Marseille -- Port de l Estaque
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Marseille, the gateway to Provence, is the second largest city and largest port in France, and an ethnic melting pot that befits its proximity to Africa. But the city traces its history further east: In 6th century B.C., wandering Greeks founded "Massalia" as a trading port; 2,000 years ago, after the Greeks joined the Romans to expand territories, a civil war broke out between Caesar and Pompey, and the people of Marseille were forced to side with the latter (who was ultimately defeated). French colonies began to settle in the coastal city by the 19th century.
Today, the Vieux Port -- the city's old harbor -- is still Marseille's main draw, dotted with boats of all shapes and sizes, from humble fishing boats to medium-size yachts. While much of the city is urban sprawl of little charm, the Vieux Port is the center of a compact area of galleries, museums and churches. Bustling with visitors and locals alike, the old harbor is also the epicenter for dining in the city, offering everything from pizza and Coca-Cola to the finest fresh seafood. Bouillabaisse, a fish stew, is a national treasure in France and it originated in Marseille, where it is a ubiquitous menu item.
Many of the buildings around the port were damaged or destroyed during World War II, but have been rebuilt to mimic the pre-war charm of the area. (Interestingly, there is no museum or other permanent exhibition in the city about the war and Marseille's role in it).
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French. While many workers in the restaurants and the port area speak some English, many others do not. Even in the larger department stores, be prepared to try some basic French, supplemented by pointing and hand movements.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The euro; there are ATM's throughout the port area, but fewer once you wander off the beaten track.
Something for the kitchen or the dining room in the Provencal motif (faded yellows and blues), such as napkins or the charming folded and tied bread basket. While numerous small shops offer them, the best prices and selection is at the Nouvelles Galeries in the Centre Bourse (17, Cours Belsunce).
Watch Out For
French holidays and dog droppings. With the French government trying to bring workers' benefits under control, France's heavily unionized workforce is intent these days on taking every real holiday and throwing the occasional work stoppage. Posted openings for museums are occasionally in jeopardy. Also, the French are dog-lovers, but they have not quite gotten into the habit of picking up after Fifi. Particularly on side streets, so watch your step!
Where You're Docked
Ships dock in two main areas of commercial piers in Marseille, both north of the Vieux Port area.
The cruise terminal is located in a highly industrial area, and the main part of town and major tourist sites are located a cab or shuttle ride away. However, there are a few shops right where the ships dock featuring souvenirs from Marseille and Provence, such as wonderful scented soaps.
By Taxi: A cab or shuttle is required to reach the main part of town and the major tourist sites. The taxi ride may cost 8 - 18 euros, depending on where in the harbor your ship has docked; most lines offer a shuttle into the Vieux Port for 5 euros each way.
On Foot: Once in the Vieux Port area, most of the major sights are within walking distance, although some (Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde for instance) require an uphill hike. For more distant venues, the Marseille subway system is a simple, two-train affair, with a station in the Vieux Port. It is safe and easy to navigate.
By Rail: For visitors who prefer a less strenuous introduction to Marseille, the "Little Train" offers covered open-sided cars pulled behind a motorized miniature engine. The more popular of the lines departs every 30 minutes from the Quai des Belges at the port's eastern edge. It offers a comprehensive drive-by that lasts slightly over one hour and includes a stop at the Basilique Notre-Dame. Cost is 5 euros.
By Car: Hertz, Avis and National all have rental locations in Marseille. Reservations are a must, and remember, the norm in Europe is the stick shift. Renters must ask -- and prepare to pay a significant premium -- for automatic.
Visitors could spend an entire day walking through the Vieux Port area: snacking at the numerous sidewalk cafes, visiting the many shops (local and chain), people watching and simply relishing the joys of being a part of an international seaside city. Two favorite boulevards for strolling are the pedestrian-only rue St-Fereol, near the Vieux Port, and the Corniche President-J.-F.-Kennedy, an easy 15-minute walk west. Rue St-Fereol is filled with boutiques and shops featuring regional handicrafts. Corniche President-J.-F.-Kennedy is perfect for someone seeking something a bit more vigorous (and less crowded); it winds along and above the rocky coastline of the Mediterranean, giving walkers the chance to enjoy the sea and the breeze from the one side, and see numerous gardens, villas, shops and restaurants on the other side, outside of the normal tourist area.
Every European city has its share of magnificent churches, and Marseille is no exception. Below are the top three, in what should be considered a visitor's order of importance:
--Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (rue Fort-du-Sanctuaire, 04.91.13.40.80, 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. daily, free) should be any visitor's first stop (the "Little Train" is a great way to get there) because the climb to the top of the bluff (La Garde hill, the highest point in the city) where the building is located is breathtaking -- literally. While the church is interesting, and the bronze entry doors worthy of a look, the view is spectacular. Below lies the Mediterranean, endlessly blue in all directions on a sunny day. But beware of the wind, as it is a breezy summit. The church itself dates from 1864; a 30-foot gilded statue of the Virgin Mary stands atop the bell tower. In the Basilica, there is an extraordinary collection of small-scale models of boats and planes hung by those who returned safely from dangerous travel after invoking the help of Notre-Dame. The Basilica has a decent coffee shop to reward climbers after the hike up.
--Basilique St-Victor (Place St-Victor, 04.96.11.22.60, 9 a.m. - 7 p.m. daily, free) is one of few truly ancient structures in the city, having been built as a fortified basilica above a 5th-century crypt. The interior is an almost maze-like array of the main chapel, and staircases to the crypt and other spots in the sanctuary. The altar is simple, but highlighted from the rear of the church by stunning stained-glass windows. Unusually situated at the center of the church among the pews, is an oversized baptismal font. Archeological and historical research indicate that through the centuries, the site has been a quarry, a burial plot, an abbey, a fortified monastery, a fodder warehouse, a prison and an army barracks, before being physical restored as a church in the 19th century.
--Cathedrale de la Major (Place de la Major, 04.91.90.53.37, 9 a.m. - noon and 2 p.m. - 5 p.m. daily except Monday, free), is one of the largest 19th-century cathedrals in Europe. The sanctuary is splendid, with altars of multi-colored marble. Highlights include an unusual mosaic floor and an unusual Turkish motif in the dome and cupolas.
Musee Cantini (19 rue Grignan, 04.91.54.77.75, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Tuesday - Sunday, 3 euros) is the city's modern art museum, but art aficionados are particularly attentive to the temporary exhibits, which are frequent and often outshine the permanent collection. The building itself is of some note, having been finished in 1694; its owner donated it to Marseille in 1916.
Palais Longchamp (Palais Longchamp on place Bernex) is most notable for the outside. While the museum (Musee des Beaux-Arts) is of some interest, the dramatic fountains and colonnade of the elaborate water tower are the attraction. It is actually an irrigation project, constructed to deliver water to the city in the mid-19th century during the Second Empire (the time of Napoleon III). The soaring structure (or ponderous wedding cake, depending on your tastes) features staircases, sculptures, slopes with balusters, basins, cascades and a large, tree-filled park just behind. This looming water-filled masterpiece reminds us that they don't build them like they used to.
Been There, Done That
The Island of Chateau d'If is just a short boat ride away from the Vieux Port. The island was home to the first rhinoceros brought to Europe (1515), but the fortress was built for the city's defense. Its most famous incarnation was as a prison, made famous in the novel The Count of Monte Cristo. Visitors can tour the cells and climb over the barren landscape. The GACM (04.91.55.50.09) offers the 20-minute boat ride from the quai des Belges every hour from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., weather permitting. The Chateau (04.91.59.02.30) is open daily from 9:30 a.m. - 6:30 p.m.
If Marseille is of little interest, all of Provence awaits. This magical and evocative region begins at Marseille's boundaries. For cruisers interested in renting a car, full daytrips can be planned in Arles, St. Remy-de-Provence, Aix-en-Provence, or any of a dozen other intriguing towns and villages.
The main shopping areas are pedestrian-only rue St-Fereol, which contains shops of every description and price range, and Cours Julien, which specializes in fashion. And, just for fun, check out the hats at Felio (4 place Gabriel-Peri). Alas, although art galleries proliferate around the port area, the work is generally overpriced and rather pedestrian.
Place Thiars is a charming square by the main port area that holds an assortment of restaurants, most with outside tables. One of Marseille's biggest draws is its natural abundance of seafood, which influences the offerings at many of the fine local restaurants.
Best Local Eats: While nearly every seafood restaurant offers its own version of the Marseille creation (and the prices vary widely), a nice bouillabaisse can be had for about 20 euros at Chez Paul (23 rue Saint Saëns, 04.91.33.07.33). For something a little lighter, try either Cafe Simon or Annex, both also in the square.
Off-the-Beaten-Path: Want to expand those culinary horizons? Marseille has a large North African population. Try Tunisian food at La Kahena (2 rue de Republique, 04.91.90.61.93). It offers some of the best couscous one can imagine, and its variations on roasted lamb are scrumptious.
Best Overall Tour: Marseille City Tour. This excursion takes you through the harbor rich in maritime tradition to Notre-Dame de la Garde and Longchamp Palace, returning via "La Canebiere," the main avenue of the city. (3.5 hours)
Best for Second-Timers: Avignon & Wine Tasting at Palace of the Popes. Get out of the city to the Romanesque town of Avignon where the seat of the Popes was held from 1309 to 1376. The wine tasting of "Cotes du Rhone" (red, white and rose) will be served in a dedicated part of the Palace of the Popes filled with frescoes and Romanesque architecture. (8 hours)
Best for Families: Aix-en-Provence. Aix is particularly great for kids because it's small enough to explore by foot and vehicles are not allowed in the old town. Highlights include Cours Mirabeau, the shaded tree-lined avenue with cafes and shops, and the Mazarin quarter with its unique 17th-century chessboard pattern. After the tour, there's an hour of free time to enjoy the marionettes and costumes at the Musee du Vieil Aix. (4.5 hours)
Best for Art Lovers: Arles and Les Baux. Though the Provencal town of Arles was founded by Julius Caesar, it was Vincent Van Gogh who put this charming medieval town on the map. In just 14 months here, the troubled artist produced over 200 works. In addition to visiting Van Gogh's haunts, the tour features Les Arenes, a 20,000-seat Roman amphitheater. (8 hours)
Staying in Touch
Watch for a large sign with a colored @ -- the sure sign of an Internet cafe. Cafe @ (1 Quai de Rive Neuve), at the southeast corner of the port, is convenient, open daily from 9 a.m. - 10 p.m. (2:30 p.m. - 7:30 p.m. Sunday), and charges about 4 euros per hour of access.
For More Information
On the Web: www.marseille-tourisme.com
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--by Maria Smith, a travel writer whose work has appeared in newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News, the Nashville Tennessean and the San Jose Mercury News.
Photos appear courtesy of Marseille's Official Tourist Board.