Marseille may be France’s most misunderstood city. And as the country’s largest port, it certainly has its share of seediness. But the European Union made no mistake in naming it a European Capital of Culture for 2013. The city is, after all, not only a gateway to Provence, but also — because of the port — to North Africa as well. Bouillabaisse was invented here, so you’ll have to try that, of course. But don’t miss out on the flavors of Morocco and Tunisia, too. From the cruise ship docks to the old port, or Vieux Port, at the heart of the tourist area, a taxi will cost up to 18 euros.
Breakfast: Mama Shelter – Many cafes and bars offer morning coffee and croissants. But for something different, take a taxi to the restaurant on the ground floor of this Philippe Starck-designed hipster hotel near the trendy Cours Julien district where, along with pastries and homemade jam, you get to mix with the cool crowd, who are wearing sunglasses because yes, the nights go long here.
Lunch: La Kahena – You’ll think you’ve already crossed the Mediterranean at this popular Tunisian restaurant a few steps off the Vieux Port. The décor is either very authentic, or there was a very good decorative tile salesman in town. But the food — grilled lamb, spicy beef, vegetable stew, and 10 versions of cous cous — is unquestionably the real thing. Just don’t stuff yourself, because our dinner recommendation is about a block away.
Dinner: Le Miramar – Leave it to the French to make a culinary art out of leftover bits and pieces of things. And it’s art you’ll find at Le Miramar, on the Vieux Port. This eatery is one of the masters of bouillabaisse, the seafood stew invented by Marseille fishermen. These men made an art of bringing a saffron-flavored broth to a boil, and then enriching it (in a particular order, depending on the texture of the fish) with whatever they caught in their nets that they couldn’t sell on the dock. (For purists, a true bouillabaisse must always include scorpion fish.)
If the evening is warm, sit on the terrace, where you can watch a stew of humanity slowly simmering by.
Dessert: Four des Navettes Bakery – For something uniquely Marseille, try the boat-shaped, orange-flavored cookies called navettes. They are not so much a dessert, however, as sustenance for when you just don’t feel like searching the ship for someplace that serves snacks at 3 a.m. To get these gems from their source, visit this bakery, a few blocks off the Vieux Port, where they have been made since 1781, which you could almost guess by how hard they are.
Tip: You cannot claim to be familiar with all of Marseille’s culinary inventions without trying pastis, a liquor popular with people who have a weakness for the taste of licorice — and almost no one else. For the adventurous, or addicted, the most efficient place to sample this beverage is at La Maison du Pastis.
For couples: Take a walk from the Vieux Port up through the hip and rapidly gentrifying Cours Julien district, where the paintings on the sides of buildings have gone far beyond graffiti to true art. The biggest challenge in Co Ju, as the locals call it, is to keep moving past gallery windows displaying pieces of art for which you know you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t buy one on the spot.
For everyone: You are at the gateway to Provence, so why not explore it for a day? Many companies, such as Provence Connection, offer full- and half-day excursions to such favorite Provence towns as Avignon (with its Palace of the Popes), Aix-en-Provence (which is great for exploring on foot), and Arles (where Van Gogh painted so feverously you would have thought he was afraid he wasn’t going to get back to his ship on time).
For families: At one time or another, every kid dreams of escape, especially if traveling with their family. Why not show them how it’s really done with a trip to Chateau d’If, an island fortress — 20 minutes by boat from the Viuex Port — that was once a prison for the fictitious (as the locals keep having to point out) hero of “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
The count escaped by swimming through strong currents back to the mainland, which, depending on the family mood, you can use as either a threat or an incentive to come back when the kids are old enough to participate in the annual swim competition that reenacts the escape.
For the adventurous: To take in the views, just about everyone rides the Petit Train, a free tourist conveyance, to the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, a church that sits atop the highest elevation in Marseille. But if you are up for it — literally — make an adventure of the steep 1 km journey by doing it on foot.
Tip: To celebrate the European Capital of Culture designation, Marseille is putting on events and exhibitions throughout the year.