As beautiful and amazing as visiting it is, France isn’t really a cheap destination for travellers. Marseille, the second biggest city in France, shouldn’t be any exception then. My challenge was making my visit to Marseille part of a month-long trip to France as budget-friendly as possible. While I’m sure there are attractions worthy of your money, I managed to find many free things to do in Marseille during my trip.
What’s great is that even though I stuck to free attractions, Marseille really won me over. I had prepared myself not to like the city based on its reputation of being quite gritty. One day in Marseille sightseeing later and I genuinely can’t wait to go back. I’ll say now that one day is certainly not long enough and I have no doubt there are attractions that are worth paying for. These are just my Marseille travel tips for fellow travellers on a budget, looking to spend 1 day in Marseille and save money.
Marvel at Palais Longchamp
Being the first attraction that I saw and one that immediately wowed me, let’s start with the Palais Longchamp. Sitting at the top of a pleasant boulevard just up from my Airbnb, this palace is quite the sight. More of a monument than an actual palace, the building houses two museums. But it’s really the extravagant fountain, staircases and balconies here that are not to be missed.
This section is known as the Château d’eau or “water castle” and is at the level of grandness that you’re surprised it’s even real. I found myself returning here repeatedly for things like eating lunch because it’s just so monumental and elegant. During my visits I saw a couple taking wedding photos here and models doing a photoshoot, neither much of a surprise really given the backdrop.
See the Views from Pharo Palace
After a long wander through the city centre, next up was the Pharo Palace. Situated behind a little park on a peninsula, the palace occupies an important spot near the entrance to the Old Harbour. It seems the palace is more a venue these days with a wedding party outside when I was there. The big draw though is its many superb clifftop viewpoints that let you look out in different directions. Judging by the number of people here, it seems to be a popular spot with locals especially.
Stroll along the Old Port
Whereas other cities may have a grand square as their spiritual centre, Marseilles has its Old Port. This great big sheltered harbour is surrounded by the city on three sides with lively waterfront areas. Today it acts as a massive marina for hundreds of sailboats and yachts, with endless rows of masts filling the space.
But the waterfront is no less busy, with people all over the place, with many lining up for ferries and boat trips. As mesmerising as it is to look out past the boats, you’ll want to pay some attention to the architecture here as well. This pocket of the city is full of classic buildings, especially up near the City Hall. You really won’t mind the crowds here at the Old Port because there’s just so much to take in.
Find the Street Art in Le Panier
Exploring without much of a plan, it was sheer luck that led me to the part of town called Le Panier north of the harbour. Having walked up to the City Hall, one thing after another caught my eye. A building led to a street led to a staircase. Before I knew it, I was deep in this maze of narrow streets that make up the oldest part of Marseille. To be clear, this is an immensely popular area with tourists – I just ended up there by accident.
What really makes this area appealing to tourists these days is the street art all over the place. Yes, there are restaurants, boutiques and the renowned La Vieille Charité cultural centre. But none seemed to hold the attention of my fellow tourists quite like the vibrant Instagram fodder, I mean street art. Don’t expect getting photos here to be easy, as you’ll have plenty of fellow tourists to contend with, even in the off season like November.
Take a Look inside Marseille Cathedral
One landmark that’s guaranteed to be on every itinerary for a day in Marseille is the massive Marseille Cathedral. Even with the front covered in scaffolding, it was clearly obvious how magnificent and important the cathedral is. Although only dating from the 19th century as it replaced an older building, the Byzantine architecture and scale is hard to ignore. Then there’s the interior as well, made from marble and other precious stones. Rather oddly, the main hall is lined with flags and banners, which is not a display you’d expect.
Visit the Gardens of Fort Saint-Jean
Is it strange that I recommend you go somewhere because it smells good? Well that’s honestly part of the reason I suggest you head to Fort Saint-Jean. This big stone fortress overlooks the entrance to the Old Port and dates back to the days of Louis XIV. And yet, what I remember the most is the smells from the fortress gardens.
Big cities like Marseille rarely smell good, but the gardens of Fort Saint-Jean certainly do. Various herbs and other aromatic plants pamper your nostrils as you walk from one viewpoint to another atop the fortifications. Sure the views are phenomenal, like so many places on this list. But this is definitely the best smelling part of Marseille.
See the Abbey of Saint-Victor
Marseille is home to some monumental attractions but a smaller one that still impresses is the Abbey of Saint-Victor. While no longer actually an abbey, it’s still quite an atmospheric historical landmark. The original abbey is said to date back to 415 AD, although it went through several cycles of destruction and renewal. Apparently the monks here were so notoriously badly behaved that it was converted into a church under order by the Pope! A visit won’t really fill you in on those details but you do get a sense of its vintage thanks to the worn stone and dim interior.
Trek Up to the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde
Honestly, if there’s one thing you do with your one day in Marseille, make it a trip to the Marseille Basilica. Its full name is the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde and it rests on a hilltop south of the city centre. Visible right across the city, it naturally also boasts impeccable views right across the city. While it’s a bit of a walk to reach the basilica from the harbour, the climb is definitely worthwhile.
The basilica immediately makes an impression once you’re close enough to see its detail. While not obvious from afar, the gold-leaf statue of Madonna and Child immediately draws you in. And wait until you catch a glimpse of the main church hall and its lavish Byzantine decorations. The basilica is actually split into two levels, with a crypt below and a glamorous upper church, both of which you’ll want to see.
Of course then there’s the view. From the basilica’s vantage point you get to see all of Marseille at once. The panorama stretches right from the Palais Longchamp, down to the Old Port and all the way out to the island of and Chateau d’If. I’m disappointed I didn’t visit Château d’If because I love the movie The Count of Monte Cristo, but the view will have to do.
Travel Tips for Visiting Marseille
At this point I’m sure you’re wondering how it’s possible that all the above is free. Believe it or not, it is. That is of course if you choose to walk everywhere as I did, but I was exhausted by the end of it all. Marseille actually does have a public transport network made up of metro lines, buses and trams, so that might be a good investment.
As for getting to Marseille, you have the choice of train or bus. Taking the TGV from Avignon was quite a quick and comfortable ride, but one of the rare train trips I managed in France. I honestly found using Flixbus a far more reliable and cheaper option, even though I prefer train travel.
Last but not least, there’s finding somewhere to stay in Marseille. Like most of my trip through France, I found a spare room to stay in with Airbnb and had some great hosts. Not that there aren’t hostels and hotels in Marseille, it’s just the good ones were often outside my price range. If you want to travel that way, definitely budget a little more for accommodation.
Have you wanted to visit Marseille in the South of France before? What Marseille travel tips would you suggest to visitors looking for things to do in Marseille in 1 day? Please share your thoughts in the comments below
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Now, if you’re looking for a guide to this part of France, then you should really look at this Lonely Planet guide. I’ve often travelled with Lonely Planet guides and they can really make life easier.
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