Since being designated a European Capital of Culture for 2013, with an estimated €660 million of funding in the bargain, Marseille has been in the throes of an extraordinary transformation, with no fewer than five major new arts centers, a beautifully refurbished port, revitalized neighborhoods, and a slew of new shops and restaurants. Once the underdog, this time-burnished city is now welcoming an influx of weekend tourists who have colonized entire neighborhoods and transformed them into elegant pieds-à-terre (or should we say, mer). The second-largest city in France, Marseille is one of Europe's most vibrant destinations. Feisty and fond of broad gestures, it is also as complicated and as cosmopolitan now as it was when a band of Phoenician Greeks first sailed into the harbor that is today's Vieux Port in 600 BC. Legend has it that on that same day a local chieftain's daughter, Gyptis, needed to choose a husband, and her wandering eyes settled on the Greeks' handsome commander Protis. Her dowry brought land near the mouth of the Rhône, where the Greeks founded Massalia, the most important Continental shipping port in antiquity. The port flourished for some 500 years as a typical Greek city, enjoying the full flush of classical culture, its gods, its democratic political system, its sports and theater, and its naval prowess. Caesar changed all that, besieging the city in 49 BC and seizing most of its colonies. In 1214 Marseille was seized again, this time by Charles d'Anjou, and was later annexed to France by Henri IV in 1481, but it was not until Louis XIV took the throne that the biggest transformations of the port began; he pulled down the city walls in 1666 and expanded the port to the Rive Neuve (New Riverbank). The city was devastated by plague in 1720, losing more than half its population. By the time of the Revolution, Marseille was on the rebound once again, with industries of soap manufacturing and oil processing flourishing, encouraging a wave of immigration from Provence and Italy. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Marseille became the greatest boomtown in 19th-century Europe. With a large influx of immigrants from areas as exotic as Tangiers, the city quickly acquired the multicultural population it maintains to this day.
With a population of 859, 000, Marseille is a big city by French standards, with all the nightlife that entails. Arm yourself with Marseille L'Hebdo, a glossy monthly events magazine; A Nous Marseille, a hip weekly on theater, art, film, concerts, and shopping in southern Provence; or the monthly In Situ, a free guide to music, theater, and galleries. They're all in French.
Marseille's vibrant multicultural mix has evolved a genre of music that fuses all the sounds of Arabic music with rhythms of Provence, Corsica, and southern Italy, and douses it with reggae and rap.
Tucked into the filmlike tiny fishing port Vallon des Auffes, this Marseillais landmark has one of the loveliest settings in greater Marseille. Once presided over by cult chef "Fonfon," it used to be a favorite movie-star hangout. A variety of fresh seafood, impeccably grilled, steamed, or roasted in salt crust, is served in two pretty dining rooms with picture windows overlooking the fishing boats that supply your dinner. Try classic bouillabaisse served with all the bells and whistles—broth, hot-chili rouille, and flamboyant table-side filleting.
Four des Navettes
This famous bakery, up the street from Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, makes orange-spice, shuttle-shape navettes. These cookies are modeled on the little boat that, it is said, carried Lazarus and the "Three Marys" (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobe) to the nearby shore.
Centre de la Vieille Charité
At the top of the Panier district you'll find this superb ensemble of 17th- and 18th-century architecture 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, elementally labeled (for example, "pot"). There's also a display on the mysterious Celt-like Ligurians who first peopled the coast, cryptically presented with emphasis on the digs instead of the finds themselves. The best of the lot is the evocatively mounted Egyptian collection—the second-largest in France after the Louvre's. There are mummies, hieroglyphs, and gorgeous sarcophagi in a tomblike setting. 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.
Musée d'Histoire de Marseille
With the Port Antique in front, this modern, open-space museum illuminates Massalia's history with a treasure of archaeological finds 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 third-century wood amazingly preserved, and the hull of a Greek boat dating from the 4th century BC. The model of the Greek city should be authentic—it's based on an eyewitness description by Aristotle. The museum reopened after a stunning €21-million renovation in the summer of 2013.
This is the heart of old Marseille, a maze of high-shuttered houses looming over narrow cobbled streets, montées (stone stairways), and tiny squares. Long decayed and neglected, the quarter is a principal focus of the city's efforts at urban renewal. In the last few years an influx of Bobos (bourgeois-bohemians) and artists have sparked the gentrification process, bringing charming B&Bs, chic boutiques, lively cafés, and artists' ateliers. Wander this picturesque neighborhood of pastel-painted townhouses, steep stairways, and narrow streets at will, making sure to stroll along Rue du Panier, the montée des Accoules, Rue du Petit-Puits, and Rue des Muettes.
In keeping with the Vieux Port's substantially spiffed-up image, the Marseille regional transport service now offers an efficient public navette ferry service much like its bus or métro services (with free transfers on both for up to 90 minutes). Although free only with a metro pass, the nominal charge of €3 (available only onboard) is well worth it for the fun and convenience of crossing the port by boat.
Founded in the fourth century by St-Cassien, who sailed into Marseille full of fresh ideas on monasticism that he acquired in Palestine and Egypt, this church grew to formidable proportions. With a Romanesque design, the structure would be as much at home in the Middle East as its founder was. The crypt, St-Cassien's original, is buried under the medieval church, and in the evocative nooks and crannies you can find the fifth-century sarcophagus that allegedly holds the martyr's remains. Upstairs, a reliquary contains what's left of St. Victor, who was ground to death between millstones, probably by Romans. There's also a passage into tiny catacombs where early Christians worshipped St-Lazarus and Mary Magdalene, said to have washed ashore at Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
In the 16th century, François I recognized the strategic advantage of an island fortress surveying the mouth of Marseille's vast harbor and built this imposing edifice. Its effect as a deterrent was so successful that the fortress 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 through which Dumas had him escape is real enough, on display in the cells. On the other hand, the real-life Man in the Iron Mask, whose cell is also erroneously on display, was not imprisoned here. The IF Frioul Express boat ride (from the Quai des Belges, €10; for information call 04–96–11–03–50) and the views from the broad terrace are worth the trip.
Cathédrale de la Nouvelle Major
This gargantuan, neo-Byzantine 19th-century fantasy 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. You can view the flashy decor (think marble and rich red porphyry inlay) in the newer of the two churches; the medieval one is being restored.
Musée des Civilisations de L'Europe et de la Mediterranée
After a lengthy renovation, the Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM) opened its doors to great fanfare in the summer of 2013. Made up of three sites designed by Rudy Ricciotti, MuCEM is all about new perspectives on Mediterranean cultures. Themes like "the invention of gods," "the treasures of the spice route," or "at the bazaar of gender" are explored in Ricciotti's virtuosic J4 (named for the esplanade). The museum's popular café, bistro, and restaurant (reservations required), overseen by star-chef Gérald Passédat, are great for refreshment and taking in the views. You can access the 12th-century Fort St-Jean, built by Louis XIV with the guns pointing toward the city, in order to keep the feisty, rebellious Marseillais under his thumb. If you're not the queasy type, take a suspended footbridge over the sea; it provides spectacular photo-ops and never-been-seen panoramas. On the other side, you can visit a new Mediterranean garden and a folk-art collection. A third building—the Center for Conservation and Resources, near the St-Charles train station—holds the museum's permanent collection of paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, and objects.
Towering above the city and visible for miles around, this overscaled neo-Byzantine monument was erected in 1853 by Napoléon III. The interior is a Technicolor bonanza of red-and-beige stripes and glittering mosaics, and the gargantuan Madonna and Child on the steeple (almost 30 feet high) is covered in real gold leaf. While the panoply of ex-votos, mostly thanking the Virgin for deathbed interventions and shipwreck survivals, is a remarkable sight, most impressive are the views of the seaside city at your feet.