Marseille has had its share of good and bad reviews over the years. It seems as if people have opinions as strong as their like and dislike of Marmite. As a result, Marseille had never been on my list of “places to see before I die” (yes, I do have that actual list and I’m slowing crossing through it as I stomp around the globe, one town at a time). However, an opportunity to visit came up and after a little research, I jumped at the opportunity to go. After a direct Eurostar from London to Marseille, we hopped off the train and headed straight to the seaside for hotel check in. What I would discover over the next 72 hours was something I never would have expected and here’s why – we went off the beaten track. We weren’t looking for the traditional Marseille tourist traps. We were in town to discover why so many young people were moving here and setting up businesses all over the city. We wanted to see what the locals were seeing, where the twenty somethings were hanging out and where all the best shopping was taking place along the way. The end result was a trip that was truly unforgettable and there are ten reasons why. So, this is your “off the beaten track” guide to Marseille, including all the places that the tour books are most likely missing!
1. Cours Julien
I’m going to start with Cours Julien as this was the biggest surprise for me, personally. Cours Julien is probably the “hippest” neighbourhood on the map in Marseille at the moment. The streets here are covered, from cobblestones to rooftops, in the most magnificent street art, and everyone’s in on the game. Restaurants, bars and shops are all decorated in graphics ranging from fruit to political statements. It’s as colourful as it gets in this city, it’s also probably as vibrant and as young as it gets. If you are a Londoner, I would liken this neighbourhood to Brick Lane/Shoreditch. For a great night out in Marseille, this is the place. Look no further.
Every single person I told I was going to Marseille, who loved it, had one thing to say – “Go to Maison Empereur. It’s your dream store.” That’s really all they said. I kept asking what they sold and I was repeatedly told “everything.” I started to think this was the French version of Walmart. I had no idea what to expect. Well, people weren’t lying. Maison Empereur does indeed have absolutely everything. No really. From toys to clothes, soaps to furniture, it’s all here in a maze that you can easily get lost in. Only you won’t mind at all getting lost in these halls. It’s a magical place where I wanted to walk away with everything. This absolutely needs to be on your must see list while in the city.
This one’s for the foodies out there. AM is the best meal I have had in France, hands down. How’s that for a statement? It also has one Michelin Star. Just to casually drop that in. This “tasting menu only” restaurant is a place where you’ll want to make reservations ahead of time (at certain times of year, way ahead of time) and a place where you’ll want to leave at least two hours for dining. The menu is set, so don’t get any grand ideas about ordering anything else. It’s all taken care of. You just decide how many courses you can stomach (and pay for) and Alexandre Mazzia takes care of the rest. As we sat, we watched him work in the open kitchen behind us, putting together plates that were truly tiny works of art. It was awe inspiring. It was also a meal that is completely impossible to describe. The tastes coming out of the kitchen were like nothing I’ve ever experienced before and the trip to Marseille would have been worth it simply for one meal here and nothing else.
Whenever I go to a city I’ve never been to before, I go on Instagram these days and get a good vibe for what the locals are sharing. I swear this is the best tour guide there is out there at the moment. One place that kept coming up was Palais Longchamp. This is the site that houses three of the most popular museums in Marseille. So, we prepared ourselves for crowds. We were thinking Louvre style lines and absolutely zero chances for photo ops. What we expected and what we found couldn’t have been more different. First of all, the Palais is massive! No pictures on Instagram gave us any indication of what we were to discover. And speaking of pictures, we had zero issues. There was no one there! The whole time we were on site we probably ran into a total of ten people. It was photo heaven. So if you’re an Instagrammer looking for a stunning site for photography, add this to your places to visit! And of course, if you have time, visit the museums on site!
5. Eat by the sea in the Old Port
The Old Port in Marseille is great for people and yacht watching. It’s also a total tourist trap. There, I’ve said it. But, you can get a mean plate of great fresh seafood at just about any of the little restaurants running along the promenade. Order up an Aperol Spritz, a plate of fresh fish and spend hours on end just enjoying the fresh air and diverse people of the city. Oh, and you never know who you might spot coming onto or off of their yacht in the harbour. Just putting that out there…
6. Get lost and open your eyes!
Sure, this is a no brainer but you’d be surprised how often people are looking down at their phones or maps, or whatever you might have in hand. Look around you, for heaven’s sake! Marseille’s beauty is found in the details. It’s found in the magnificent awnings, the ageing buildings, the hidden away murals or the vintage street signs. But you’ll miss all of that if you aren’t paying attention. So maybe let someone else take the lead, or grab public transport and look around as you go. I can’t stress this enough. I would look at where we needed to go and find the straightest route and zig zag around it. There is a romance in the subtle ruins here and it’s there to be discovered and admired.
7. Posh Shopping
If you’re looking for your posh brands and have a fat wallet to boot, then you’ll want to head to Rue Saint Ferreol and Rue Paradis. This is where you’ll find your labels. But, don’t come here to shop the global brands, people. These are the brands you find in every single city and they aren’t any cheaper in Marseille. Come here to discover the smaller shops hidden between, with brands that are unique to Marseille. There’s nothing better than being asked where you bought something and saying, “oh this? I found it in the cutest little shop in Marseille.”
Our first morning in Marseille we stopped into a brand new coffee shop in Marseille named Loustic (it also has a location in Paris). This place was brand spanking new and it’s not alone. Boutique coffee shops are opening up all over Marseille. I can highly recommend Loustic, but also suggest you head to Cours Julien to sit in on some coffee shops that will give you serious interiors inspiration. I feel the best way to feel like a local in any city is to find a coffee shop that’s not Starbucks (sorry, guys), or any other big chain, and make it your regular for your trip there.
9. Spend a few hours in Le Panier – The Old City of Marseille
If you want to discover the real charm of Marseille, head to Le Panier, where you will truly feel as if you have stepped back in time. This is a beautiful quarter of the city that features local artisan shops, bars with terrace seating, colourful facades and side streets filled with endless picture opportunities. Make sure to check hours before you go. We, sadly, went on the one day that all the shops were closed. I’m still glad we went, but would have been nice to explore a bit more with shops and restaurants open!
10. Take the Eurostar
Last, but certainly not least, is a travel tip that must be shared and it comes in the form of the Eurostar. There is a direct train from London to Marseille. I’m not sure how you guys feel these days about flying, but I’d prefer a Eurostar to an airport any day of the week. The journey is easy, carefree, features excellent service, and allows you to pack without worry about silly things like liquids. I mean why even go to France if you aren’t going to bring wine back with you?! Note: Eurostar did supply us with complimentary travel to and from Marseille.