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Get Ready to Fall in Love With This Hip, Seaside City in Southern France

By Lauren Sloss

05.17.19

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Vibrant Marseille is fast becoming the cool kids’ favorite getaway in southern France.
Photo by Romas_Photo/Shutterstock

Vibrant Marseille is fast becoming the cool kids’ favorite getaway in southern France.

The best way to explore laid-back, many-cultured Marseille is by following your stomach. Trust us, this goes way beyond bouillabaisse.

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Shaking off its reputation as Paris’s rough-and-tumble southern cousin, Marseille is attracting both foreigners and French natives in droves. Young creatives are flocking to the seaside city, viewing it as an exciting, inspiring alternative to hustle-driven Paris.

“The person who moves to Marseille comes here so he doesn’t have to work 10 hours a day to pay the rent,” says Francois Issaverdens, a native Parisian who relocated to Marseille from Vienna a year and a half ago, not long after visiting for the first time. “You can feel balanced here. You can choose the rhythm of your own life. . . . I fell in love.”

I can relate to this feeling of discovery. During a trip to Marseille this past fall, I fell hard for the sun-drenched city while wandering the sloping streets from the Vieux Port to the Cours Julien, reveling in its cacophony of sounds and smells and its riot of street art.

As a food writer with a serious case of wanderlust, I’ve eaten al pastor in Mexico City, harvested olives in Umbria, navigated markets in Cairo, partaken in Eid al-Fitr feasts in Indonesia, and slurped ramen in back alleys in Kyoto. Marseille, with its mix of North and West African, Asian, and French cultures; rich history; and new energy was clearly a place I had to get to know better.

The sunny streets of the Cours Julien are home to funky shops and plentiful street art.

Pour commencer

Of course, claiming any sort of “discovery” is misleading—Marseille was founded by the Greeks in 600 B.C.E. and, with a population of more than 800,0000, is France’s second largest city.

“Marseille used to have a bad reputation for being dirty and dangerous,” says Laurent Boissy, who, along with his wife, Constance, is a French citizen and lived in the city for seven years. “But in the past 10 years, [it] has undergone a huge transformation. A new tramway has made the city more accessible, and there have been programs to update many of the old buildings.”

Despite these changes, Marseille remains a city of immigrants. The port has been a major hub of the Mediterranean since the city was founded, which has led to a continuous mixing of cultures, cuisines, and ways of life. Today, this diversity is integrated into nearly every part of the city. It’s in stark contrast to Paris, where many immigrant and minority groups are sequestered in far-flung suburbs.

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And unlike in Paris, the Vieux Port, the long-standing city center, is still a place for locals, according to Issaverdens. It runs directly into Noailles, a heavily North African neighborhood, which is down the hill from Cours Julien, a street-art bedecked hipster haven. These walkable, central areas are excellent places to begin your explorations, but consider this just the beginning—there are infinite layers of this rich, colorful city by the sea for you to discover on your own.

[Editor’s Note: Some of our favorite spots in Marseille don’t have much of an online presence. However, they can still be found on Google Maps—or by asking a local!]

As a port city, Marseille has long been known for its seafood, but creative spots like Boite À Sardine serve fresh takes on old favorites.

Where to eat

The best way to experience this melting pot? By eating your way through Marseille’s many cuisines, which go far beyond bouillabaisse, the city’s iconic fish stew. Start in Noailles at Toinou, a sleek-yet-simple seafood destination. Scope the daily catch in the cases on the sidewalk, then order your pick—raw oysters, sea urchin, or whole fried sardines—at the counter, preferably with a carafe of the house rosé. Up the street is Chez Yassine, a long-standing institution for flavor-packed Tunisian fare (the ojja merguez, a saucy egg-tomato-sausage breakfast, is outstanding); stop in at its equally good takeaway sandwich shop across the street (spice lovers should ask for “beaucoup d’harissa, s’il vous plait”) and bring your meal down to the waterfront.

Also in Noailles: Restaurant Le Femina, a lushly appointed restaurant renowned for its couscous; Boulangerie Patisserie Noailles, home to the single best croissant nature this writer has ever tasted; and Epicerie L’Idéale, a carefully curated gourmet food shop and globally inspired café opened by Julia Sammut, cofounder of France’s cool-kids travel guide, Le Fooding. Luckily, a wander around Noailles will surely work up an appetite thanks to a high concentration of detour-worthy spice shops and souk-style open air markets.

Head east on the Rue d’Aubagne to Mama Africa Marseille for savory, filling spreads of Senegalese yassa—rich, garlicky chicken or fish topped with copious amounts of buttery, lemon-heavy onions—and whole pan-fried fish.

Still hungry? Try Aspara for Cambodian food, La Boite a Sardine for fresh takes on local seafood (like razor clams with lemon and cilantro, served with fried chickpea-flour panisse cake), and Pizzas Charly for slices from one of Marseille’s famous pizza trucks. And don’t miss Restaurant Chez Michel for, yes, the most classic of bouillabaisse.

Sample a range of the city’s most famous drink—pastis—at L’Alchimiste.

Where to drink

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With the abundance of craft beer, natural wine, and of course, pastis, the cloudy, anise-flavored lifeblood of Marseille, there’s never a bad time for an aperitif here. Start your imbibing at Café de l’Abbaye, a simple storefront with tables spilling into the street, with an alfresco beer or a glass of Provencal rosé and views of the waterfront. Later in the evening, nearby U.percut is an excellent choice for a whiskey with a side of live music.

Take your pastis know-how to the next level at L’Alchimiste, a cozy tapas bar with a charming back garden and a wide selection of small-batch pastis from all over France, each featuring different flavor profiles and secret recipes. Nearby Planete Livre offers an impressive selection of natural wine for sale and regularly changing by-the-glass options; up the street, order a French craft beer at WAAW, which has a funky, gallery vibe.

More options to quench your thirst: Le Bar de la Plaine and Le Champ de Mars for old-school aperitif scenes or Le Pas Sage for a new-school Marseillaise-style salon.

Just outside of Marseille, Calanques National Park is lined with the steep-walled inlets that give the park its name.

Where to wander

Your food and drink explorations will take you far, but there’s so much more to stop and see in Marseille. Cours Julien is bursting with colorful murals and street art, starting from the Escaliers Julien, a graffiti-covered staircase that leads to the hip neighborhood’s main square. Stop during your ascent to check out gallery L’Antre de Monde, which showcases a different artist each month and, depending on the time of day or night, might have live music or a DJ.

Once in the Cours Julien, you’ll find a wealth of boutiques and shops—check out Marcel et Simone and LILOU for stellar vintage clothing finds for both men and women—and record stores, including Galette Records, Sabre-Tooth, and Tangerine Marseille. Librairie Pascal Fauguet Xavier Zimmer is a gem for used and rare books. (I scored a copy of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic Le Petit Prince in local Provencal dialect.)

Get a feeling for old-school Marseille at Maison Empereur in Noailles; the expansive, jack-of-all-trades department store, open since 1827, sells high-quality French knives, cookware, hardware, antique toys, fine linens, perfumes, and more.

The beaches of this seaside town are well worth visiting when the sun is shining (which is often). And the region’s famous Parc National des Calanques encompasses a 20-mile stretch of jagged limestone cliffs studded with small, crystalline bays and runs from Marseille to Cassis. It’s an excellent place for hiking and kayaking—activities sure to make you hungry.

The 19th-century Maison Empereur department store also boasts a single chic room, or “rear shop,” for rent.

Finalement

Marseille has no shortage of hotels, including the Moroccan-inspired Le Ryad Boutique Hotel and Alex Hotel & Spa, and renting an apartment is a great way to experience the city like a local. But for a truly standout experience, stay at Maison Empereur’s “rear shop,” an apartment for rent that features antique furnishings, a double bedroom and living room, and an antique bathtub for candlelit soaks.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to France 

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