top 20 sights of marseille
Marseille is a vibrant and diverse city in the south of France, with a rich history and culture that spans over 2,600 years. It is also a great destination for travellers who want to discover some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in Europe: the calanques. These are narrow inlets carved by the sea into the limestone cliffs along the coast, creating stunning scenery and secluded beaches. In this article, we will explore the top 10 sights in Marseille that you can’t miss, from the iconic Old Port to the impressive Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Le Vieux-Port (the Old Port)
The Old Port is the heart and soul of Marseille, where the city was founded by the ancient Greeks in 600 BC. It is still a lively and colourful place, where you can watch the daily fish market, take a ferryboat to the nearby islands, or enjoy a coffee or a meal at one of the many cafés and restaurants that line the quays. The Old Port is also surrounded by historic monuments and landmarks, such as the Fort Saint-Nicolas and Fort Saint-Jean, which guard the entrance to the harbour, or the Abbey of Saint-Victor, one of the oldest places of Christian worship in France.
Mucem (Museum of Mediterranean and European Civilisations)
The Mucem is a striking modern building that stands on the former J4 port mole, connected by a footbridge to the Fort Saint-Jean. It is a national museum that showcases the diversity and complexity of Mediterranean and European civilisations, through permanent and temporary exhibitions, as well as cultural events and activities. The museum also has a rooftop terrace that offers panoramic views of the sea and the city.
Fort Saint-Jean (Saint John Fort)
The Fort Saint-Jean is a medieval fortress that was built in the 17th century by Louis XIV to protect the Old Port from invaders. It was later used as a prison during the French Revolution and World War II. Today, it is part of the Mucem complex and houses some of its collections, as well as a Mediterranean garden that features over 300 plant species. The fort also offers stunning views of the harbour and the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille (Cathedral of Saint Mary Major)
The Cathedral of Saint Mary Major is a majestic Romanesque-Byzantine edifice that was built between 1852 and 1896 on the site of an ancient church. It is one of the largest cathedrals in France, with a capacity of 3,000 people. It has a distinctive striped facade made of green and white stones from Florence, and a rich interior decorated with mosaics, marble columns, stained glass windows, and paintings. The cathedral also has a crypt that contains relics of saints and bishops.
Château d’If (Castle of the Yew Tree)
The Château d’If is a fortress island that lies about 1.5 km off the coast of Marseille. It was built in 1524 by Francis I as a defence against naval attacks, but soon became a notorious prison for political and religious prisoners, such as Protestants, revolutionaries, and communards. The most famous inmate was Edmond Dantès, the fictional hero of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo, who escaped from his cell by digging a tunnel. The castle is now a museum that displays its history and legends.
Palais Longchamp (Longchamp Palace)
The Palais Longchamp is a monumental building that was erected in 1869 to celebrate the arrival of water from the Durance river to Marseille. It consists of two wings that house the Museum of Fine Arts and the Natural History Museum, and a central water reservoir that features a spectacular fountain with statues of lions, tigers, and mythical creatures. The palace is also surrounded by a beautiful park that used to host a zoo, of which some remains can still be seen. The park also contains an observatory that was once equipped with the largest telescope in the world.
Notre-Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard)
Notre-Dame de la Garde is a basilica that dominates the skyline of Marseille from its perch on a limestone hill. It was built in 1864 in a neo-Byzantine style, with a 60-meter-high bell tower topped by a golden statue of the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus. The basilica is a symbol of Marseille and a place of pilgrimage for many locals and visitors, who come to admire its rich interior decorated with mosaics, marble, and ex-votos (votive offerings). The basilica also offers stunning views of the city and the sea from its terrace3.
Le Panier (The Basket)
Le Panier is the oldest district in Marseille, where the city was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. It is a charming and colourful area, with narrow streets, steep staircases, and old buildings adorned with street art. Le Panier is also home to many artisans, artists, and shops that sell local products and souvenirs. One of the main attractions of Le Panier is the Vieille Charité, a former almshouse that now houses the Museum of African, Oceanian, and Amerindian Arts and the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology.
La Canebière is the main avenue of Marseille, stretching for about a kilometre from the Old Port to the Réformés quarter. It was created in 1666 by Louis XIV as a symbol of his power and influence over the city. La Canebière was once a bustling and elegant boulevard, lined with cafés, theatres, hotels, and shops. Today, it is still a lively and diverse place, where you can find various cultural and historical landmarks, such as the Opera House, the Stock Exchange Palace, or the Noailles Market3.
Les Calanques (The Creeks)
Les Calanques are one of the most stunning natural wonders in France, and a must-see for anyone visiting Marseille. They are narrow inlets carved by the sea into the limestone cliffs along the coast, creating spectacular scenery and secluded beaches. Les Calanques are part of a national park that covers 520 square kilometres of land and sea, and hosts a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. You can explore Les Calanques by boat, kayak, or hiking trails, and discover some of their most famous spots, such as Calanque de Sormiou, Calanque d’En-Vau, or Calanque de Morgiou.
L’Opéra de Marseille (Marseille Opera House)
L’Opéra de Marseille is a grand and elegant building that dates back to 1787. It was rebuilt in 1924 after a fire destroyed most of it. It is one of the oldest and most prestigious opera houses in France, with a capacity of 1,800 seats and a rich programme of operas, ballets, concerts, and recitals. The opera house also has a museum that displays costumes, props, and memorabilia from its history.
Le Musée d’Histoire de Marseille (Marseille History Museum)
Le Musée d’Histoire de Marseille is the largest urban history museum in France, covering 2,600 years of Marseille’s past. It is located near the Old Port, on the site of the ancient Greek port of Massalia. The museum displays over 4,000 objects and documents that illustrate the evolution of the city from its origins to the present day. Some of the highlights include a Roman cargo ship, a medieval well, a 17th-century model of the city, and a collection of soap.
La Vieille Charité (The Old Charity)
La Vieille Charité is a former almshouse that was built in the 17th century to shelter the poor and homeless of Marseille. It is a remarkable example of Baroque architecture, with a central chapel surrounded by four wings of arcaded galleries. The complex now houses several cultural institutions, such as the Museum of African, Oceanian, and Amerindian Arts, the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology, and the International Centre for Poetry.
Le Vallon des Auffes (The Auffes Valley)
Le Vallon des Auffes is a picturesque fishing port that lies below a viaduct on the Corniche Kennedy, a scenic road that runs along the coast of Marseille. It is a charming and authentic place, where you can see colourful boats moored along the quay, fishermen mending their nets, and traditional cabanons (small houses) built on the rocks. You can also enjoy some of the best seafood restaurants in Marseille at Le Vallon des Auffes.
La Cité Radieuse (The Radiant City)
La Cité Radieuse is a modernist housing complex that was designed by the famous architect Le Corbusier in 1952. It is considered as one of his masterpieces and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It consists of a 12-storey building that contains 337 apartments, as well as shops, services, and facilities for its residents. The building also has a rooftop terrace that features a gymnasium, a kindergarten, an art gallery, and a panoramic view of Marseille.
Le Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts)
Le Musée des Beaux-Arts is one of the oldest museums in France, founded in 1801. It is located in the left wing of the Palais Longchamp, and displays a collection of paintings, sculptures, and drawings from the 16th to the 19th century. Some of the artists featured include Rubens, Véronèse, David, Delacroix, Courbet, and Puvis de Chavannes.
Le Stade Vélodrome (Vélodrome Stadium)
Le Stade Vélodrome is the home stadium of Olympique de Marseille, the most popular and successful football club in France. It was built in 1937 and renovated several times, most recently for the 2016 UEFA Euro. It has a capacity of 67,000 spectators and a distinctive oval shape. It is also a venue for concerts and other events. The stadium is a symbol of Marseille’s passion for football and its vibrant atmosphere.
La Cathédrale de la Major (The Major Cathedral)
La Cathédrale de la Major is a striking Romanesque-Byzantine cathedral that was built between 1852 and 1896 on the site of an ancient church. It is one of the largest cathedrals in France, with a capacity of 3,000 people. It has a distinctive striped facade made of green and white stones from Florence, and a rich interior decorated with mosaics, marble columns, stained glass windows, and paintings. The cathedral also has a crypt that contains relics of saints and bishops.
Le Parc Borély (Borély Park)
Le Parc Borély is a large and beautiful park that covers 17 hectares of land near the Prado beaches. It was created in the 18th century by Joseph-Gaspard de Bruny, who owned the Borély Castle that stands in the park. The park has several sections, such as a French garden, an English garden, a rose garden, a botanical garden, and a lake. It also has a museum that displays decorative arts and ceramics from various periods and regions.
Le Musée Cantini (Cantini Museum)
Le Musée Cantini is a museum that showcases modern art from the 20th century. It is housed in a former private mansion that belonged to Jules Cantini, a marble merchant and art collector who donated it to the city in 1916. The museum displays works by artists such as Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Léger, Miró, Kandinsky, Dufy, and Chagall. It also hosts temporary exhibitions on various themes and movements.