Things to know about Marseille – 10 tips for the first-time traveler
We traveled to Marseille for the first time in April. Like many major European cities, there are parts of Marseille worth seeing, and others, well not so much. Though overall, we enjoyed our time exploring the city, there are many things to know about Marseille before visiting. And it’s these tips I want to share with other first-time travelers.
Things to know about Marseille – the basics
There are several key points you should know about Marseille:
- It’s the second largest city in France
- Marseille is located in the southeast of the country
- It’s a port city
- The main international airport is around 25 minutes by car to the city centre
- Marseille was originally an Ancient Greek colony called Massalia
- The city’s the birthplace of the National Anthem, La Marseillaise.
10 things you should know before traveling to Marseille
Is Marseille safe?
To answer the question, yes and no. During our time in Marseille, though short, we found Marseille to be very safe.
There are 16 arrondissements (administrative districts) in total in Marseille. The 1st arrondissement includes the main sights of the old port, and the neighborhoods of Canebiere and Noailles. Most of the city’s attractions are located in this area, and it’s safe, though touristy.
The 2nd arrondissement is where we stayed during our trip at NH Collection Marseille.
It’s quiet, local in many parts, and best of all, close to the colorful Le Panier neighborhood. The hotel’s also a short walk from La Joliette metro, which is handy for traveling elsewhere around the city. This arrondissement’s also home to Marseille Cathedral and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations.
Explore Marseille’s neighborhoods
Things to know about Marseille – explore other arrondissements
There are many other pretty and safe neighborhoods in Marseille worth visiting, such as the 6th, 7th and 8th arrondissements. The first has plenty of residential tree-lined streets, leading to the popular tourist attraction of Notre Dame de la Garde. The 7th arrondissement is home to the Abbey of St Victor along with plenty of attractive and grand houses.
The 8th arrondissement is further south, and you’ll need a car or public transportation to get there. It’s an affluent district, and is also home to the striking Parc Borely. This Chateaux and 18th century gardens with a public park and lakeside café is a local favorite.
I’d also encourage you to explore other areas, as we came across a superb patisserie in the 5th arrondissement. For a seriously buttery, flaky and chocolaty pain au chocolat, make the journey to Amandine. The surrounding streets are also very residential, and you immediately get the feeling that Amandine is where the locals go. We visited on a Sunday morning, and savored every bite of our patisserie and coffee at this local hangout.
Amandine patisserie in the 5th Arrondissement of Marseille is worth the walk
“I’d also encourage you to explore other areas, as we came across a superb patisserie in the 5th arrondissement.”
Areas to avoid in Marseille – things to know about Marseille
Every city on the planet has good and not so good neighborhoods, and the same applies to Marseille. Areas to avoid in Marseillle tend to be around the northern quarters of the city, ie the 14th arrondissement onwards.
I won’t be naming any specific places or streets but these areas carry a general reputation for being less safe. I’d just advise to stay within the areas above, especially if it’s your first time in Marseille.
Stick to well-known areas of the city
Visit Marseille during a good time of year
Needless to say, we’re at the mercy of the weather whenever, and wherever, we travel.
We visited Marseille in early April and overall, I’d say it’s a good time of year. There was plenty of spring sunshine, which made all the walking also more enjoyable. However, one of the things you should know about Marseille is that the weather can very be unpredictable.
When it rains in Marseille, it pours, and in our case, it poured for 1 entire day during our trip. Luckily, we’d come prepared with an umbrella, and an extra given by the hotel. We’d also packed the right clothing and worn waterproof jackets to protect us from the elements. Marseille is a port city, and even without the rain, it can feel chilly with the breeze.
Saying that, be prepared for any change in weather when visiting Marseille. Sure, there will be less chance of rain in summer, but you just never know.
Wear comfortable shoes when traveling in Marseille
On an average day in Marseille, we racked up approximately 20,000 steps from walking around the city. As well as walking to tourist areas around the centre, we also found many sloping streets. La Panier neighborhood in Marseille has plenty, and as charming as it is, it can also wear you out.
Given this, I advise wearing your most comfortable, breathable pair of shoes or boots when traveling to Marseille. While you do see local women wearing high heels, they can do this as they’re pros at navigating their city. Do your feet a favor and stick to comfortable shoes with pure cotton socks.
One last point also worth mentioning is to wear the correct material. If it rains, it can be a nightmare for materials like suede. Instead, stick to leather or a waterproof material; soggy socks and shoes can be a travel downer.
Put your best walking shoe forward
Things to know about Marseille – beware a substandard bouillabaisse
For many people traveling to Marseille for the first time, there’s usually only one dish that dominates their wish list. Bouillabaisse is a traditional Provençal fisherman’s fish stew that originates from Marseille. You’ll see many restaurants, particularly around the harbor area, advertising it on their menus.
What you won’t know, however, is whether the bouillabaisse you’re eating is the real deal, or just a cheap imitation. It’s normal for major cities to capitalize on its most popular food item. In Berlin, it’s the currywurst; in Valencia it’s paella. But, the biggest difference between these dishes and bouillabaisse is the cost. Most prices for bouillabaisse start around €40 ($45/£35).
How to eat bouillabaisse in Marseille
The bouillabaisse is served in 2 parts, the first of which is the broth. If you’re looking for pieces of fish and seafood here, you’ll be disappointed as that comes later.
The broth’s served with small slices of toasted bread almost resembling larger croutons. To this, you spread on some rouille; a mayonnaise made from olive oil, saffron and garlic and cayenne pepper. It has the same consistency and color of an English mustard, but without the heat. Lastly, you place the toast in the broth and eat together.
Part 2 of the bouillabaisse is the fish itself. A traditional bouillabaisse usually has fish such as rascasse, red gurnard and English conger. More elaborate — and expensive — versions may also serve it with langoustine. The fish is served in the same broth, along with boiled potatoes.
Do your research – things to know about Marseille
Now you know how to eat a bouillabaisse, you also need to know which restaurant does it best. This is where it can get difficult, because the last thing you want is a bad bouillabaisse.
At the time, we could only base our research on one thing: online reviews. To choose a restaurant near the port made sense given the ingredients of the dish so we started here.
We eventually settled upon a restaurant further away from the crowds, and one that had glowing reviews. Another good sign upon entering, was that all the other diners were French. The bouillabaisse for 2 people cost €47 (£41/$53) and we prepared ourselves for a fish feast. It never arrived.
A bouillabaisse with no taste
The fish broth, rich in bouillabaisse color, was tasteless and bland. Our waiter also failed to tell us there was a second part to the dish. By the time the fish plate arrived, we were already full from the bread and broth! The pieces of fish, though delicately cooked, was again lacking any flavor.
Suffice it to say, our bouillabaisse experience wasn’t so great. The restaurant staff and manager were very friendly, but we weren’t as positive about the food. I later learned, that most people from Marseille don’t actually eat bouillabaisse, they probably leave it to the tourists! Truthfully, if we’d known this beforehand, we may have just skipped it altogether.
Bouillabaisse: part 2
Get tips from the locals
There’s one failsafe way to know whether a place/restaurant is good or not, and that’s to ask a local. At NH Collection Marseille, we were lucky to have an excellent customer relations manager to give us some insider tips.
Sadly, she was wasn’t working the day we went to try a bouillabaisse (!). But, she did direct us to an excellent French restaurant in La Joliette called Un Petit Cabanon. She also gave us a good tip on a restaurant for dinner in Le Panier. Both her suggestions were for local places, with excellent quality food and wine.
One of our best meals in Marseille at Un Petit Cabanon
Lunch starts early in Marseille
One of many things to know about Marseille is that lunch starts earlier rather than later. We were surprised by this, as in other Mediterranean countries, lunch tends to start later. By comparison, many people start heading for lunch at 12pm in Marseille. If they start the lunch service early, they also end it early too.
We discovered the hard way that some restaurants were already closed by 1.30. Fortunately, our guest relations manager had made us a last-minute booking at Un Petit Cabanon for a late lunch. There were only 2 other tables dining when we entered — and they were already on the coffee; it was 1.15pm.
If you do plan to visit a certain restaurant for lunch, check the opening times before visiting. This way, you can always have a plan b if it falls through.
Check the opening times for lunch in Marseille
Things to know about Marseille – take a day trip
Marseille just so happens to be in one of the most beautiful regions of France, Provence. Taking a day trip from the city is possible, and there are also plenty of beautiful destinations to choose from.
Take the picturesque commune of Avignon. It takes around 1 hour 44 minutes by car from Marseille to reach this location packed with UNESCO heritage sites. The medieval Gothic structure of Palais des Papes is one of the most visited attractions in Avignon. It literally translates as Palace of the Popes, as it was once the Papal residence of 7 popes. Other notable sights in Avignon include Pont D’Avignon and Avignon Cathedral.
Take a day trip from Marseille to Avignon
Calanque National Park
See the most stunning natural sights away from the city at Calanque National Park. Calanques are narrow steep-walled inlets made from limestone or dolomite found along the Mediterranean coast. The national park extends over 520km2 encompassing marine life, and has plenty of hiking and climbing spots.
Calanque de Sormiou is the biggest calanque in the park, and a popular spot for the locals in summer. Cars are restricted here in summer given the risk of forest fires.
Cassis – things to know about Marseille
A little further east from Calanques National Park is the Mediterranean coastal commune of Cassis. Pastel-colored restaurants, bars and cafes line the port, while its pebble beaches and striking calanques attract visitors annually.
Cassis is also known for its wineries and for producing white and rose wine varieties. Don’t confuse this with Crème de Cassis. This liqeur is actually made in Burgundy and takes its name from cassis the fruit (blackcurrants), rather than the commune.
Things to know about Marseille – you can see the sights in 1 day
The last thing you should know about Marseille, is that it’s possible to see the main attractions in 1 day.
Most of the city’s top sights, like Marseille Cathedral and Notre Dame de la Garde, are within the same area. I highly recommend taking the no.60 bus from the old port to Notre Dame de la Garde. It’s not only a long walk, but also an uphill one at that.
If time’s really short in Marseille, you may want to consider taking a guided tour, or even hopping on the bus. These routes help you visit the must-see things of the city and with a local expert too.
Do you feel better prepared for your trip to Marseille? Have you already been and want to add something to this list? Let me know in the comments below!
Till next time, happy boutique travels xx
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I’ve recommended. Thank you for your support.
Admiring the aerial views of the city from Notre Dame de la Garde