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Marseilles may sometimes be given a wide berth by travelers in search of a Provençal idyll, but it's their loss. Miss it and you miss one of the vibrant, exciting cities in France. With its Cubist jumbles of white stone rising up over a picture-book seaport, crowned by larger-than-life neo-Byzantine churches, the city's neighborhoods teem with multiethnic life, its souklike African markets reek deliciously of spices and coffees, and its labyrinthine Vieille Ville is painted in broad strokes of saffron, cinnamon, and robin's-egg blue. Feisty and fond of broad gestures, Marseilles is a dynamic city, as cosmopolitan now as when the Phoenicians founded it, and with all the exoticism of the international shipping port it has been for 2,600 years. Vital to the Crusades in the Middle Ages and crucial to Louis XIV as a military port, Marseilles flourished as France's market to the world—and still does today.
Order bouillabaise. This aromatic fish stew is one of the world's most famous dishes and originated here as a way for fishermen to use the leftover catch.
Stroll around Viuex Port and La Panier. The Vieux Port bustles with activity but especially during the morning fish market. Neighboring Le Panier is a maze of narrow streets and picturesque corners with pretty boutiques and good museums.
Centre de la Vieille Charite. The museums here have important collections and artifacts from civilizations and societies from around the world.
The Marseille Cruise terminal is north of the Vieux Port historic area and has recently benefited from a €90 million redevelopment. It now offers three different docking areas depending on the size of the vessel and a state-of-the-art welcome center with an ATM, shops, bars, and restaurants. Aside from this, the terminal is in an industrial area and is too distant to allow you to walk into the city. Most cruise lines offer shuttle service into town, but you should spring for a taxi if you don't take the shuttle.
A taxi from cruise terminal into town is approximately €27 and takes around 20 minutes. Once in the Vieux Port area most of the major attractions are reachable on foot. Taxis are plentiful and can provide tourist itineraries. Single journeys begin at €2.30 and then €0.69 per km thereafter.
Although there is no reason to drive if you're just staying in Marseille, renting a vehicle is the ideal way to explore the beautiful Provençal towns and landscapes around the city. Expect to pay around €70 per day for an economy manual vehicle.
Cathédrale de la Nouvelle Major. A gargantuan, neo-Byzantine 19th-century fantasy, the cathedral was built under Napoléon III—but not before he'd ordered the partial destruction of the lovely 11th-century original, once a perfect example of the Provençal Romanesque style. (Pl. de la Major, Le Panier)
Centre de la Vieille Charité (Center of the Old Charity). At the top of the Panier district, this superb ensemble of 17th- and 18th-century architecture was designed as a hospice for the homeless by Marseillais artist-architects Pierre and Jean Puget. Even if you don't enter the museums, walk around the inner court, studying the retreating perspective of triple arcades and admiring the baroque chapel with its novel egg-peaked dome. Of the complex's two museums, the larger is the Musée d'Archéologie Méditerranéenne (Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology), with a sizable collection of pottery and statuary from classical Mediterranean civilization. There's also a display on the mysterious Celt-like Ligurians who first peopled the coast. The best of the lot is the evocatively mounted Egyptian collection, the second largest in France after the Louvre's. Upstairs, the Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens, et Amérindiens (Museum of African, Oceanic, and American Indian Art) creates a theatrical foil for the works' intrinsic drama: the spectacular masks and sculptures are mounted along a pure black wall, lighted indirectly, with labels across the aisle. 2 rue de la Charité, Le Panier. Admission charged.
Château d'If. François I, in the 16th century, recognized the strategic advantage of an island fortress surveying the mouth of Marseilles' vast harbor, so he had one built. Its effect as a deterrent was so successful that it never saw combat, and was eventually converted into a prison. It was here that Alexandre Dumas locked up his most famous character, the Count of Monte Cristo. Though the count was fictional, the hole Dumas had him escape through is real enough, and is visible in the cells today. You get here by boat, and the ride plus the views from the broad terrace alone are worth the trip. Admission charged.
Ferry Boat. Departing from the quay below the Hôtel de Ville, the ferry is a Marseilles treasure. For a pittance you can file onto this little wooden barge and chug across the Vieux Port. Pl. des Huiles on Quai de Rive Neuve side and Hôtel de Ville on Quai du Port, Vieux Port. Admission charged.
Jardin des Vestiges (Garden of Remains). Just behind the Marseilles History Museum, this garden stands on the site of Marseilles' classical waterfront and includes remains of the Greek fortifications and loading docks. Centre Bourse, Vieux Port. Admission charged.
Musée des Docks Romains (Roman Docks Museum). In 1943, Hitler destroyed the neighborhood along the Quai du Port—some 2,000 houses—displacing 20,000 citizens. This act of brutal urban renewal, ironically, laid the ground open for new discoveries. When the rebuilding of Marseilles was begun in 1947, workers dug up remains of a Roman shipping warehouse full of the terra-cotta jars and amphorae that once lay in the bellies of low-slung ships. The museum created around it demonstrates the scale of Massalia's shipping prowess. 2 pl. de Vivaux, Vieux Port. Admission charged.
Musée d'Histoire de Marseille (Marseilles History Museum). The modern, open museum illuminates Massalia's history by mounting its treasure of archaeological finds in didactic displays and miniature models of the city as it appeared in various stages of history. Best by far is the presentation of Marseille's Classical halcyon days. There's a recovered wreck of a Roman cargo boat, its 3rd-century wood amazingly preserved, and the hull of a Greek boat dating from the 4th century BC. And that model of the Greek city should be authentic—it's based on the eyewitness description of Aristotle. Centre Bourse, entrance on Rue de Bir-Hakeim, Vieux Port. Admission charged.
Musée de la Marine et de l'Economie de Marseille (Marine and Economy Museum). One of many museums devoted to Marseilles' history as a shipping port was inaugurated by Napoléon III in 1860. The museum charts the maritime history of Marseilles from the 17th century onward with paintings and engravings. It's a model-lover's dream with hundreds of steamboats and schooners, all in miniature. Palais de la Bourse, 7 La Canebière, La Canebière. Admission charged.
Musée de la Mode de Marseille (Marseilles Fashion Museum). With more than 3,000 outfits and accessories, these well-displayed and ever-changing exhibitions cover fashion from the 1920s to the present. 11 La Canebière, La Canebière. Admission charged.
Musée du Vieux Marseille (Museum of Old Marseilles). This museum is found the 16th-century Maison Diamantée (diamond house)—so named for its diamond-faceted Renaissance facade—was built in 1570 by a rich merchant. Focusing on the history of Marseilles, the museum features santons (figurines), crèches, and furniture offering a glimpse into 18th-century Marseilles life. Rue de la Prison, Vieux Port. Admission charged.
Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. Towering above the city and visible for miles around, the preposterously overscaled neo-Byzantine monument was erected in 1853 by the ever-tasteful Napoléon III. Its interior is a Technicolor bonanza of red-and-beige stripes and glittering mosaics. The gargantuan Madonna and Child on the steeple (almost 30 feet high) is covered in real gold leaf.
Le Panier. The old heart of Marseilles is a maze of high shuttered houses looming over narrow cobbled streets, montées (stone stairways), and tiny squares. Long decayed and neglected, it is the principal focus of the city's efforts at urban renewal. Wander this neighborhood at will, making sure to stroll along Rue du Panier, the montée des Accoules, Rue du Petit-Puits, and Rue des Muettes.
Marseilles offers contrasting shopping opportunities. For lovers of French haute couture there are many boutiques in the new town stocking the major designer labels plus a thriving new fashion scene of young designers selling their own ready-to-wear collections from stylish galleries. Cours Julien is lined with stores, while Rue de la Tour in the Opera district is a center of modern design, known locally as "Fashion Street."
By contrast, the city, particularly Le Panier and rue St-Ferréol, also has numerous shops selling regional crafts and delicacies including bright fabrics of blue and yellow, pottery, olive-wood items, plus delicious olives, olive oils, honey, tapenade (an olive paste), and dried herbs. Savon de Marseille (Marseilles soap) is a household standard in France, often sold as a satisfyingly crude and hefty block in odorless olive-oil green. Its chichi offspring are dainty pastel guest soaps in almond, lemon, vanilla, and other scents.
The locally famous bakery Four des Navettes (136 rue Sainte, Garde Hill) makes orange-spice, shuttle-shape navettes. These cookies are modeled on the little boat in which Mary Magdalene and Lazarus washed up onto Europe's shores and are a Marseilles specialty.
La Compagnie de Provence (1 rue Caisserie, Le Panier) is a major producer of savon de Marseille and has an excellent range from which to choose. Terre è Provence (19 rue Montgrand, Le Panier) has a copious display of colorful Provençal pottery.
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