Marseille, the radiant city
Standing on the ramparts of Fort Saint Jean, you are a stone's throw from the sea. The landscape distills into three colors: the pink of the time-worn stone of the fort, the deep blue of the sea and the light blue of the cloudless sky. Boats sail offshore or enter the crowded harbor. The gigantic shadow of a ferry lazily floats out of the trading port and briefly hide the Estaque from view. Down below people drink coffee and explore the stairs overgrown with flowers. You stop for a moment between two olive trees to enjoy the warmth of the sun. Here, on this immense open sky terrace, one almost forgets the big city behind these century-old walls. The MuCEM stares back at you, wrapped in a garland of black concrete. A few years ago, the site on which it stands was nothing more than an abandoned jetty occupied by petanque players, traveling circuses, and masses of cars bound for the Mediterranean. The old lady of Marseille and this newcomer now guard the port side by side, symbolizing the old and new face of Marseille.
Incongruous mixtures make Marseille what it is: the ubiquitous presence of nature in the midst of extremely urban settings, bold architecture standing next to fishing ports, ancient history and street art meeting at the same corner. Go for a family stroll by the harbor and you’re suddenly surrounded by fishing boats and buildings from the ‘50s. The sailors strip paint off sea-beaten hulls as the café terraces steadily fill up. Boats light-heartedly set out towards the inlets whose white cliffs and wilderness are never far away.
Although it is two thousand years old, Marseille never takes itself too seriously. It is known for having its own distinct character. It has a unique knack for knowing how to let life flourish, allowing little histories to live alongside its grand one. In Le Panier, the oldest district, one plays hide-and-seek with the sun under the 17th century arches of La Vieille Charité. In Le Cours Julien one sits in the shade of trees, surrounded by more street art than anywhere else in Europe. Under the arcades of the byzantine-style La Major, the waiters shout across to one another from their fish stands and pizza ovens. As you follow the footsteps of the Impressionists to the small port of l'Estaque, you find yourself swept away by the smell of panisses exuding from huts that have remained unchanged for decades.
The summer and the easy-going rhythm of life linger in Marseille throughout the year. They are in the little Malmousque coves hidden under the Corniche, between the beautiful pastel houses and the fishermen's huts somewhat eaten away by salt. They are in the sea that emerges at every turn. You find a bit of this communal and holiday feel everywhere in Marseilles. Each neighborhood has its own identity, but perhaps nowhere as much as in the tiny port of Les Goudes, where the sight of pink, blue and yellow huts makes you suspect that time has truly stopped. The lone street is so narrow that going down it by car is a real feat. This is where you go to enjoy the catch of the day in one of the bars facing the harbor, a pergola above your head, sheltered even in winter from the mistral.
Marseille is a great lady of inexhaustible youth - without frills and rejecting conventions. Her beauty is welcoming, indolent and brazen at the same time. She is forever turned towards the Mediterranean, seeing off her fishermen as they leave for the sea under the watchful eye of La Bonne Mère (a local nickname for Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde).
When to go?
One is tempted to say that it is never cold in Marseille, and that any time of year is good for a visit. But the period from November to January is riskier: sometimes the glacial mistral blows hard and sometimes the strong sunshine can make it seem like it’s May. The most beautiful seasons are spring and autumn. The coves are always open around then, often closed in summer so as to protect them from fire. They are covered with small flowers in spring and gorgeous lighting in the fall. You can stay outside in the temperatures that are pleasantly warm with no thought of the stifling heat that often comes in summer.
How to get there?
You can get to Marseille by train from several European capitals. Your TGV journey shows Marseille’s love for its breathtaking view, from the sea views that greet you en route to the Bonne Mère which meets you as you exit the station on arrival. Arriving by plane in Marignane (30 min from Marseille) is just as impressive, approaching over the waters of Etang de Berre pond or over a panoramic view of Marseille.
From Marseille, take the Côte Bleue train to meander between the small coastal villages and ride along the side of a cliff or across narrow bridges tens of meters above the water. The water shuttle, operating from May to October, serves the Pointe Rouge, the Estaque and the Goudes from the old port of Marseille. Turning back towards Marseille, the view is always magnificent. Still, the best time to return to the port is with the last shuttle of the day when the city is fully illuminated.
Cook fish with Marseille’s foremost chef
Georgiana is Marseille’s chef par excellence, the one who regularly stirs up Marseille's gastronomic scene. Her latest project, la Piscine, is the city's new must-try restaurant. Join her at the fish market of the Old Port to pick out your midday feast, then head back to the restaurant kitchen to concoct her favorite dishes together.
Have lunch in a cabin
In the hollow of the white and green inlets, you’ll come upon the small fishing village of Sormiou. Knock on the cabin door; soon Raymond will be standing there and the scent of bouillabaisse will reach your nostrils. This lifelong fisherman loves to make everyone try this famous Marseille dish, whose recipe has been perfected over the course of generations. Enjoy a long lunch under the pergola, to the rhythm of Raymond's storytelling and the splashing of transparent water.
Drink pastis at sea
On board an old Marseille boat at the bottom of the Old Port, Matthieu awaits you with a brimming picnic basket. This nautical enthusiast has completely renovated his boat to give it a second life at sea. The hold is full of cushions you can snuggle into as you leave behind Fort Saint Jean. Just as Vallon des Auffes comes into view, Matthieu unrolls the tablecloth and leaves the aperitif on the bow. Enjoy it as the Marseille coastline slowly passes before your eyes all the way to the tiny port of Goudes.
Our address book
Marseille goes Asian
Among the Pointe Rouge beach restaurants, Pascal's Kitchen stands apart. The French-Thai chef Pascal mixes his two worlds with talent and humor in a half-Marseillais, half-Asian atmosphere. You should definitely book a table on the terrace overlooking the beach, where you can sunbathe or watch the sun set over the sea under the light of lanterns. On the menu, Pad Thai stands side by side with truffle burrata and socca, reinvented with an Asian touch. Do not leave without having tasted one of Pascal's famous infused rums.
46 Avenue de Montredon, 13008 Marseille
L'esplaï du Grand Bar des Goudes
Catch of the day
There is an air of dolce vita in this restaurant, part old-style brasserie, part fisherman's cabin. You reach it as you descend the tiny – and only – street of the small port of Goudes, Marseille’s end of the world. The bar is on one side of the street, the restaurant on the other encased in glass with a large terrace cut off from the world. Go for a table with a view of the port and a good bouillabaisse or extra-fresh fish, exquisitely presented. If there are no free tables, wait with a glass of rosé at one of the tables outside the bar. The surreal maneuvers of motorists attempting to navigate through the tiny street are a show in their own right.
Parc national des Calanques, 29 Rue Désirée-Pellaprat, 13008 Marseille
Trattoria with an accent
Here one is welcomed at the door with an Italian accent. In this utterly charming restaurant you immediately feel at home: white tablecloths and a wooden counter, garden chairs and a patio blanketed in ivy to pass the time in fine weather. You can enjoy Italian family food: no frills, impeccably prepared, and just what you need. The right ingredients play an integral role; the passionate chef selects them personally each month in Bologna. We love the fondant burrata with fresh tomato coulis and the classic pasta vongole, and the desserts are to die for. Above all, do not forget to make a reservation.
24 Cours Julien, 13006 Marseille
Bar on the Catalans beach
A solitary beach
Magical at nightfall when the beach empties. Go down the stairs and walk along the jetty to bypass the big rock that delineates the beach .You’ll stumble upon a small bar concealed by the rock wall, with a few tables set directly on the pier. The bar itself has no real name or menu; it feels like being alone at the end of the world, a few meters from the sea, just you and the sunset. This is one of the mysterious places that make for Marseille’s special allure.
To the left of the Catalan beach
Café de l'abbaye
A somewhat haphazard place, like many of those that make up the soul of Marseille. The Café has some tables installed on the large intersection above the port, in front of the ancient Saint Victor basilica. Go there in the evening to see the sun set on the port and the fortresses while sipping a pastis accompanied by some crispy panisses. Françoise, the relaxed and good-natured bar owner, maintains a great atmosphere.
Right next to Saint Victor Abbey, take a look at the small covered market. Vendors include a cheese maker, an oyster seller, a market gardener, each with excellent products.
3 Rue d'Endoume, 13007 Marseille
The Intercontinental Brunch
Marseille from above
The InterContinental is located in the grandiose building of Marseille’s Hôtel-Dieu, a former 17th century hospital with dozens of arcades overlooking the Place de la Mairie. The only way to fully grasp the scale of its grandeur is climbing the stairs to the astonishing terrace. From there, the view stretches beyond the roof of the town hall all the way down into the harbor; Notre-Dame de la Garde, right in front of you, seems to be within arm’s reach. The brunch served here on sunny Sundays (i.e. most Sundays) is a real feast of high quality products: seafood, sea urchins, shrimp, cheese, Corsican sausages, spit-roasted ham, barbeque-grilled octopus, lamb shank... It’s a brunch unlike any you’ve ever seen.
1 Place Daviel, 13002 Marseille
Natural History Museum
An unusual museum
Today, Palais Longchamp is best known in Marseille for its collection of fine arts. But another of its wings hides a more unusual world; that of the Museum, which also presents the oldest side of the palace. You will find a true cabinet of curiosities: more than two hundred years unfolding before you as you walk through a vast array of flora and fauna preserved in their original state.
Boulevard Jardin Zoologique, 13004 Marseille
A Marseillais house
Somewhat removed from the city center, the Jardin Montgrand is a beautiful multifaceted place. The part-concept store, part-tea room is set in a 19th century mansion. Passing through the entrance made of large black and white slabs, you find yourself walking through parquet-floored rooms surrounded by the creations of Marseille’s designers. You should without fail be there at tea time to enjoy the pastries with playful names and surprising pairings. Enjoy them with a lemonade in the beautiful garden for which the place is named while lying on a chaise longue with pretty prints in the shade of a huge chestnut tree.
35 Rue Montgrand, 13006 Marseille
At the base of the popular Noailles district you will find a timeless, somewhat magical place: one of the oldest hardware stores in France, run by the same family for more than two hundred years. The new generation has brilliantly reinvented the idea of hardware and offers an astounding array of beautiful products, both totally retro and utterly modern. One passes beyond the old wooden facade as if entering the cave of Ali Baba. On the ground floor lies a labyrinth of savon de Marseille soaps, brushes and old tools. At the top of the creaking staircase you’ll find toys made of tin, vintage dishes, lovely beauty products from bygone days. It is one of those rare places where one can return again and again and always be surprised.
PS: After you leave Maison Empereur pop over to L’Ideal, a trendy grocery store founded by a former food writer, full of beautiful and high quality products.
4 Rue des Récolettes, 13001 Marseille