Soak in some sun, discover the city and experience world-famous architecture in Marseille.
The city of Marseille is defined by the Mediterranean sea. Its old port has been the lifeline of the city, and a source of renewal. Hundreds of thousands of people arrived in Europe on one of the countless ships docking here. Trade ships brought exotic goods and wealth and hungry sailors that needed to be fed.
France’s second biggest city in the south of France couldn’t be more different than the biggest one, Paris, the capital of the country. Marseille is a little rough, and tough, and sometimes gritty. But it’s also honest, and heartfelt, and above all, very beautiful. Its beauty mostly doesn’t come from big, prestigious buildings, but from small alleyways, colorful houses, and corners steeped in centuries of history.
It’s the city of Bouillabaisse, not Haute Cuisine. Of days spent lounging at the beach and wandering through the old quarter Le Panier and along the harbor, looking at palm trees.
In spite of all its history, Marseille feels like a young city, with a very active creative scene. You’ll find a lot of designers, artists and musicians here, and street art that will blow your mind. When you’re done exploring the cityscapes, secluded bays and sandy beaches are just a short drive away. And the weather will brighten your mood even more.
Since May 1st, Eurostar operates a direct service from London, taking you from the city center of the British capital to the heart of Marseille in just under six and a half hours. The new Provence route takes you through France and past some of the country’s most breathtaking scenery, while you can just sit back and relax. Tickets start at just 99£ (approximately 145 USD/135 Euro) return.
So hop on that train, pack your sunglasses, put on some sunscreen. Let’s spend 12hrs in Marseille!
Marseille is the second largest city of France and the country’s largest city on the Mediterranean coast.
Good to know: Marseille was an important trade center and functioned as the main trade port of the French empire.
It was founded 2.600 years ago, making Marseille the oldest city in France.
The national anthem of France is called ‘La Marseillaise’.
Population (metro area): 1.7 Million
Currency: Euro (€)
9am – Coogee
Starting the day at Marseille’s best cafe
Starting the day with a good coffee and some breakfast always is a good idea. So let’s head over to Coogee, the best coffee bar in Marseille, and let’s do just that. Behind the counter are drawings of the most popular coffee-based drinks, so if you have problems deciding, consult these and see if anything piques your interest. The room is cozy with mismatched vintage furniture scattered around. And chances are you’ll encounter the owners’ German Sheaperd sleeping peacefully on his blanket under a table by the bar.
The team bakes fresh muffins every day and they are delicious (we tried caramel and banana), so have your pick to complete your breakfast order. During the lunch hours, Coogee serves great salads, so if you’re in Marseille for longer, make sure to try them out.
After breakfast, head outside, walk left along Boulevard Baille and then up Rue de Lodi, all the way towards Cours Julien. Turn right on the small Rue Fontange to reach your next destination.
Coogee // 100 Boulevard Baille // Mon-Fri 7am-7pm, Sat 10am-7pm // website
10.30am – Fietje
200 different beers in sale
At the corner end of the street lies Fietje, a specialty beer shop close to Cours Julien. We realize it’s way too early to drink, but Fietje doesn’t serve the drinks, it just sells them. You can find more than 200 different varieties of beverages here, mostly craft and specialty beers. The shop itself is modern and beautiful, so peek in even if you don’t want to bring a bottle as a souvenir.
The outside of the building boasts some amazing murals – a sure sign that we are close to Cours Julien. From here on, look out for lots of amazing street art.
Fietje // 2 Rue Fontange // Tue-Sat 10.30am-7pm // website
10.40am – Cours Julien
Street art as far as the eye can see
Hello // Salut
Thank you // Merci
Yes // Oui
No // Non
Maybe // Peut-être
Do & Dont’s
Do: Wear sunglasses! The city gets 300 days of sunshine per year.
Don’t: Don’t insult Olympique Marseille. Football is serious business here.
Time to explore the neighborhood. Cours Julien is the perfect place to get a sense of Marseille and its inhabitants. It’s a young, vibrant quarter full of bars and cafes, little shops and restaurants. People hang out in the sun on the big central square, children play football, and dogs are chasing through the streets.
France is known for its lively street art scene and Marseille is one of the capitals of this movement. Almost every store around Cours Julien has its name written in street art or graffiti instead of a regular old sign. Walk around the neighborhood and really take your time to walk through the small side streets. You’ll discover plenty of colorful corners, small shops and also lots of photo opportunities off the tourist path.
When you feel you’ve seen enough, walk towards the general direction of the water. If you’re close to the Metro station Notre Dame du Mont – Cours Julien, the best street to take is Rue Estelle. Time for some shopping!
11.30am – Allanjoseph
The best fashion boutique in Marseille
You’ve reached the inner city of Marseille, the main shopping area. On your walk towards Rue Sainte you’ll notice that we leave the high street behind and instead wander through some streets that have fancier stores, where it’s not so crowded.
For us, the Allanjoseph Store is the best fashion boutique in Marseille. Catering to both women and men, it stocks some big brand names as well as some newcomers. The spacious store with it’s sliding walls hiding the stock and the big changing rooms in the back look impressive, and the super nice staff will make you feel right at home.
Allenjoseph sells relaxed fashion, lots of denim and a fairly big selection of accessories like bags, sunglasses and jewelry. They also stock the great skincare products by Swedish eco-cosmetics brand L:A Bruket. Among the fashion brands on display are Kitsuné, Acne, carven and Levi’s.
After you’re done browsing, head out and walk down the street and around the corner to the next store on our list.
Allanjoseph store // 21 Rue Sainte // Mon-Sat 10am-7pm // website
11.45am – La Maison Marseillaise
Homeware and accessories
Dressing the part
Chances are it’s going to be sunny and warm, so wear your favorite summer clothes and don’t worry too much about fashion. .
The Bourne Identity
Just a minutes’ walk from Allanjoseph lies this furniture and homeware store. La Maison Marseillaise sells everything you might need or want for your home, and while you probably don’t want to go furniture shopping while traveling, you can still find plenty of useful, pretty things here to take home with you. We loved all of their candles and pretty kitchen helpers.
Have a look around, and then let’s leave this area to travel a bit outside of the city center to catch up on some Marseillaise culture. But don’t worry, we’ll be back to explore the shopping district later in the day.
Walk down to the old harbour, where you will catch a first glimpse of the glorious Mediterranean sea. As hard as it is, as soon as you spot the ocean, you’ll already have to say goodbye and enter the subway station Vieux-Port – Hôtel de ville. But don’t fret: we’ll be back here soon to soak it all in. For now, take the M1 to Castellane and change into the red line, the M2. Get off after two stops at Rond-Point du Prado.
La Maison Marseillaise // 38 Rue Francis Davso // Mon-Sat 10am-7pm // website
12.30pm – Cité Radieuse
Le Corbusier’s world-famous housing unit
We are in the south of Marseille now, headed for the Cité Radieuse. But before we arrive, we have a short walk down the Boulevard Michelet ahead of us. This is a busy street with many lanes and tons of traffic, so not exactly a stroll to remember. But Marseille makes it up to you. On your way to our destination, you pass the Stade Vélodrome on your left, the impressive stadium that is home to the football club Olympique Marseille and the rugby team RC Toulon. It’s the largest football stadium in France that houses more than 67.000 spectators, and is truly spectacular to look at. As you pass it, make sure to have a good look. Then, you should be able to spot the Cité Radieuse on the other side of the street pretty soon.
Designed by the Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, who is much better known under the name Le Corbusier, this building is credited for being the first example of the Brutalist architecture style and philosophy. Looking at it, you quickly understand how they thought of the name of that building style… Le Corbusier built this housing development with the help of painter and architect Nadir Afonso between 1947 and 1952. It has many features that were revolutionary at that time and that are the reason that living in this monstrous building stays popular to this day.
The 337 apartments are laid out over twelve stories, with each apartment stretching from one side of the building to the other, occupying two levels and having a balcony. There are also many communal areas throughout the building, one story houses different shops, another one a hotel and restaurant. On the roof, you’ll find a paddling pool for the children of the occupants, a running track, a sun deck, an open-air stage and a children’s art school. Both the hotel floor with some shops and the roof are open to visitors. Before you go up, you’ll have to sign in with the concierge who is sitting in a booth opposite the elevators.
La Cité Radieuse // 280 Boulevard Michelet // website
12.45pm – MAMO
Art on the roof of the Cité Radieuse
Marseille’s public transport system includes two subway and three tram lines, the rest of the city can be reached via bus. Buy your tickets at the machines before boarding or from the bus drivers.
What to order:
Food: Bouillabaisse, the fish stew containing at least three varieties of fresh local fish.
Drinks: Pastis, made with aniseeds and spices is the drink du jour.
From the top, you’ll have a marvelous view of the Mediterranean, the mountains surrounding Marseille and the whole city. Wander around to get the full picture, then head inside. Since 2013, the roof of the Cité Radieuse hosts MaMo (Marseille Modulor), an exhibition center that showcases the works of young and emerging artists.
The exhibitions here change regularly but are usually all worth the price of admission. If you are not sure what to expect, check online before you visit or take a peek inside through the glass.
Enjoy the exhibition and then make your way back to the city. Just walk back to the Metro and take the M2 for two stops until you are back at Castellane. Exit there, it’s finally time for lunch.
MaMo // Centre d’art de la Cité Radieuse // 280 Boulevard Michelet // Admission: 5 Euro // website
2pm – Le Fantastique
A fantastic lunch
Walk up the Boulevard Baille again towards Coogee where you had breakfast. A few meters before the coffee shop, you’ll find Le Fantastique.
Le Fantastique is a wonderful restaurant, run by a couple of friends who are great hosts and welcome you with open arms. They mainly focus on lunch, but are open for dinner on Thursdays and Fridays as well, so if you’re in town for longer than 12hrs, make sure to visit them again during the evening.
During our 12hrs in Marseille, however, we visit Le Fantastique to take a break from all the exploring and refuel with some great lunch. The menu at the door lets you know what’s on offer today, the dishes here are always cooked fresh and change every day. The focus is on strong Mediterranean flavors and healthy eating. Expect soups, salads, small Tapas-style dishes and Quiches, and if you have a sweet tooth, definitely leave some room for dessert. Le Fantastique’s cakes and tarts are delicious. Order at the counter and find a space to sit. If the sun is shining, head straight into the backyard and try to get a hold of a table in the garden.
Le Fantastique looks homely, with vintage furniture and different patterns on the table cloths, and lots of quirky details on the shelves for you to discover, from Mexican wrestling masks to a faded Che Guevara bust. Their wine selection is extremely affordable and lovely, so do it like the French and have a glass with your lunch.
Enjoy the break, and when you’re done walk back to the Castellane subway stop and jump back on the M1, taking you to Vieux-Port – Hôtel de ville where you were earlier in the day. Time for some fun in the sun.
Le Fantastique // 76 Boulevard Baille // Mon-Wed 8am-3pm, Thu/Fri 8am-3pm & 6pm-12am // facebook
3.30pm – Compagnie De Provence
Buying the real ‘Savon de Marseille’
You’re at one of Marseille’s main tourist attractions now, the Old Port of Marseille, called Vieux Port in French. This is the city’s oldest harbor, reaching back to the antiquity. Where big merchant ships used to dock you’ll now find yachts, private vessels and fishing boats. Old folks and young kids are standing on the docks with their fishing rods, waiting for a catch. And pedestrians are swarming around, soaking in the sun.
You’ll notice the rather spectacular mirror installation in the middle of the square. This ‘Vieux Port Pavilion’ was built by Norman Foster for Marseille’s run as European capital of culture in 2013 and has luckily remained in place.
Stroll along the water with the sea to your left until you reach the other side of the harbor. Then, walk up the Rue de la Prison right next to the town hall to reach Compagnie de Provence.
Marseille is world renowned for its soap. Makers of real ‘Savon de Marseille’ have to follow strict rules that dictate how the product has to be manufactured, following recipes as old as 600 years. Real Savon de Marseille is made out of at least 72% vegetable oil, alkaline ash from sea plants and salt water.
The Compagnie de Provence manufactures its soaps in exactly this traditional way. But they also tried to modernize the product, revamped the packaging and extended their product spectrum, including liquid soaps for the first time. In the brand’s small store near the harbor you’ll find Marseillaise soap in many different forms and varieties. A perfect souvenir!
Compagnie de Provence // 1 Rue Caisserie // Mon-Thu 10am-1pm & 2pm-7pm, Fri-Sun 10am-7pm // website
4pm – MUCEM
The history of Europe wrapped in a spectacular building
Find your way to the end of the wharf, walking either along the water or down Rue Caisserie. You’ll spot our next destination, the MuCEM, in the distance.
But when reaching the shore, the first big building you’ll see is Fort Saint-Jean, a fortification built in 1660 by Louis XIV. It’s connected to the city by a thin bridge leading over the water. Cross that bridge, go through a quick security check, and you’ll be inside the thick walls of the old fort. Take your time to explore the place before you cross yet another bridge over to the actual MuCem.
The MuCEM was opened in 2013 and is France’s first (and so far, only) national museum located outside of Paris. Its architecture is spectacular, with a see-through wall of patterned metal enclosing a glass cube. There is plenty to see, even if you wouldn’t enter the exhibitions.
But if you do, you’ll learn a lot about Europe’s rich history, from its hunters and gatherers to enlightened citizens and the advent of religion. Two additional exhibitions focus on the contrast between Africa and Europe (‘Le Noir et Le Bleu’) and women’s role in society as well as sexuality (‘Au Bazar du Genre’).
Explore the exhibitions, the buildings and the beautiful area at the water around them, and then cross the big Boulevard and head over in the direction of the city. You’ll pass by the Cathédrale La Major on your left, a magnificent church and the seat of the Archdiocese of Marseille. Walk up the Rue du Panier into the heart of Le Panier.
MuCEM // Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée // 1 Esplanade du J4 // opening hours summer: Tue-Thu & Sat/Sun 11am-7pm, Fri 11am-10pm, winter: Tue-Sun 11am-6pm // Admission: 8 Euro // website
6pm – Le Panier
Small streets steeped in history
Le Panier is one of Marseille’s oldest quarters, and walking through the narrow streets, you get a real sense of the spirit of the old Marseille. For centuries, Le Panier was the first stop for the many immigrants arriving at Marseille’s massive harbor. They found their first home in the colorful buildings, some moved on later, others stayed. It’s also the area of Marseille where the sailors would visit and have some fun.
In most other big cities, areas like Le Panier would be gentrified by now. In Marseille, that’s not the case. Yes, there are some cute shops in some of the old houses, and you find local art galleries and small bars and restaurants here, but for the most part, Le Panier is still very much a lived in part of town. Big parts of its inhabitants have Corsican or North African roots, and living here is still affordable.
Take your time walking up and down the steep small streets. Marseille is never more charming than here on this hill, close to the water and overlooking the harbor. Explore the hidden squares, visit as many of the small shops as you like, and definitely take a lot of photos.
For dinner, you’ll have to be back at Cours Julien one more time. Walk there or take the metro (from the Old Port via Castellane to Notre Dame du Mont – Cours Julien).
8pm – La Cantinetta
A wonderful Italian dinner at Cours Julien
You’ve already visited Cours Julien during the day, now it’s time to experience this lively part of town by night. You’ll find that it gets pretty crowded here on warm summer days, that the restaurants are full and the bars even fuller.
There are a lot of places to eat around Cours Julien, put the very best place to have dinner, hands down, is at La Cantinetta. Owned by a Frenchman named Pierre-Antoine Denis, La Cantinetta serves you simple Italian dishes, all cooked to perfection. Start with some of their great appetizers – the burrata is worth it, as are the mountains of thinly sliced Parma ham and the Carpaccio – and then opt for their homemade pasta dishes or the meat of the day. Service here is friendly and super efficient, a fact that is very important, since it is always crowded here.
Make sure to order from their exceptional list of natural wines, glasses start at just 2,50 Euro. If you can, get a seat outside in their beautiful backyard and enjoy your meal under the stars. If you want to make sure to get a table, book in advance. You could walk by here while exploring Cours Julien earlier in the day or just give the restaurant a call (they speak English, +33 491 48 10 48)
La Cantinetta // 24 Cours Julien // Mon-Sat 12pm-2pm & 7.30pm-10.30pm
9pm – Mama Shelter
A beautifully designed home away from home
A great, long day is over, time to kick back and relax at the hotel. In Marseille, we’re staying at Mama Shelter. You can easily walk here from Cours Julien. Longtime 12hrs readers know this small hotel chain already from our 12hrs in Paris.
The Marseille version has all the lovely perks you find at the other Mama Shelter locations: Free, super-fast wi-fi, movie streaming on giant Apple screens (also free), big, comfy beds. All this comes at absolutely affordable prices.
So put down your bags full of souvenirs, take down the sunglasses and lean back. You just spent 12hrs in Marseille!
Mama Shelter // 64 Rue de la Loubiere // website
Pictures: Francis Amiand