We arrived in Marseille on Basille Day (quite by accident). Marseille sits on the Mediterranean sea and offers 300 days of sunshine a year accompanied by low humidity and gorgeous landscape. Marseille is known for its multi cultural locals hailing from Italy, Spain, Greece, and many other areas. This lends itself to an open, welcoming community of locals and of course, a varied food scene.
After settling into our cute AirBnB overlooking Vieux Port, the main gathering area and home port to local fishermen, we ventured down to the main port area. Hungry from a day of travel from Paris via a comfortable train ride, we encountered restaurants overflowing with spectators awaiting the main event; a huge fireworks display celebrating Bastille Day. We wandered the street lined with restaurants to settle at a small Italian restaurant. There we enjoyed pizza, carbonara, and spectacular inexpensive wine. As night fell, we gathered with the other spectators to witness the most impressive fireworks display we’d ever seen. From one end of the port to the other, fireworks lit the area in a hair-raising display of pyrotechnics. (I clearly wasn’t prepared for taking photos of this!)
We were pretty worn out after the day and turned in early, windows and doors open to allow the cool breeze to blow through our apartment. It was mid- to upper-80s during our stay, but nights were brisk and the lack of air conditioning wasn’t an issue. Our apartment had a great view of Vieux Port and Notre Dame de la Garde. Which was on the agenda for later in the week.
After a great night’s sleep, we walked out of our door and into the nearest patisserie. This little spot was loaded with freshly baked pastries and quiches. Without even looking at price, we loaded up with about 8 varieties to sample and the grand total was just over 8 euros. Ridiculously inexpensive to our American pocketbooks. We loved it so much, each day we were there, we made the 100’ walk to stock up and enjoy on the balcony. We must have sampled everything she makes over the days we were there.
Marseille was settled even before France was a country and the architecture is spectacular. While many articles you read will caution you to beware of pickpockets and muggings, we felt safe at all hours walking the streets. One must just be smart and not go into areas that your intuition tells you not to.
We’d had a few busy days in London and Paris so our first day was for relaxation. We walked (a little farther than we’d expected) to the Plage Des Catalan beach. And enjoyed a few hours in the sun at the busy, but not overcrowded beach. For lunch, we learned a lesson. We attempted to find a cafe to have a quick bite and inadvertently ordered orange juice and we still have no idea how. After about 1:30 until dinner hours start at 7 or 8pm, most restaurants shut down, only serving drinks. After a couple failed attempts, we dropped by a market and picked up local charcuterie and regional cheese along with a baguette which we enjoyed on the balcony before our next outing.
Every restaurant we visited was top notch. Most have their seating outside with small interiors. Why not with 300 days of sun a year? We enjoyed spectacular Italian dishes, classic French food, and that inexplicably good wine every day. Here’s some of the highlights, food and otherwise:
WHAT TO DO FIRST (which we didn’t)
We didn’t go on the hop-on, hop-off bus tour until well into the week and it should have been our first activity. The tour gives you a great overview of the city and allows you to get your bearings. There are two routes to take and we recommend you do both right from the start.
Service is different in France than the US. If you see outside seating, you generally don’t have to ask to sit. Servers will come to your table and mostly just stand there. They’re waiting on your order. That’s how it’s done. And when you’re ready for your check, you’ll need to ask. They aren’t ignoring you. They’re letting you enjoy a leisurely meal and not interrupt you. It’s OK to wave and get their attention.
Tipping varies. Some places it’s not expected, others it is. If you enjoy your experience, please tip even though they receive a decent wage unlike the US.
Air Conditioning Optional
Don’t automatically expect your AirBnB to have AC. Most homes and many hotels do not. It’s not generally necessary. We slept with the windows and balcony door open and actually were chilly a couple nights and this was at the height of Summer. So, don’t assume you will need it. The humidity is so low and the evenings cool off so much, there were few times through the week that we really could have used it. And after walking 54 miles those few days, we didn’t really care as long as the bed was soft!
NOTRE DAME DE LA GARDE
Notre Dame De La Garde overlooks the entire city. And while, I have no love of the church funding such projects on the backs of locals, it is a truly awe-inspiring building. We don’t recommend walking as it is a steep and long walk. We took the Petite Train which included a multilingual description along the way. The spectacular building was started in 1852 and is a 489-foot monster with a gold-leaf gilded ‘Mother and child’ atop. This site offers endless views of Marseille.
PLAGE de PRADO
From the Hop-on/off bus we stopped at Prado for our next beach day that began with great service at Rhumerie and our server Amandine, a fellow explorer, offered tips and great conversation. Renting a beach chair was 18 Euros and well-worth it. This is a more expansive beach and again, busy but not overly crowded. Beach service is available for drinks and food. Keep in mind that these are French beaches so you’ll see a little more skin than American beaches. The water was chilly and choppy, but was a welcome relief from the heat for a quick dip.
Schilling was just around the corner from our apartment and we had dinner reservations that were re-worked when the fish that was brought in for the day didn’t meet the chef’s standards and they offered to host us for lunch instead. That’s how it works there. The fish comes in at the end of Vieux Port every morning and chefs gather to inspect and pick the day’s catch. If it’s a bad fishing day, other plans have to be made. This was the best meal of the trip. Lunch is a 3 course offering of the most delectable fish ever. Each course better than the last. I’ll never forget the mackerel. Schilling is a Michelin Bib award-winner and we can see why.
At Au Lamparo we had an old-school technique of fish service. The dinner for two is two whole fish brought to the table and filleted for each guest. The sea bream was particularly impressive as was the garlic lettuce and saffron rice that accompanied it.
On the main plaza amongst the many restaurants is Del Arte. Another great lunch where we met fellow travelers from Belgium and enjoyed Pizza, focaccia and Aperol Spritz. The infused olive oil was so good we brought a bottle home.
Sitting in a beautiful square, L’Annexe as you might expect is a second location for a sister restaurant and carbonara was again on the menu. The best we had while there. But the star was Shrimp Risotto. The most perfectly grilled shrimp sitting atop a bed of risotto made from shrimp stock. Gloriously rich and so well-seasoned.
If you browse Instagram you’ll see lots of ice cream roses and it’s not just because it’s beautiful. These expertly crafted cones of ice cream and gelato are perfect for combating the heat and treating your sweet tooth. There’s a number of spots, but Amorino’s crafts these beautiful sweet roses topped with French Macarons that are simply to die for. But eat in the shade…lesson learned. Things got messy!
We overlooked this quaint little spot but on our last night, we decided to stop in. Our server was bubbly and friendly as she struggled through English and we struggled through our limited French. 10 Euro carafes of Rosé flowed and we had a great evening.
THE FISH MARKET
About 10am in the mornings, local fishermen start to setup their daily catch. The market lasts until about 1pm and the fish offerings are spectacular and diverse. Just look at this friendly-looking monkfish!
There’s so much to explore and do in Marseille that this is strictly the highlights. After visiting for the first time, we definitely want to go back. Almost every block has a great spot for a snack or meal, great gift ideas, and friendly owners. Whether you want an active vacation or leisurely beach stay, Marseille makes an excellent destintation.