allied forces at the end of the war, American soldiers walked up the avenue looking for a “can 'a' beer”!
Continue along and you will reach the Palais du Longchamp. Hymn to the glory of water, this monumental water tower is considered one of the most beautiful accomplishments of Second Empire architecture in Marseille. And behind it lies its splendid park with a botanical garden and a zoo. A peaceful place for a stroll or a picnic.
That is too say if you make it that far. Halfway there you may be tempted to go up from Les Réformés Church to the Cours Julien, the bohemian-bourgeois and be-bop quarter, a Mecca for artists, musicians and rebels. The esplanade with its fountain is lined with bars, restaurants, art galleries, boutiques and the concert hall Espace Julien.
Adventure a bit farther to La Plaine, along the pedestrian streets lined by façades covered in amazing graffiti, true works of art, although ephemeral, they change all the time. Every Wednesday and Friday morning since 1892, the Place Jean Jaurès in La Plaine hosts a big Provençal market, the most popular market in the city.
Wherever you you may go in the city, you will see the Bonne Mère (Good Mother) watching over you. Emblematic figure represented by a 11.2 metre high statue, her throne is the 19th century Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica built in Romano-Byzantine style on an imposing limestone hill over 150 metres high. Since the Middle Ages, Notre-Dame is considered the patron saint of sailors and fishermen.
La Bonne Mère in Marseille
At the Old Port, passenger boats go to the Frioul islands and the Château d’If. A limestone silhouette just off the coast of Marseille, the Friouls is a group of four islands: Pomègues, Ratonneau, Tiboulen and If. Famous for being the prison of Alexandre Dumas' hero, the Count of Monte Cristo, the Château d’If was a fortress built under François I to defend the city.
Going along the left side of the port, you pass the Palais du Pharo, the historic palace built by Napoleon III, today a conference centre overlooking the sea and surrounded by vast gardens. Then, on the Corniche Kennedy, you can stroll along the waterfront to the Prado beach passing the Vallon des Auffes as you go.
A 20 to 30 minute walk from the Old Port, the Vallon des Auffes offers you the perfect picture of an old fishing port. Fishermen's houses and their traditional and colourful boats huddle together in this little cove, unchanged for centuries. And on top of that, the spot has two of the city's best restaurants: the Michelin-starred Epuisette and the historic Chez Fonfon, both well-liked for their bouillabaisse, Marseille's most famous dish.
If you want to go further, you're better off taking your car or the bus – to go to Les Goudes, another old fishing port, now with pleasure boats, carved out of the dazzling white rock.
And for hikers and lovers of breathtaking landscapes, stretching out between La Madrague and Cassis, the National Park of the Calanques is the marvel of the Mediterranean, a series of dizzyingly high rocky inlets, one more magnificent than the other.
Lovers of Impressionist art will not want to miss L'Estaque.
Situated to the northwest of the city in what has now become the 16th arrondissement, Estaque has managed to keep its own air and identity.
A modest fishing port and workers' town, it will surprise you with its range of shapes and colours – the blue of the sea, the red of the roof tiles, the white of the cliffs, the green of the maritime pines and the grey of the smokestacks. It's no surprise that the place inspired the painter Cézanne. A tour circuit punctuated with enamel plaques lets the visitor see the village through the eyes of artists.
A regular train service goes from Marseille centre to l'Estaque, passing along viaducts and offering you beautiful views.
Chateau d'If and Frioul Islands in Marseille
The Goudes in Marseille
The Vallon des Auffes
Calanques of Marseille
The Palais du Pharo and monumental sculptures