10 Things to do in Marseilles in the Winter
A friend of mine taught me how to search for cheap flights directly from the RyanAir site, and 10 minutes later, Darrel and I were booked to go to Marseilles! €50 roundtrip for two people – I love Europe. I had booked our tickets a little less than two months in advance, and in the time leading up to the trip, I had read a few TripAdvisor reviews warning people to take caution while walking around the town, met two doctors who told me that it’s beautiful aside from a part of town which I should avoid, and heard from Darrel that he saw a vlog comparing Marseilles to Detroit back in America. With this, I had two thoughts: (1) no wonder the tickets were so cheap, and (2) it can’t be that bad. Negativity aside, we stayed pretty open minded and ended up discovering a city full of charm and pizza (yes, you read that right).
We put together a list of 10 things to do in Marseilles in late November, which you can use to guide your own Marseilles itinerary, if you ever end up around the area when it’s not as warm and full of summer. One night we even ended up running back to our AirBnB 20 minutes away in the pouring rain. And still had one hell of a time!
1. Get lost in Le Panier
The oldest district in Marseilles, and the part of town that we were lucky to have stayed in. “Le panier,” means the basket, and is characterized by alleyways too small for most cars to pass through, buildings 4-5 stories high along the steep, rocky steps, and art on every corner. Boutique shops, bistros and souvenir stores line the picturesque alleys, which is enough to entertain you for a few hours.
2. Visit Vieux Port (Old Port)
Marseilles’ old port has been in use since 600 BC – from being the go-to place for hemp cultivation, to a housing an arsenal under Louis XIV, the OG old port was actually destroyed in WWII. It now serves as a local marina, from which launches local boat trips to Les Calanques or Îles du Frioule.
There is also a plaza on the port which has a useful mirror canopy! It’s called the Port Vieux Pavilion. I used the adjective useful, because we caught a glimpse of a street show, where I was too short to see everything going on in the center (Asian genes), but all I had to do was look up and voila! I was able to see everything (upside down, but same thing).
In the mornings, you can find local fishermen
docked close by and selling their catches at the fish market by the water.
3. Christmas Market!!!
I love Christmas markets. Food stalls, mulled wine, hot chocolate and trinkets galore! Arriving to Marseilles right after Black Friday, the local Christmas market was already up and running! Little children running around everywhere, getting their faces painted, taking photos with a faux Santa Clause, jittery in line for little train rides. It just warms my heart and makes me want to enjoy the time Darrel and I still have without children. Kidding.
Back to the market – Marseilles Christmas market has vendors selling all sorts of local goodies like chocolates, scarves etc., but let’s focus on Marseilles soap or savon de Marseille. Now they have a strong soap culture here, dating to as far back as the 1600s, and use only three ingredients: olive oil, alkaline ash from sea plants, and salt water from the Mediterranean Sea and it takes two whole weeks to make – mind boggling (coming from someone who can’t even wait for her popcorn to finish cooking)!
4. Frioule Archipelago and Château d’If
Grab your tickets at the Old Port – it was a little difficult for us to find this place because the Old Port is a pretty large area (Google Map coordinates: 43.294960, 5.364205), but our tickets were €10.80/person roundtrip to get to Frioule Archipelago. Enjoy the beautiful ferry ride! Especially if you happen to be riding on a nice day. Unfortunately, Château d’If was not open to the public the day we went, because of unsafe boat conditions around the island.
Château d’If was built in the 1500s and initially served as a prison. It’s a popular tourist destination for those visiting Marseille because this is where Edmond Dantès of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is locked up.
The Frioule Archipelago is a group of four islands (including If) and is part of the Calanques National Park. Since Marseille doesn’t usually get as much rain as the rest of the country, the terrain is strangely dry and very rocky, but the archipelago is home to over 200 different plant species. For us, we found it a nice, quiet place to explore and do little hikes around. Be careful when climbing the limestone, one wrong step is all it takes.
5. Visit the Cathédral la Major, Fort Saint-Jean and the MuCEM (they’re all pretty much connected)
So. Majestic! The only cathedral to be built in France back in the 19th century, the architecture is of Byzantine/Roman/Gothic inspiration and made of material brought in from Florence, Carrara, Italy, Tunisia and Venice. I don’t take photos of inside cathedrals, but let me just tell you this one took my breath away. From the design of the domed-ceilings, to the tiled floor, to hearing hearing the echoed choir singing while you wander around, it was just beautiful. For photos, the best view is from the plaza, but you can also get nice angles from atop Fort Saint-Jean or the MuCEM.
Fort Saint-Jean was built as the same time as Fort Saint-Nicolas on the other side of the harbour – instead of serving as a defense for the city, this Fort had cannons that pointed inwards towards the city, as the townspeople were not fond of the governor at that time. Now, it is a nice fortress that is part of the Museum of Civilizations from Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM). Both are connected by pedestrian bridges. It’s free to visit the outdoor area of both places. We didn’t end up going inside the museums, because I just wanted to admire the beautiful, unique exterior architecture of MuCEM (that and I am a poor master’s student living off scholarship money).
6. Les Calanques
Ok, so this is apparently a must-do while visiting Marseille. Me being the amateur I am, ended up taking the ferry to the Frioule Archipelago instead (the boat tickets going to Les Calanques were on the other side of the Old Port). Calanques translates to “creeks” in English, and Les Calanques is a national park that is a haven for tourists and locals. It has many hiking trails, and little beaches to offer. I’m not too sad about not seeing Les Calanques this time around – it only means I can come back next summer! For those interested, I was looking to hike Marseilleveyre Peak or book a wine tasting of the wine of Cassis (you can book here!).
7. Spend money at Terrasses du Port!
Terrasses du Port is a shopping center at the port of Joliette. Having lived in Faro the past two months, shopping centers are a luxury for us. We arrived in Marseilles on Black Friday and expected major sales like back in the States, but then we realized that this mall has nicer brands like Adidas, and UNIQLO, and that we are masters students living off of scholarship money. The sales were not outlet prices. Buuuuuut I did not leave empty handed! I was actually forced to buy a pair of jeans because the rain drenched the only pair I brought with me for the trip.
8. Walk up La Canebière to Palais Longchamp
because it’s almost just like walking down Market St. in San Francisco! With the metro and buses instead of that tourist-trap of a trolley. The road from the Old Port is 1km long, and we actually walked down this road to get to #8 on this list. Remember when I mentioned that hemp was cultivated in the Old Port back in the day? Guess what this street is named after!
Palais Longchamp is a quaint little park originally built to celebrate Durance sharing their waters with Marseilles after a long drought. The Arc de Triomphe up front looks like it belongs in a major plaza. JUST LOOK AT IT!
Palais Longchamp also has two museums: the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Fine Arts. Climbing up either side of the steps and walking further back, you see a park with playgrounds that locals often frequent along with their children. Walking back even further is a zoo. Yes. A zoo. Cages that in the past had contained actual animals now houses fiberglass version of these animals in those same cages.
9. Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
A 38-minute walk from our AirBnB in Le Panier, you can opt out of our suffering walk up what Apple Health told me was equivalent to 45 floors and get here by car, the metro, or the little train that comes from the Old Port.
It is the highest point in Marseilles, and the most visited by tourists. The basilica is decorated with colored marble, murals, Neo-Byzantine styled mosaics and ships hanging from the ceiling. Atop the belfry is a statue of the Virgin and Child made of gilded copper, meant to watch over the city of Marseille. Notre-Dame de la Garde actually translates to “Our Lady of the Guard.” Naturally, you also get a jaw-dropping 360-view of the city.
10. EAT ALL THE PIZZA YOU CAN
You’re welcome. I definitely saved the best for last. You read that right – PIZZA! In the 1900s, the Neapolitans faced a recession-like period and immigrated to Marseilles; bringing their beloved pizza recipes along with them. Naturally, to make a living, they opened up pizzerias and shared their lifestyle of pizza with the residents of Marseille. That presence is still very much felt today. Darrel and I felt it so much that we ended up eating pizza 4 times, which would’ve been 5 if the pizza chain we went back to a second time was actually open. Here’s a micro-list of the places we went to, and what we thought:
- Sud Pizza: €9-12 for a whole pizza. We ended up here after getting soaked in the rain. They do a traditional wood-fired pizza (made and cooked on the spot!), which adds a great “charred” flavor to the dough. We ordered the Lorraine, which is a creamy, white sauce based pizza with bacon and slices of potatoes as the topping and filled with some type of cheese! Our first encounter with this French cheese, the taste was a little overwhelming, but not enough to stop us from eating!! The dough and crust was perfect. Devoured for our 2nd dinner and breakfast the next day.
- Tonton Marius: I know, I know. Mall food?!?! This pizza joint can be found in Les Terrasses du Port, and is reminiscent of the traditional roman style and cut of pizza. It wasn’t bad. But wasn’t amazing. And pricey too! €8.90 for two cuts of pizza and a drink (we opted for water).
- Charly Pizza: PLEASEPLEASEPLEASEPLEASE come here if you are ever in Marseilles! This family-owned joint has been making pizzas since the 1960s. You can buy by the slice (which is 1/4 of a whole pizza), half of a pizza or a whole pizza. We stumbled across this gem while walking through the Capucins Market in the Noailles district, which has a completely different vibe than that of Le Panier. Having already ate lunch, we were hesitant to have a slice, but thought, “Why not!!!” We also thought that we wouldn’t find ourselves coming back to Capucins Market anytime soon. I chose to have a slice of whatever pizza had just come out of the oven, which was a basic marinara base with cheese. Just thinking about it is making my mouth water. I suggest you get the freshest pizza as well. There’s definitely a difference in the pizza dough consistency when you get it fresh vs when you have your pizza reheated in the oven. They serve you your slice of 1/2 pizza rolled into a cone so you can eat it while walking (ummmm why doesn’t America do that?) and it’s only €1 for a slice! It was hard for me to eat because of the cheese. My cheese-pulls were never ending! Which not just a good thing – it’s an amazing thing! I was in absolute heaven. Tried to come back here on a Sunday but to my dismay, they were closed.
- Pizza Capri: Darrel argues that Pizza Capri is better than Charly Pizza. It’s because when we went to Charly’s, he ordered a pizza that had to be reheated. End of story. Also a slice is €2.50. Darrel is now being defensive, so I have to be objective and give a better description of Pizza Capri. And I can’t because I’m biased, so in his words: “It’s chewy dough, great crust – exactly what you want from a wood-fired pizza.”
Hopefully this post is helpful for planning your next trip to Marseilles! Maybe we never ended up in any of the bad neighborhoods people told us about, but we really enjoyed our trip and had a pretty nice time in this town. Would love to hear your thoughts/comments about Marseilles, your experiences and other suggestions. Bon voyage!