There are 111 different districts in Marseille, but only a few are worth visiting. Each one is self-contained and has its own distinct features.
Le Vieux Port:
The old port is one of the best-known parts of Marseille and its streets are lined with restaurants and cafés. In the mornings, fishermen’s wives auction off their wares in the fish market opposite the boats. This is where Louis XIV moored his large arsenal of galleys. You will also find galleries such as Arcenaux here. Next to Cours Estienne d’Orves you will find Place Thiars, the liveliest part of this district. Good quality restaurants stand side by side with tourist traps. The Theatre National de la Criée is very popular. A bit further on, Basilique St Victor is known locally as the ‘key to the port’.
This is the most famous road in town. Along it you will see shopping streets such as Rue St Ferréol, and the Musée de la Mode, the Musée de la Marine, and the Opéra. The Odeon is right at the end.
A walk through this popular district, close to the old port, takes you around the Provençal pedestrian streets lined with multi-coloured buildings. The Clocher des Accoules, la place des Moulins, la Vieille Charité and la Major are all rich in history.
The Joliette docks are the long red brick buildings along the motorway footbridge. The 4 blocks of buildings were built in the nineteenth century and the interiors have been completely renovated. The Musée des Docks Romains charts the history of the port of Marseille. Try to spend an evening at the Docks des Suds.
In Marseille, Place Jean Jaures is also known as La Plaine. This huge square has a market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and a busy shopping area at other times. In the adjacent streets, there is a wide choice of restaurants, bars and pubs frequented by the locals such as l’Intermédiaire or the Bar de la Plaine.
Le Cours Julien:
Just along from La Plaine, le Cours Julien is where young people like to go as there is a good variety of cafés, cabarets and fringe theatres such as Chocolat-Théâtre. For concerts Espace Julien is the place to go. Wander around the antique shops and clothes boutiques, for example Madame Zaza of Marseille.
Bars and cinemas such as César and the Prado keep this square at the end of the Rue de Rome busy day and night. Set in the business district it also marks the intersection of main roads such as Boulevard Baille and the Prado.
People come to the Prado to see the bourgeois buildings that line the main road, the Boulevard Périer and the Rue Paradis. The Parc Borély and its castle provide one of Marseille’s biggest open spaces. The racecourse here is also very popular.
The locals are partial to this district which is dominated by Notre Dame de la Garde. The name La Bonne Mère (literally ‘the Good Mother’) comes from the enormous statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the bell tower. This church is also an important site for pilgrims.
The Corniche (coastal road) winds along the Mediterranean coast and all the fanciest villas are located in this district, as is the Musée d’Art Contemporain. There are plenty of good views but the beaches are mostly hidden. The Palais de Pharo is a great place for walks and Vallon des Auffes is a pleasant surprise. Wherever you are, you can admire the open sea.
Palais Longchamp is a good place to go for walks and a take in a little culture. You can also visit the Musée Grobet Labadié, the Musée des Beaux Arts and the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle – the natural history museum which used to be a zoo (since its closure, it has been converted into a park).
History of Marseille
Marseille celebrated its 2600th birthday before the year 2000. It is therefore the oldest town in France. The legend surrounding the origins of the town go back to 600 B.C. Greek sailors coming from Phocaea (Asia Minor) chose to focus their activity in the Lacydon creek – the present location of the Vieux Port. The day they arrived, the leader of the Greeks, Protis made a visit to the Ligure tribe, which had settled there. It just so happened that on that very day, Gyptis, daughter of King Naan was to be married. Gyptis chose Protis as her husband above a number of other suitors – he had also fallen head over heels for her – and thus, Massalia was founded.
Massalia quickly became a successful city thanks to the commercial talent of the Greeks. Trading posts were set up all along the Mediterranean coast, in particular at Agde, Arles and Le Brusc. Massalia’s history is one of turbulence and uncertainty. Initially the city went into decline when it was taken over by Rome. Her fleet, treasure and trading posts became the property of Caesar. After the invasions she became a port which was favourable to commercial activity. In the eleventh century, the city began to expand. A vast boatyard came under construction but Marseille quickly fell under the control of Charles d’Anjou. The town also opposed Louis XIV, and was conquered once again. The Fort Saint Nicolas and the Fort Saint Jean were both built. At that time, Massalia was under the control of Colbert who developed the city’s infrastructure. Business prospered om an international scale.
Periods of prosperity alternate with times of crisis, and just when Massalia had become a truly international port it was hit by a plague. The Great Plague was a major event during the eighteenth century. The origins of the epidemic were a ship ‘ Le Grand Saint Antoine. Quarantine was not sufficient, and the plague swept through the town. In May 1720 Marseille was cut off from the rest of Provence. The parliament in Aix forbade any communication with Marseille ‘ upon pain of death. However the plague continued to spread all the same ‘ to Aix, Apt, Arles, Toulon, and soon the whole of France was touched by it. The city was not completely wiped out, but it had lost half its population. The revolution was eagerly received. It was in 1792 that the war song, sung by the army of the Rhine and composed by Rouget de Lisle – known as La Marseillaise – became an anthem. Marseille then rebelled against the ‘Convention’. As a result she became ‘the town with no name’ for a few months.
The town was also involved in World War II. At the time she was under the jurisdiction of the central power and districts such as Panier were destroyed. Once the war was over, the port became an important thoroughfare, and the city built hospitals and the metropolitan network.
Today excavations which have been carried out in the Vieux Port area and in the Centre Bourse, have revealed many vestiges of the past. They reveal that this city is a place with an extremely rich and varied history.