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Port of Marseille: An Overview

Marseille, gateway to Provence, is France's largest port and second largest city, with a vast history stretching back more than 2,000 years to its foundation by the Greeks in the 6th century BC.

While much of the city is urban sprawl, it has a spectacular setting between dramatic limestone hills and the Mediterranean, and the once-industrial streets now feature stylish shops and more ...

Marseille, gateway to Provence, is France's largest port and second largest city, with a vast history stretching back more than 2,000 years to its foundation by the Greeks in the 6th century BC.

While much of the city is urban sprawl, it has a spectacular setting between dramatic limestone hills and the Mediterranean, and the once-industrial streets now feature stylish shops and cutting-edge art galleries, thanks to investment from its role as European Capital of Culture 2013.

Most cruisers make a beeline for Le Vieux Port, a buzzing, picturesque harbor lined with boutiques, restaurants and cafes. This district attracts an eclectic crowd, from local fishermen to millionaires venturing ashore from James Bond-style mega-yachts. All gather to soak up Le Vieux Port's charming atmosphere, browse its bustling markets and tuck into a bowl of Marseille's classic signature dish, bouillabaisse (a rich fish stew).

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Hanging Around

Most passengers board a shuttle bus to Le Vieux Port and start exploring right away, but shopaholics will find an expanding range of retail outlets along the waterfront which links the cruise terminal to Le Vieux Port. It's best to head into the lovely, lively Le Vieux Port as quickly as you can, and leave closer-to-ship browsing for later, if you have time before returning to your vessel.

Don't Miss

Marseille's charming markets: Most are open daily between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. The Fish Market (near Le Petit Train departure point on Quai des Belges) is a local institution and a lively spot where you'll see local restaurateurs -- and possibly your ship's chef -- haggling for that day's catch. A better spot for foodies in search of take-home goodies is Les Halles de la Major, a gourmet food market set in the vaults of Marseille's La Major Cathedral.

Ile de Chateau d'If: This pretty island is a 20-minute boat ride from Le Vieux Port's Quai des Belges and is home to the 16th-century fortress-turned-prison described by Alexandre Dumas in his famous novel, "The Count of Monte Cristo." Ferries run by GACM (049 155 5009) and operate hourly from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (weather permitting). Round trip costs 50 euro-cents. The Chateau opens daily from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m; entrance fee is 5.50 euro.

Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde: This 19th-century Catholic basilica sits at the top of Marseille's highest point, La Garde Hill; it can be a tricky walk up, but the effort is worth it for the sweeping views of the Mediterranean. (Note: The petit train stops here and waits awhile, so those too unfit, time-strapped or -- let's face it -- lazy to manage the uphill hike can always let the train take the strain.) (Rue Fort-du-Sanctuaire; open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; free entrance)

Cathedrale de la Major: This lovely cathedral is one of Europe's largest and is celebrated for its multi-colored marble altar and Turkish-style dome. Once you've taken in the architecture, head to the vaults, where shops now occupy the arches that once served as port warehouses. (Place de la Major; open daily except Monday, October to March from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and April to September from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; free entrance.)

Le Musee Cantini: Marseille's modern art museum is housed in a splendid 17th-century mansion and is both inspiring and affordable. (19 rue Grignan; 33 49 1 54 77 75 04; open October to March, Tuesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and April to September from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; entrance 3 euro)

Palais Longchamp: Built to celebrate completion of a 19th-century canal that brought water into the city from the River Durance, this splendidly elaborate colonnaded water tower is a visual treat. You'll find Marseille's Fine Art Museum in one vast wing and the Natural History Museum in the other (3 euro to enter, or free with a Marseille City Pass). There are also acres of spectacular parkland and botanical gardens to explore here, so it's a good option if you like to spend time in the fresh air. (Boulevard du Jardin Zoologique, 13004 Marseille; accessible via the Cinq Avenues Longchamp stop on Metro line 1; museums open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays)

Bargain hunting: Head to one of Marseille's main shopping thoroughfares, the pedestrian-only rue St Ferrell in Le Vieux Port, to browse shops selling regional specialities and craftware. Or blow away the cobwebs and dodge the tourist crowds with a stroll along the Cornice President JF Kennedy, which overlooks the glittering Mediterranean on one side and has shops, cafes, gardens and restaurants on the other.

MuCEM: The Musee des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Mediterranee is a futuristic, architect-designed waterfront museum which was built at the entrance to Le Vieux Port to celebrate Marseille's tenure as a European Capital of Culture 2013. It offers fascinating insight into the city's importance as a melting pot for many European cultures. (7 Promenade Robert Laffont; 33 48 4 35 13 13; open daily except Tuesdays, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer, and to 6 p.m. in winter)

Getting Around

By Taxi: The ship's shuttle is probably the best option for reaching the Le Vieux Port, but taxis are also available at the cruise terminal. Costs vary, depending on how far out your ship has docked.

On Foot: Once you're in Le Vieux Port, you're within walking distance of the major sights. If you want to go further afield, you can use the subway, which is safe, straightforward and accessible from Le Vieux Port station.

By Train: Like most French tourist towns, Marseille has a "petit train" which rides past the main sights for a few euros. The journey will give you a good overview of the local charms if you're strapped for time. It operates roughly every half hour from Le Vieux Port's Quai des Belges; tours take about one hour.

Note: It may be worth investing in a 24-hour city pass (available from the Tourist Office). It costs around 25 euro per adult and allows free use of the city's public transport system, free entrance to most of its museums, 10 percent discounts at certain stores, and other perks including free rides on the petit train and on the ferry which runs from Le Vieux Port to the Isle of Chateau d'If.

Beaches

Water babies will be pleased to hear that Marseille has some natural beaches on its southwest coastline, and three man-made ones -- called Les Plages de Corbiere -- which lie to the north of the city in the district of L'Estaque.

Most beaches here are pebbly rather than sandy, but the southern ones (in particular Plage des Catalans and Plage du Prado) can be fun at the height of the summer season (July and August), when kayaking, snorkeling, kite flying, beach rugby and dance contests are organized. Unfortunately, this also means they are very popular -- and therefore crowded -- in peak season.

From May to September, a fast boat service known as the Batobus operates hourly between Le Vieux Port and Pointe Rouge, a small but sandy, crescent-shaped beach with a swimming pool, lifeguard stations and a variety of shops and restaurants.

Boats leave from the Quai des Belges, near the ferry point for the Ile de Chateau d'If. The journey takes about 45 minutes and costs a few euros, but be warned that there can be long queues in summer, as commuters use the service alongside beach lovers. Buses also run from the Le Vieux Port to the beach areas.

Lunching

If you're happy to rely on serendipity, stroll around Le Vieux Port, along the quai du Port, quai du Rive Neuve or around nearby Place Thiars, a pleasant square lined with al fresco eating areas. Here you'll find many restaurants offering classic French lunchtime dishes such as moules, steak-frites or the local favorite, bouillabaisse. Just follow your nose, and your instincts.

La Kahena: For a taste of the exotic, try La Kahena, a Tunisian restaurant popular with Marseille's large North African community. Its spiced roasted lamb and couscous come highly recommended. (2 Rue de la Republique; 33 4 91 90 61 93; open from noon to 2 p.m., and from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.)

Chez Madie Les Galinettes: Located at Le Vieux Port harbor, this eatery serves great local fare. It has a pretty terrace, and dishes up fine Provencal specialities at affordable prices. (138 quai du Port; 33 491 904087; open Monday to Saturday from noon to 2 p.m., and from 8 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.)

Chez Ida: This small, popular restaurant offers top-rated home cooking and a warm atmosphere. Its menu ranges from French classics like ratatouille to empanadas and lasagne. (7 rue Ferdinand Rey; 33 4 91 47 04 97; open daily from noon to 2 p.m., and from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.; open for dinner Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. to midnight)

Where You're Docked

Cruise ships dock to the north of Le Vieux Port, in a large industrial zone which is rapidly being updated to appeal to ever-increasing numbers of cruise passengers.

At present, this vast docklands -- which accommodates dry docks; ferries to Corsica, Sardinia, Algeria and Tunisia; and freight vessels as well as cruise ships -- is sprawling and far from pretty, and its cruise berths are set quite far apart.

The Joliette Terminal -- which lies closest to the center of town -- currently has two berths for small to medium-sized ships, while larger vessels have to dock further out at a jetty, approximately six miles to the north of Le Vieux Port at the Marseille-Provence Cruise Terminal. The bad news is that passengers here have a longer journey into the heart of the action; the good is that parts of the terminal were renovated in 2014.

Watch Out For

Watch out for dogs. The French are very fond of little pooches, who run around at ankle-height and sometimes leave deposits on the sidewalk; remember to look where you're walking. Also beware of heavy traffic in the port area, and be sure to check hours of operation for any sights you're hoping to visit. Museums and most major attractions are closed on Mondays, and many local restaurants only serve lunch from noon to 2 p.m.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The official currency is the euro; for the latest exchange rate, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. You'll find ATMs around the cruise terminal and Le Vieux Port.

Language

English is widely spoken and understood in Marseille, particularly in restaurants. But don't assume that everyone speaks it. Win favor with the locals with a few basic phrases, including "merci beaucoup" (thanks very much) and "l'addition, s'il vous plait" (the bill, please).

Best Souvenir

Marseille is a shoppers' delight, with a broad variety of shops and markets. The Old Harbour's Craft Market is a great choice for regional souvenirs such as fragrant Provencal soaps, locally-produced honey, olive wood bowls and prettily-carved santons (Nativity figurines for Christmas creches).

Best Cocktail

Though wine is the national tipple in France, the locals are increasingly getting into beer and the city now has its own microbrewery, Biere de la Plaine (16 rue Saint-Pierre). It supplies local bars with fruity, home-grown brews which come in many versions, including blonde, wheat and pale ale.

For More Information

On the Web: Marseille Tourism

Cruise Critic Message Boards: France Ports

Independent Traveler: Europe Travel Guide

--Updated by Maria Harding, Cruise Critic contributor

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