France is a country of great variety and contrast, and this is especially obvious upon taking a trip to Marseille! As the country’s second-largest city, and southern France’s cultural center, Marseille contrasts significantly to other French locations you may have visited.
Marseille is famous for its Bonne-mère, its Vieux-Port and its Château d’If. It is also known for its significant cultural outputs, from savon de Marseille to tarot, as well as its typically Southern culture of pastis and pétanque. The city is also home to revered Mediterranean weather and some beautiful natural landmarks and beaches.
So let’s begin this massive list of things Marseille is known and famous for.
1. Notre-Dame de la Garde
Marseille’s most famous and visited landmark is the Notre-Dame de la Garde, or la Bonne-mère as it’s known to the city’s inhabitants. It is a Catholic basilica found on a rock formation to the city’s south. Located at the highest natural point in Marseille, it boasts some amazing panoramic views of the city.
The basilica is built on the foundations of a former fort that had existed on the rock formation since the 16th century. It wasn’t until 1853 that the fort’s foundations were expanded to produce the basilica.
The basilica is perhaps most famous for the statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus that stands at the top of its bell tower. The statue is 9.7 meters high and gilded in gold leaf.
This is the origin of the name Bonne-mère, which means ‘Good Mother’, but is also a name for the Virgin Mary. The Bonne-mère is said to be the protectress of the city, looking over all that happens down below.
Marseille’s economy was historically dominated by its port, which was France’s gateway to its Empire. The port linked metropolitan France to its colonies in North Africa (such as Algeria and Morocco), and even further afield.
Today, the city’s functional port has moved to the north of the city, leaving the Vieux-Port (Old Port) as the cultural and social center of the city. Its buildings largely remain as they were historically, such as the Fort Saint-Jean, a famous fortification at the port’s entrance.
Fishing still remains important to the port. If you are a fan of fish, be sure to visit the market at the Quai des Belges, which sells fresh fish caught that day.
The Vieux-Port is also among the best and most idyllic places to eat in the city, with a row of cafés and restaurants lining the seafront.
3. Sun and weather
Marseille is well known for its hot Mediterranean weather, like the South of France in general.
Marseille is the sunniest major city in France, with over 2800 hours of sun a year (the average across France is 1950). It is also the driest, receiving only 512mm of rain each year. This is due in particular to the Mistral, a dry wind from the Rhône Valley to the North that brings clear skies and sunny outlooks.
However, the mistral wind is also very strong and its presence can sure be felt in the city. It is so strong that it blows pollution away from large cities such as Marseille and makes the local vegetation especially dry.
Given Marseille’s Mediterranean climate and position on France’s southern coast, it is a great location from which to explore some beautiful and vibrant beaches.
Amongst the most famous beaches for locals are the Plage des Catalans, the Plage Prado and the Plage du Prophète. They are sure to be busy during summer, and even often during winter when locals will make use of the beaches for walks.
Marseille is also not far from Cassis, a small city famous across the world for its beaches, port, cliffs, and coves. It is amongst the most popular tourist destinations in Southern France and Europe, and its small population swells during summer. As the most western part of the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), it is a perfect spot to explore if you don’t mind the bustle of summer tourism.
In terms of sport, Marseille is famous for its football team, Olympique Marseille, or OM. In 1993, the team became the only French team to win the UEFA Champions League, beating Milan 1-0 in the final.
The team enjoys a long-standing rivalry with Paris Saint-Germain. The Classique football match between the two is amongst the most popular matches in French sport. The team is based at the Stade Vélodrome, which is the largest club football ground in France, with a capacity of over 67,000.
Due to its advantageous position on the Mediterranean Sea, the city is also popular for a variety of watersports. Sailing, windsurfing and scuba diving are popular amongst professionals, locals, and tourists, and these activities offer some great views of the sea and the city.
The city, like much of southern France, is known for pétanque. This sport involves throwing a set of balls so that they land closest to another smaller ball, the cochonnet. Every year, Marseille hosts an international tournament of pétanque, known as the Mondial la Marseillaise de pétanque.
Marseille is the oldest city in France, founded in 600BC as the Greek colony of Massalia. Later overtaken by the Romans, the city continued to prosper, remaining an important maritime city that linked Gaul to the south of Europe.
Provence tradition has it that Mary Magdalene arrived in the city following the death of Jesus, and converted its population to Christianity. To this day, the city has a strong cultural link with Mary Magdalene.
In 1792, Marseille became a central location for the French Revolution. The French Anthem was first sung by volunteers from Marseille in the initial revolutionary years, giving it the name La Marseillaise.
The city grew significantly during the years of France’s Empire, as the main point of connection to colonies in North Africa. It was also a key center of France’s industrial revolution.
7. Savon de Marseille
Marseille soap is famous around the world, and the industry has been active in the city for over 600 years. The first recorded soapmaker in the city dates back to 1370, and in 1924 there were a registered 132 soapmaking companies in the city.
Savon de Marseille, as it’s known in French, is a famous hard soap that is traditionally made by mixing seawater from the Mediterranean Sea, olive oil, and alkaline ash from sea plants. Afterward, the mixture is heated for several days and left to set. The whole process can take up to a month.
Though Louis XIV decreed in 1688 that soap termed savon de Marseille could only be made using olive oil, the law has since been changed to allow for the use of other vegetable oils.
As France’s gateway to the sea and its former colonies, Marseille has long been a city of immigration and cosmopolitanism.
Significant populations include those from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and Comoros. It is estimated that one-third of Marseille’s population can trace their roots back to Italy.
The city’s cosmopolitan identity was a significant factor in Marseille being awarded the European Capital of Culture in 2013.
The most commonly used tarot card deck takes its name from this city: tarot de Marseille. Though research shows that tarot originated in northern Italy during the 15th century, the most common design today was developed from its Italian roots in the city of Marseille.
Though in many parts of the world, tarot is associated with card readings and predictions of the future, these cards are more common throughout southern Europe as a form of playing cards. With 78 playing cards in a deck, a variety of games can be played with them.
The Calanques National Park, which stretches from the southern edge of Marseille to Cassis, is famous for its sensational views and turquoise waters. This makes it a perfect outing for tourists in Marseilles that want an escape into the great outdoors.
The park extends over 520 km2, of which 85 km2 is on land. It is home to almost 140 protected animal and plant species, and more than 60 protected marine species.
The hikes in the Calanques National Park are very accessible and don’t require any special expertise or equipment, making them a great activity for all.
The most popular day hike is the Calanques de Cassis trail, which takes around three hours at a relaxed pace. The hike also passes by Port Pin, an idyllic beach where many locals go swimming.
11. Château d’If
Another popular tourist attraction for visitors to Marseille is the Château d’If, a fortress and former prison. Located on the Île d’If, one of four islands of the Frioul archipelago, it is 1.5 kilometers off the coast of Marseille. It can be accessed by visitors by ferry from the Vieux-Port.
During the 19th-century, the Château was known across France as a notorious escape-proof prison. Many of its inmates were political or religious prisoners.
But the Château was made especially famous to an international audience after featuring in Alexandre Dumas’s Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (The Count of Monte-Cristo). In the story, protagonist Edmond Dantès is imprisoned there after being falsely accused of treason – but I won’t ruin the rest of the novel for you!
Like the rest of France, Marseille is known for its food. Its most traditional and popular dish is Bouillabaisse, coming from the Occitan words bolhir (to boil) and abaissar (to simmer). It is a fish stew, traditionally made by Marseille fishermen, using the rockfish that they were unable to sell at public markets.
Vegetables such as leeks, onions and potatoes are simmered together in a broth, and then served with the fish. The bouillabaisse is served with bread and a rouille, a sort of mayonnaise made with olive oil, garlic, and saffron.
As a city located on the sea, many other dishes comprise of fish, from sea bass to swordfish and lobster.
And if you’re looking for a typically Marseillais drink to try while visiting, look no further than pastis! Famous in Marseille and the south of France, 130 million liters are sold in France each year – that’s more than two liters per person!
Pastis is made from aniseed and flavored with licorice root, giving it a very particular taste. It is commonly diluted with water, five parts to one.
Though many don’t like the strong taste of the drink at first, give it a go! I sure wasn’t a fan on my first pastis, but soon found myself gulping them down as much as any Frenchman!
14. Cathédral de La Major
Located in the Le Panier district of the city, the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille, or simply Cathédrale de La Major, is a Roman Catholic cathedral that’s famous in Marseille.
Standing on an esplanade that overlooks the waterfront and the Vieux-Port, it is a beautiful sightseeing monument. It is particularly distinctive for its Neo-Byzantine 70-meter-high dome.
The cathedral dates back to the 12th century, and the structure of a smaller cathedral can be found alongside the new bigger one. The new cathedral started construction began in 1852, when Napoleon III laid the first stone.
In line with its cosmopolitan and international tradition, Marseille is home to The Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM). In English it’s known as the Museum of Europe and Mediterranean Civilizations.
The MuCEM is devoted to the history and culture of European and Mediterranean civilizations, exploring the Mediterranean and its common society from ancient times up until the present.
Perfectly reflecting its open relation to the rest of the world, the museum overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and is connected by a bridge to Fort Saint-Jean. The terrace restaurant on the top of the building gives some great panoramic views of the city and the sea.
16. Southern culture
Marseille is southern France’s largest city and encapsulates many of the cultural and historical features of this particular part of France. You will notice that southern France is very different to the north and other famous areas such as Paris!
Commonly, the south is considered to be more relaxed and friendly, and people from Marseille and Provence will proudly contrast their friendliness to the stereotypically rude nature of Parisians and Northerners. However, the south is also stereotypically more chaotic, loud, and less ordered than the north.
Culturally, Marseille is the center of the south and here you will find a concentration of lots of typically southern things here: pétanque, pastis, warm weather, and simple food.
17. Le Panier
Le Panier is the oldest district in the city. Panier literally means ‘basket’ in English. It is located on one of Marseille’s hills and hosts quaint narrow streets and beautiful squares (called une place in French), as typical of southern French charm.
Be sure to visit to have a wander, have an apéro from one of its cafés, or to visit the Cathédrale de la Major and the MuCEM. Le Panier is also home to the Place des Moulins, Marseille’s oldest place. It was historically surrounded by mills (moulin is mill in French), and today three mills remain, which have been turned into houses.
Le Panier is also known for its art, particularly its street art and crafts. This modern form of art interestingly co-exists with the district’s ancient and medieval architecture, creating a beautiful interaction between past and present. The Vieille Charité also hosts a number of cultural and historical venues, with collections of old artifacts and contemporary poetry.
So that concludes this list of things Marseille is known and famous for. You now have all the info you need to visit France’s second-biggest city and sample its southern culture!