Read on for the inside track on this vibrant, colourful southern French city.
If you have been paying attention, you’ll know that Marseille is going legit. Cosmopolitan, even. Interactive museums host striking exhibitions. Smart bars and cafés – full of men with Amish beards and retro-booted women – abound. New hotels open hourly. Certainly, go for all this. These are good developments. But they’re also ubiquitous.
All major cities have flashy museums, plus the entire contemporary caboodle. You travel to Marseille specifically because it’s Marseille – a great, brawling port city, picaresque and seductive, breathing out to the sun-spangled briny, breathing in over centuries of defiant bombast, a broth of cultures, the roar of world commerce and refugees, of art, football players, rock stars, racketeers, comedians and itinerant traders selling black-market Marlboro by the Capucins market.
It is admirable that, until April 22, artist Sophie Calle has a five-part show across five Marseille museums (including a reincarnation of her mum as a giraffe) and that throughout 2019, Marseille and its surrounds are celebrating Provençal food (mpg2019.com). But don’t be fooled: these are merely the latest layers of a life lived raucous for 2,600 years in the most overwhelming city in France. BA (ba.com), easyJet (easyjet.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com) all offer direct flights from UK airports.
My favourite remains the Résidence du Vieux-Port (1 on the map above), with its port-view rooms and Sixties vibe (0033 491 919122; telegraph.co.uk/tt-residence-du-vieux-port; doubles from €180/£155). Among newcomers, Les Bords de Mer (2) – opened in late 2018 with its feet in the sea at the Catalan beach – promises well (0033 413 943400; lesbordsdemer.com; doubles from €173).
Start at the Vieux Port (3), focus of Marseille life since the Greeks founded the city. Amble up La Canebière (4), the monumental main drag now regaining its imperial grandeur. Sheer off to the newly renovated Capucins market (5) and surrounding souk district. All nations are here, trying to get a word in edgeways. Coffee at Café Prinder, Marseille’s oldest, at 1 Place Marché-des-Capucins.
Now curl back to the Canebière, then the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille, which I think more coherent than the more celebrated Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM). Finish with a trot through the Panier district where Marseille began and whose steep streets and suspect stairways retain a whiff of roguery.
The post-war Cité Radieuse block (6) was architect Le Corbusier’s stab at telling modern city dwellers how to live: stacked up, with lots of light and space and everything – schools, shops, café, public space – integrated into the building. It’s a riveting exercise in historical optimism. English-language guided visits at 10am Fri/Sat in school holidays, €10 (resa.marseille-tourisme.com).
Hop on the hop-on, hop-off Colorbüs for a tour of Marseille’s greatest hits. Naff? Well, if you want to trek up to the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica, trek away. I’ll be on the bus. En route, jump off at the Vallon-des-Auffes (7), a fishing village engulfed by the city, then hop back on for the haul up to the all-seeing, Romano-Byzantine basilica. The architecture is brash, the views outstanding and the on-site, nun-run Eau Vive restaurant good for lunch (notredamedelagarde.com).
The hippest fashion and design spot right now is the St Victor district (8). On the cusp between cool and crummy, it boasts a host of youthful names – Carhartt, Cozette, and Sessùn (on Rue Sainte) and more besides.
You want the visitor experience, you stick to bars around the Vieux Port. You want to be in the Marseille vibe? You climb from the VP back towards the St Victor district. On Rue Sainte, 143 is such a new beer bar that it barely looks like a bar at all. La Ruche (9) is nearby while, on Rue d’Endoume, the Café de l’Abbaye (10) is where young professionals overflow on to the pavement overlooking the VP, the Repaire-des-Amis (11) will see you right with shellfish and the Victor (12) is my favourite beer bar in the city.
On the city’s posher south side, at AM par Alexandre Mazzia (13), Alexandre Mazzia’s control, inventiveness and flurries of little dishes have bagged him two Michelin stars and the Gault-Millau guide’s Chef of the Year 2019 award. Lunch from €59, dinner from €115 (0033 491 248363; alexandremazzia.com). Among the younger generation, 27-year-old Eric Maillet’s Restaurant Cédrat (14) – with its emphasis on fish, veg, spices and (especially citrus) fruit – stands out (81 Rue Breteuil; 0033 491 429441; facebook.com/restaurantcedrat. Menus €38).
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