It may not be Paris or Nice, but Marseille, France's second largest city, is often overlooked or, sadly, avoided. Although the Mediterranean city hasn't quite shaken its reputation as a crime-ridden, rough town, à la 1971's drug-smuggling classic 'The French Connection,' it's actually a place to go this year if you're headed to southern France. The sun's still missing in action in more northern climes half the time (yes, even in summer), and the ancient port has been trending upward while retaining its grit. With a mishmash of roots including Greek and Roman, Italian, Corsican, and North African, Marseille scored the European Union's coveted European Capital of Culture designation for 2013. This honor brings with it a spate of new design hotels and buzzy developments in architecture, the arts, and eating.

And the eating: Epicures may claim that natives no longer eat bouillabaisse, or that the iconic Marseillais dish – a fish stew traditionally made with leftovers from the day's catch – has been supplanted. They'll put forth a particular tomato and anchovy pie by way of Naples, or the fluffy couscous brought by North Africans; both are delicious and should be sought out. Still, local debate over the types and numbers of fish needed for a true bouillabaisse, and who has the best bowl in town, suggests that you can't come here without trying it.

Weaving among the beaches, fortresses, fish markets, pastis counters, and soap stalls of the port, we scoped out top joints. Michelin-starred elegance can be found at L'Epuisette and Le Petit Nice, Gérald Passédat's landmark luxury restaurant overlooking the Château d'If. Le Miramar in the Vieux Port offers a somewhat divisive bowl (with a langoustine option) in a busy bistro setting, plus cooking classes. Ultimately, we were won over by the calm standby of Chez Fonfon, a 20-minute walk from the center of town that brings you under stone arches along the beautiful fishing inlet of Vallon des Auffes.

You might wonder how a humble soup made of fishes too ugly or bony to sell became culinary theater requiring an outlay of 60 euros or more. At the third-generation Chez Fonfon, high quality and understated skill answer part of that question. As is usual, the bouillabaisse comes in two stages: first a broth with croutons and saffron-rich rouille, before the fish are brought whole and filleted at the table. A dish with such a storied history deserves a measure of fanfare, but the pros here are confident enough not to make too much of it. [Chez Fonfon, 140 Vallon des Auffes, Marseille, France; chez-fonfon.com]