On the south coast of France there’s a city full of rockers and pirates. It’s a multi-cultural melting pot called Marseille and it’s easily one of the most bad-ass cities in Europe.
France’s second largest city was one of the most important ports of the ancient world, linking various Greek, Roman and Gallic empires with northern Africa. It’s this commerce that has made Marseille the diverse and unique city is is today. Many people in Marseille proudly consider themselves separate from the rest of France, and apparently the feeling is mutual.
We had three nights in the city to see what all the fuss is about, and we had a blast. It’s a wild, exciting city with one of the most beautiful areas of the continent at its doorstep.
We arrived to Marseille from Castellane using bus and rideshare. The Castellane to Digne-les-Bains bus departs at 09:30 on Sundays, costs €7.90 each and takes one hour. From Digne-les-Bains to Marseille we booked a ride-share in advance using BlaBlaCar. Our ride took 1.5 hours, cost €9.90 each, and we were delivered directly to our accommodation, which is often the case when getting a ride with a local.
There is a direct Castellane to Marseille bus service; it costs €25.80 per person and departs once daily, but doesn’t run on Sundays. If you can get to Digne-les-Bains there will be buses departing to Marseille hourly from there.
Rideshare is the way to go in France, it’s widely used and the people we encountered are very friendly. It’s generally comparable in price to the bus and can be faster and more comfortable, you also get the advantage of meeting people and possibly avoiding transfers at the end of your journey.
Marseille Provence airport is serviced by a ton of airlines and cities, but beware that it’s 27km (17m) outside of the city.
Getting around Marseille is easy using the metro, trams and buses. Tickets are valid across all forms of transport and costs are based on time, so connections can be made on the same ticket within an hour. For full pricing check out the RTM website, but when we were there (during the 2016 Euros) a 24 hour pass cost us €3.60 each.
Hint – For connections to Les Calanques read the Do / Eat / See section.
We booked a room in a local’s apartment using Airbnb. Our room was €24 per night and located between St Charles and Canebiére stations. It was basic but cheap and in a great location, also our host was awesome and provided not only advice about Marseille, but turned out to be a good drinking buddy.
Marseille bnb’s start from as little as €30 per night and average around €65 for a whole apartment that’s walking distance from the port. If you don’t mind just a private room you can get a double bed for €20 per night, and the average is €40. It’s hard to believe, but if you stay a short journey away from the port you can find bnb’s even cheaper.
Hotels in Marseille can be on the more expensive side as they tend to surround the port and main tourist areas. A double room in a good hotel starts from around €50 per night, and a nice room might cost something like €75 per night. Still not that bad.
As for the area to stay; anywhere around the port is where the designated tourist zones are, so your predilection for tourism should dictate your proximity to there.
Ok so it’s been pretty tame so far but I promise you, Marseille is anything but. Whatever you’re into you can probably find it somewhere in the city or a short journey outside it. Here’s what we did.
Calanques. We didn’t know what they were before we arrived, but we will never forget them. A Calanque is a narrow, steep-walled sea inlet found along the mediterranean coast; locally referred to as the French Fjords, they are absolutely and literally breathtaking. The freezing water is so clear you can see the aquatic ecosystem from high above, and if you’re up for a bit of cliff-diving you’re in luck. When you go to Marseille you go to the Parc National des Calanques.
Take the red metro line to Rond-Point du Prado and catch the #21 bus to Luminy. From Luminy you can choose your path, so we chose an easy hour’s walk to Calanque de Morgiou where there’s a small fishing village and a restaurant. Walk to the left of the village and there’s a secluded pebble beach where you can rest and swim if you are brave. Continue to follow the track along the rocks around the coast (although this part is very much a hike) and you will reach Calanque de Sugiton, which is probably the most famous of the Calanques. From this entrance you need to descend a cool metal ladder-chain, then take a breather and have a swim, although beware, the water is cold. Colder than you think. So cold it hurts. Also make sure to take food and water to Sugiton as there’s no services at all. From Sugiton it’s another fairly easy walk back to Luminy and your return journey.
If that’s not enough for you, if you get the bus #23 from Rond-Point du Prado it will take you to Sormiou where you will find another awesome Calanque. The beautiful Calanque du Sormiou has a larger beach than the two Calanques previously mentioned and also has a small village. The walk to and from Sormiou is a little difficult due to the size of the hill, so you need to be fully capable (or drive), but the views are worth it.
Le Panier is the old town of Marseille and definitely worth a visit. Long cobbled streets of tall thin houses wind around the northern hill of the port, there’s workshops, cafes, bars and all kinds of artisan shops to check out. We spent a couple of hours wandering the charming quarter and wish we had more time there. Hint, don’t visit on a Sunday as we did.
For really good food check out Le Cercle Rouge, a Corsican restaurant in Thiers that has an incredible tapas style menu. They specialise in cocktails, whisky, rum and wine, and a romantic setting. We had a full-on no-holds-barred meal there including cocktails, wine and dessert and it cost €88.90 for us both (note that this meal cost won’t be included in the budget breakdown as it was a special planed celebration).
Speaking of dessert, Vanille Noire on Rue Caisserie serves a black vanilla ice-cream that is pretty cool. While you are there take a look at Ou est Marius?, an art gallery/deli where you can buy awesome local craft beer.
For good bars, cool restaurants and awesome street art, go to the Cours Julien. We spent hours wandering the area taking in the art and sampling the bars. Don’t forget to try local favourite ‘pastis’, an anise spirit dear to Marseille. Also try pizza in Cours Julien, the ‘four fromage’ in France is to die for and you can even get a raclette pizza. Incredible.
Notre-Dame de la Garde is the huge basilica perched on the city’s highest hill. It’s a steep walk up there, although not too bad, but there’s also a mini-train if you prefer. Entrance to the basilica and grounds is free, but they charge to visit the crypt. It’s pretty impressive and the views are worth the hike alone.
We spent three full days in Marseille and while we think we got the feel for it, we would have loved a couple more days. There’s a lot to see and a huge vibe to soak in. Due to the proximity of the Calanques I would recommend at least four full days, five if you have the time.
Hint – Marseille widely observes a siesta during the day. From around 12:30 most shops close for a couple of hours, there don’t seem to be any real rules or specific times, it’s more however the shop-keeper is feeling, so it can be confusing. The point here is to eat lunch early or pack it, otherwise you will be scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Marseille for three nights;
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