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There’s a certain scruffiness to Marseille, but it also exudes a grandeur and charm that make it curiously interesting to explore. While it may seem a little rough-around-the-edges, there’s no denying that this port city has reclaimed its trading roots and embraced a cultural confidence that shuts down a number of snobbish stereotypes surrounding it.

Having flown from Abu Dhabi to Paris with Etihad, I hopped on a morning train from Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport and woke up in the south of France, at Marseilles St. Charles station, just four hours later. In a city that’s full of surprises, here are the best things to do in Marseille:

1. Discover Parc National Des Calanques

Parc National Des Calanques should top every list of best things to do in Marseille; it is breathtaking. You could very easily spend an entire day discovering the natural beauty of this national park along the coast of Southern France. The coast’s limestone cliffs and bays have created steep-walled inlets that have formed impressive calanques (coves) that form a sprawling, dramatic landscape.

The towering calanques plunge into crystal blue waters where you can swim or chill for hours; it’s incredibly peaceful and feels like a world away from city life. Not one for sitting around? Fill a backpack with snacks and hike your way around the Calanques to bask in the beauty of this national park.

Tip: visit on a weekday morning to get the Calanques to yourself. Technically, the Calanques are situated between Marseilles city and the university town of Cassis, but one metro ride from the harbour and a 40-minute bus journey will get you there.

2. Wander the backstreets of La Panier

The lazy backstreets of La Panier, Marseille’s old quarter, deserve at least an afternoon of your time. With its cobble-stones, colourful boutiques and cosy cafés, Rue Du Panier is easily my favourite street in Marseille; it’s also the main street in the La Panier neighborhood. The alleyways of La Panier are hide the history of the ancient greeks with distinctive houses that exude a village-like feel with their shuttered windows and hanging baskets (or clotheslines). The streets are narrow and steep; they also pop with an eclectic mix of street art.

Tip: take yourself on a a self-guided street art and wine tour (make stops at multiple cafés) of La Panier to soak up its old-wordly charm. If ascending and existing La Panier from the bottom of the hills, find nearby 7VB and grab yourself a speciality coffee in the hipster basement.

3. Explore MuCEM & Fort Saint-Jean

If you want to discover a distinctive, old-meets-new attraction in central Marseille, then visit MuCEM & its adjoining Fort Saint-Jean.

. If not for the history, then visit for the panoramic views of Marseille and the surrounding ocean.

Tip: check Fort St-Jean’s closing times fort before you go. While it seems more like part of the city that you can stroll into at any time, the coastal wonder closes its doors to the public when the sun goes down, so make sure you lap up those views in the late afternoon.

4. Chill in Cours Julien

At this stage, it’s probably worth noting that I visited Cours Julien twice while in Marseille and had two very different experiences.

My first experience of Cours Julien was very much a successful solo soirée. I took myself to the hippy-esque, hill-top square with just enough time to watch a kaleidoscopic sunset before taking myself for a couple of glasses of wine (just one of the many romantic evenings that I have spent with myself…).

The second visit to Cours Julien was not quite the same.  Oh, and we also witnessed an ambulance pull up after a waitress seemingly collapsed. I spent the entire time expressing how “it definitely wasn’t like this yesterday!”

What both nights did have in common, however, was great food and drinks at La Baleine, which is a community cinema cum bar and restaurant. You can sit inside or join the throngs of locals in the outdoor square.

Tip: Check the area out, stop for food and embrace its lively atmosphere; expect to find eclectic characters sharing a bottle of wine on the main steps.

5. Soak up the city from Vieux Port

Vieux Port is the Old Harbour in downtown Marseilles; the pedestrian-friendly, natural harbour sits at the end of Marseille’s main street, Canebiere, and it’s a great place to get to grips city life. The area is a hub of lively activity and a great place to people-watch while you wine and dine in one of the many bars or restaurants that line the central harbour. You can expect to see fishing boats, tourist boats and expensive yachts on the water; you’ll also find a mirror canopy at the very end of the harbour, just beside the steps down to the metro, which comes alive with street performers throughout the day.

Tip: this area is buzzing with tourists in search of those seaside Mediterannean vibes, so if you’re not into overly commercialised neighborhoods then a sunset walk is more than enough before you head to dinner in another part of town.

Love France? After you’ve discovered the best things to do in Marseille, why not hop on a train to the historic centre of Avignon, explore Grenoble or venture to the foothills of the Alps? If you want to venture outside of Europe, check out these top destinations in Asia or Africa!

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The 5 Best Things to do in Marseille | France