From the distinct bustle and aroma of Vieux Port's early morning fish market to the ubiquitous foreign street fairs that pay homage to the great cultural diffusion found here, it doesn't take long to realize that Marseille marches to a rhythm uniquely its own. This is a far cry from the posh estates of Saint-Tropez or the clean white beaches of Nice; a coastal city with a palpably gritty exterior that gives testament to its ancient, multicultural roots. It was, after all, founded by the Greeks. But though this may turn more single-minded pleasure enthusiasts away from its littered streets, there is something refreshing (if initially off-putting) in the unmasked realism you're bound to experience in France's 2nd largest city.
In and around its 16 arrondissements you'll discover a host of sometimes contradictory cultural elements: here the stunning Basilica of Our Lady on Garde Hill, there a seedy looking block of prostitution on Boulevard Michelet. Nevertheless, its combination of museums (fine arts, natural history, European and Mediterranean culture, etc.), parks (Borley, Prado Seaside) and monuments (Palais Longchamp, Chateau d'If), along with historic markets and neighborhoods like Le Panier, was enough to earn Marseille the distinct honor of being the EU's Capital of Culture in 2013. Not a bad resume builder, no?
But if all this talk of a rough old city has given you the impression that Marseille lacks beautiful, natural outlets for all you adventure seekers, think again. As anyone who has trekked or climbed the postcard-worthy Massif des Calanques or the ochre quarries of Luberon Nature Reserve will tell you, there's an abundance of nearby options to get you out exploring the sun-drenched landscape of southern France. And this close to the Mediterranean, snorkelers and divers will have a full plate checking out neighboring islands like Ile de Riou and Iles d'Hyeres. Needless to say, there's enough selection here to make those in search of the elusively active, unidealized French experience feel right at home. If that's you, we've got your city.