Paris, Provence, Brittany, Normandy, St. Tropez. All these cities are high on the list of recommended places to visit when traveling to France. When asking about Marseille, however, most people and guidebooks tell you not to go; that the city is dumpy, rough and not worth the time.
I could not disagree more. Marseille was never high on my list, I have to admit, but when presented with the opportunity to spend two days there I figured why not? Worse came to worse, I would sit by the port and eat bouillabaisse the whole time, something I certainly wouldn’t mind. What I did not expect was to enjoy Marseille as much as I did. By the end of my two days there I wished I had two more.
It’ true- Marseille is not as picturesque as the rest of Provence and the South of France. It’s a city that comes with the requisite city grit, but once you accept that layers of Marseille’s beauty and intrigue unfold before your eyes.
1. The Port
The Old Port of Marseille, or in French Vieux-Port, is one of the city’s most popular and mostly pedestrian areas. The port has been a key player in Marseille’s history from the time of antiquity and today serves as both the heartbeat of the commercial fishing sector and tourist attraction. It’s hard not to see the beauty that weaves through the endless array of sails and stone architecture. In the earliest morning hours a lively fish market takes over the promenade which by the afternoon is filled with vendors selling various local bites and handmade crafts. A recent revitalization of the area has made the port even more attractive. Walking from end to end, breathing in the fresh salted sea air and watching the boats glide in and out is the ideal way to spend a morning, afternoon or evening in Marseille.
2. The Food
Ok, so the food in all of France is good. But in Marseille, it’s different than in the rest of the country and especially delectable. With its location on the water, seafood in Marseille is king. It would be a crime to leave the city without sampling its renowned seafood stew bouillabaisse.
Likewise, missing out on sampling freshly plucked oysters and other fish and shellfish delights would be a mistake. It seems like most restaurants are seafood restaurants which makes the fare easy to try. If you are in the mood for a fancy meal, stay close to the port. On the other hand if you want something that has more of a hole in the wall kind of vibe, head in to the narrow streets of the city.
Tired of standard French cuisine? Well then Marseille is for you. The city is filled with restaurants serving plates from Africa and the Middle East, with Algerian and Lebanese food being a particular specialty.
3. The Multi-Cultured Ethnicity
Marseille is French through and through, but the city is also imbued with heavy African and Middle Eastern influences. Geographically close to both regions, and home to France’s second largest port, the city has seem a steady stream of immigration since its earliest days. Today, Marseille is one of the most ethnically diverse cities not only in France, but in all of Europe. Markets resemble those I’ve wandered through in Mombasa, Cairo and Jerusalem and sell the spices and snacks favorited by Marseille’s adopted crowd. Dried mangoes, briny olives, salted fish and labne filled mahjouba crepes are the perfect walking snack all which can be found along the narrow streets that sprout off the top of the Canebière.
4. The Attitude
Long deemed France’s forgotten city, Marseille is primed to take center stage. There is a brusque hipness to the city that is quickly catching on. Local tabacs with a bit of an edge can be found on nearly every corner, buzzing with a young cool crowd as soon as the sun begins to go down. Along the Canebière, Marseille’s main pedestrian shopping district, stodgy department stores are making way to fresh boutiques selling looks straight from the showrooms of a bright new crowd of French designers. Hotels in the city are too reflecting Marseille’s new attitude. Recently opened Mama Shelter is the epitome of hipster cool, serving the Millennial generation all the cool-aid they can drink. The hotel, come restaurant, come nightclub exudes modern kitsch in design, has all the tech toys one could want and is surprisingly one the the more affordable accommodation finds.
That is the essence of the new Marseille. A city proud of it’s rough and tumble fishing village history and one that is on the pulse of the next generation, on trend and with a bright burly attitude.
Head there now if you can, grab a glass of wine and sit back, relax and take the new Marseille in. It’s time for Marseille’s moment in the French spotlight.