A dynamic city founded by Greek traders some 2,600 years ago, Marseille has seen its fair share of troubled times. For many years, the port city was plagued by gangs, racial tension and police corruption, none of which helped ease the perception of it being dirty and dangerous. Leading up to its designation as Europe’s Capital of Culture, the city spent millions cleaning up and modernizing.
Start your visit at the Vieux Port, which Norman Foster’s architecture firm entirely redesigned, turning a site that’s been there for 26 centuries into a mesmerizing pedestrian-only zone with a buzzing sense of place, a throbbing beat swarming with the peoples of France’s former colonies. Designed on one level without curbs to improve accessibility, the Old Port space features discreet pavilions for events and markets. One of these pavilions is situated at Quai de Belges, where a dramatic blade of reflective stainless steel creates a dreamy canopy and shelter from the sun, which shines almost year round and helps Marseille land at #51 in our Weather sub-category.
A short stroll away is the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEUM) with its bridge, designed like a fishnet made of glass, that links it to the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean. It’s the perfect example of the ancient and the new coming together. Another recently refurbished venue is the Stade Vélodrome soccer stadium, an epicentre of culture for many Marseillais.
The city may not rank high for Attractions (#122) but makes up for it in Parks & Outdoor Activities (#58). All you need do to get a taste of nature is make a beeline for Marseille’s magnificent coast of rocks lapped by the azure Mediterranean. If time allows, visit the prison island of If, where they’ll tell you that the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned. Another worthwhile excursion is exploring by boat the calanques, the limestone cliffs and creeks that stretch 20 miles to the south of the city. Largely inaccessible by car, the sheer white cliffs plunge into the deep blue. St-Tropez and Cannes may have glamor, but Marseille wins for the most dramatic bit of coast on the French Med.