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I enjoy the French Riviera as much as the next girl, but when it comes to the South of France, it’s Marseille that stole my heart. It has the weather of Cannes but without the crushing crowds and sky-high prices.
Most of Marseille’s tourist sights are close to the Vieux (Old) Port, which is chock-full of fun stuff for families. We visited Marseille in the middle of July — prime tourist season. But the tourists we saw were mostly French families vacationing for the weekend, not throngs of people from far away traveling in big red double-decker buses. Vieux Port was lively but never overcrowded.
Let’s get this out of the way. Marseille doesn’t always have the best reputation for some kinds of crimes, but after two visits, I would give the same advice as I would to virtually any other European city: Be aware of your surroundings, stick to tourist-friendly areas and keep your valuables in the hotel safe.
Football might be another thing that’s not on your radar.
With that as the baseline, here are some of my favorite things to do in Marseille.
See the Toys of Notre Dame
Notre Dame de la Garde Cathedral rises over the city and is a marvel to explore. Fortunately, there’s a tourist “petit train” that takes you up and down the steep hill to the cathedral. My 12-year-old daughter appreciated both the grandeur of Notre Dame de la Garde and the amazing views. She got a kick out of the toy boats and planes hanging from the ceiling as symbols of Notre Dame “keeping watch” over voyagers.
View Museums That Are Works of Art
Marseille was named a City of European Culture by the European Union in 2013 and many museums got a major face-lift. Our favorite, both inside and out, was the Mucem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations). My daughter connected with the exhibitions in a way that doesn’t normally happen at museums. She was especially taken with an exhibit on islands and how climate change and pollution are affecting the environment.
The Mucem building, covered in coral-like latticework, is a marvel in itself. The Fort St. Jean next door, part of the Mucem complex, has amazing views and a picnic area just begging for a family lunch. The Mucem is open every day except Tuesday from 11am–6pm with extended seasonal hours and, best of all, kids under 18 are free. Adult tickets are 9 euros; 14 euros for a family ticket.
Enjoy Gourmet Cuisine for Less
Food is an essential part of Mediterranean culture and Le Môle Passedat offers cuisine far above-standard museum fare at multiple venues in the Mucem. Le Petit Nice’s three-star chef, Gérald Passedat, has created a menu that features fresh seafood and produce that comes from a kitchen garden on site.
We dined at two separate spots, the Mucem restaurant and the cafe at Fort St. Jean, and both exceeded expectations for both the venue and the price. The dish below was the 18-euro daily special, which included a salad and drink. The fish was so fresh you almost wanted to look for the hook, and the saffron-infused rice made the dish taste like a deconstructed bouillabaisse.
Get Out On the Water
Marseille, a major port city, offers many ways to get out onto the water. An easy option is a cruise to Chateau D’If, setting for the novel “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Regular ferries head to both Isle D’If and to neighboring Isle Frioul. The castle was built by François I in 1524 and has historical importance, as well as notoriety for its famous captives over the centuries.
Admission to the chateau is 6 euros, with kids under 18 free. This is in addition to the cost of the ferry, which is 10.80 euros or 8.10 each if you’re a family of four or more. Children under 4 are free. Be aware that Chateau D’If is not wheelchair or stroller accessible.
If you have more time, you can visit the Calanques (cliffs), which makes for a lovely half-day. There’s a two-hour and a three-hour option: We did the two hour and it felt like enough.
Take Time to Smell the Rose Soap
I may lose you when I recommend a “soap museum,” but stay with me. A five-minute stroll through the portside market will show you the connection between Marseille and soap. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call Marseille the soap capital of the world. Licorne soap company, with its distinctive unicorn (“licorne” in French) logo, is a major player in the market here. The soap museum, located at 25 & 26 Quai de Rive Neuve on the harbor, appealed to my daughter way more than I thought it would.
Admission is 2 euros, but you get a voucher for a free bar of soap in the shop next door. The gallery features advertisements and machinery from days gone by, but that’s not why we were in there for almost an hour. In the back of the gallery there’s a “guess the scent” game with more than a dozen varieties of soap. If your kids are anything like mine, they can’t resist a challenge.
Where to Stay in Marseille
I liked my first stay at the InterContinental Hotel Dieu so much that I got the IHG Rewards Premier Club Credit Card just so I could get a free fourth-night award on a return stay. At 55,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night, I could save $275 by TPG current point valuations with the fourth award night free. With cash rates over $300 in season, even without the fourth night free, points can be a good option. If you are paying cash at the hotel, you can reserve larger rooms that sleep up to five.
The hotel is a couple of steep blocks back from the harbor so it may not be for you if you have mobility issues. The view from rooms and from the breakfast terrace are gorgeous — I’d say the best in the city. The Hotel Dieu was an 18th-century hospital and excavation during construction found artifacts dating back to Roman times. The entire property feels luxe from the moment you arrive.
If you want to stay directly on the harbor, the only points option is the Radisson Blu Marseille Vieux Port. At 70,000 Radisson Rewards points versus rates in the $250 range, it might not be the best use of points unless you just have them to burn. The hotel does have family-sized rooms that sleep up to six.
You may be tempted to skip Marseille in favor of more well-trodden spots in the South of France. Marseille may not have a film festival like Cannes but it more than makes up for it with charming sites that appeal to families. Best of all, you can use all the money you save to fill your suitcase with Marseille soap.
Featured photo by Charlotte Ségurel / Getty Images
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