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Marseille is France's largest port and one of its oldest cities, yet it often goes unnoticed and unvisited by travelers who instead spend their time in Paris or along the sunny beaches of St. Tropez, Cannes and Nice. They are missing out on one of France's most diverse cities, both in terms of people and activities. Marseille has a long history and many historical attractions, not the least of which is the Vieux Port (old port), which has been in use since about 600 BC when Greeks and Phoenicians began to arrive to this area of the sunny Mediterranean coast.
Marseille has become increasingly diverse, thanks in part to a large number of North African immigrants, who make up about one quarter of the city's population now. Although it has the challenges of any large city, Marseille has begun to embrace its newfound diversity and is eager to put its best foot forward to attract a piece of the ever-growing tourism industry. Visitors will find historic forts, a magnificent cathedral, islands just off shore that offer bird watching and hiking, beaches and thoroughfares hugging the Mediterranean Sea that offer sweeping views and photo ops.
Marseille has not one but two grand and historic churches. Start with with the Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, where a 30-foot statue of the Virgin Mary rises above you and models of the boats fishermen once brought to be blessed are on the walls. The view from the church is one of the highlights of Marseille, with the city and the sea spreading out below. The 18th century Cathédrale de la Major is also a major landmark, built between 1852 and 1893.
Marseille is proud of its museums. Musée d'Histoire de Marseille reminds visitors of the city's ancient origins, with exhibits and artifacts recalling its days as the Greek city of Massalia. Musée des Beaux-Arts is the oldest museum in Marseille and one of France's largest fine arts museums. It is housed in the Palais Longchamp and features a diverse collection of paintings, mostly by French artists. Musée de la Marine highlights Marseille's maritime history and importance as a modern European shipping hub.
Le Vieux Port stands as the center of Marseille in pretty much every way, and shopping is no exception. Marseille's specialties are no different from most other French regions, but there are many different places to choose from.
Antique hunters can choose among rare gems at Antiques Francois-Decamp on rue Paradis. If you're looking for the latest in French fashion, head toward Cours Julien or the sparkling new L'Escale Borely (Avenue Mendes-France). Regular souvenir shoppers will be satisfied at any shop along the always crowded Rue St-Fereol. Traveling with a sweet tooth? Take care of that at Puyricard where chocolates, caramels and other confections.
Marseille's tremendous diversity allows for a range of tastes different from any other French city. But when you boil it all down, people beg here for bouillabaisse, the traditional French seafood stew, and Le Miramar does it better than the rest. Les Arcenaulx is notable for its shellfish. Portuguese food is on the menu at Le Roi du Poulet on Place Notre Dame du Mont. The best option of all is to simply stroll around Le Vieux Port, where there are plenty of cafes for a quick bite that also make perfect people-watching spots.
Although the weather is moderate year round, people often visit Marseille to celebrate Bastille Day in July and around the summer months to appreciate the warm, beachy weather.
Cruise ships dock at the Port of Marseille. The airport is only 20 minutes away and there is road access to the rest of the city.
Metro subway lines run underneath Marseille, providing an easy way to get around. Buses also do a fairly good job of getting you around. However, taxis are relatively inexpensive, and most sightseeing is done in a concentrated area. Contact Marseille Taxi (04-9102-2020) for a cab.
Free wi-fi is provided by the city of Marseille — you can connect for free for 30 minutes at a time.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a valid passport.
Language: French; however, many employees at tourist destinations speak English.
Store hours: General opening hours in Marseille are 9 am to 7 pm Monday to Saturday. Smaller businesses may close for a lunch break from 12:30 to 2 pm.
Tipping: A 10% tip is greatly appreciated by any service personnel but not mandatory. Bargaining is not practiced in France.
Safety: Although the city is fairly safe, in recent years there has been a rise in pickpocketing and mugging so be careful carrying valuables and watch your surroundings. It's best to leave expensive jewelry and extra cash on your ship. Stay away from Gare St Charles and the upper part of La Canebière at night, and avoid any northern neighborhoods.
Remember: Bring your sunglasses. Marseille averages more than 300 days a year with complete sunshine.
Shorefox contributed to this guide.
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“With a revitalized waterfront, loads of history, unique shopping, and famed dining, it's easy to say oui to Marseille. "
“If you only visit one museum, make it the newly redone History museum, built on the site of the original Greek and Roman cities. Ancient vestiges (discovered while building a shopping center) are on view in the gardens, including a Greek necropolis and ramparts, and a Roman road and quayside.”