Simply absorbing the energy of everyday life unfolding on every cafe-lined square and boat-lined quay is a blockbuster attraction in this charismatic, heady city in the hot south of France – and it’s free.
Marseille may not be as cheap as it used to be, but this ancient “Cité Phocéenne” (Phocaean City) offers good value for money compared to Paris, Lyon and other French cities. With clever planning and intelligent information, visitors can even visit France’s second largest city without spending a penny.
Museum lovers note: permanent collections in city museums including Musée des Beaux Arts (fine art), Musée d’Histoire de Marseille (history), Musée Cantini (modern art) and Center de la Vieille Charité (African, Oceanic and Pacific art and culture) in the atmospheric old-world district of Le Panier are free; only temporary exhibitions require admission. Or visit Marseille in May, when museums and monuments across the city open their doors for free from sunset to sunrise during the annual Nuit des Musées.
Get more travel inspiration, tips and exclusive offers straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter.
Observe local life at the Vieux Port
There is no more evocative place to understand Marseille and delight in the frenzied hodgepodge of mundane sights, loud noises and fishy smells of the Vieux Port than the site where, in 600 B.C. It all began. Fishermen have been selling the day’s catch on the waterfront quays here for millennia, and the Old Port Fish Market is an iconic Marseille institution.
To see the big picture, walk all the way around the Horseshoe, from the star-shaped Fort St-Nicolas guarding the south side of the harbor to Fort St-Jean on the north side. At the Quai des Belges, snap edgy shots of local life, reflected in Sir Norman Foster’s giant mirrored roof, cut from a 46m x 22m slab of polished stainless steel and hung dramatically over the waterfront quay as a hybrid sunscreen art installation.
Experience a sacred exhilaration at the Basilica of Notre Dame de Garde
From the terrace of the Notre Dame de Garde basilica – where the sunset show is breathtaking – the view of the port city and its timeless seaside location opens up. At the highest point of the seafaring town, the opulent Romano-Byzantine church has protected sailors since the 19th century with a 9.7 m high statue of Bonne Mère (“Good Mother”).
Marseille’s totem-like Cathédrale de la Major, built of green Florentine marble and slate-grey stone from the village of Cassis further up the coast, is another church worth visiting. Enjoy free organ and classical music concerts – stunning acoustics – at the fortress-like Abbaye St-Victor.
Immerse yourself in multicultural Marseille on the Cours Julien
No street offers such a vivid snapshot of multicultural Marseille as Cours Julien (‘Cours Ju’ to locals): think fun, funky, delicious foodie and a riot of color with its street art murals. World cuisines lining the elongated square cook up fusion cuisine, French, African, Creole, every cuisine under the Marseille sun – fittingly this was the site of Marseille’s central fruit and vegetable market from the 1860s through the 1970s.
Markets get the pulse of the street racing several days a week: flower and organic farmers’ markets on Wednesdays, antique books on some Saturdays and antique stamps on Sundays. From Cours Julien, stroll through the aromatic Marché des Capucins laden with North African spices in the increasingly foodie neighborhood of Noailles.
Snorkel the big blue to discover underwater art
One of the most unique and coolest – literally – museums to open recently in Marseille is free. Don your swimsuit, snorkel, mask and tuba to admire underwater sculptures at the groundbreaking Musée Subaquatique de Marseille. Easily accessible from the city’s Plage des Catalans beach – swim 100m from the sandy beach – the Underwater Art Museum is as much about promoting biodiversity and respect for the environment as it is about wowing visitors with 10 giant sculptures 5m deep lying on the sea floor.
Before or after your jump, watch tanned bikini volleyball players thrash about on the golden sandy volleyball court at Plage des Catalans.
Drive along the coast with breathtaking sea views
Grab a cheap Levélo public city bike (first 30 minutes free, then €1 an hour) from any of the city’s 130 stations and take a spin south along the Président John F. Kennedy Corniche. Mesmerizing views of the bay unfold along the wide, smooth coastal promenade as you head south to the boat-filled fishing bay of Vallon des Auffes and beyond to Marseille’s main stretch of beach, Plages du Prado. Romp on the modest dunes that surround the succession of sandy beaches and nod to Jules Cantini’s marble copy of Michelangelo’s David. If you’re in town in the summer of 2024, the vast bay will host the nautical events of the Paris Summer Olympics.
From here, the Ave Pierre Mendès France meanders a further 8km along the coast to the quiet fishing village of Les Goudes and beyond to Cap Croisette, a beautiful site with a tiny wild sandy beach and superb views of the uninhabited island of Île Maïre. Park in the nearby coastal town of Callelongue and hike well-signposted trails into Les Calanques, protected by the National Park. To say that the sea views are stunning along the entire trail is an understatement.
Get to know modern architecture in the Cité Radieuse
In Marseille, modern European urban life was redefined by Swiss architect Le Corbusier in the 1950s. His radical 337-unit apartment block is said to have inspired homes across the continent and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Marseille Tourist Office offers excellent guided tours for a small fee (€15), but parts of the ground-breaking ‘vertical city garden’ can be explored independently – and it’s free.
Upon arrival at La Cité Radieuse, sign the guest book at reception and press the button to call the elevator: the third and fourth floors of the 17-storey building can be freely explored. Finish on the stunning roof terrace.
Smell the flowers in a city park
Marseille is bustling with bustling street markets, noisy scooters, traffic and – in the summer – tourists, but its green spaces are harder to find. City parks are a short walk from the city center but are free to enjoy and promise a sweet, fragrant respite from urban chaos. Follow the rest-seeking locals to the 17th-century Parc Borély, Marseille’s most beautiful park with ornamental lake, castle, botanical flower gardens and giant insect hotel.
Delve into hidden corners of the city on a guided tour
Architecture, street art, football, sea-view stairs and hidden corners of the city are among the diverse themes explored by local volunteer guides on Marseille Provence Greeters walking tours. Guided walks can be booked online, last around two hours, are free (donations welcome) and offer a unique opportunity to chat with a local.
Explore the artistic rooftops of Marseille
While entry to the flagship MUCEM and its fascinating exhibitions exploring European and Mediterranean civilization requires an admission fee, the dizzying roof and elevated walkways don’t cost a dime. Designed by Algerian-born, Marseille-educated architects Rudy Ricciotti and Roland Carta, the striking building — an icon of contemporary Marseille — promises bird’s-eye panoramas. Back on solid ground, roam the free museum garden.
From May to October the huge roof of Friche La Belle de Mai – an upcycled tobacco factory – rocks with some fantastic free concerts (usually African or other world music), DJ sets, film screenings and alternative culture events.
Unwind at a Marseillais festival
From the Fête de la Musique in midsummer to costumed street parties centered around Mardi Gras during Marseille Carnival or the traditional fireworks display at the Vieux Port on July 14, festivals in Marseille promise a good party. Best of all, dozens are free and offer a valuable opportunity to mingle with locals, meet French musicians and other performers, and occasionally dance until dawn. The city’s festival calendar includes everything from music and dance to theatre, cinema, circus and storytelling – Marseille Tourist Office has all the info.