Marseille is a city full of art and culture and has many wonders to share with you. With its 26 centuries of history, it combines tradition and modernity.
The city is deeply marked by its past and is constantly digging up the remains of all the cities that have been built on top of each other over the centuries. It takes the visitor on a journey that begins with its Greek and Roman origins and leads us past the medieval religious foundations, the 16th Century fortifications, the rich homes of the 17th and 18th centuries and the many prestigious buildings erected in the 19th century and right up to modern times and the great architectural achievements of the 21st century.
The city has a wealth of monuments, places of interest and museums to visit.
Since the dawn of its history Marseille has always looked outward to the Mediterranean to which it owes the myth of its own founding: the love between a Ligurian princess and a Phocean sailor. As France's chief port, sea trade has played an important part in the life of Marseille for centuries. With its 57km coastline, Marseille is also a great favorite with fans of water sports. But not only wind-surfers and sailors flock to the city; its sun-drenched beaches also attract ordinary holidaymakers who seek nothing more energetic than a paddle.
The coast-road is dotted with follies overlooking magical sites such as the Vallon des Auffes, and has magnificent views over the islands dotted around the Bay of Marseille. The 20km long Calanques massif is a nature-lover's paradise. The wild beauty of these countless creeks and inlets draws hikers from all over the world.
The area around the forts is believed to have been inhabited since antiquity but it was not until the 13th century that the Hospitalers of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem (later to become the Knights of Malta) settled here and gave its name to the quarter. The fort became a National Heritage Site in 1964.
Saint Nicolas Fortress
From the middle of the 17th century, favored by the Fronde insurrection, Marseille defies and holds up to the ridicule royal authority. As soon as peace with Spain is obtained and the king leaves with freely, the city is occupied by the army. To enter the city, Louis XIV, in March 1660, does not hesitate to open a breach in the medieval walls. Some of its stones are used again – as a symbol – in the construction of the Saint Nicolas citadel.
The Old Major (Old Cathedral - registered as a National Heritage building in 1840) and the New Major (New Cathedral) (registered as a National Heritage building in 1906).
The New Major, designed by the architect Léon Vaudoyer, is built in the Byzantine Romanesque style in the shape of a Latin cross with an ambulatory.
Notre-Dame de la Garde
The Garde hill (154m) has always been an observation post. Tradition has it, but there is no proof, that it exists since pre-historical times and more probably since the Roman era. Since then, the Garde hill has a triple function: look-out post, fortification and place of worship and pilgrimage. In the middle of the 19th century, the sanctuary proves to be too small for the numerous pilgrims who visit it. Monseigneur de Mazenod decided to build a large basilica which foundation stone was laid on 11 September 1853. In a Romanesque-byzantine style with domes, the multicolored stones, gold and mosaics, the basilica fits in perfectly in the program of the large constructions undertaken in Marseille under Napoléon III. The belfry supports a monumental statue of the virgin executed in bronze, gilded with gold leaves, by the Christofle workshops and installed in September 1870. From the esplanade, in front of the sanctuary, there is a most impressive view of Marseille and its site. The church has been restored both outside and inside between 2001 and 2007.
La Vieille Charité
In 1640 the Town Council decided to "lock up the poor inhabitants of Marseille in a selected clean place", in compliance with the royal policy of "enclosing the poor". In 1670 a charity organization within the Council of Aldermen commissioned Pierre Puget, the King's architect, whose childhood was spent in the area, to design a Public Hospital intended to accommodate beggars and the poor.
After the Revolution, and until the end of the 19th century, the Vieille Charité was used as a hospice for the old and children. Since 1986 the building has fulfilled a variety of scientific and cultural functions, housing museums and hosting temporary exhibitions. The Vieille Charité is in the heart of the Panier and is a must for every tourist visiting Marseille.
The Old Marseille
Behind the City Hall, the heart of the city’s old quarter is called “Le Panier” (i.e. the basket). Its name apparently derives from the sign of the 17th century inn “Le Logis du Panier” located there. The Maison Diamantée was built by rich Spanish and Italian trading partners. It was then inhabited by well-established Marseille families before it was divided into apartments during the Revolution. The Maison Diamantée is a perfect example of Provençale mannerism with its unusual façade decorated with raised diamond-shaped tips and the decorated paneled staircase that is unique to Marseille. It became a National Heritage building in 1925, was spared from being blown up in 1943 and since 1967 has housed the Musée du Vieux Marseille (Museum of Old Marseille). Today, the Maison Diamantée is one of the few remaining souvenirs of the old city that no longer exists, of its aristocratic dwellings in the rich quarter of the city centre that was so dependent on the sea and on commerce.
L’Hôtel Dieu: The original Saint-Esprit hospital was founded in the 12th century. It was extended over the centuries and was joined to the Saint-Jacques de Galice hospital in the 16th century. A century later it became the Hôtel-Dieu.
Accoules church: All that has survived of the original church is the bell tower and some remains of the nave. The present church, with its circular architecture, dates from the 19th century. The parish of Accoules is one of the oldest in Marseille.
Shopping: You’ll find in the old area a lot of small shops with arts and crafts products: soap, olive oil, mosaics, artisanal chocolate and kitchenware.
The Old Harbor
Marseille can claim to have existed for 2,600 years and therefore qualifies as France's oldest city. In 600 B.C., Greeks from Phocaea (in present-day Turkey) arrived in the Lacydon creek which was then inhabited by people belonging to the Ligurian branch of the Celts. According to legend, Massalia (as the Greeks named Marseille) was the result of a love story between Protis the Greek and Gyptis, daughter of the Ligurian chieftain. She rejected princes and fortune-hunters and chose the handsome adventurer.
In 1666, however, Louis XIV gave instructions for the city to be extended southwards. Entrance to the port was henceforth protected by two forts: Fort Saint-Nicolas to the south and Fort Saint-Jean to the north.
The Ferry-boat: So cherished by the Provençal writer and film director, Marcel Pagnol, leaves from the quay in front of the City Hall to make several daily crossings of the Vieux-Port. The crossings began in June 1880, thus opening the famous passage from the City Hall to the Place aux Huiles, a square located on the opposite side of the port.
The coastal road and the seaside
This beautiful walkway overlooking the sea, running from the Catalans cove to the Prado beaches, offers some magnificent views of the Frioul islands and the Château d'If. In 1848, it was decided to create a seaside thoroughfare in order to provide work for the numerous unemployed of the time, leading to the creation of the Municipal Workshops and the hiring of 8,000 workers. Today the Corniche is 5km long. It was redeveloped at the end of the fifties.
The opening of the entire Corniche during the Second Empire, gave Marseille's rich bourgeoisie the opportunity to have some magnificent villas built. It was considered good taste only to stay in them for a short while, during spring, just before leaving for the country house for the summer. The merchants and ship-owners employed famous architects and sculptors to build eccentricities for them whose whimsical nature has something of the 18th century about it. Indeed, historic references are numerous if one takes the time to look at these villas of which the most remarkable are Château Berger and Villa Valmer.
Palais du Pharo
The Pharo promontory was once called Tête de More, meaning Moorish Head. It was a rocky plateau on which only rushes and wild grasses grew, with a few "guinguettes" (small restaurants with music and dancing). It was Prince-President Louis-Napoléon who decided to build an imperial residence in Marseille. During a visit in September 1852, he expressed the desire to have "a house at the water's edge". The residence was not much appreciated and the Emperor never actually used it. On the death of Napoleon III, the Empress Eugénie became the sole owner of the Pharo, and generously donated it to the city.
Thanks to its exceptional location and the creation of a Conference Centre that receives up to 60,000 people a year, the former Imperial Residence is today a prestigious architectural complex, one of the finest in Europe.
Archaeological evidences show that Saint Victor Abbey goes back to the end of the 5th century. Worship is organized on the site of the present abbey, around a tomb which is venerated. Tradition, once again, has it that it contains the relics of the eponymous martyr of Marseille from the 4th century. In reality, the crypts preserve highly valuable archaeological evidence proving the presence of a quarry exploited in Greek times, then of a Hellenic necropolis (2nd century BC) which remained in use in the Christian era.
Shopping: At the back of the Abbey, you’ll find the oldest bakery of Marseille (1781), where you can buy the original « navettes », small cookies in the shape of a boat, parfumed with orange flower water or not.
This district dates from the beginning of the 19th century, a period of great economic expansion for Marseille and of major urban development. The Old-Port had reached saturation point, due in particular to the arrival of steamships. So in 1842, a project to extend the port to the Joliette area was adopted. A brand new port facility was built at the meeting of land and sea routes, and the "Compagnie des Docks et Entrepôts" was founded. They are the most modern of Marseille's Second Empire development projects and the most expensive after the Cathedral and the Prefecture.
After a period of almost total neglect, the Docks have been restored to their former splendor thanks to the remarkable rehabilitation project undertaken by architect Eric Castaldi.
The Euroméditerranée and the future of Marseille
The go-ahead was given for the Euroméditerranée project in 1996. This is the largest state-financed operation since the construction of the Défense business district in Paris, remodeling an entire urban area stretching from La Joliette to the area around the St. Charles railway station. The French government, Marseille’s city council, the region, the department and the Urban Community have formed an association to create a veritable European centre to promote and develop trade.
Euroméditerranée is an economic development and planning operation. Its purpose is to develop the coastal area by rehabilitating a business district, and by incorporating a vast property development program including the construction of new housing. The work is programmed to take roughly 20 years, and the first results can already be seen: renovation of the Docks and Place de la Joliette, construction of new residential and office buildings in an audacious architectural style, opening of the Gaston Defferre departmental library and archives.
Five major centers of activity are currently being developed through the whole city with the new National Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, redesigned areas and several huge buildings created by world-renowned architects (Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, …).
A jewel at the gates of Marseille: The Calanques
Between Callelongue and Port Pin, along a coast line of 20km, magnificent white cliffs rise vertically from the sea. Nobody can resist the fascination of such harmony, made of the infinity of the sea and the divine madness of the cliffs whose sharp peaks and colossal fortresses strive towards heaven. The Calanques, these emerald fingers between the rocks, were created 12,000 years ago when a gradual warming after the ice ages made the sea rise to flood the valleys. In this way, the islands of the Archipel of Riou were also formed. The natural weather conditions have given birth to a plant life which is rich in its diversity, with some rare and fragile species. For example, the « Gouffé » grass exists nowhere else in the world. These species must be preserved.
If and Frioul Islands
The Frioul archipelago points to the coast the relief of its 4 islands: Pomègues, Ratonneau, If and Tiboulen. Calanques, beaches, sandy creeks, impressive cliffs, the light quality and the water transparency make the islands a spot of great beauty. Still a conservation area, it is an authentic encounter in the Mediterranean Sea. The microclimate generates original and rare floral species, adapted to the conditions of aridity that characterize the spot. Furthermore, the Mistral is the great actor of the islands; it sculpts, gnaws and arranges them.
During the centuries, the islands have been stops for the Mediterranean sailors, warriors or adventurers. Later on, the sanitary function takes a large part in the protection of Marseille, especially in the beginning of the 19th century when the Caroline Hospital was built on the Ratonneau island to treat patients suffering from the yellow fever.
Since 1971 the Frioul Archipelago belongs to the city of Marseille. The little village "Port Frioul" was created in 1974. There are some restaurants, a leisure port with 700 rings that welcomes numerous visitors. This island also is the shelter of the first biological aquaculture for bass, in the world.
Until the 16th century, If has been an uninhabited island and an occasional haven for fishermen. It is François the 1st, who, during a visit to Marseille in 1516, assesses its strategic importance and gives the order to build a fortress on it. In a very short time, the fortress changes its purpose and becomes a prison. Rebels, ruffians and refractory galley slaves stayed there for shorter or longer periods. From 1689 onwards, the Protestants are thrown en masse into the unhealthy dungeons where many of them die. However, the fortress offers quite decent living conditions to distinguished prisoners. The most famous prisoner was without José Custodio Faria, whom Alexandre Dumas immortalized in the Count of Monte Cristo. After having received the revels of 1848 and the communards of 1871, the fortress lost its prison character and was opened to the public in 1890. As regards Edmond Dantès, the Count of Monte Christo, the chronicle of If has no trace of his imprisonment. On the other hand, the hole which he dug in the wall of one of the cells is still very visible. The Château d'If can be visited thanks to a regular boat service and welcomes every year more than 90,000 visitors.