Marseille was founded by the Greeks in 600 B.C. Despite it’s Vieux-Port or “Old Port” being one of the major ports in all of France, Marseille barely cracks the Top 10 of most popular or most visited French cities. Tourists who choose to sleep on Marseille are missing out on many breathtaking landmarks including the Chateau d’If, Basilica Notre-Dame de La Garde, the aforementioned Old Port, Calanques National Park, and the MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations). They are also missing out on what we deemed to be one of the most laid back and “every man” cities in all of France, in spite of it’s substantial size and population.
We arrived to Marseille by train from Annecy. It marked our 13th City, and France our 5th Country into our full year of travel. Marseille’s train station is enormous and was a decent walk to our Airbnb in the Old Port area.
- Old Port
- Chateau d’If
- Fort de Saint Jean
- Cathédrale La Major
- Basilica Notre-Dame de La Garde
- MuCEM – Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations
- Calanques National Park
- Carefour Market at Galeries Lafayette
- Len and JJ’s Overall Rating:
The Old Port or Vieux Port is one of the liveliest areas of Marseille. This port has been frequented as far back as 600 A.D. by the Greeks who discovered it. In modern day Marseille, the port is now lined with yachts, sail boats, and watercraft of all types from the journeyman to the luxury man’s. There are endless seafood restaurants, cafes, bars, and even kiosks for people selling all sorts of souvenirs and items.
There is always something happening at the Old Port. We actually saw several different public gatherings, from rally’s, to fundraising 5K’s and races, to protests, such as this musically lively one below.
The Old Port is also the gateway to some of Marseille’s best attractions that are only accessible by boat, such as the Chateau d’If and Calanques National Park. A boat ride or tour to these sites will also afford you with great views of the Fort de Saint Jean and Cathédrale La Major on your sailaway. The iconic Basilica Notre-Dame de La Garde can also be seen on the hilltop from the Vieux Port. This is a great place to stay when visiting Marseille thanks to it’s central location and easy access to everything in the city, including the port, metro, and bus stations.
It’s hard to overstate just how much the Chateau d’If was my favorite attraction in Marseille. If you watch the video above, or google it, it will undoubtedly look familiar. It is the historical site that inspired Alexandre Dumas famous works including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask. While the Chateau d’If’s depiction in both of these works was fictional, it is historically accurate that it was originally an island fortress, then later converted to an island prison.
The views of this magnificent island that can be seen as your ship slowly approaches are simply indescribable. Photos and videos do better than words, but still don’t do it justice. It starts to make sense why Dumas envisioned it as an inescapable place. He must have started to think about what it was like for prisoners there and what kind of man would be exiled there. Of course, with any good story, there has to be a twist. That’s especially true in the Count of Monte Cristo. Guilty men who have done terrible things being sent to prison is more normalized and expected in most societies. But when innocent men are locked away, and are faced with impossible odds to return to their lives, much less new found glory and unimaginable riches, now that makes for a great story.
Of course the real genius is that Edmond Dantes probably was not all that fictional of a character in 1844 France, and one can’t help but wonder how many truly innocent political and religious prisoners were sent to the Chateau d’If. The Count of Monte Cristo became the most popular book in all of Europe at that time. It was so popular in fact that it was not only translated into every modern language imaginable, but was eventually adapted into several plays, written by Alexandre Dumas himself. Of course in popular culture, great literary works and great plays, often become great films. There have been over 40 movies about the Count of Monte Cristo. My undeniable favorite film version of The Count of Monte Cristo features Jim Caviezel as Edmond Dantes, the trailer of which you can see below.
There are boat operators providing daily tours to the Chateau d’If. You can pre-plan your visit and find more information directly from the Chateau d’If’s website here, or buy skip the line tickets through Trip Advisor here. Please note that these tickets do not include the transportation to the island. Those tickets can be secured in person the day of your visit at the Vieux Port / Old Port. Maybe you’ll get lucky enough to board the “Edmond Dantes” as pictured below. How stinking cool is that? And how about the ridiculously beautiful, multi-colored Mediterranean Sea water? I don’t like to use the term “bucket list” very often, because I fully plan on visiting every country in the world and experiencing as much as this world has to offer before I die, but the Chateau d’If is indeed a bucket list item for Marseille at least. This is especially true for Count of Monte Cristo or Alexandra Dumas fans.
Once you reach the island and walk the grounds of the fortress, there is an eerie, unshakable feeling when standing in these former prison cells. Initially, as I did, your mind may fill with visions of the romanticism and adventure of the fictional Edmond Dantes. You may find yourself plotting your own escape with the help of a wise old priest, and carefully calculating just how long that 1.5 Kilometer swim would be to shore. Then the reality may set in, as it did for me, that this was in fact a real prison, with real prisoners who were exiled to this hellish place. Both political and religious prisoners were exiled here, and some were even executed on the island. Looking through the barred and gated windows of the cells and seeing the hustle and bustle of Marseille in the background, makes you grateful for your freedom, and that you are only here as a wide-eyed tourist and not a more permanent resident. The spirit of Edmond Dantes is as alive and real as the stone walls.
Fort de Saint Jean
This Fort was built by Louis XIV in 1660. It can be seen by boat when leaving the Old Port as pictured here. You can also get up close and personal and scale the fort walls on foot within the city. The Fort de Saint Jean is also the gateway to the MuCEM or Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations.
Cathédrale La Major
The Cathédrale La Major is another magnificent site that is visible by boat when leaving the Old Port. Although not as old or as visited as the Basilica Notre-Dame de La Garde, this Cathedral is equally as beautiful and is a major symbol of Marseille.
Basilica Notre-Dame de La Garde
The Basilica Notre-Dame de La Garde, built in 1864, is perhaps the symbol of Marseille. Both visible and audible from virtually any location in the city, due to it’s location at the highest visible point of Marseille, 149 Meters above the city, it is the most visited site in all of Marseille. It’s seeming omni-presence is symbolic of God, who is above all and seen and felt by all.
Whether you are a believer or religious at all or not, the Basilica is just a downright cool thing to see. The golden statue at the top of the bell tower, picturing Mary holding a young Jesus, is iconic. If nothing else, the hike to the top provides a great opportunity for exercise, and some sweet photo ops. If hiking and sweating isn’t your thing, there are hop on hop off buses and touristy trollies that make stops at the Basilica Notre-Dame de La Gard as well.
MuCEM – Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations
A fairly new attraction in Marseille, only opened in 2013, the MuCEM – Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations is easily spotted from the Old Port. It is adjacent to the Fort de Saint Jean and is actually connected by a pedestrian bridge that you can cross on foot. Entrance to the Fort de Saint Jean and common areas of the MuCEM are surprisingly free.
There are nice restrooms accessible at both locations, as well as several cafes and seating areas with water views. The museum itself contains a permanent collection as well as various special exhibits throughout the year. It is the first museum of it’s kind devoted exclusively to Mediterranean cultures and history. This beautiful, modern structure is especially amazing to see at night.
Calanques National Park
When you need to get away from the hustle and bustle and noise of the city, the Calanques National Park is the ticket. The park and surrounding areas are accessible by public transportation, but not easily and not without making it a whole day affair. The lazier option for visiting is via a boat tour as we did, which only has a total duration of about 3 hours. Be aware that touring by boat only provides water views, and no actual docking time on the islands. This is perhaps Marseille’s way of letting us sample the goods, while leaving us wanting more. Also, if you book a later in the day or near sunset cruise, be sure to take a jacket, even in the summer, as the wind and possible splashing can get quite brisk.
If you have a longer visit (say a week or more) hiking these parks or even staying at one of the small island / beach hotels might be worthwhile. We were admittedly saving our waterfront Mediterranean style living for our extended visit in Croatia.
Carefour Market at Galeries Lafayette
A supermarket might seem like a strange thing to feature on a blog to the casual observer, but serious travelers will appreciate this. Good grocery stores in Europe are extremely few and far between, so when you find one, it’s worth noting. This Carefour Market at the Galeries Lafayette is about a block off the Old Port. This Carefour Supermarket was unlike anything we had seen yet in Europe. It not only had extensive grocery selections, but it also had a huge selection of prepared foods like you would find in a Whole Foods Market or Central Market in the states. This was a way for us to get restaurant quality dishes at half the price of an actual sit down restaurant.
One of the ways we save money when traveling extensively, such as for a full year as we were on this adventure, is not being forced to eat out for every meal. This is also where a good Airbnb or Booking.com apartment rental can come into play. With an apartment or flat, you typically get a fridge and full kitchen, which is something you won’t find in even the most expensive suite at luxury hotels such as the Four Seasons, Conrad, or Ritz Carlton. And at typically about one third of the price of even a budget, lack-luster hotel, serious travelers will start to see the value in apartments over hotels. Besides, as we always say, when you stay in an apartment or home, you get a truer sense of what it feels like to actually live in a place and be amongst the locals in their every day surroundings.
You want to experience a place like a local? Stay where the locals stay and book a flat. Just be sure to add Wifi, Air Conditioning, and a Washer to your search filters like we do. JJ and I might be forced to look at each other in the same outfits over and over, but at least they’ll be clean and less sweaty when we do.
Len and JJ’s Overall Rating:
Worth Visiting At Least Once
What else is there to say about Marseille? Besides the fact that I love it when things unintentionally rhyme like that. We would add that Marseille is definitely a memorable city, and was easily our favorite large city to visit in France. Yes, we liked it better than Paris, and definitely found it more affordable amongst the larger French cities as well. We probably still prefer the hidden gems and smaller towns like Annecy and Menton more overall. But if you want to experience some great French history and folklore, especially in the form of the Chateau d’If and the Basilica Notre-Dame de La Garde, then mosey on over to Marseille. It’s a happening place to visit.