FRANCE – Two nights in Marseille during leg 5 of our South France road trip

My road trip along the coast in South France with the family included two nights in Marseille. We had a hectic arrival through the small streets about which I wrote in the previous post: leg 4: Montmajour & Silvacane Abbey, Glanum and Salagon. We had one full day to explore Marseille after which we continued our journey towards Nice and Monaco. Is a day in Marseille enough? Read on and you will find out.

A brief note on Marseille’s history

History at the place of today’s Marseille dates back to prehistoric times. It was, however, until the 6th century BC when the Greeks started a settlement called Massalia. When it started to flourish, it became the leading port along the Mediterranean Sea Shore trading goods all the way up to the Baltic Sea. Around the 1st century BC Marseille made an agreement with the Romans for protection. During several wars it adapted to Roman habits but lost quite a lot of its power during the 8th and 9th centuries when the Roman Empire started to lose ground.

 

During the middle ages it got back most of the power and minor struggles through time could not change that. By the end of the 15th century Marseille became part of France. During the centuries to come it served as a military base, trading port and manufacturing city. Due to its location Marseille became a melting pot of cultures which you can see today in modern Marseille.

The harbor of Marseille

A visit to Marseille is not complete without a walk through the harbor and the cornice. We started in the morning from the Intercontinental Hotel which is within walking distance of the harbor. A small stroll along the fishing boats and some yachts was enough for us and we continued towards the Notre-Dame de la Garde situated on a hill-top overlooking Marseille.

TIP! If you have more time in Marseille an afternoon walk in the harbor is more pleasant as you will see more fishermen at work.

The Notre-Dame de La Gard

We took the bus to the Notre-Dame de La Garde which had a scenic route along the coast with a beautiful view on Chateau d’If. This fort and prison was built during the first half of the 16th century. It served as a prison to the end of the 19th century after which it was decommissioned. If your time allows plan a visit there, my South France road trip was packed too much already. The bus arrived half an hour later at the Notre-Dame de la Garde which is located at the highest point of the hill south of Marseille.

Worship at the hilltop started early 13th century with a small chapel. Two centuries later a new bigger church was built together with a fort. At the same time Chateau d’If was built which you can see from the hill top. In the mid 19th century the construction of the current basilica began. The basilica is a beautiful black and white sandstone example of Neo-Byzantine style. Below the basilica you find a beautiful Romanesque crypt well worth a look into. Inside and outside the Notre-Dame de la Garde you’ll see several beautiful sculptures. The interior is beautiful decorated with mosaics and paintings. I really enjoyed visiting.

It takes just over an hour to see the place and I can tell you it’s worth to go as the basilica is simply beautiful. From the top of the hill you have also a beautiful view on Marseille but unfortunately during our visit it was quite hazy. When we finished our visit we took the bus back towards the harbor with a small stop at the Abbey of St. Victor.

A walk through old Marseille

After we saw the abbey we took the bus further down the cornice and we got dropped off at Fort Saint-Jean. We explored the fort and continued to the adjacent Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. A museum where you can learn a lot about the history of various civilizations. The architecture is also very nice and spectacular designed by a renowned architect. Before we continued to explore the old town we made a quick stop at Cathedral Major. This cathedral is a beautiful cathedral built a bit in the same style as the hill top basilica we saw earlier.

During the late afternoon we walked the narrow streets which the day before got our car almost stranded. This happened because emergency vehicles had to enter and the barriers where open. To get an idea, see the photo below, close your eyes and imagine a big Volvo station car there 🙂 Good to know not all streets are small. La Canebière is a huge historic avenue in Marseille where you will find many places to go shopping. It was already dark when we arrived back at our Hotel Dieu where we had a 5 star dinner scheduled for my daughter’s birthday.

Our time in Marseille was only a day but was this enough? It was in case you skip Chateau d’If, some museums and maybe some other minor sights. Could you spend more time in Marseille? Yes you can! If weather permits there are beaches and many different neighborhoods with a mix of cultures too. I will not directly return to Marseille, but that’s personal. We continued the next day our South France road trip to Nice and Monaco. More on that later.

 
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Did you visit Marseille too or do you have questions? Please leave a comment at the bottom of the page. Love to hear from you!

Gallery of Marseille

Check the gallery for more photos taken during this trip. If you like to use any photo for commercial, private or editorial use please contact first for permission and/or pricing.