If you haven’t been lost in Marseille then you can’t have been there. As Alexandre Dumas wrote, this is a place that is ‘always getting younger as it grows older’.
But while you’ll certainly be lost at some point, you won’t be stuck and you won’t be bored. You can meander through the 16 contrasting neighbourhoods, or cross the town easily via metro, bus, bike, tram or even ‘Le petit train de Marseille’ — the Marseille fun train. Head straight to the Old Port (600 bc) where Foster and Partners’ mirrored canopy (2013 ad) gleams in the hot sun, then up the hill to the lovely, listed Intercontinental Hotel Dieu which has great views, a Michelin-starred restaurant and a Clarins spa, but which from 1188 until 1993 served as the city’s main hospital.
For those on a tighter budget, there is Mama Shelter (designed by Philippe Starck) in the St Julien, the city’s ‘arty’ sixth arrondissement. Mama’s concept is of a place where friends gather around a scrubbed pine table, or in the walled garden, to eat, drink and meet people. Outside, the state-of-the-art building features a statue of Saint Victor, the patron saint of Marseille, who protects all who pass.
The shabby-chic Panier district, behind the Intercontinental, has a Notting Hill vibe. During the second world war it was the headquarters of the resistance fighters. The Nazis bombed sections of the Panier but much of it remains and has been renovated with the help of the European Commission. After you’ve finished exploring (the art scene is pretty good at the moment), I can recommend a Pernod in the Bar des 13 Coins.
Of course, no visit is complete without a bouillabaisse fix. Originally a fish stew made by fisherman to use up market scraps, today it’s up there with the gastronomic lipsmackers, complete with its own ‘Charte de la Bouillabaisse Marseillaise’. Reserve a table at restaurant Chez Fonfon for the authentic real deal, or try ‘Le Petit Nice’ where bouillabaisse is revised by three-star Michelin chef Gérald Passédat, whose modern spin is influenced by his grandmother’s recipe, Provence, and the mistral. If you can’t snag a table there, stalk Passédat to the rooftop of the magnificent Rudy Ricciotti-designed Museum of the Civilisation of Europe and the Mediterranean, where he recently set up a more accessible eatery.
Walk Les Calanques, get lost in the old streets, suntan and schmooze on Sport Beach. You can also stock up on fragrant Savon de Marseille soap in the boutiques around the Old Oort, and gasp at the €7 million transformation to the sprawling former rooftop gym of Le Corbusier’s 1952 iconic Cité Radieuse. As you leave Marseille, admire the giant sculpture by César Baldaccini. A cast of the artist’s thumb, it represents the hitchhiking symbol and to touch it means you’ll return — soon.