France’s oldest city dates from 600BC when it was settled by Greeks from Phocaea. Since then it’s seen bubonic plague, been attacked by Visigoths and was a French Revolution hotbed (hence the national anthem, La Marseillaise). The sense of history is strong — plus beaches, bouillabaisse and budget flights, of course.
Where to stay
Actors, pop singers and football players hang out at the bar of this hip hotel, just east of the Old Port (Vieux Port). Expect arty rooms with charcoal-grey carpets and designer lights. DJs play in the lively bar/restaurant from 9pm, with live music on Sundays. Doubles from £68; breakfast £15pp (mamashelter.com).
Right by Gare de Saint Charles, train station (where airport shuttle buses arrive), but don’t be put off by the location. Rooms are neat and comfortable, if a little cramped. The bar/lounge has a retro Seventies feel, plus there’s a basement steam room and sauna. Doubles from £52; breakfast £12 pp (alex-hotel.fr).
A brilliant day trip is to the islands of If and Frioul (above), each around 20 minutes away
Best Western Plus Hotel La Joliette
Yes, it’s a brand favoured by business travellers, but this makes a great base. The small-ish rooms are colourful and smart, and there’s a pool and steam room. Doubles from £85; breakfast £13pp (hotel-joliette.com).
NH Collection Marseille
Close to the Old Port and the higgledy-piggledy streets of Le Panier, this is a well-run new hotel in a grand former apartment block dating from 1907. Rooms are minimalist and there’s a jolly bar and restaurant (with top-notch breakfasts). Rates above £100 in peak periods. Doubles from £96; breakfast £19pp (nh-hotels.com).
B&Bs by the station
Casa Ortega and Pension Edelweis are two great B&Bs near Gare de Saint Charles, with vintage furniture and friendly owners. B&B doubles from £77 (casa-ortega.fr; pension-edelweiss.fr). Prices can fluctuate.
Where to eat
Le Petit Cabanon
Ask a local where to get a cheap, well-made bouillabaisse and you will be met with a snappy: ‘If it is cheap, it is not good.’ While the famous fish stew may set you back £60 at the first-rate Miramar restaurant (lemiramar.fr), a decent version can be had nearby at Le Petit Cabanon for £25. 8 Cours Jean Ballard, 13001 (lafourchette.com)
Connections with Italy are strong; many Italian immigrants settled in Marseille last century. This popular pizzeria dates from 1943 and is in the lively Noailles district east of the Old Port. Enjoy pizzas from £10. 10 Rue d’Aubagne, 13001 (chezsauveur.fr)
This restaurant is on the third floor of an apartment block built by the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier in 1951. Menus in the Fifties restaurant might comprise asparagus starter, followed by grilled fish with a lemon tart dessert (three courses £28). Hotel rooms with Corbusier-period designs are from £68. 280 Boulevard Michelet, 13008 (hotellecorbusier.com)
Les Terrasses du Port
This shopping mall faces the ‘new port’ of Marseille in the rejuve-nated second arrondissement. Grab a sandwich from one of the ground-floor stalls (about £4.30) and enjoy the view from the top. lesterrassesduport.com
Marseille, France’s oldest city, dates from 600BC when it was settled by Greeks from Phocaea
What to see and do
Stroll to the basilica
Notre-Dame de la Garde is the city symbol of Marseille, a hilltop Catholic basilica built in the mid-19th century with a tower topped by a giant golden statue of Mary and baby Jesus. It’s a fair walk from the port to the entrance. You can catch a return journey on a little train-shaped tourist vehicle for £7 return.
Ferries to the islands
A brilliant day trip is to the islands of If and Frioul each around 20 minutes away (tickets £14). From the islands it’s great to gaze back at Marseille with its sand-coloured buildings and marina. Entrance is £5 to the evocative Chateau d’If (inset above left), a former prison where the author Alexandre Dumas set parts of The Count Of Monte Cristo.
Old Town graffiti
The Old Town dates from Greek times and is in a web of streets off the Old Port where bright street art-style murals with African influences and wacky cartoons can be found (inset left). Stop for a crepe or a pastis (anise-flavoured local spirit) at a cafe or bar along the way to admire nearby works and watch local life pass by.
On the first Sunday of each month, museums are free, including the excellent Musee des Beaux-Arts (culture.marseille.fr) and the History Museum of Marseille (musee-histoire-marseille-voie-historique.fr).
Picnic on Fort Saint-Jean
There’s a fantastic herb and olive tree garden at the top of this ancient fort guarding the Old Port’s entrance. It’s free — no need to pay to enter the museum below. Shaded picnic tables and benches are provided.
Buy a City Pass
A 48-hour City Pass costs £28, allowing free use of public transport, island ferries, trips on the ‘tourist train’, entrance to museums and much more. The 83 bus goes to the popular beaches to the south near Parc Borely, from where it’s around an hour’s walk back along the Corniche — perhaps with a stop-off for a £2.60 pastis at Le Sunset brasserie. marseille-tourisme.com
EasyJet has returns from Gatwick from £44 (easyjet.com). A return airport shuttle bus is £12.