Marseille is the city at the bottom of the average tourist’s France itinerary – the first one to get crossed off the list if time gets tight. Many travelers simply skip the third largest city in France. It is gritty and grimy. It has its dangerous sections. And it has a bad reputation.
Sounds like Philadelphia. We had to go!
MARSEILLE: THE PHILADELPHIA OF FRANCE
The comparison is apt. You don’t go to North Marseille. You don’t go to North Philly. Marseille has gangs and drugs. Philly has gangs and drugs. You get the idea. Maybe we’re just suckers cities for that are rough around the edges! (The comparison falls apart when you compare homicide rates. Marseille had about 25 last year. Philadelphia had about 350. At least we can make the people of Marseille – is it fair to call them Martians?! – feel better about their city.)
CAPITAL OF CULTURE
We loved Marseille, and you will too. Marseille was named the “Capital of Culture” in Europe for 2013, which made it the perfect time to visit. Street performers from all over the continent came to Marseille to entertain the masses. Private clubs which are normally closed to the public held free events for everyone. And you could find tourist information almost everywhere.
The centerpiece of the city is Notre Dame de la Garde – a beautiful cathedral on a mountain that overlooks the entire area. At the top of the spire, the Virgin Mary cradles little 6-pound 13-ounce golden baby Jesus. The hike up to the cathedral is a bit challenging, but nothing compared to Cinque Terre. The view of the city from above is priceless. The mountains on one side; the harbor on the other. It’s even better at night. Grab a bottle of wine (or something with a slightly higher alcohol content) and drink in the view.
CHATEAU D’IF AND THE SEA WALL
We definitely got lucky with our Marseille timing. Our last full day in the city was the final day that visitors could walk along the sea wall. Our amazing couchsurfing host, Marc, took us out for a view of Marseille from below and probably our best view of Chateau d’If, the legendary prison in the Count of Monte Cristo. (We returned the favor by introducing him to the greatest achievement of American cuisine: s’mores!)
Chateua d’If has a dirty little secret. The main character, Edmond Dantes, dug a hole out of his prison cell as part of his escape plan. Unfortunately for visitors, Dantes was a fictional character, and so was his hole. Tourists who paid for the boat ride to the island and the Chateau’s entrance fee were disappointed to find out there was no escape route. So Chateau d’If did what any reasonable tourist trap would do – they dug a hole in the prison cell so visitors had something to gape at. That sounds a bit like digging a hole at Alcatraz because Sean Connerey escaped in “The Rock,” but we got a kick out of it.
THE MARKETS OF MARSEILLE
The best way to soak up the culture of the city is to visit the local markets. We chose Capucins, the fruit and vegetable market a 5-minute walk from downtown Marseille and the harbor. There are others to visit – just ask at tourist information. The market at Capucins is an explosion of sights and smells and flavors. French dishes collide with Moroccan delicacies. All five senses are overloaded here in the best possible way. We picked up a loaf of bread, cheese, and fruit for a budget lunch by the harbor. Total cost: about 4 euro.
The harbor itself is a great place to walk around. The city recently redid the entire area to make it more pedestrian friendly, and there are plenty of cafes to enjoy a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant. Don’t miss the upside down mirror by the water – a great spot for some mindbending photos.
For us, Marseille was very much a real city. It’s easy to mingle with the locals here, and you never feel much like an outsider. Sure it’s not the prettiest city in France or the most historic, but it’s absolutely worth a visit. It’s easier to imagine Rocky running through the streets of downtown Marseille than it is to picture Bizet composing Carmen, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Want to escape through an imaginary hole with us? Click here.
Check out our Marseille photo gallery here.