Marseille, the second largest city in France, is sometimes referred to as little Paris and is considered France’s “gateway to the Mediterranean”. However, the French city on the Côte d’Azur does not have to hide behind the capital, and not only because the city area is more than twice as large as Paris. The weather is better, there are fewer tourists, there are numerous sights in and around the city, and last but not least, the Mediterranean Sea and the Calanques National Park are right on the doorstep.
More than 800,000 inhabitants make Marseille a large city in the middle of Provence, which can look back on a long history, but has remained young. The city area is very large, but includes not only built-up area, but also vast natural areas such as mountains.
“Mama Marseille” as the city on the Mediterranean is affectionately called, has a pleasant climate to offer all year round.
Marseille has already been European Capital of Culture and is a city that offers not only southern French lifestyle, a unique atmosphere, proximity to the sea and a wide range of stores, attractions for tourists and a generally good tourist infrastructure and coastal landscape.
Tip 1: MUCEM
At Marseille’s Old Port, where hundreds of sailboats bob on the water, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, or MuCem for short, opened its doors to the public in 2013. From a distance, the unusual architecture resembles a giant cube. Star architect Rudy Ricciotti was inspired by the special light of Provence and the wind and incorporated the elements into his plans. The 190-million-euro structure appears to sit on a peninsula created by dredging a shipping channel. The concrete structure is completely glazed on the south and east sides and lies behind a screen that protects the exhibits from intense sunlight. At the same time, the open construction creates fascinating plays of light. From close up, the filigree facade of the cube-shaped building looks like a net of lace. The architectural contrast of the angular building to the round Fort Saint-Jean from the 17th century, which has guarded the harbor entrance for centuries, is deliberately chosen.
In the course of the opening of MuCEM Marseille, the historic Fort Saint-Jean was also opened to the public for the first time since the 17th century. The historic bulwark houses the museum’s permanent exhibition. It is entitled “Galerie de la Méditerranée” and highlights the development of civilization in the Mediterranean region from the Stone Age to the present day. Numerous exhibits document the period from the transition to the Bronze and Iron Ages to the influence of religion and the work of the enlightened middle classes. The new museum building is connected to the fort by a 130 m long pedestrian bridge.
Tip 2: Notre-Dame de la Garde
The French affectionately call this Marian sanctuary “la bonne mère” – the good mother. Around two million pilgrims travel to pray in the church every year. The 160-meter-high hill on which the magnificent building stands is not only the destination of devout Christians, however.
Tourists from all over the world come there to enjoy the great panoramic view of the city. Many also want to take a look at the Chateau d’If, which rises majestically from the water in the immediate vicinity. The island fortress was the model for that prison from which the “Count of Monte Cristo” freed himself so spectacularly in the novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas.
Although “La bonne mère” is a very splendid building erected in the Byzantine style, it is not a really old church. In the Middle Ages, a small wooden chapel is said to have once stood on “la Garde”, as the hill that gives it its name is called. Even then, it was dedicated to the Mother of God. Several additions and extensions were made, but even in the best of times no more than 60 to 70 worshippers could fit into the small sacred space. The whole thing changed dramatically when the so-called knight-king Francis I wanted to take advantage of the strategic location of the church in the early 16th century. He built a fort around the building, which also included the “impregnable” island fortress Chateau d’If in de plans. Although the church, which was also fortified, was now on military ground, it remained open to worshippers. The pilgrims, who were gradually joined by more and more sailors, could reach it via a drawbridge.
Tip 3: Palais Longchamp
Although Marseille is located on the waterfront, there used to be frequent water shortages in the city. In 1834, after an extremely dry period, a cholera epidemic broke out. The city administration at the time felt compelled to finally do something about the water shortage. It was decided to build a bold project of a young engineer Franz Mayor de Montricher, who wanted to build a 85km long water pipeline in the form of a canal from the Durance (Canal de Marseille).
The works started in 1839 and besides numerous tunnels and 18 aqueducts, the extensive works were completed after 10 years of construction.
To celebrate the arrival of water in Marseille, the architect Henri-Jacques Espérandieu was commissioned to create a representative water reservoir. The construction of the Palais Longchamp was completed in 1862.
Since 1869, the wings of the Palais have housed two highly respected Marseilles museums: the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts) on the left and the Museum of Natural History (Muséum d’histoire naturelle) on the right. The building is surrounded by gardens; towards the front, the garden is dominated by a generous arrangement of gargoyles and waterfalls; towards the back, there was still an animal garden until 1987, which is now used as a green space and enjoys great popularity.
Tip 4: Marseille Cathedral
A few hundred meters north of the Old Port of Marseille is the Cathedral of the Major.
Among other prestigious building projects, the monumental structure in its current form is built in the 19th century, when the city was experiencing an economic and social boom, and should be a visible sign to travelers, especially those who came by sea.
The Cathedral de la Major was built according to the plans of the architect Léon Vaudoyer. It is the only one built in France in the 19th century and is considered one of the largest built after the Middle Ages. Its dimensions are comparable to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and its interior can seat 3000 people. The Cathedral de la Major has a length of 142 meters and its nave rises 20 meters high. Its dome, 17.7 meters in diameter, reaches the height of 70 meters and is the sixth largest in the world. The building is classified as a monument historique.
The Cathedral de la Major was built between 1852 and 1893 between the Old Port and the New Commercial Port. The foundation stone was laid by Napoleon on September 26, 1852.
Tip 5: Fort Saint-Jean
The area around the fortress was probably inhabited before and around the ancient times. But it was only from the 13th century that the knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem gave their name to the fortress and settled here.
Some hints of their presence can still be seen today. It was at this time that King René built the large square tower. There are still some remains of it, because it was destroyed during an attack in 1423 by the armies of Aragon. It was built on the place where the Maubert tower had once stood and was the protection of the entrance to the port of Marseille and also a kind of observation post.
The lighthouse of the fortress was built in 1644 under the direction of Chevalier de Clerville. The plan of the fortress was made according to the instructions of Louis XIV, who had great plans for Marseille. He also gave the plan to a circular – pit to isolate the fortress from the city. The fortress was first used as a garrison and during the Revolution as a prison. The fortress was declared a national heritage site in 1964.