The Insider's Guide to Marseille

by  Mary Winston Nicklin | May 28, 2013
Marseille / Andrei Vasilev/iStock

As a vibrant port town on the Mediterranean, Marseille has always been gritty and full of soul. But forget images of a dirty and dangerous metropolis. I'm here to tell you that Marseille cleans up real nice. Elected the European Capital of Culture in 2013, Marseille has undergone a major metamorphosis with new landmark buildings like MuCem, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, designed by bad-boy French architect Rudy Ricciotti. The Old Port, where fish-mongers still sell their catch, has a polished new look by Sir Norman Foster, who erected a giant sun-shade called Ombrière that reflects port life like a mirror.

With the largest community of contemporary artists outside Paris, Marseille is embracing its role as one of the hottest destinations of 2013. Europe's capital of cool is throwing a year-long party with art exhibits, dance performances, and music festivals celebrating Marseille's melting-pot diversity. No matter when you arrive this year, there is guaranteed to be something going on in Marseille. Check out their website for the full calendar of unforgettable events. ‎To get you started, I've picked out a few of the best places and things to do!

Une Table au Sud has long been one of my favorite restaurants in Marseille. A protégé of celebrity chef Alain Ducasse, Lionel Levy served up inventive French cuisine with market-fresh Provencal produce. The bouillabaisse milkshake was a brilliant twist on the classic Marseille dish. Now, Levy has taken the reins at the InterContinental Marseille - Hotel Dieu, a buzzworthy new hotel housed in the restored Hôtel-Dieu, a centuries-old historic monument on a prime piece of real estate overlooking the Old Port. The hotel just opened in April, but I expect the restaurant to become the talk of the town.

For a cheap (and delicious) dinner, head to the city's best pizzeria. Chez Jeannot is located in the Vallon des Auffes, a charming fishing village with traditional boats bobbing at anchor in front of colorful houses.

For an epic meal that lingers in memory, you've got to try Le Petit Nice, the Michelin three-starred restaurant helmed by Gérald Passedat. Indulge in freshly caught seafood – perhaps sea anemone – while gazing out over the Med.

Marseille may be one of the biggest cities in France, but its picture-perfect location means that you can easily get a dose of outdoor adventure. There are a myriad of beaches within the city limits, plus a newly created National Park, the first in the hexagon since 1979, abuts Marseille itself. Hiking the Calanques, a series of dramatic limestone inlets on the coast, is not to be missed.

One of the cornerstone events of Marseille-Provence 2013 is Transhumance, when thousands of horses and flocks of sheep will be driven across Provence and into the Port, echoing the seasonal migration of animals between pastures. Taking place now until June 9, the event welcomes participants to hike or ride along with the organizers.

Mama Shelter, the first outpost of the Philippe Starck-designed hotel in Paris, arrived in Marseille to much fanfare and celebration. It's a hip, low-cost hotel that doesn't compromise on the comforts; think uber-soft beds, Kiehl's bath amenities, and free Wi-Fi. The restaurant is overseen by famed Chef Alain Senderens. The hip terrace bar serves up 40 different types of pastis, the anis-flavored aperitif beloved in the south of France.

Other affordable options include B&B-style accommodations at Pension Edelweiss and Casa Ortega near the train station. The owners of these establishments – both lovely – are a wealth of information about the Marseille scene.

What are your favorite things to do in Marseille?

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