Marseille, je t’aime.
It’s been a month since my friend Meghan (also my model muse on this trip) and I took off for the South of France with Air Transat, a trip from Toronto to Marseille which gave us total flexibility to explore the vibrant city as we wished. I already penned my love letter to the city on this blog, but I wouldn’t be able to leave the experience in the memory of Instagram without also sharing a guide to the place I fell so hard for. And as I write this post and sort through my hundreds of photos, I’m brought back to the terrace of our Airbnb in the bohemian quarter, with the sunset casting a warm glow over the streets below and sounds of our neighbours clinking glasses and laughing over cheese plates.
And while I would love to give you a comprehensive guide to the best of everything Marseille has to offer, my five days there simply weren’t enough. A month wouldn’t have been enough. Because the city is so old, so complex, and vast with diverse neighbourhoods, each with its own vibe and hidden gems.
So instead, I leave you with some unforgettable memories of my trip, from the restaurants we spent lazy afternoons dining at, to the day trips that took us to some incredible places all within an hour of the city.
Meg, on our terrace, with one of our many bottles of rose
The flight from Toronto to Marseille on Air Transat is only an 11 hour journey with a quick stop in Montreal – an overnight jaunt that gives you just enough time to have a glass of wine, try their new Daniel Vezina chef’s menu (at an extra cost, and which was legit the best airplane food I’ve EVER had) then have a wee nap before landing in the morning.
Marseille is the second largest city in France, with a storied history as a shipping port and a reputation for being a bit rough-around-the-edges (though its gentrification in recent years has eased that reputation a bit). It’s much less touristy than Paris, and because of that, English isn’t as widely spoken – perfect excuse to brush up on your francais. As for the culture, it’s much more diverse than other parts of France. Marseille has a large immigrant population because of its pre-eminence as a Mediterranean port for centuries, so you’ll find a melting pot of cultures making up the present day Marseillais, ranging from Corsican to Algerian, Romanian to Polish.
But first…. coffee
If you’re a caffeine freak like me, you need your daily cup (or two) of joe. Lucky for Meg and I, there was a gorgeous café called Green Bear Coffee just two minutes from our Airbnb, located on the main strip of La Canebiere., which we frequented every damn day. From the front, just another coffeeshop. But peek in the back and you’ll find the most stunning space – an old parlour room with high ceilings and ornate details, from the wainscoting to the herringboned floors. The baristas serve up excellent lattes and a selection of treats throughout the day, many of which are vegan or gluten-free (and hella delicious).
A city of contrasts
Wandering the streets of Marseille, the first thing we noticed was the graffiti – it’s everywhere. On the buildings, on the doors, on the park benches and the stairs. At first it was odd to see spray paint on such beautiful old buildings, but it really was a visual representation of Marseille as a whole – a city of contrasts. It spoke to its edginess and cool factor and the fact that it doesn’t care what anyone thinks of it, and doesn’t try to change itself to appear more attractive. The Marseillais know that it’s not what something looks like, but what’s it’s made of, what gives it flavour and character and life.
So when you visit, don’t judge the city based on first appearance – get into the heart of it, in its food and markets and people, to discover its real magic.
Bread. Wine. Cheese. Pho.
Three of my favourite things make up the French cuisine – bread, cheese, wine – and you’re not out of options for all three in Marseille.
On our first day, we explored our neighbourhood of Cours Julien, the artist quarter that was bustling with little markets, cafes and colourful murals. We stopped at Pepe because of its neon pink sign, obviously, but stayed for the cute waiter and INCREDIBLE food – root vegetable + peach ceviche with burrata cream sauce. J’ADORE!
When you’re in the mood for an afternoon delight, you can literally go ANYWHERE for a good glass of wine, but to pair it with a great view, head down to the port and sit down along any of the cafes along the water (none of which are overpriced like most other major cities), or down by the square opposite the Mucem. You can also enjoy a glass of bubbly on the chic terrace of the Intercontinental
If you’re not a fan of traditional French food (what the hell is wrong with you?), no worries, because of this multicultural city has plenty of other food options. We were lucky that one of Meghan’s friends had family in Marseille and we stopped by their Vietnamese restaurant, Nguyen-Hoang, for one of the best dishes of Bo Bun that I’ve ever tasted. Located on Rue Mery and only open for lunch, the busy restaurant is close to Le Panier and will give your stomach a break from the heavy breads and cheese.
By far my favourite part of Marseille. The oldest neighbourhood in the city, it dates back centuries ago when it was a busy marketplace, and now still houses many artisan shops and ateliers. It maintains its ancient appeal, and walking through its crumbly, pastel-coloured streets makes you feel like you’re on the set of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ – freshly washed clothes hanging out of shuttered windows, cobbled streets that intertwine like a maze, and open squares filled with locals sipping wine in the sun.
The best Friday night party EVER
Luckily, the brother and sister who run Nguyen-Hoang (Valerie and Jean) were up for showing us a bit of their city, and brought Meg and I to what can only be described as the coolest rooftop party I’ve ever experienced. Every Friday and Saturday night throughout the summer, La Friche (which is a former tobacco factory converted into a cultural complex) transforms into a giant block party, with DJs setting up tables on the rooftop of the four-storey warehouse to kick off an epic party that involves food trucks, bottles of rose and all the flashing lights. DO. NOT. MISS.
Marseille is an excellent hub for the south of France, and you can access cities and towns all across the country via train, bus and plane.
The main train station is St-Charles, and is a beautiful station at the top of Avenue de General Leclerc (great place to watch the sun set over the city, too). You can purchase both high-speed tickets or regional tickets, depending on where you’re going (and if you discover you got the wrong one before your train leaves, you can refund in the ticket machine no problem).
When we first decided on heading to Provence (which is 45 minutes by train), I imagined us frolicking in fields of lavender – which you CAN do, but when we saw the gorgeous town of Aix (pronounced ‘ex’), we spent our day wandering, eating and drinking in the winding streets. Recommended must-do: grab a drink in the luxe gardens at Hotel Le Pigonnet and sit back to people-watch the afternoon away.
Just a quick 20 minute train ride and you’ll find yourself in the most stunningly beautiful beach town of Cassis, filled with both local and brand name shops and more restaurants than you can shake a baguette at. Note that there’s a bus that will take you directly into town from the train station, or you can do the 40 minute walk that we did (which was actually quite nice in the summer sun). Once in town, we headed straight for the beach and had the perfect afternoon sipping (more)rosé at a waterfront café before dipping in the ocean.
This is also where you go if you want to check out Les Calanques, a national park of rocky cliffs and breathtaking turquoise blue waters. It’s a full day excursion though, and you’ll need to bring plenty of water, good walking shoes and snacks to keep fuelled.
This trip was in partnership with Air Transat, who sponsored out flights and gave us
total flexibility on what we wanted to experience on our trip.
All views, opinions, photos and rosé cravings are my own.