If you are taking a trip to France, I highly recommend taking a short excursion to the south coast to Marseille (or in English – Marseilles)!
While staying in Paris, Trey and I decided to take a short day excursion down to the city. We took a quick 45 minute flight on Air France (gotta get those Skymiles) for around $100 each. The train ride from Paris to Marseille is a little bit cheaper and takes about 3 ½ hours from Paris. We opted for the plane because we were only going for a day and wanted to maximize our time. Once we landed, we took a 30 minute Uber ride down to the port. I would note here that our Uber ride was quite pricey. I am not sure how much the taxis are as we took Uber both ways, but it is definitely something to price out before you go. We paid about $60 each way.
Marseille is the second largest city in France!
Marseille is located in the historical province region of Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur and it is the third largest metropolitan city after Paris and Lyon!
Marseille is quite fascinating to me for several reasons. First, the city was founded around 600 BC and was an early center for Christianity during the Western Roman Empire. It was also a focal point of the French Revolution and was the birthplace of France’s national anthem, La Marseillaise. It was a major European trading center in France’s history and is still to this day the largest main commercial port of France. So, as you can see, it is a city rich in history, which I LOVE!
So, what do you do in Marseille, you ask? Well, I have you covered!
First things first, there are several city passes that you can buy for the attractions that include public transportation and access to the museums. Sometimes these passes are worth it if you plan on seeing as much as possible, other times not. Trey and I did not buy these passes, but I know others who did purchase and they said it was worth the money. There are so many things to do in Marseille, especially if you have time to explore the villages surrounding the city. But, if you are looking to knock off a few main things in one day like we did, here is a list for you!
Once in the Old Port area, you will immediately see the gorgeous Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde on top of the hill making for a beautiful skyline picture along the Old Port. The view from up top is unbelievable. But, beware of the massive uphill climb to the top! It’s aggressive.
If you are looking for a beautiful stroll along the water, La Corniche is your best bet. It goes on for what seems like forever past beaches and cute little neighborhoods.
One thing that stands out in Marseille is the ultra-modern museum, MuCEM, on the waterfront next to Fort de Saint-Jean. We did not go in this museum, but I have read that the collection of art and exhibitions are very diverse. I pulled this picture (not mine) so you can take a look.
Cathedrale de la Major
Cathedrale de la Major is a beautiful cathedral overlooking the water on the edge of the port entrance. This cathedral is FREE to visit. So, definitely add this to your list. The picture is a little blurry because I took in super zoomed in while trying to balance on a boat!
Vieux Port (Old Harbor)
Walking around the Vieux Port (Old Harbor) was one of my favorite parts about being in Marseille. There are countless local restaurants and shops surrounding the port and you can sit and watch the boats come in and out and enjoy some amazing seafood. There is also a cute ferris wheel in the port that will give you a nice view from above. After we explored the city, we sat along one of the restaurants and enjoyed a few beverages as we watched the most beautiful sunset. If you have time, make sure to take a quick ride the Ferris Wheel that is in the center of the port.
Have you read the book The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas? If you went to an American public school, chances are you have read this novel. This book is the sole reason we decided to take a trip to Marseille as it is one of Trey’s favorite novels. This book is based around the fortress known as Chateau d’if. Chateau d’if is located on the island of If, situated just offshore of the port in the Mediterranean Sea.
The chateau was built in 1524-31 because King Francis I saw the island as a strategic location for defending the coast from sea-based attacks. What is so fascinating is that the only time the chateau was going to be attacked was in 1531 when Emperor Charles V planned to attack Marseille, but then abandoned his plans! So this fortress never had to fight off a single attack.
Eventually the fortress became a prison due to the escape-proof surrounding, just like Alcatraz in California. This is where knowledge of the story enters as this real-life prison was one of the most feared and notorious jails in France. Walking through the fortress I got chills just thinking about the horrific conditions of this place. It is said that people of the poorest class were held in these windowless cells with up to 20 prisoners or more. If you were of higher wealth, you got a cell up top with windows and in some, even a fireplace.
In the novel, the main character Edmond Dantes makes an escape after 14 years of imprisonment and is the first person to ever do so. No one is actually known to have actually escaped the fortress, but the Chateau has a dungeon honoring Dantes as a tourist attraction.
We loved walking around this place. The views of Marseille from the island are breathtaking. There is even a tiny café inside the fortress where you can stop and have a drink and a small snack. I would not recommend eating lunch here, but definitely sit and have a drink.
Tickets to the chateau are quite inexpensive. A skip-the-line ticket will cost you only around $7.00. Do note that you have to purchase a separate ticket for the boat ride to the island. We used the Frioul If Express and the boats depart every hour! Make sure to buy a ticket that takes you to Chateau d’if and to the island right next to it, Frioul.
Island of Frioul
After exploring Chateau d’if, we jumped back on the boat and headed across the water to Frioul. We had a great meal at one of the little restaurants (several to choose from) in the port right next to the boat drop off and enjoyed the view. After our meal, we hopped back on the boat and headed back to the shore of Marseille. The weather was perfect and these views took my breath away. The water in the Mediterranean is really so blue. Just so beautiful. Take a look for yourself.
Overall, visiting Marseille was such a great decision. I think I said to Trey on multiple occasions, “Thank you so much for insisting that we come here!” and I truly meant it. If you have any questions about the city, feel free to ask below in the comments.