Oh Marseille, What Happened?

It’s partly my fault, I realize that. I was on a crazy schedule around France (which I agreed to) and frankly some cities suffered from lack of time. Marseille was one of those cities. But I refuse to accept all of the culpability, I’d like to think that I can see and do a lot in a short amount of time and more importantly I can gauge the ‘spirit’ of a town fairly quickly. That’s the problem with Marseille, I did get a sense of the place but I didn’t like what I felt.

I worked with the local tourism authority to help me in my efforts to see the ‘splendors’ of Marseille, the second largest city in France, and I was confident that I was in good hands. They’re the experts after all, they know what makes their city great and more importantly how to share that message with the rest of the world. So when they scheduled me for a walking tour of the city I was excited.

Marseilles, France

I love walking tours and if well done, they are great ways of experiencing a different side of a destination. They share stories and tips that as a tourist can be hard to find. I’ve written about this tour before, so I won’t go into exhaustive detail, but it was not a good experience. The guide was not trained or licensed but part of a volunteer program to involve local residents with tourism. In theory it sounds great, but the practice is something else entirely. But that’s not the reason why I didn’t like Marseille; I didn’t like Marseille because, well, it’s Marseille.

My first introduction was leaving the enormous train station as I walked through town to the harbor. Along the way I saw piled up garbage and dodgy alleyways. This is in no way different than other urban centers around the world, but for me it set the tone for the day. Those first thirty minutes were an important opportunity to make an impression, but the one it made wasn’t great. Still, I had high hopes knowing that Marseille had been selected as the 2013 European Capital of Culture. In retrospect though, this fact is more befuddling than it is logical. Approaching the old port I noticed construction, a lot of construction, supposedly there to prepare the city for the big year of tourism. But it had the effect of marring the landscape. What could have been a beautiful port full of boats and people was instead a pain to navigate and a monstrosity to behold. (I’m told that those cranes are still there by the way, even though the 2013 year of tourism has already started)


The tour led us away from the port up to the highest point in the town, Notre Dame de la Garde. Having toured through Europe before I’ve seen my fair share of ancient churches and they almost never fail to disappoint. While the architecture of the church wasn’t necessarily disappointing, I was a little let down to hear that it was built in 1896. This is Europe, isn’t everything supposed to be incredibly old? But spending time at the cathedral was one of the few high points of my day; the views are frankly stunning. Looking off into the distance you can see the harbor and even the island Château d’If , the setting for Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. On a nice day it really is a treat to see. But it was also there that I got my first good look at Marseille itself and it was just as I suspected. Big, sprawling actually, and not all that attractive. Where were the spires and towers that mark most great European cities? Where were the charming little neighborhoods and enclaves of civility? I couldn’t find any of those things. 

The tour ended with a walk through some neighborhoods near the port, during which time our guide seemed almost lost. Again, I was not impressed. It still wasn’t pretty or interesting. It lacks the charm of Paris and the interest of Toulouse. It lacked the obvious age of Avignon or the appeal of La Rochelle. It was just a big city, doing big city things. That’s fine, it’s not the job of Marseille to amuse me personally or to make sure I have a good time. But I can’t imagine ever wanting to go back, something that is all too rare for me when I travel through Europe.

Have you been to Marseille? What did you think?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

37 thoughts on “Oh Marseille, What Happened?”

  1. I’ve spend one night in Marseille, having arrived that afternoon and leaving for the Italian coast the next day. Immediatly upon leaving Central Station, I felt exactly the same. I’m not sure why, but I didn’t like this city. It gave a bad vibe. During the rest of that day, or the next, that feeling didn’t go away. It might have been the general atmosphere and people being generally unhelpful. Or maybe it was the Irish pub, which was run by Algerians, played mediterranean music and didn’t actually sell Guiness or Murphy’s, even though they had signs of those brands outside. In any case, the city didn’t seem to have a lot of personality – not a nice one, anyway.

  2. I totally get what you’re saying… We made the big fat mistake of driving through Marseille with our camper van in July. Ooh what a bad first impression that was – long story short: we fled and ended up in Cassis :-)

  3. Marseille is great – but difficult. It does need time to really get an appreciation of the place as it has never been a place for tourists. The two easiest to appreciate places are the Panier district and the calanques along the coast. The city could be so much more though – in fact it has a lot in common with Barcelona, and should learn from that city

  4. It’s certainly a rough city, one that’s been trying to reconnect with its roots and its Mediterranean identity since it became a hub for drug trafficking and blighted by crime. I’ve been going to Marseille since I moved to France – my husband is a rock climber and Marseille as well as many other spots along the Southern coast are prime spots – and while the city center leaves me with a similar feeling, the Calanques are breathtaking and the views unparalleled. I think it’s a city with a lot of heart but that lost its way. And here’s hoping that as the year goes on and it comes into its own as the European Capital of Culture it lands back on track.

    Funny you mention the local, volunteer guides – I JUST saw a story on French TV this week about Marseille and that followed some of these neighborhood guides. You may have fallen on the wrong one :(

    1. I think that the idea of a local guide program is a good one, in theory. And I am sure there are some great ones. But really, they need to do a better job of vetting them. I wasn’t alone in thinking that, everyone else on the tour was equally frustrated.

  5. You know Matt, you should have picked uglier photos to back up your sentiment about Marseille.
    To me these just say “Visit meeeee, visit meeeee” :D

  6. It’s unfortunate you only had the one day. I agree that overflowing bins and cranes do detract from the scenery.

    But don’t forget this is a working class port city, comparable with Naples or maybe Liverpool before it became trendy. “City of dreaming spires” it is not. Marseille is trying to catch up on years and years of neglect.

    Try and overcome your reticence and come back for a few days or a week. I’m sure you will find enough here to change your mind about this rough diamond of a city.

    Maybe you’ll find yourself saying, “I like Marseille because, well, it’s Marseille”. Oh, and dump the free guide!

    1. I agree with your points and there have been many cities that I feel I need to give a second chance, Marseille is obviously one of them. If I get the chance I’ll try it again :)

  7. You forgot to go to the calanques, to have a coffee cours julien, to go out at la dame noir, to eat a good fresh fish on the port, to visit the panier area, the oldest of the city, to walk around the corniche and smell the fresh air of the sea, to go visit the mucem, or the musée cantini, to check the web site of the capital of culture, you will have found many informations, about all the exhibitions etc. Any way, a church is not always 1000 years old, and in fact it is not necessarly a criteria of quality.

    I hope you will go there again! Marseille is great! it is alive! people are real!

  8. I think you’ve been unfair to Marseille. To be honest, it is a city that does not let itself be discovered in a day. It is a place almost unlike any other in southern Europe in that while history is very present everywhere, it is the history of the common people, and thus not nearly as monumental or artistic as in other cities. I think Marseille is also a place where you need a Marseillais to guide you. I certainly had a wonderful experience there myself, even though it is a very hard city to visit as a tourist. And in the end, it is also what makes its charm.

    1. I did have a local guide me, that was part of the problem. :) I’ve run into this before, not everyone can like every place. Just not possible and for me I didn’t like Marseille.

  9. Completely agree, we didn’t enjoy Marseille either and wouldn’t go back. We’d read in was a diamond in the rough but we couldn’t wait to leave and for the first time in France we felt unsafe.

  10. Wow, I had a completely different impression of Marseille. I guess I was expecting the worst and was pleasantly surprised. I can imagine that the walk from the Gare St. Charles to the Vieux Port was horrid – you should’ve taken the metro (just two stops) like I did. Haha! ;-) I emerged from the Vieux Port metro station to see bright blue skies, the gorgeous harbour and the boats. That was my first impression & I loved it! The cranes are gone (almost). The promenade is done but several museums are still unopened – weird considering the year (European Capital of Culture) has already begun. I also walked around the Arab neighbourhood and stumbled upon an incredible store: Maison Empereur – all sorts of fab household items – and had lunch at Marseille’s famous Toinou seafood restaurant (awesome seafood!).
    I also loved the old Le Panier neighbourhood with its narrow, cobblestone streets, ancient buildings and ateliers – guess this was the European feel you were looking for. At the Place du Lenche, I found an amazing ice-cream parlour (Le Glacier du Roi) – seriously good stuff, all handmade and fresh.
    All in all, I loved Marseille, or to be specific, the area around the Vieux Port and the islands. I also had, Eva, a local Marseille Greeter show me around which was a great plus.

    Ps/the “Cathedral” you mentioned (and in the photos) isn’t the Cathedral. It’s the Notre Dame de la Garde, the basilica atop the hill with the amazing views. The cathedral, La Major, is at the port (where the cruise ships/ferries dock. Both were built in the 19th century though the Notre Dame has a history going back to the 12th century.

    1. Thanks Keith for the correction, I appreciate it and I’m so glad you had a great experience. I’m not anti-Marseille per se and I’m certainly willing to give it another chance, I just had a really bad first experience.

  11. There are a number historical sites that are dotted around the ancient harbour side in Marseille. The Eglise Sant-Laurent is a nice church from the 8th century just south of the Marseille Cathedral. It’s a shame Matt you missed the Abbey of Saint Victor. It was founded in 415 but has been built over a 2nd century BC Hellenic crypt. Parts of the surface building go back to the 8th century but most is 12th & 13th. In the crypt there are some impressive early Christian sarcophagi and craved reliefs which were great to see in situ.

    I also enjoyed exploring the few old forts that line both sides of the harbour entrance.

  12. Thankful for this post. I plan on visiting Marseilles in a few weeks and I found some good suggestions from your post and comments.

  13. I was last in Marseille in 2003. I visited by car, as a day trip from Montpellier. It’s not a city that lends itself well to first impressions. Then again, neither is Richmond, Virginia, and I loved living there.

    I’ve watched the whole Taxi series of movies, which were set in Marseille. I do want to go back there someday, if only to do my own Taxi tour of the city.

    Great photos, by the way!

  14. I met this guy in a hostel in Libson who had just come from Marseille and he described it, quite eloquently, as “the asshole of Europe.” Which I thought was charming though it sounds like maybe he wasn’t too far off!

  15. I love Marseille. Been living here for half a year now and it has become my favourite city in the World. I’ve travelled a lot too (40 countries).

    I agree that Marseille has its problems but most people don’t get beyond that initial feeling of overflowing rubbish bins and actually get to know the place. I met 2 tourists the other day as I was off to explore a new area that I’d never been to. They had similar first impressions on arrival into the bus station (it is a pretty grim introduction, I agree!) and were thinking of not staying long. I told them about Marseille, drew a map and spent half an hour explaining all of the amazing things that they could do here. They have just spent 2 days doing really cool stuff and want to stay another week because they love the place now.

    I think that as a tourist, you need to not be naive. Yes, there is crime and you probably shouldn’t go out on the vieux port at 2:00 in the morning taking photos of the harbour with a tripod and big camera. It’s just not a good idea! However, the more you stay in Marseille the more wonderful it is. I love Marseille people and I love Marseille. I feel so lucky to be here!

  16. The Notre Dame de la Garde was the highlight of our visit too, and I generally agree with your remarks. Too many rough edges without enough character or culture to make it interesting. Compare to New Orleans, for example, which is not classically beautiful like Paris but is suffused with charm and culture. Be thankful you didn’t have a car in Marseille. It was the most nightmarish driving I’ve every experienced, with poles sticking out of the ground that you had to avoid hitting, streets that seemed to take you in unavoidable circles around the center of the city, and our gps was not working properly in Marseille.

  17. Marseille is totally different from all the othet cities in Europe. Is a Mediterranean city, one of the oldest in Europe. Marseille is Italian, French and Arab. Is the city of the sun (almost 300 days per year) and the sea. Probably you have a lot of prejudice regarding Europe. I live in Venice, which is a tourist city. Only tourist. Is a “disneyland” city. Narrow streets, plenty of tourists and mask’s shops. Marseille is a lively city. Le Panier remember me Venice. But people are living there, eating in the streets, painting in thr streets, meeting othet people in the streets. L’Estaque, where Cezanne and Braque was use to paint, is still a fisherman quarter. Marseille need to be lived. The city will not let you rape her with your “onedaytrip”. And this is the reason why I’m moving there!

    1. Prejudice? In all honesty, I’ve probably seen more of Europe than you have and love every moment of it. I’ve been to hundreds of towns and cities in Europe, from small to large and Marseille is one of the worst I’ve visited.

    2. Fabio, well said!! I am off to Marseille again next week and am so excited to be somewhere that is so alive and bustling. Enjoy living there!

  18. Although I understand what you felt about Marseille as you’ve not stayed for long, I somehow can’t really move on from your article without leaving a comment. I moved from my hometown (Paris) to Marseille 10 months ago as I’ve been enrolled in a graduate school here, and I have to say, I could’ve never imagined I would’ve liked the city so much. I actually feel so lucky my studies brought me there. Marseille is the kind of city that doesn’t show itself at first glance. The French media loves to denigrate it, as Marseille is always mentioned because of the drug trafficking, the crime,etc. But as long as you’re not seeking the problems it’s unlikely you’ll face any threat. Maybe you were looking for stuff any European city would normally offer – a financial district, high buildings, and a little further, neighborhoods with a typical “village provençal” feeling. La Joliette is definitely going to be Marseille’s financial district thanks to the Euromediterranée project. From St-Charles, take the train to Miramas and stop at l’Estaque or la Redonne. Go hike in the calanques. Marseille has its own history, and it’s the one of a pretty dangerous city. Also, it’s France’s door to immigration. It’s an extremely complex city, and maybe its management is not on point (something has to be done about the garbage), but it’s completely different from the other French cities, and also the other Mediterranean cities. Even French people don’t consider Marseille as culturally being part of France. But if you’re willing to see it – Marseille has the best to offer, and is frankly getting there. Some neighborhoods are getting completely revamped. It’s a giant playground for sport lovers. In some streets you feel like you’re in Turkey, and somewhere else, it feels like Greece. I hope one day, when Marseille’ll have finished its “transition”, you’ll give it a second chance. As far as I’m concerned, I dread the day I’ll have to leave it, in one year’s time.

  19. Marseille lost a lot of her historical architucture in WWII, unfortunately. This has not been mentioned. I have lived in France twice, and seen a lot of the south, but now want to visit Marseille for the first time to see the Calanques, the Panier district, etc. I hope it can continue developing and pull itself out of corruption which is currently greatly hindering its great potential, according to a lot of articles written about this city. I also found myself thinking of the inherent influence of being a large port city–Tangiers in Morocco suffers some of the same issues (drug traffic etc) simply b/c it is THE big port city. A very tough issue to solve. The cultural diversity would be a plus though, making any city more interesting–at least to me!

  20. Bonjour,
    As a native of Marseille, who came to the US in 1982 and ended up living in the Boston area since, I can see exactly where you are coming from. But I want to reassure you, there is more to the city than what you saw in such a short time. All of my family still lives in Marseille and I go back there very often. I have seen the city change over the years most of the time for the better although not always.

    What I can tell you is that the city is best discovered or rather uncovered guided by true natives from Marseille who love and care deeply for their city. Is it a city that needs to be discovered from the inside. Despite all of its southern Mediterranean charms, it is very much like Barcelone. The city does not surrender to you that easily. As you probably know, when Marseille was founded by the Greeks more than 2,700 years ago, Paris did not even really exist as a settlement.. It saw Greek, Roman, Phoenician influence, and many others. Christianity was introduced through Marseille after ROme since the second and third century and there is a long and deep Marian tradition in the city.
    But and there is a “but”, it was a city that was always turned towards the sea, not as much connected to the land backing it. Encircled by high hills which for us in New England would be considered high mountains, Marseille was not easy to access. It developped very early an independence of thinking, becoming a center of philosophy that saw students from the entire greco-roman empire going there to study. The city was often more interested in commerce and greed than in preserving its heritage. But to its defense, it paid a very steep price to invasions, the French revolution and also to the German occupation during World War II. In 1943, the Germans destroyed the entire historical district, destroying with dynamite all of the medieval and renaissance houses that were built on the North side of the harbor as well as many greco-roman vestiges. After the war, when the entire area was excavated, many of the remaining vestiges from the antique Marseille were found. The greek anphitheatre was unearthed, some of the docks came to light and many artifacts were recovered. But bacause of corruption and enormous financial interests (the mafia was very dominant in the city for part of the 20th century), most everything was covered with the foundations of new buildings in the 1950s and no one seemed to want to talk about it although everyone knew. Then in the mid 60s when a large area next to the harbour was to be excavated underneath a parking lot to build new structures, a large part of the roman harbor was found. It was too large and too important to be hidden and kep under silence. There was no escape. The cultural authorities from Paris got involved. The result is that we have been able to preserve part of the old Greco Roman docks and harbor. On top and next to them is now the Museum of the Old Marseille which is an amazing place to visit.
    You mentioned that you missed seeing church spires like the ones seen in many other European cities. But there again, destructions from external sources took their toll on the cultural heritage. One example is the Basilique de Saint Victor (St Victor Basilica). It was during the Middle Ages one of the most important and powerful abbeys in Europe. Two of its abbotts became popes in Avignon. Then came the French revolution and the entire abbey was ransacked, its cloister totally destroyed as well as the rest of its conventual buildings. Only the church survived with its catacombs of early Christian martyrs. It is one of the best known examples of early Romanesque style.
    You will find amazing medieval and baroque chuches in the city but there are often hidden.

    You were disappointed in noting that Notre Dame de la Garde was only inaugurated in 1864. But you have to know the history of what was there before and the successive settlements of forts and churches. Incidentally, it is not the Cathedral of Marseille. The Cathedral was build around the same time and in the same style on the other side of the harbour. It was built next to the original small romanesque cathedral, one of the earliest examples of the purest provençal romanesque style. But again, in order to build that cathedral, part of the old church was destroyed. I think it had structural problems and it is not clear that partial destruction was avoidable.

    Marseille was always a rebel city. It took the side of Pompey when Caesar fought him to gain the power from the triumvirat. Caesar besiedged the city for a long time and finally vanquished hungry, exhausted and decimated Massiliensis. He was so impressed by their tenacity and their courage that it granted the city some form of autonomy unheard off in the Roman Empire. However, it tansfered to Arles and Aix many of the regalian prerogatives. To this day, some of those prerogatives still belong to the mucj smaller city of Aix.
    Marseille, the rebel, the independent was always against the ruling party during all of its history. One of the forts built at the entrance of the old harbor was built by Louis XIV not to protect the city from invaders but rather to contain the city, its cannons pointed inwards. When everyone was Bonapartist, Marseille supported the traditional royalty and vice versa. When everyone was monarchist, Marseille was republican, and so on throughout its history.

    Again, it is true that a keener interest in commerce than in preserving its heritage has made it that not as many monuments of the past have survived contrary to other French cities. Things are changing though. Last year and this year has seen a major battle to keep most of the recently unearthed vestiges of the antic roman quarries.
    There has been corruption for the longest time. That corruption is less nowadays and has been exposed to the point where it is much more difficult for powerful politicians to manipulate cultural and social agendas.
    When I grew up, Marseille had the most extensive light rail (trolley° network in Europe. Because of political agendas and large payoffs, most of those streetcar lines were destroyed and replaced first with electric buses then polluting diesel buses. Only one line remained (line 68). Twenty plus years ago it was finally understood that like all other European cities, Marseille needed to reinvest heavily into streetcars. By then, the existing rails did not exist or were buried deep underneath the roads. All of that had to be excavated and torn apart to build new streetcar lines.
    That is also a reality of that city.

    In short, what I want to convey to you is that Marseille needs to be discovered using a different “eyes” than what would be needed for other European cities.
    It is a cosmopolitan city that needs time to be uncovered.
    The center of the city has seen in the past 39-40 yearssuch a large influx of migrants especially from North Africa anthat it is really reinventing the look and feel of the city. It has now become an absolute priority for the city officials to rehabilitate its center, to bring back businesses, stores, culture and tourists.
    Marseille cannot be compared to other European cities. It is unique in its flavors, its atmosphere, its way of life.
    Often, people of Marseille used to say that part of their monuments is nature around them, those absolutely amazing calanques almost unique in the world (now a national park). But again all of that needs to be discovered and it needs to be done out of the regular tourist beaten paths.
    It is not mystery that Marseille has become in a few years one of the most important port of calls or even home port for major cruise lines. The number of tourists visiting the city every year from cruise ships iss high. I saw numbers the other day in six and seven figures.

    If you are interested in knowing more about the city, don’t hesitate dropping me a note.


Comments are closed.

I help you experience the best the world has to offer!

Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.