Marseille: history and multiculturalism
Marseille was founded by Greek settlers some 2,500 years ago. Ever since, the city has seen successive waves of immigration making it a truly cosmopolitan and multicultural city. In recent years Marseille has turned into a charming and vibrant city, which boasts world-class museums, galleries and performing arts.
Since Marseille’s stint as European Capital of Culture in 2013, trendy bars and boutiques have sprung up all over the city, and the redesigned quayside has brought some spectacular architecture to France’s oldest city.
The cafés around the Vieux Port, where fresh fish is sold straight off the boats, are wonderful spots to observe the city’s street life. The Vieux Port has always been Marseille’s focal point and so it remains – for celebration, protests or anything else. Forts flanking the entrance were built both to keep the enemy out but also to keep the people of Marseille under control.
Le Panier, north of the Vieux Port, is where the incoming Greeks settled and is claimed to be the oldest urban quartier in France. Subsequently, it was where immigrants arrived to live. Notre-Dame de la Garde is very much worth a stop: the Roman Byzantine basilica is topped by a 33ft Virgin and Child statue covered in gold leaf, and can be seen from everywhere in Marseille. It offers arresting views of the whole city, too.
The Esplanade is the focus of a new cultural quarter with modern architecture and museums. The Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) is dedicated to Mediterranean culture. The museum is world-class, with paintings, video installations and photos by the likes of Ai Weiwei and Joan Miró.
Marseille is famous for its savon de Marseille (soap) and its bouillabaisse fish stew.
The most famous of islands near Marseille is the prison island of If. Despite what they tell you on the island, the Count of Monte Cristo was not imprisoned here – he was a fictional character. However, visiting the fortifications is a bracing experience and well worthwhile.
One of the loveliest trips out of Marseille is to hop on a boat and do the calanques – the limestone cliffs and creeks stretching 20 miles to the south of the city.