Settled by the Greeks over 2,500 years ago, France’s largest coastal city has been playing home to a sundry collection of ethnicities and nationalities ever since; so it should come as no surprise that modern day Marseille is awash with a variety of cultural practices and populations, from North Africans and Armenians to Israelis and Russians. Given this heterogeneous grouping, you might assume that the city lacks something culturally “authentic,” some over-romanticized French norm, and in a way you’d be right. But that’s part of its appeal. For all its national pride, France’s southern capital radiates an unpolished brilliance that can only result from a marriage of both foreign and national influences. Perhaps that’s why it was named the 2013 European Capital of Culture.
Start with any of the omnipresent markets to get a true sense of Marseille culture. From the daily seafood of the Old Port’s Marche aux Poissons and the colorful African crafts of Le Marche de Noailles atop the Canebiere to the sun-washed streets of La Panier (the oldest district of Marseille and former Greek marketplace), the sights, smells and sounds here recall centuries of haggling and bargaining gone by. Care for a bit of history and architecture? You’ve got 16 arrondissements of it to choose from. Hop a ferry to Dumas’ storied Chateau d’If, stop for a picture at the (aging but still) magnificent Palais Longchamp, enjoy a beautiful view of the Mediterranean from Napoleon’s grand Palais du Pharo or take a moment of awed reflection inside the magnificent Notre Dame de la Garde. There are also a host of museums to take in, from works of modern art at Le Musee Cantini (19 rue Grignan) to the local Phoenician artifacts in the city’s Museum of History (rue Bir Hakeim).
For those with a sporting edge, may we suggest catching an Olympique de Marseille football match (Droit au But!) in the rowdy Stade Velodrome. They are one of the country’s most celebrated soccer teams, a fierce Parisian rival, and the only French squad to ever lay claim to a coveted UEFA Champion’s League title (1993). Needless to say, it’s a great opportunity to partake in contemporary Marsaille culture firsthand. Or you could just settle for a day strolling between the graffiti-mural covered buildings around stylish Cours Julien. However you choose to experience this diverse city, keep this in mind: although it may seem a little rough around the edges, Marseille’s distinctly mixed culture is a large part of its charm, and one you’re not likely to encounter anywhere else in the entirety of France. So why not embrace the variety?