Marseille - The oldest city in France

Tucked neatly on France’s southern coast, equidistant between Montpellier and Nice, the port town of Marseille is the oldest city in France and one of the oldest towns in Western Europe. Originally founded in 600 B.C by the Greeks as ‘Massalia’ the port town quickly became one of the most important trade routes of the ancient world and played a great role in the civilization of the Mediterranean. Today, the city’s history as a successful trading port blends with its modern edge as a 21st-century town that's home to chic bars, independent restaurants, and endless boutiques. Between the edgy port areas and the opulent buildings, Marseille offers visitors a taste of both new and old. Visiting Marseille is a real treat and while the sprawling city is home to numerous hidden gems and ancient landmarks, it’s Marseille’s Old Port (Vieux-Port) that has attracted visitors to its shores since the 20th century. 

Marseille south of France Boat rental yacht car transfer tour hire

Things to know about Marseille
Marseille is made up of 16 arrondissements in total, with the 1st arrondissement housing most of the city’s main sights including the Old Port. While you’ll certainly be spending a lot of time here, it’s worth researching the surrounding arrondissements before you visit. Other popular arrondissements include the 7th and 8th arrondissement, the later of which is an affluent area home to the 18th-century Parc Borely chateaux and is an area of Marseille that shouldn’t be missed (you’ll have to take public transport to get here). For more information on what’s going on in each of Marseille’s arrondisments, consider getting tips from the locals upon your arrival. 

Things to do in Marseille
The list of things to do and attractions to see in Marseille is almost endless and there’s a little something for every traveler type. Whether you’re a culture vulture keen to visit the city’s trendiest art galleries (like La Friche, a contemporary gallery housed inside a former tobacco factory) or a history buff keen to learn more about the city’s neighboring island fortress, Marseille has it all. 

To get your bearings, start with a walk around the bustling Vieux Port which sits at the end of La Canebiere (Marseille’s main shopping street), an area that’s a hub of activity. Most of the port was pedestrianized in 2013 which makes exploring on foot carefree and you can take your time to watch the local fisherman unloading their catch of the day or vet the string of seafood restaurants which line the waterfront. La Panier, Marseille’s Old Town, is another good starting point for a day in the city as the area is bursting with character. Spend time getting lost down the narrow interlacing streets and pottering around town squares, stopping to people-watch as you go.  

The Cathedrale de la Major and it’s beautiful domed towers should also be on your Marseille to-see list as this impressive Roman Catholic cathedral is a national monument of France and one of the country’s largest churches. Marseille seems to live by the ‘go big or go home’ philosophy. This towering structure is hard to miss and can be seen in the distance from Vieux Port protruding from the skyline. 

Château d’If is another of the city’s impressive buildings but you’ll need to be looking out to sea for a glimpse of the island fortress rather than inland. Located just 1.5 kilometers off the Bay of Marseille Château d’If is a historic island prison that was used as a setting in Alexandre Dumas’ best-selling novel ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’.

If you’re eager to feel the wind in your hair and the cool spray of the Mediterranean on your skin then consider taking a boat trip to the Calanques, a rugged national park that stretches from the 9th arrondissement of Marseille to the town of Cassis. The park is best accessed by boat, particularly if you want to be bowled over by magnificent views of the wild massif and undulating coastline. With the help of FranceRent you can choose between a guided boat tour of the coast, enjoy a private boat ride, or consider chartering a yacht. 

To brush up on Marseille’s rich history as a port town, you might want to discover Marseille's oldest museum, Palais Longchamp. Here you’ll find Marseille’s Museum of Arts and the Museum of Natural History, and at the very least it’s worth visiting the area just to stroll around the manicured Longchamp Park. 

Other landmark attractions and places of interest include the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, the nearby Frioul archipelago which can be accessed on a boat tour, and the baroque cultural center known as La Vieille Charite. 

Memorable Experiences in Marseille
For a truly memorable time in Marseille, consider enjoying a cultural experience such as attending an artistic event at a tobacco factory (La Friche), experience African-French cuisine at an upmarket restaurant in the Cours Julien district, or perhaps dine on Bouillabaisse, a traditional Provencal fish stew and a popular local soup delicacy!

Museums in Marseille
There are a number of notable museums spread across the city including the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation which explores the civilization of the Mediterranean Sea, the Maison De La Boule which is a free mini-museum shining a light on the history of the traditional French sport petanque, and the Musee Grobet-Labadie which showcases the life and home of the wealthy French businessman Louis Grobet. Other memorable experiences include rising early to enjoy the sunrise over the city, or staying up late to enjoy the blue hour as Marseille transforms from daylight to darkness and the bright lights of waterfront restaurants light up the sky. 

France’s oldest city certainly packs a punch, and all 16 of the city’s arrondissements have a story to tell and a heritage influenced by Greek settlement and modern culture. If you’re looking for a coastal city with the luxuries of the French Riviera mixed with the sharp edge and cultural diversity of a gritty port town, look no further than Marseille. Whatsmore, Marseille enjoys a reliable Mediterranean climate most of the year-round meaning you can enjoy hot and dry summers when visiting from June to August, and mild temperatures the rest of the year-round. With FranceRent you can touch down at Marseille Provence Airport and be whisked away to Old Town Marseille by private car in no time.

Related articles

Loading, please wait