There are people in France that look down on their second largest city: They think that Marseille is poor, unfriendly, dirty, depraved and full of foreigners. Sounds familiar, right? This is just what so many Germans think about Berlin!
In fact, when I visited Marseille in June, it very much reminded me of how Berlin was 10 years ago, before the big hype started: It is colorful, vibrant, versatile, raw, full of energy and there is so much to discover. Additionally, Marseille has a huge immigrant population and certainly is one of the most diverse cities in Europe. In other words: Marseille is like a huge Neukölln – without hipsters. More after the jump.
The strange thing about Marseille is: In my point of view it is a city that is still quite undiscovered. Of course there are tourists in Marseille. But they all go only to certain areas, such as the Carré Thiers (which is horrible) and the Panier, which actually is quite nice. It is the former red light and Mafia district, consisting of beautiful houses in pastel colors. During the day, it is very calm here, and in the evening it is a nice place for dinner.
But the most interesting part of Marseille is of course beyond the tourist areas. As soon as you get away from the city center and the harbor, there are no ugly Germans in Tennis socks and Birckenstock shoes anymore. I especially enjoyed the area around Cours Julien, which is like the Kreuzberg of Marseille. Here you find the city’s subculture and alternative scene. The atmosphere is just wonderful, with all the charming little bars, cafés, restaurants and shops. There is so much going on in this neighborhood, and it is the perfect place for shopping, eating out and drinking.
On my first day in Marseille, I have also been to a market at Noailles which basically is the meeting point for the North African and Arabian community, located right in the middle of the city. Here you can really feel how different Marseille is the other big cities in France.
After all, I had a fantastic time in Marseille. If you are on a trip in the south of France, you should not miss it, as it is really a nice change from posh Nice, bourgeois Lyon and the almost too idyllic Aix-en-Provence. Marseille might not be as beautiful as other French cities, but it definitely is more interesting.
Just 45 minutes outside the city center of Marseille, there is an amazingly beautiful national park called “Calanques”. It consists of huge lime rocks, and it is directly by the sea. The water is perfect, so you can go swimming there. To explore it, you can either take a boot or go hiking – which I did. When you start in Callelongue, there is beautiful way along the sea coast which leads you to a charming little restaurant directly by the beach.
In comparison to the rest of France, accommodation in Marseille is not expensive. In Aix-en-Provence for instance, the cheapest hotels start at 60 Euro. In Marseille, you can get a really nice room for the same price. There are a couple of great design hotels in the city.
One of them is the Casa Ortega, a bed-and-breakfast design hotel located in a lively Arabian neighborhood. It has just opened in April 2012. Each room has a beautiful individual design consisting of antiques. The atmosphere is really great. The price range is between 75 and 95 Euros (breakfast included). There are only six rooms available, so you should book in advance. David, the owner and founder, can also give you great advice on where to go and what to see.
Photos of Casa Ortega: Louis Cargill
Another great choice is the Mama Shelter, a hotel by star designer Philippe Starck. Rooms start at 79 Euros, which is a very good deal, as you really get a high standard for it. As you would expect from Philippe Starck, the design is phenomenal. In fact, it is design that you have never seen before: it is playful, full of humor and incomparable to any other hotel. The Mama Shelter Marseille is located near Cours Julien, so you are directly in the most vibrant neighborhood. By the way: The Mama Shelter has also a branch in Paris.
Photos of Mama Shelter Marseille: Francis Amiand
Marseille is a great city for eating well. There is a great variety: On the hand you can get the typical cuisine from the south of France; as Marseille is a harbor city, there is also a lot of sea food as well. On the other hand, you can find great restaurants from all the all the other Mediterranean countries. I have been to delicious Algerian, Tunisian and Italian restaurants. In fact, you can find great food from all over the world in Marseille. The best place for that is the Cours Julien. Here you have a great choice of restaurants. If you are looking for an extraordinary beautiful restaurant for a romantic dinner (we are still in France!), the best choice for that is the restaurant of the Rowing Club. Here, you have a beautiful view on the harbor, and it is just the perfect place to watch the sunset.
Bars & Cafés
Marseille is in France. So as a big surprise there are lots of beautiful cafés. The perfect place for having breakfast is the Comptoin du Commain, the oldest remaining brasserie of Marseille. It has an amazing Second Empire interior; but unlike similar places in Paris or Aix-en-Provence even poor Berliners can easily afford it. As for bars, the best place to go is – once again – the Cours Julien. There is a great choice of nice bars, one of them is called Le Petit Nice.
I have not been there during the weekend, so unfortunately I can’t give you any advice about that. But as always: Forget about your stupid Lonely Planet. Just ask locals that look interesting (and attractive!) to you.
The fact given that Marseille is the second biggest city in France, I was surprised that is not a major shopping destination. There is of course a big shopping street (Canabière) with Zara and H&M – but you don’t need to go to France for that. On the Cours Julien, there are a number of small design and vintage shops; they are nice, but is not that much. If you are looking for vintage stuff, you should check out the popular flea market on Sunday in Bougainville outside of the city center. It is also a huge African market, and you can get literally everything there.
When I was there in June, all museums were closed for renovation. The reason why: Marseille is going to be the European Capital of Culture in 2013, so they are refreshing all their museums.
When to go and how to go
Marseille can be visited throughout the whole year. It never gets really cold. However, it might be too hot in the summer, when it is about 30° every day. The best time might be from April until June and from September until October.
There is no Easyjet connection from Berlin to Marseille, so it is not cheap to fly there. As trains in France are not as ridiculously expansive as in Germany, the best way to get there is actually to fly to Nice and then to take the TGV to Marseille.
If you have any questions concerning Marseille, just send me an email: email@example.com.