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Marseille

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.

Why cruise Marseille

Marseille is one of the most popular ports of call on a Mediterranean cruise. The go-to port along the French Riviera, nearly two million passengers departed from Marseille on cruises in 2019. France’s most ancient city, Marseille is a glorious melting pot of old and new. Many of the city’s top attractions can be explored in a day, but some visitors choose to venture further afield to explore popular Provence destinations such as Aix, Avignon, Arles and Cassis, renowned for their lavender fields and rolling vineyards.

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What to see and do in Marseille

The Old Port (Vieux Port)

To get a feel for the city of Marseille you need to explore The Old Port – central to the city’s growth dating back to the Middle Ages. There’s plenty of restaurants, cafes and bars to explore, you can also indulge in some of the local seafood or take a walk to St. Victor’s Abbey and Phare de Sainte Marie (the old lighthouse) if you are feeling more cultured. But it’s just as pleasant to wander around the old harbour and do a spot of people-watching.

Notre-Dame de la Garde

Probably Marseille’s most famous ¬ and most stunning – site. Still a key part of the city’s religious make-up with thousands making the pilgrimage every year for Assumption Day, the non-religious will have to make do with the Neo-Byzantine architecture and the stunning views of the city below. Note: it is possible to walk to the top of the hill the cathedral sits on, however, this is fairly steep and you may be better off catching the regular bus to the top instead.

The Mucem

One of the main reasons that Marseille was named European Capital of Culture back in 2012 was this incredible museum dedicated to the Mediterranean. From the striking contemporary architecture which catches the eye from miles away, to the fascinating exhibits about the history of the great nations of the Med, there’s plenty to be enjoyed at this newest addition to Marseille’s burgeoning cultural repertoire.

Sample the French cuisine

Marseille’s signature dish is the supremely fishy bouillabaisse (fish stew) and nowhere serves it better than local institution, Chez Fonfon. Alternatively, if you’re looking to savour some of Marseille’s African influence, Then you’ll want to head to Tunisian favourite La Kahena, based right next to the Old Port. While in Marseille, don’t also forget to try pastis, its signature tipple. Nicknamed ‘pastaga’ by the locals, the anise-flavoured spirit can be found at most bars and restaurants, but one of the best in terms of choice is Pastis & Olives, which has 16 variations.

Bouillabaisse Marseillaise

La Canebière

Not quite Marseille’s answer to the Champs-Élysées as it once was, but this is still a historic shopping area with some interesting sights to behold. The city’s biggest avenue, La Canebiere’s ornate and grand buildings, most of which have now been converted into shops and restaurants, illustrate the wealth that Marseille once possessed. Alternatively, if it’s shopping you’re after, Centre Bourse is Marseille’s largest shopping centre and houses roughly 60 shops to explore and browse for souvenirs.

Need to know when travelling to Marseille

Getting around in Marseille

It all depends on which port you are docked in. Larger ships are docked in the Môle Léon Gourret port situated roughly 5km to the north of the city centre. You could take a taxi into the city centre or jump on the shuttle bus put on by your cruise line (and while this is often the case, it is best to check with guest services before committing). If you are cruising with a smaller or luxury ship, chances are you’ll be lucky enough to be docked in La Joliette port, which is a mere five-minute stroll into the heart of the city. Marseille is relatively easy to get around using the public transport system, which includes the metro, buses and trams, as well as the petit train – the kitsch white-and-blue tourist train which visits the main attractions. If you’re planning on doing a lot of sightseeing, it’s worth getting the 24-, 48- or 72-houe City Pass Marseille, It includes unlimited rides on the metro, buses and tramways and a trip to Notre-Dame de la Garde and the Old Town on the petit train.

When to go to Marseille

The Mediterranean cruise season runs from April to November. To avoid the peak season of May and August when lots of tourists descend on Marseille, visit in the later months from September to November.

Visas

If you hold a British Citizen passport, you don't need a visa to enter France unless you’re planning to stay longer than three months.

Currency

The currency of Marseille is the euro.