THE capital of Provence, Marseille may share a Riviera location with Nice, St Tropez, Cannes and Monte Carlo, but it’s a city devoid of its neighbours’ glitz.
Rougher around the edges, it’s more working port than playboy playground, but is none the less a bustling city full of excitement and change. With its nomination as this year’s cultural capital of Europe, it is also the beneficiary of huge regeneration that has seen galleries, concert halls and eateries springing up in the old port area. Thanks to a maritime past dating from Greek and Roman times, Marseille is a melting pot of cultures and races (a quarter of its population of one million is of North African origin) and it has some of the best restaurants in the country. With hills on three sides and water on the fourth, it has a hinterland of rugged beauty that makes it a unique short break destination and a city that’s a breath of fresh air after the lavender-saturated Provençal villages so beloved and of the home counties set.
WHERE TO STAY
ARTY types will love Au Vieux Panier near the seafront promenade in the city’s oldest district. Its six bedrooms are designed every year by cutting-edge artists, resulting in what is basically a gallery with beds, from the grafittied Panic Room to Room 96 where a mannequin wearing only socks hides in the back of the wardrobe, hinting at “secrets and games”. With doubles from €90 (£75) it won’t break the bank.
13 Rue du Panier (00 33 4 91 91 23 72, www.auvieuxpanier.com)
TAKE a Grand Tour open-topped bus to see the best of the city’s top hotspots at each of its 16 stops. From the ornate Neo-Byzantine Notre-Dame de la Garde church with its wonderful views over the islands, the coast and the mosaic of 111 villages, to the old harbour, the Corniche coast road, Prado beach, Velodrome soccer stadium and the stunning Castellane Square, this is a city bursting with tourist destinations, despite being often avoided by holiday makers, put off by its unfair hardman reputation.
Adults £16.30, children £4 (www.city-discovery.com)
WHAT TO EAT
BOUILLABAISSE is the local speciality (along with pig’s trotters and tripe if you prefer) and there is no shortage of restaurants in which to tuck a large napkin into your collar and slurp away at the delicious fish stew, but it’ll cost you – that’ll be the saffron. Push the boat out at Le Miramar, reputed to serve the best bouillabaisse in the world. And at €58 (£48), you’d expect it to be. For cheaper fare such as authentic couscous visit Sur Le Pouce in the Arab quarter, and save on the drinks bill by bringing your own wine.
Le Miramar (00 33 4 91 91 41 09, www.bouillabaisse.com); Sur Le Pouce (00 33 4 91 56 13 28)
WHAT TO DRINK
PASTIS is a regional obsession so indulge yourself in the heady concoction of liquorice, star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and sage at Mama Shelter Marseille, sister of the Philippe Starck-designed hotel in Paris. For a selection of over 100 varieties, check out La Maison du Pastis or just dip into any supermarket – you’ll be spoiled for choice. Mama Shelter, 62 Rue de La Loubière (www.mamashelter.com/marseille); La Maison du Pastis, 108 Quai du Port (www.lamaisondupastis.com)
DIP into one of local hero writer and film-maker Marcel Pagnol’s classics while sitting on a bar stool at the Bar de la Marine, which makes an appearance in his tales of early 20th-century Marseille and its people. His celebration of the peasant life of the hilly villages of Provence where he holidayed have made him one of France’s best-loved writers, but he was a city boy at heart.
WHERE TO VISIT
VISIT the Quartier du Panier, the oldest part of the city that dates back to the Greeks, for which it’s worth booking a guided tour. It’s also home to the Centre de la Vieille Charité, a stunning building that was once a poorhouse, and now has extensive galleries on three levels surrounding the courtyard. At Interface, a former granary, there’s contemporary art and edgy installations, as Marseille seeks to reinvent itself as a city of culture and shake off the air of neglect that settled after the partial closure of the port.
Centre de la Vieille Charité, 2 rue de la Charité (00 33 4 91 56 28 38, www.vieille-charite-marseille.org)
BEST BOAT TRIP
HEAD down to the old port for boats out to the Château d’If and tour the famous prison of the Count of Monte Cristo, or discover the incredible cliffs of nearby Calanques national park, the biggest land and maritime national park in Europe, on a solar-powered boat.
Prices vary (www.marseille-tourisme.com)
DIRECT flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow are offered by Ryanair, British Airways and Air France, starting from around £200. A City Pass Marseille offers one day (€22) or two days (€29) of open access for visits, transport and special deals, access to 12 museums, guided tours and visits to the If Islands or Frioul, plus access on the entire bus, train and tramway network.