Marseille, which is sometimes spelled Marseilles, is the second largest city in France. While it definitely has a distinctly French vibe, Marseille is quite different from its larger sister, Paris. It has been a port city for more than 2,000 years and is one of Europe’s great melting pots. Its long history and ethnically diverse population give it a unique cityscape and culture. Visitors will find that this city is quite unlike any other city in France.
Museums and cafes are a part of Marseille’s landscape, just like in Paris. However, some of the best natural, cultural, and historic attractions are completely free to visit. Here are the ten best no-cost sites in Marseille.
1. Basilique de Notre-Dame de la Garde
This historic church sits on a hill overlooking the city. It is a prominent part of the Marseille skyline. Those who undertake the uphill hike to reach the church are rewarded with amazing views of the urban landscapes and the Mediterranean Sea. In a city that is not heavy on skyscrapers, Notre Dame is arguably the best scenic overlook.
2. Old Port (Port Vieux)
For almost all of its two-plus millenniums, Marseille has been a port city. Though a modern port now serves large commercial vessels, the Old Port, Port Vieux, offers a better atmosphere and a glimpse into the unique maritime vibe of the city. Fishermen still use the Old Port and can be seen selling their catch, auction-style, throughout the area.
3. La Panier
La Panier is one of the oldest remaining areas in Marseille. Visitors who take a stroll in this neighborhood are treated to an atmospheric glimpse into Old World Marseille. The high concentration of locally-owned stores means that this is also practical destination for window-shoppers.
4. Plage de la Pointe Rouge and Les Goudes
Marseille is a seaside town, but many of its central beaches leave something to be desired. Changes in currents and wind directions can draw polluted water into the city’s sandy stretches, making for an unpleasant swimming experience. That said, the seaside scene at out-of-the-way beaches is very attractive. Plage de la Pointe Rouge (Red Point Beach) features a collection of basic seafood shacks and a seaside swimming pool, while Les Goudes, a somewhat isolated fishing village in metro Marseille, boasts a no-frills beach that is decidedly non-touristy and reasonably clean.
5. Marseilles Arc de Triomphe
Officially called Porte d’Aix (and sometimes referred to as Porte Royale), this historic structure is impressive to look at, and interesting to visit, especially if you are aware of its colorful history. The Arc was conceived to honor the French role in ending the American Revolution in the 1780s, but it was not completed until nearly 60 years later, when it was said to simply signify victory in a broader sense. Insets depict the military successes of France before and during the era of Napoleon Bonaparte.
6. Parc Balneaire du Prado
This one kilometer-long stretch of seaside is the largest beach in Marseille. Even if you don’t plan on getting wet, this is a good place to stop. You can walk along the seaside and appreciate the views. Free restrooms, showers and lockers are available for those who want to take to the water. Lifeguards are on duty.
This diverse neighborhood has a North African feel, with markets featuring Arab décor and products. Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and African shops are found on different lane-ways leading off of the main streets. Prices are quite reasonable at Noailles’ cafes and shops, but this is a perfectly worthwhile destination for those who simple want to focus on window-shopping and appreciating the exotic vibe.
8. Parc Borely
France’s Ministry of Culture calls Borley one of the Notable Gardens of France. Its grounds boast impeccably manicured lawns, a lake, fountains, statues, and even a children’s playground. It is possible to take a boat on the park’s tree-fringed waterway. Flowers are also among the resident flora and an adjacent botanical garden is an added attraction for horticulture enthusiasts.
9. Vallon des Auffes
If you are in search of postcard-like settings, one of the best places to look is in Vallon des Auffes, a small port that sits beside the city’s coastal roadway. The narrow, Old World lanes transport visitors back to a bygone era. The port itself is filled with brightly colored fishing vessels. This pleasant place is rather quiet and un-touristy, making it a perfect spot for getting a taste of real life in this region of coastal France.
These stark limestone canyons sit just outside of Marseille and are a headlining sight, not only for visitors to France’s second city, but also for people visiting destinations all up and down the French Mediterranean coastline. Boat tours are available, but it is easy to enjoy the Calanques for free by hiking along the fjords and cliffs.
Marseille is a great destination for many reasons, not the least of which is the easy access that visitors have to free attractions. While Paris is definitely one of the world’s great urban destinations, Marseille’s attractions and uniqueness mean that it also deserves a place on travelers’ European itineraries.
Do you have your own favorite free places to visit in Marseille? Let us know in the comment section below!
Header image credit: thecrypt / Flickr