There’s a city in France that the French snub their noses at. They’ll warn tourists that it’s dangerous and to be careful if they insist on visiting. But this coastal city is privy to the rich blue waters of the Mediterranean. You’re more likely to see local families on the beach than tourists, even in the middle of summer. So why isn’t it a major destination?
Marseille is the second largest city in France although it isn’t as famous as Paris or Lyon or nearby port cities Cannes and St. Tropaz. It’s situated far south, butting up against the Mediterranean Sea and a stone’s throw from Algeria. It’s this placement, in the historically poorer south and near Africa, that has kept Marseille under the radar.
You could call it straight racism, Marseille has been an immigrant town for decades, or poor perceptions that stuck, but either way, it’s a neglected destination. “Grit” and “grime” were, and sometimes still are, common words used to describe Marseille and its people. But today, you won’t notice any more dirt and crime than elsewhere. It’s just a perception that stuck.
The poor perceptions about Marseille have given it a few boons for the traveler who likes to travel like local. It’s a great place to go for a sense of daily French life and for beaches all to yourself. The waters and coastline are prime and mercifully free of resorts, hotels, people trying to sell you souvenirs and overcrowding. And the water is cool, if not cold, even in the height of summer.
The Secrets of Marseille
Marseille is a great hub for an exploration of France’s southern port towns. It’s cheaper than other port towns and has plenty to do, including the beach and calanques, some new museums, antiquated architecture and ruins to explore– and mon Dieu, the seafood will make you cry.
Beaches and Calanques
Along the shores of southern France are Calanques, steep-walled inlets with some of the most clear and vibrant blue and emerald water you will ever see. I don’t know how these have stayed hidden for so long, but a short way out of Marseille and you are at the calanques. Because of the steep cliff walls, most calanques are uninhabitable. You’ll feel like you’re in the wilderness yet you’re only a short way from civilization. You can tour the calanques by boat, kayak or hiking trails. Plan to see them if you’re in the area, it’s worth it.
As for the beaches, the farther you get from the city the more beach you’ll have to yourself. But even the beaches within the shadow of Marseille are relatively uncrowded. Like all beaches on the Mediterranean, the water is cold. Icy cold. It’s also an unbelievable blue color. Your brain will have a difficult time processing that, yes, that water is really that blue.
Marseille’s old port area is its birthplace. This port city was founded around 600 B.C. by the Greeks– in fact it’s estimated to be the oldest city in France. The crumbly buildings in the old port area carry the load of history and, in the evening, they catch the warm rays of the southern sun and turn an orangey-golden hue.
No exploration of Marseille is complete without sipping a glass of wine in the Vieux Port and watching the sunset over the sea. And you’ll likely be sharing the view with locals. Break out your best French and make some friends.
Don’t be surprised if the French raise an eyebrow at your mention of going to or– gasp– staying in Marseille. There seems to be a national consensus that it’s “not really French.” But, while Parisian cuisine is famous for its complex sauces and rich flavors, it and the rest of France’s beloved cuisine got its start in Marseille.
Marseille is distinct in its flavors. It was a maritime hub for the Greeks and later the Romans. And like all busy port cities, it took in people and their food. Today’s travelers will find recognizable French dishes next to flavors from Morroco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Breads from middle eastern traditions and olives from Spain are sold next to patisserie shops. And at the heart of it all is the sea.
There is a Marseille saying that goes:
“First you have the sea, then the city, and beyond that is another country called France.”
Seafood is the star of the show, from an afternoon snack in a café, to a Michelin star meal at a premier restaurant, dishes from the sea will be on the menu.
You’ll find all the staples of French cuisine in Marseille, including café culture, good wine, patisseries and boulangeries and a slower, more purposeful way of eating. You’ll also find flavors you might not think of as French, but that’s the beauty of Marseille.
You can have your beach holiday in Cannes or St. Tropaz, but me, I’ll be with the locals in Marseille.