Marseille is the second largest city in France, but has long been overshadowed by its larger rival, Paris. As a major port city, Marseille is vulnerable to drug smuggling and other organized criminal networks, which has given it a bad reputation throughout the rest of France. As a result, many travelers consciously avoid Marseille or do not even have it on their radar as a place worth visiting.
I had heard that Marseille was underrated and that it was unfairly labeled as a dangerous city, so I decided to plan a stopover on my train trip from Paris to Nice to break up the journey and check it out for myself. Now that I have been, I want to help Marseille clean up its reputation and ensure that no one else misses out on visiting this amazing city.
1. Old Port
When I arrived in Marseille, I headed straight for the heart of the city, the Vieux Port. As soon as I got to the harbor, I could see that this place was something special. The sun’s rays bounced softly off the creamy vanilla facades of the buildings along the waterfront, punctuated by the red-tiled roofs, while lines of boats docked in the marina bobbed gently in the water. If you visit early enough, you will see stalls along the quay with fishermen selling their fresh catch from the morning.
At night, the buildings are illuminated in colorful lights. The Ferris wheel is a nice way to get a bird’s-eye view of the port.
Given its location on the coast, most of the food scene in Marseille revolves around seafood. The city’s signature dish is bouillabaisse, a fish stew originally made by Marseille fishermen using the fish from the day that they were unable to sell. The seafood restaurants along the waterfront in the Old Port are a great place to have dinner and watch the sun set across the harbor.
Marseille is the oldest city in France, founded by the Greeks around 600 B.C. (about 400 years before Paris was founded). It continued to grow under Roman control and was one of the major ports of the ancient world. It later became part of Provence, and its location on the Mediterranean Sea made it an important military port for France during the 18thcentury, as well as an entry point for immigrants. Its diverse population reflects this rich history with a variety of cultural and ethnic groups living side-by-side.
Marseille also holds the top position as sunniest city in France, with more than 300 days of sunshine per year. I was warmly greeted with sunny skies and 75°F temperatures in November, which was a nice change from the cold, gray drizzle I had grown accustomed to in Paris over the previous few days.
The neighborhoods in the northern part of Marseille are some of the poorest in the country, with nearly 40% of the population below the poverty line. Those areas have higher crime rates and should generally be avoided by most tourists. However, the presence of the police force in the main parts of the city has made the Old Port and city center just as safe to visit as Paris. As in any large city, tourists still may be targeted by pickpockets on the city’s streets and should take care to keep any valuables secure and exercise caution if approached by strangers.
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