The Marseille Moment is Now

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The Vieux Port in Marseille. (Photo courtesy of Atout France/Franck Charel.)
The Vieux Port in Marseille.
(Photo courtesy of Atout France/Franck Charel.)

This is the year in which all roads lead to Marseille-Provence, the European Capital of Culture for 2013. While the whole region will host an exceptional program of artistic and cultural events, all eyes are on the city of Marseille, which has undergone an almost miraculous program of renovation, rejuvenation and cultural venue development. Seemingly overnight, this hub of the Mediterranean now harbors a dynamic and creative community made up of musicians recording hip fusion music, filmmakers and theater directors; here fashion is booming, tourism rising, and as usual, the seafood restaurants can’t be beat.

Ever since the French Revolution, when 500 rabble-rousers marched up to Paris chanting what was to become the famous La Marseillaise, France’s second largest city has had an image problem. And despite its 35 miles of gorgeous coastline, considerable cosmopolitan charm and famous bouillabaisse fish stew, the port city never acquired the jet-set gloss of the rest of the Cote d’Azur. But come the new millennium, the fortunes of Marseille began to change, starting with the launch of a vast new cruise ship terminal and the pedestrianizing of Vieux-Port (Old Port), the city’s historic heart, under the direction of superstar architect Norman Foster.

Vieux-Port quarter’s other attractions for Marseille visitors include some top class places to stay: the new InterContinental Hotel Dieu, housed in a listed historical monument dating to the 18th century and overlooking the Old Port; the Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port commanding grand vistas of the sea and the port; and the Hotel La Residence du Port with knockout views from its portside balconied rooms.

Then, of course, there is Euro-Mediterranee—the biggest urban program Europe has ever witnessed—that is reclaiming the old Joliette docks area with a glittering seafront promenade anchored by Zaha Hadid’s new skyscraper.

At the same time, Marseille has unveiled not one architectural landmark, but multiple venues by top international architects, such as:

MuCEM—Opening in June, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations stands at the entrance to the Vieux-Port; a concrete cubic web, it was designed by Rudy Ricciotti, whose other recent creation is the Cocteau Museum in Menton.

J1—Occupying the historic ferry terminus, this is a key venue for bringing together culture and creativity; its top floor space now welcomes cruise ship passengers to newly designed galleries, a bar, information centers and special Cultural Capital activities. The lead exhibit here showcases the great architect Le Corbusier, who gave the city a modern solution to urban housing with his Cite Radieuse development.

La Friche la Belle de Mai—Formerly a tobacco factory, the Friche is now an art and performance center, staging cutting-edge happenings and avant-garde shows. The new addition, a rooftop cube called Tour-Panorama, is showcasing 40 artists from the Mediterranean Basin.

FRAC—A glittering glass contemporary art center, designed by Kengo Kuma, houses regional art; the collection includes established names and hot young artists like Raphael Zarka and Katinka Bock.

• Major renovations have also polished up city landmarks, such as many of the city’s 20-plus museums, including the Musee Cantini, whose trove of Picassos and Miros occupies an elegant 17th century town house.

The major art happening in honor of Cultural Capital 2013 is “Painters and the Mediterranean,” showcasing  the ways in which the avant-garde artists of the time, such as Van Gogh, Bonnard, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and De Stael, illustrated southern France between 1880 and 1960. The exhibit is on view simultaneously at the newly renovated Palais de Longchamp in Marseille and the Musee Granet in Aix-en-Provence.

Of course, dining in Marseille is always a delicious cultural happening. With the exception of couscous, a North African import, Marseille is all about seafood, and every restaurant claims to serve the ultimate bouillabaisse, or ultimate bourride, or the ultimate plain old fish soup. But some restaurants stand out. Just on the Vieux-Port alone, Le Miramar tops for bouillabaisse; La Kahena for the best couscous; and Le Bar de la Marine for a drink of anything with the best sunset seat in the house.

Just in time for its role as Cultural Capital of Europe 2013, Marseille now offers even easier access for U.S. travelers aboard XL Airways flying nonstop from New York twice weekly. Daily of course, travelers can board the high-speed TGV Mediterranee trains at the Gare de Lyon in Paris for the 3-hour ride to Marseille.

In addition, Marseille is making it easy and affordable to enjoy its attractions with the 1- or 2-day Marseille City Pass that permits access to all 12 museums; three rides on the tourist train and boat to the Monte Cristo Chateau d’If castle; one guided tour from a list of events offered by the tourism office, plus entrance to Chateau d’If; use of the entire city public network; discounts from 33 participating shops and more. In July and August, a night tour (Les Moments en Lumiere) is also included. The 1-day pass costs $28 and the 2-day pass is $37.

Marseille is the ideal home base or starting point for travel all over Provence, and excellent rail service fans out from the Saint Charles Station. And in celebration of the Cultural Capital designation, special city passes are also available in Provence’s regional centers of Arles and Aix-en-Provence.

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