Foodies should go on a culinary tour of Marseille, sampling the city's magnificent local delicacies and tasting the international options on offer
Foodies love France for its gastronomic delights, but those who stick to Parisian street food or the sophisticated eateries of Monaco and Cannes are missing out on possibly the most exciting cuisine on offer in France: that served up in Marseille.
France's oldest city and the administrative capital of Provence, Marseille is the second-largest European port (Antwerp in Brussels is the largest). This makes Marseille a major entry point for immigrants and the mixture of cultures here makes it different from other French cities.
You can take advantage of a number of cheap flights from the UK to Marseille-Provence airport, with a convenient shuttle bus service to various towns in the region. Most tourists immediately head inland to the "real" Provence, but don't make this mistake.
Marseille might not be as glam as its cousins towards the east or as quintessentially Provençal as nearby Aix, but it has a lot to offer, particularly if you're into food. So take the shuttle bus to the Saint-Charles rail station in Marseille (every 20 minutes from the airport, €8.50, takes 25 minutes).
Where to stay
A good base for visitors is the Vieux Port (Old Port). It's the city's hub and it is also here that foodies will find the biggest choice of delicious delights to tuck into. A great place to stay in the harbour area is the four-star New Hotel of Marseille Le Pharo (Boulevard Charles Livon, double rooms from €215 a night, excluding breakfast). A short walk from the Vieux Port, this hotel serves some fantastic seafood (like most restaurants in Marseille) and other seasonal dishes in the super-chic surrounds of the Victor Café with its Warhol-inspired artwork. The head chef is local 20-something Jerome Pollo who has trained under gastronomy greats such as Alain Ducasse.
Even closer to the heart of Marseille is the Hotel Belle-Vue (34 Quai du Port). If you stay in this hotel then the best food and drink in the city is on your doorstep (not to mention the fantastic views). Get up early one morning and nip out to experience the bustling harbour and see fishermen, locals and restaurateurs negotiate the best prices for the freshest wares.
You don't have to stay at Hotel Belle-Vue to take advantage of its fantastic live jazz bar La Caravelle. You'll be in good company as locals flock here for free tapas and a pre-dinner cocktail or pastis, the local aperitif speciality. Pastis is an anise-flavoured liqueur that is so high in alcohol content that it is diluted with water. It goes down really well with some juicy Provençal olives. If you're lucky enough to get a seat on the balcony at La Caravelle, you will have a great view of the Vieux Port.
When heading out for dinner, do not miss the chance to enjoy the famous local speciality, bouillabaisse, which is a rich fish stew with up to seven different types of fish and other ingredients such as octopus, sea urchins and a good dose of saffron. If you're going to splash the cash on one meal in Marseille, make it the bouillabaisse and book ahead for a table at La Miramar (12 Quai du Port, http://www.bouillabaisse.com, +33 4 91 91 10 40). At €58 per person for its La Vraie Bouillabaisse Miramar – authentic fish stew with lobster – this is no cheap eat. However, don't be tempted to tighten the purse strings when it comes to this menu option; you really get what you pay for with bouillabaisse.
Those who like a cheaper seafood meal can head to any of the harbourside brasseries for moules-frites. Basking in the Mediterranean sun, there are few greater joys that chewing on mussels steamed with white wine, garlic and shallots, soaking up the juices with thin chips and washing it all down with a chilled Provençal white wine.
Like a good fish stew, Marseille is hotchpotch of cultures. Here, French food gets a twist, but you will also find some fantastic authentic Italian, Asian, Middle Eastern and African restaurants. One such eatery is La Kahena (2 rue de la Republique, +33 4 91 90 61 93) which has been serving up amazing couscous dishes for more than three decades. Don't miss their Tunisian take on merguez, a type of spicy sausage, and mechouia (roasted lamb). My top tip for North Indian food is Ashoka (http://www.restaurant-ashoka.com/, 7 Rue Fortia, +33 4 91 33 18 80), while Chez Dimitri (6 Rue Meolan, +33 4 91 54 09 68) offers Russian delicacies such as borscht and stroganoff. Head to Le Souk (98 Quai du Port, +33 4 91 91 29 29) for Moroccan food and La Vieille Pelle (39 Avenue Saint Jean, +33 4 91 90 62 00) for an Italian pizza.
One of the city's chicest hotels has opted for a Chinese theme when it comes to cuisine, with its Yin Yang restaurant and Chang'An bar. The four-star Villa Massalia Concorde Marseille (17 Place Louis Bonnefon) is a bit out of the city centre but boasts spectacular views over the Mediterranean and Le Parc Borély near Avenue de Prado.
No foodie traveller leaves a destination without bringing back home a recipe, spice or ingredient. My suggestion for foodies visiting Marseille is to leave room in the suitcase for a bottle of pastis, some orange blossom flavoured navette biscuits, herbes de Provence and olive oil (mix with garlic, lemon juice and eggs to make your own aioli back at home).