Exuberant, eccentric, melting-pot Marseille is unlike anywhere else in Europe. Set spectacularly ‘twixt hills and sea, it is France’s most ancient city, yet is constantly shape-shifting and reinventing itself. Surrounded by top regional sights and boasting many of its own, it’s one of the most popular ports of call on the Med.
Cruise port location
The main port is the Léon Gourret Pier 4.5 km north of the centre with berths for up to seven huge ships, some accommodating over 5,000 passengers. Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises start from here. Smaller luxury vessels, including Silversea, dock at La Joliette, just round the corner from the Old Port.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Not from the Léon Gourret Pier: you’ll need to take a taxi, public bus or shuttle (the city lays on a free one, much in demand). La Joliette is within a few minutes’ walk of the centre and right next to the MuCEM, Marseille’s flagship new museum.
Central Marseille is compact for a major city. Numerous sights are within comfortable walking distance, while you can easily get to others – and the beaches – by bus, taxi, metro, tram, petit train (little tourist train), the open-top HoHo tourist bus or boat.
The energetic can hire a bicycle or go on a Segway tour. Public transport is fairly cheap, although buses can get mired in traffic. If you want to go further afield in Provence, you are strongly advised to take a tour or hire a taxi. French trains just aren’t reliable enough for anyone on a tight schedule.
The Tourist Office sells a 24-hour City Pass (there are also 48 and 72 hour ones), but you’d have to sightsee non-stop to get good value from it. The Marseille Transport Authority’s Pass XL offers transport for a day and is much cheaper. You can't buy the Pass XL online, but there are details of how to buy it.
Best beaches for cruise ship visitors
To the city's south is the calanques masif, along which there are several spots for easy access to the sea. As you head to Marseille, the Bain des Dames and Bonne Brise coves are small, unsupervised beaches. Two of the major beach areas are Pointe Rouge beach and Prado seaside park.
What to see and do
Many cruisers are tempted to zoom off to one of Provence’s headline destinations: Aix, Avignon, Arles and the Camargue, Cassis, the lavender fields and perched villages, the Pont du Gard. To see these, it’s easiest to take a tour. Marseille has plenty to occupy a day and you can explore independently.
What can I do in four hours or less?
From the Old Port, climb into the maze of backstreets in the pedestrianised Panier (Old Town) and browse its craft shops, bars and colourful street art. It is exceptionally hilly, so you might prefer an hour-long petit train ride. Don’t miss the very beautiful baroque Vieille Charité, a former alms house, now an arts centre. Then take another petit train, taxi or public bus up the hill on the other side of the port to Notre Dame de la Garde.
The symbol of Marseille, the church is packed with quirky ex voto offerings and rich, gold, byzantine mosaics. Bonus: the sensational 360 degree view from its terrace. Allow about 90 minutes for this one (on both petit train routes, you can break your journey).
With luck, there should be just time to drop by the MuCEM, a dramatic black lacework cube overlooking the sea - you can wander for free through its spectacular outdoor areas. If time really presses, just buy a ticket for the tourist bus: it stops on the north side of the Old Port and whisks you around the big sights in around 90 minutes. If you get off at some of the stops, it would fill half a day or longer.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
Apart from the Old Port and Old Town, you’re spoiled for choice in Marseille. Its star sight is the calanques, Provence’s “fjords”. A string of dazzling white cliffs plunging vertiginously into narrow turquoise creeks, these are best visited by boat: tours of varying lengths leave from the Old Port.
Some include lunch and/or a swimming break. Another family-friendly excursion: the boat shuttle to the brooding fortress island of Château d’If, former “home” of the fictional Count of Monte Cristo as well as many real-life prisoners.
The boat also stops at Port Frioul on the neighbouring island, where you’ll find pretty seafront bars and can go hiking or swimming from a small sandy beach. Costa Cruises offers shore excursions to both these, or you can visit them on your own.
The wider region teems with attractions, but many will be rushed on a day trip. The two closest are Aix en Provence and Cassis: Costa, MSC Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line and pretty much every cruise line offer these as standard. Avignon and the lavender fields will involve three hours on a coach, round trip, though you can get further and faster on a private tour. The perched villages are unsuitable for visitors with restricted mobility.
Eat and drink
The quintessential specialities are pastis and bouillabaisse (fish stew). Both are acquired tastes and a proper bouillabaisse is both elaborate and expensive. Simpler, cheaper and arguably as good: fresh fish or shellfish and rosé de Provence or one of Marseille’s excellent craft beers. Old Port restaurants are touristy, but have the view.
Don’t leave without…
Savon de Marseille is a chunky cube of soap made with local olive oil; be sure it doesn’t come from China, though. Esperantines, bright green chocolates, also made with olive oil, are unusual and delicious. Indiennes (colourful traditional patterned tablecloths) are cheap and very cheerful. A bottle of pastis might slip down nicely later.
Need to know
Ryanair, EasyJet and British Airways all fly here frequently, from London airports it takes around two hours.
Marseille is finally shedding its image as the French capital of gang violence. This is still present, but generally erupts well away from the tourist haunts. However, beware opportunistic petty crime: hang on to bags and don’t wear gold neck chains. As elsewhere in Europe, the terrorist threat continues to simmer.
Best time to go
Spring and autumn. Summers are blisteringly hot and both Aix en Provence and Avignon are flooded with festival-goers throughout July. The fierce Mistral wind can blow up at any time of year. Museums are closed Mondays, except the MuCEM (Tuesdays). Many shops and restaurants close Sundays.