Marseille is France’s oldest city (founded more than 2,600 years ago). It’s a port city that’s becoming known for its culture, architecture and cuisine on the Mediterranean – it was even selected as the 2013 European Capital of Culture. As France’s second largest city, it’s already host to many domestic meetings and events.
It’s also positioning itself to emerge in the years ahead for international European congresses, attracting more business travelers from Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and the United States, according to the Marseille Congres Convention Bureau. If you’re looking for things to do in Marseille, France, consider these ideas.
Old Port in Marseille, France
When you think of the most iconic area in Marseille, the Old Port should come to mind. The harbor glistens with thousands of fishing boats as fishermen travel out early in the morning and return with the day’s freshest Mediterranean catch. As you’re standing along one of the piers and looking at the city, you will enjoy the spectacular scenery of the colorful architecture, many fine restaurants and bars, local shops and even the fish market throughout the port. The Old Port is a must see and cannot miss for both business travelers and leisure tourists alike to enjoy the best that Marseilles has to offer.
Palais du Pharo
The Palais du Pharo is a convention center that’s located at the entrance to the Old Port. It’s a 19th century palace constructed on the orders of Napoleon III – built as a gift for wife, the Empress Eugenie. The palace has is situated on high ground which gives it the best view of Marseille and the Old Port. There’s an adjoining restaurant and a 12 acre park. The convention center and has two levels, and the Salon Eugenie and the Salon Frioul are both grand rooms with sea views. The palace is perfect for smaller size special events to conventions up to 185, and is one of the most unique special events venues in the city. Note that Palais du Pharo is not open to the public.
Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization (MuCEM)
MuCEM sits on the bay of Marseilles with picturesque views of the Old Port and the Mediterranean Sea. There are two main sites to see when visiting MuCEM: the museum itself and Fort Saint Jean, one of the two large fortresses that guard the entrance to the Old Port. Fort Saint Jean was built not to protect the bay, but actually in response to an uprising against the governor, and offers visitors the opportunity to climb the battlements with excellent views. MuCEM itself provides a glimpse for visitors into the history and art in an area of the world so renowned for its rich culture. You will be impressed at the number of interactive items and displays offered to guests and will learn a great deal about the history, culture, religion and science through interactive exhibitions such as the Gallery of the Mediterranean which contains many artifacts from paintings to sculptures.
The Le Panier district is Marseilles’ old town, and it resembles a Medieval Quarter in a busy Mediterranean city. The narrow streets combine with beautiful colorful architecture and you will lose yourself easily in the maize of charming and winding streets. The area is known for the traditional Marseilles Ateliers, or workshops run by craftsmen, who carry on the rich crafts known around the area. Some of the more common Ateliers include ceramic shops, soap makers, pastis producers and bakeries. You will be impressed with Pastis, which is licorice liquor similar to Sambuca (Italian). Pastis is the typical Provencal aperitif. You should try a navette which is essentially an orange flavored shortbread cookie, and it’s very popular in Marseille. To really get to know Le Panier, contact the Marseille Office of Tourism. They offer guided tours of this historic area, and you’ll gain a great insight into one of the oldest sections of the city.
La Grande Savonnerie
La Grande Savonnerie offers a new and fresh look at soap-making, which is the one of the most recognizable crafts from Provence. Sylvain Dijon, one of the few master soap-makers with the title Maitre Savonnier, carries on this Southern French art in the heart of the Le Panier district. As you enter his shop, uou will notice the rich senses and fruity aromas that fill the shop. For meetings and events, Sylvain even does private classes and teaches executives in an interactive way on how to make the traditional Provencal soap. You will begin your class with a Bunsen burner and three key ingredients, which Sylvain explains goes into every soap made: water, soda and olive oil. The soap then must be stored for a month (although Sylvain has some on hand which is hardened). It then goes through a processor, followed by being cut by hand. At this point you can label your own soap (Sylvain has a custom labeler on site in case of a special events need). The class is very interactive and perfect for business travelers looking to experience a local craft.
If you are going to Marseilles, you must try bouillabaisse. And Miramar is most certainly the place to try it. Chef Christian Buffa keeps up the city’s tradition of producing this delicious seafood dish. The restaurant sits on the Old Port and commands astounding views of the bay, and the smell of rich seafood permeates restaurant. There are two separate areas: an outdoor and indoor area (the second floor is currently being refurbished and will soon be completed).
Chef Christian is known for his bouillabaisse, and it’s served as a two course meal of soup and filet. Chef Christian’s bouillabaisse is composed of six different types of fish: red mulet, scorpion fish, monk fish, jundery fish, stick fish and conger fish. He explained that the fish is purchased directly from the fishermen in the port just a few steps away.
But my meal first began with two different appetizers consisting of a sweet and salty monkfish puree and delicious truffle break coupled with a tasty dry Albizzi white wine from Cassis. Then it was time for the bouillabaisse.
Bouillabaisse is first prepared by having the server bring out each fish on a platter for you to view them before preparing the dish. The soup is then cooked in the juices of the six different fish, and is usually eaten with the accompanying garlic pieces, tomato sauce and bread. You will find that the garlic enhances the heavy fishy flavor of the dish, and this will be most memorable soups you will have. Next, the fish filets come out in the remaining soup which tastes natural and fresh. The flavors of the various fish meld together into a mixture of textures and flavors in a seafood broth that’s spiced with a mix of fresh Provencal herbs that will transport you to the French countryside as you are on the Mediterranean coast..
For dessert, Miramar has an extensive dessert menu, including:
- Mango panecotta — a mango flavored softcake which is fruity and sweet
- Bouillabaisse desert — comprised of various fruits with citrus sauce (not the fish to my surprise!)
- Cafe gourmande — an espresso shot with a sample of many different deserts such as English pudding, chocolate mousse and crème puff
- Assortment of Marshmallows, roasted peanuts and cookies (a great finish to a filling meal)
For meetings and events, business travelers can rent out the entire restaurant for an event up to 150 participants: 60 seated on the outdoor Old Port Terrace, 80 inside the ground floor and 20 on the above second floor.
La Vielle Charite is a former hospice and almshouse that hosts a number of museums, exhibitions and event space. Founded in the 17th century, the hospice was used by the church to care for the poor of the city. Today, the space holds several museums and temporary exhibitions, most notably the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology (medieval architecture). For meeting and event planners, the area is a unique venue space for larger events — and very customizable for up to 1,500 standing.
If you can plan ahead, Chateau d’If is one of the best attractions in Marseilles. The complex is a 16th century island fortress that was essentially the Alcatraz of France. The Chateau was built by Francis I and commands an astounding view of the Mediterranean Sea. But it is most famous for being the setting of various literary works by Alexander Dumas such as the Count of Montecristo and the Man in the Iron Mask. You will enjoy the 30 minute picturesque boat ride that takes visitors from the Old Port to the island. Upon arrival to the island, you will be surprised by both the seclusion of the island fortress, apparent hopeless prison conditions and (of course) references in several areas to its fictional inhabitants.
The Palais Longchamp is a massive chateau d’eau or “water castle” located in the 4th arrondissement (district) of Marseilles. The 19th century palace boasts an intricate complex of fountains and decorative architecture which took nearly 30 years to complete. There is a park behind that provides a refreshing green space with breathtaking views of the northern end of the city. Some of the large oak trees are even original to the garden’s construction. The magnificent classical centerpiece is flanked on the west wing by the Museum of Natural History and the Musée des Beaux-Arts on the east wing. You will be thoroughly impressed by the neoclassical architecture inside the museum as its design itself is a work of art. The museum houses paintings done by the old French masters as well as numerous drawings and sculptures. For meetings and events, the museum itself can host up to 250 participants in a cocktail setting.
Notre Dame de La Garde
You have a view of this grand cathedral from every location in the city or the sea. The Cathedral sits on top of a hill and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary who protected sailors as they went off to sea. The hill itself is very difficult to climb, and you will find it much easier to take the tourist train to the top. The colorful exterior blue and white exterior exquisitely reflects the bright and vibrant colors of the city’s Mediterranean architecture.
Marseille, France Logistics
Aeroport Marseille Provence (AMP) is directly accessible from many cities throughout Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It also also served by two train lines, accessible from its cruise port, two metro lines, bus routes and highways.
This southern France city offers 300 days of sunshine each year. Average temperatures include: Spring 19°C (66F) / Summer 25°C (77°F) / Fall 14°C (57°F) / Winter 12°C (53°F).
Marseille has a population of 859,367 (2011), and the metropolitan area – including 18 towns and villages – has a population of 1,200,000.
Updated. Initially published July 22, 2014.