The gateway to the Mediterranean and a former European Capital of Culture, Marseille’s atmospheric neighbourhoods, natural wonders, and sandy beaches will keep you occupied long after the game has finished. If you’re visiting Marseille for the France Rugby World Cup 2023, why not plan a few days before or after match day to take in the highlights of this French port city? To get you started, here’s our pick of the top 10 things to do in Marseille.
1. Stroll Around the Vieux Port
With its wide esplanade, quayside fish market, and row-upon-row of luxury yachts, the Vieux Port (Old Port) is Marseille’s coastal gateway, flanked by two 17th-century forts, Fort Saint-Jean and Fort St-Nicholas. Walk around Fort Saint-Jean for a magnificent view over the natural harbour, rent a bike or Segway to glide along the quays, or ride the ferry across the port for a view from the water.
Landmarks pepper the waterfront, including the Church of Saint Ferréol les Augustins and Napolean III’s Palais du Pharo, after which you can duck into the Marseille Soap Museum (dedicated to the world-renowned Savon de Marseille), ride the giant Ferris Wheel, or take your pick of quayside cafés and seafood restaurants for a scenic lunch stop.
2. Visit the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica
Wherever you are in the city, you’ll be able to spot the gleaming white dome and bell tower of the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica, rising like a beacon from the hilltop south of the Vieux Port. Marseille’s most memorable monument is a feast of neo-Byzantine architecture, dating back to the 19th century and capped by a golden statue of the Virgin Mary—the city’s guardian angel.
It’s a steep climb to the top of the hill for those with energy to burn; alternatively, regular buses and the Petit Train tourist train leave from the Vieux Port, stopping right outside the church. It’s worth the detour just to admire the views over the city below, but make sure you head inside to admire the glorious mosaics and take in the views from the terrace, too.
3. Admire the Views Along the Corniche
Ocean views and sandy coves await along the Notre-Dame de la Garde (named in honour of the American President), which sweeps along the coast south of the Vieux Port and links Marseille with the Catalans and Prado Beaches. You can drive, cycle, or walk the coastal route (just under 4km), which hugs the low cliffs of the bay and serves up photo-worthy views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Frioul Islands.
Stop off along the way to visit the traditional fishing village of Vallon des Auffes, admire the 19th-century Villa Valmer and Villa de Gaby Deslys, or take a swim in the Mediterranean.
4. Picnic at the Palais Longchamp
Marseille’s lack of green spaces is forgiven at this palace-and-park complex, where the views are nothing short of monumental. Approach along the Boulevard Longchamp to see the Palais de Longchamp in all its glory, with its grand collonaded façade, tiered fountain, and flower-lined pools.
Head inside to visit the Museum of Fine Arts and the Natural History Museum, then continue to the palace parklands, where landscaped gardens and leafy lawns are laced together by scenic walkways. Pack a picnic and seek out a shady spot.
5. Cruise Around the Calanques
Jagged cliffs plunge into the sea south of Marseille in the Calanques National Park. The miniature fjords look like something out of Disney’s “Frozen” without the snow—a rolling panorama of narrow creeks, pebbled coves, and gleaming turquoise waters.
You can hike, kayak, and snorkel along the Calanques, but the easiest way to drink in the views is on a half-day boat ride. Set sail from the Vieux Port onboard a yacht or catamaran, and cruise the coast from Marseille to Cassis, stopping to swim at secluded beaches along the way.
6. Explore the Le Panier Neighbourhood
Follow the winding lanes up the hillside north of the Vieux Port, and you’ll stumble upon Le Panier, Marseille’s oldest and most cosmopolitan quarter. This is the ideal spot to ‘flâner’ (aimlessly wander) between the colourful buildings and stone stairways, pausing to peek inside the Byzantine La Major Cathedral, one of France’s largest churches.
Other not-to-miss Le Panier landmarks include the Genoese-style Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), the embossed-stone façade of the La Maison Diamantée, and the 17th-century La Vieille Charité, now home to an art and archaeology museum.
7. Experience Mediterranean culture at the MuCEM
Marseille’s flagship museum is the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM), which dazzles passersby along the north shore of the Vieux Port. Inaugurated in 2013, the complex of three futuristic buildings stretch between the J4 Esplanade and Saint-Jean Fort and are linked by a footbridge with magnificent views across the harbour.
World-class exhibitions await inside, with interactive exhibits, audio-visual displays, and short film screenings focusing on topics as eclectic as Greek gods, graffiti art, and Mediterranean spices. End your visit with a stroll around the Mediterranean garden or sample Mediterranean flavours at the panoramic restaurant.
8. Spend the Afternoon at the Beach
Marseille is better known for its cruise port and yacht harbour than its beaches, but you won’t have to stray far from the city to find sandy shores. Catalans Beach is the closest urban beach, just a short walk from the Vieux Port, while further south, Prophet’s beach and Prado beach are the most popular beaches along the Corniche.
To the north, Sainte Croix beach is worth the drive for its pretty setting and soft white sands, while the rocky coves of Estaque beach are ideal for swimming, and the small beaches around Sausset-les-Pins are popular spots for kayaking, kitesurfing, and other water sports.
9. Ride the Ferry to the Château d’If
Ferries set sail from the Vieux Port for the Frioul Islands, the archipelago of four tiny islands marooned off the coast of Marseille. The Château d’If is the star attraction, an island fortress built by King François I in the 16th century and immortalised in Alexandre Dumas’ novel “The Count of Monte Cristo”.
Soak up the scenery from the water, hop off to explore the old castle and its 19th-century prison, then continue to the islands Pomègues and Ratonneau, where you can hike along limestone sea cliffs and cool off at remote beaches.
10. Join Locals for a Sunset Tipple
Marseillais have the French apéritif down to a fine art. Joining friends for sunset ‘apéro’ along the Vieux Port means one thing—pastis. This anise-flavoured apéritif is Marseille’s drink of choice, and you’ll find it everywhere from terrace cafés to rooftop bars, served with a jug of water, so you can dilute it to your preference.
Can’t get enough of the traditional tipple? Purchase some to take home with you at La Maison du Pastis, which sells dozens of different pastis, including its own award-winning variety, or take a tour of a pastis distillery at Cristal Limiñana.