A vibrant, sprawling multicultural hub, Marseille is home to the celebrated fish stew, bouillabaisse, one of the many Provençal culinary treasures of the region
Energetic and larger than life, Marseille is a treasure trove of unpredictable charms, with an edgy and rebellious past. France’s oldest city was founded by the Greeks, rallied troops to fight in the French Revolution, and was bombed by the Germans and Italians. In the 20th century, immigrants arrived in the city from Algeria, Corsica and Morocco. Today the streets are a vibrant mix of Gallic, Arab and African influences; a city with a multicultural heartbeat, that’s proud of its individuality.
At the centre is the Vieux Port, flanked by two 12th-century fortresses – St Jean on the north bank and St Nicolas on the south. On the portside, market traders hawk bucketfuls of fresh fish to eager punters, while yachts bob in the harbour. Explore the pastel-coloured streets of Le Panier to the north, then cross to the chic Corniche with its bucket-and-spade beaches, and the stunning calanques – a series of deep, narrow inlets in high limestone cliffs. Here you can hike, dive, swim and sail in crystal-clear waters, before piling your plate high with the freshest, fattest fish from the Med.
What to do
The Notre Dame de la Garde, an extravagant example of neo-Byzantine architecture, is the highest point in the city, the perfect place from which to survey all of Marseille. Weave down the higgledy-piggledy streets, swinging past St Victor Abbey – a fascinating double-decker church. Saunter along the café-lined harbour front and watch weatherworn fishermen flog the day’s catch.
From here the city splurges out in different directions. Go south up La Canebière to Cours Julien and you’ll find fashion boutiques rubbing up against bookshops and quirky music venues. To the north of the Vieux Port is Le Panier, the oldest part of the city; its narrow streets and steep stairways give it the feel of a little village. Make your way to the Vieille Charité, once a former housing enclosure for the poor. It’s worth visiting just to see its extraordinary egg-shaped dome, but it also houses a fascinating collection of art and archaeology from around the world.
Head back to the harbour and spend the afternoon island-hopping between the Ile d’If (home of the infamous Château) and the Iles du Frioul. Ferries pootle out of the harbour every hour (00 33 491 555009). Finish your day with an evening at the Opéra (00 33 491 551110).
Where to stay
Hip, cool and kitted out in bright white, the New Hotel of Marseille is refreshingly modern; the entrance is decorated with bright and bold contemporary art. Head to the pool and sip cocktails under the southern sun. Just across the road sits the sleek, chic Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port. Perfectly sandwiched between the Fort St Jean and Fort St Nicolas, it guards the best views in town. Down below, peeking out over the Med, 19th-century villa Le Petit Nice has been owned by the Passédat family since 1917. Set in lush green gardens, it’s a little haven of tranquillity.
Where to eat and drink
The endless sun-filled days of the Mediterranean climate ensure an abundance of fresh produce. Bouillabaisse aficionados should head straight to Le Miramar (00 33 491 911040), the best place to sample the traditional fish stew. The restaurant’s huge windows open on to the Vieux Port and underwater tales are frescoed on the wall. Leave a little room for the chocolate fondant - it’s utterly divine.
Nearby, the chefs at Une Table au Sud (00 33 491 906353) work with local seasonal ingredients to create a menu that changes daily. Go at the right time and you could be dipping into creamy soups made from chestnuts, sea urchins and denti (the local saltwater fish), or mullet served with saffron and herb risotto.
For glamour, try Les Trois Forts (00 33 491 155900) with its modern twist on traditional Provençal recipes. Request a window seat for unparalleled panoramic views.
Time running out?
Head north to the picturesque port of l’Estaque, an inspiration for artists like Cézanne, Braque and Renoir.
Go in June when the month-long garlic fair (www.marseilletourisme. com) spills on to the Cours Belsunce. Pink, white, braided or loose, garlic is the essential ingredient in all Provençal cooking.
Currency is the euro. Marseille is one hour ahead of GMT and a one-hour 55-minute flight, or a six-hour 15-minute train journey, from London.
Air France (0871 66 33 777; www.airfrance.co.uk) flies to Marseille daily from both London City and Heathrow, via Paris. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) fly direct to Marseille from Gatwick.
Eurostar (0870 518 6186; www.eurostar.com) has regular daily departures to Paris from London St Pancras. Connect to a high-speed TGV train to Marseille.
Marseille Tourism: 4 la Canebière (00 33 491 138900; www.marseille-tourisme.com). Visit the website for opening hours.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.