Marseille, France is a living, breathing French city often overlooked by tourists on their way to Provence or the French Riviera. That’s a real shame. If you’re looking to see France as the French do, Marseille makes for a perfect family getaway. Even better, Marseille is a terrific value.
Before I tell you about Marseille, I should share a confession: I tend to love destinations others overlook and feel “meh” about places others rave about. For instance, in Italy I didn’t love Rome, but did love Naples. So while I enjoy Parisian shopping as much as the next girl, when it comes to France, it’s Marseille that stole my heart.
An Introduction to Marseille
Most of Marseille’s tourist sights are within reach of the Vieux (Old) Port. An easy option for exploring is the Marseille City Pass offered by City Discovery. City Discovery provided us with a pair of passes to test out and at $45 for three days ($27 for kids) they’re a real bargain compared to individual admissions. (Traveling Mom Tip: Get on City Discovery’s email list for frequent promotions in their many cities.)
The City Pass offers admission to more places than you could possibly visit and include Metro and bus passes. You pick up the pass at the tourist office once you arrive. It even comes in a fun gift bag with a Cure Gormande lollipop for kids. (Cure Gormande lollipops are too good for just the kids- be sure to pick some up for yourself!)
Notre Dame de la Garde Cathedral watches over the city and is a marvel to explore. Fortunately there’s a tourist “petit tren” (included in the City Pass, 7 euro otherwise) that takes you up and down the steep hill to the cathedral. If you have a chance to attend a service there, as we did, I highly recommend it even if you aren’t Catholic. Even kids appreciate the reverence of Notre Dame de la Garde- and they’ll especially appreciate the model boats and planes hanging from the ceiling as symbols of Notre Dame “keeping watch” over voyagers.
Being a port, Marseille offers many options to get out onto the water. The City Pass includes a cruise to Chateau D’if, site of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Otherwise the trip costs 11 euro round trip. At 20 minutes each way it gives you just enough boat time to feel you’ve been somewhere without getting antsy.
Marseille’s Museum Culture
Marseille was a “City of European Culture” in 2013 and many museums got a major facelift. Our favorite both inside and out was the Mucem ( Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) and the attached Fort St. Jean.
The Mucem building is a marvel in itself. The entire building is covered in coral-like latticework. The fort has amazing views and a picnic area begging for a family lunch. Fort St. Jean’s cafe seating includes…wait for it…lounge chairs. If you didn’t bring snacks, the Mucem cafe served fresh off the boat oysters.
While the outside view was amazing, the Mucem’s changing exhibits featured the best of local artists. We had the good fortune of visiting during a Picasso exhibit that featured not only his works, but rare video of the artist himself explaining his muses. The exhibit was riveting for all ages.
Admission to the Mucem is 9 euro (14 for families) or included with the City Pass. The Mucem is free on the first Sunday of the month but I’d recommend not visiting that day as it’s more crowded with locals.
Marseille’s North African Culture
Marseille reminds me of Paris – if you dropped it on top of Miami. Marseille has a North African culture mixed into the French the way Miami has Cuban mixed into the American. Both have that “border town” feel- in a good way. While France has definitely had issues with integration, Marseille felt more like a happy jumble than segregated communities.
North African foods were an unexpected treat. Elyssa on the Vieux Port merits a special mention for their Tunisian specialties. I had never tried Tunisian food before. I can best describe it as a cross-section of the best of Middle Eastern meats and seafood in terrine, cous cous and pine nut tea with honey laced desserts. And the cost of our enormous meal, including a bottle of wine? Less than 25 euro a person.
Staying in Marseille
For hotel accommodations, we chose the Residence de Vieux Port because of reviews and location. We were blown away by the location. It’s the absolute best choice on the Vieux Port. We even lucked into a 90% off deal -thanks to Sheradill– so our room cost just 21 euro a night! Even at full price I’d choose the Residence de Vieux Port as it offers many different room configurations that would work well for families. Just be aware that, like many European hotels, the rooms have a shower but not a bathtub.
We also splurged on a single night at the Intercontinental. At 180 euro including breakfast it wasn’t the cheapest, but the entire experience was truly five star. I’d definitely recommend it.
We visited Marseille in the middle of August – prime tourist season. However, the tourists we saw were mostly French families coming down to the sea for the weekend as opposed to throngs in buses. So while Vieux Port was lively, we never felt like sardines.
A word about safety: as with much of Europe, Marseille has a reputation for pickpockets. While we didn’t have issues, I’d definitely wear a cross body bag and skip the expensive jewelry. And Marseille is definitely urban- which means you do see some trash. I didn’t find it offensive (and certainly no more than in Paris) but if you’re not used to big cities, it might surprise you.
We also saw French Army troops patrolling the harbor in response to recent terrorism events. They actually made us feel safer, but may merit a conversation with your kids if they aren’t used to seeing soldiers with rifles in their midst.
To me, some places are “do” places, where I feel the need to explore. Others are “be” places, where I want to just absorb everything around me. Marseille was the perfect combination of both. We loved the sights but were also happy exploring the weekend market and enjoying a “glace” (ice cream) while watching the world go by.