Marseille is one of those cities you’ve heard about, but probably don’t know much else. Maybe you know it’s on the French Mediterranean or perhaps you have some vague familiarity with its grittier reputation. Beyond that, the majority of us are working with a blank canvas when it comes to Marseille. But with 24 hours in Marseille, you can at least learn a little something.
A Snapshot of Marseille
First, a look at the city. It doesn’t take long to get the sense that Marseille is a massive, sprawling city despite doing everything it can to be dense. Restaurants, hotels, and other businesses occupy the most narrow slivers of real estate. Though primary thoroughfares are as wide as you’d expect, everything else — side streets and alleyways — are like a labyrinth or maze of footpaths.
The unfortunate thing is that Marseille seems to have tried to fit cars in where they don’t belong. Those narrow side streets I mentioned? Those would be blocked off for pedestrians in many similarly designed cities. Instead, the majority of us on foot are left with a tiny slice of concrete that hugs the adjacent buildings. Even more troubling, these narrow sidewalks often have a slight tilt — my best guess being a design choice that predates cars to keep rain water from puddling alongside the buildings.
I can’t say walking was an entirely pleasurable experience in Marseille, contrary to Paris. Cars and Vespas frequently ran red lights as passersby on foot started to take their right of way on the crosswalk. I saw at least two or three mothers have to pull back their children in the short time I was there.
Hardly unique to Marseille, but their crosswalk signals frustratingly go from green to red in the blink of an eye with no way to tell how much longer until imminent death as impatient drivers and motorcyclists rev their engines — that is if their eyes aren’t glued to their phone (our airport bus almost got hit twice due to drivers texting.)
None of this is to say that I didn’t like Marseille or that it isn’t worth 24 hours (or more). I hopped on the train at St. Charles station with plenty of recommendations to share. Let’s run through them, shall we?
Where to Go in Marseille
After having a good experience with French craft beer in Paris, I wanted to see if the fad had hit Marseille as well. Indeed, it has. Not only has it hit, but two of the more highly rated craft beer establishments in the city are literally around the corner from one another. I’m speaking of Victor and Fiejte in between the Vieux Port and Saint-Victor neighborhoods.
Fiejte will feel familiar to North American travelers with their craft beer taps coming out of the wall behind the bar and a no frills decor that puts the focus on drinking beer. Victor, on the other hand, is primarily a beer seller with a mix of French and other international craft beer offerings. The storefront reminds me of my own go-to for craft beer in Düsseldorf. But in the back, they’ve setup a handful of tables next to a refrigerator where you can enjoy a cold one on the spot. The gentleman on site happily gave us a quick walkthrough on their Marseille (or nearby) craft beer options. My wife and I enjoyed an Amber IPA (La Rascasse) from Bière de la Rade and Marseille’s own Bière de la Plaine Blonde Ale.
For dinner, we opted for Sard’In just off the harbor where we split a mix of grilled vegetables and some bread with a kind of marinara spread and slices of serrano. Delicious, but a bit pricey considering the portion size. We were already 31 euros in the hole after those plates and a couple of beers, but apparently still had a pizza-sized crater in our stomachs — one we happily filled with a stop at Pizza Saint Jean. We took our pan-sized cheese pizza to go, eating during the evening walk around the harbor, pausing only to watch an outdoor group tango session — a session we attempted to join, but apparently, one’s moves get rusty rather quickly after just four lessons over a year ago.
The next morning we learned a valuable lesson in French travels. If you’ve looked up a restaurant, make sure to check their Facebook page before committing to see if they’re on vacation. We were let down twice in our search for highly recommended eats. We learned the hangry way not to blindly trust Google.
Luckily it is France, so finding a croissant or tasty quiche at a corner bakery is about as easy as breathing. And so we grazed during our walk back to Vieux Port, including a stop at Green Bear Coffee for a couple slices of cake (almond and green tea matcha, respectively) to go with our cafe americanos, brewed like a typical North American style cup of coffee.
Best View Of Marseille
Since we had a light breakfast, it was easy to work up an appetite by hiking up to Notre-Dame de la Garde, which I can only guess in retrospect is the tourist sight to see based on the number of buses pulled over outside the final flight of stairs that not even the laziest of travelers could skip. The wind had intensified significantly by the time we reached the top of the impressive building. Not being a Christian or one who knows much about Christian pilgrimages, its isolated location gave it the feeling of importance to those of the faith. I could imagine this being a spiritually significant trek centuries ago. Perhaps the significance remains for Christians, but Canon and Nikon greatly outnumbered the crucifixes.
For the heathens and indifferent among us, the trek up to the old church is worth it nonetheless for the spectacular view of the city. Only here can you truly appreciate the size of Marseille. Phrases like “urban jungle” are incredibly overused, but you can’t argue that Marseille doesn’t fit the bill when you’re peering out over a seemingly endless tapestry of tightly packed terracotta rooftops.
Our last stop in Marseille came at Le Panier à Burgers. Le Panier, I had read the night before in what I’m sure was a dubious internet comment, is one of the formerly rougher neighborhoods that is increasingly gentrifying. I certainly didn’t get the sense of abandonment like outside of Coogee, the breakfast joint in 5th Arrondissement we attempted to visit that morning, but then again nothing in Marseille is particularly pristine. You can plainly see the years on the buildings, which I always find aesthetically pleasing same as I do in Rome or Antigua.
At the end, it appeared we saved the best for last because Le Panier à Burgers hit the spot in every sense of the word. We shared the mozzarella veggie burger and a pan-cooked chicken burger. Each came with a small side salad and the option for some tempura-style sweet potatoes. There’s not much more I can say other than it was money well spent and a place I would happily return to should I ever turn up in Marseille again.
Writing this from the train on my way to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, I feel a mix of sadness and frustration about my 24 hours in Marseille. Frustration over how much space the city has ceded to vehicular traffic, especially in areas that are clearly meant for pedestrians only. Sadness over the poison that must be seeping into the lungs of Marseille’s pedestrians. This really could be one of the gems of Europe if it became a people-first city again as I imagine it originally was. The character and architecture are already there. All they need to do now is take back their streets.