Lavender Fields, Bouillabaisse, and Calanques: The 4-Day Weekend in Marseille

Sunset view of Vallon des Auffes port in Marseille, France
trabantos / Shutterstock

You already have some understanding of Provence; it’s a fancy region in France, oui?

Oui, that’s right. Provence is chic, since it includes the glitzy Riviera (think Nice, Cannes, Saint-Tropez). It’s not as wine-drenched as Bordeaux, Burgundy, or the Loire Valley, but in place of those vineyards are purple lavender fields that roll into oblivion. They also happen to be just a short drive from Marseille, Provence’s capital and largest city (and France’s second-largest after Paris).

A vacation anchored in Marseille offers all sorts of sensory rewards: There’s the smell of lavender, outdone only by the savonneries—the famed soap makers. There’s the taste of tomato-fish bouillabaisse stew, swapped for ratatouille if you’re seafood-averse (or especially hungry), chased by French wines that may or may not be Provençal. There’s the blue Mediterranean expanse to savor as the sun warms your skin, though it’s best earned by hiking through the forested Calanques National Park. After your trek, you’ll settle into a walled-in calanque cove to soak up the natural beauty and isolation.

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The city itself is restless, in a good way. It has the reputation of being grittier and more grounded than Paris—which is a compliment, really. There’s rarely a quiet moment in the Vieux Port, between the ferries to Count of Monte Cristo-inspired Chateau d’If, the aperitif crowd, and the late-night local revelers. It’s teeming with top-tier restaurants that don’t know how top-tier they are.

The city is grounded and world-class, without the urge to show it off. Four days is not enough, in my opinion, given how much time you could spend exploring the region. But if that’s all the time you’ve got, here are the places to spend it.

Where to Stay in Marseille

Hotel Dieu—InterContinental Marseille: You really can’t miss seeing Hotel Dieu, just off the Vieux Port, acting like a palatial gateway to the old town. You might even mistake it for a royal palace, though it’s actually an 18th-century hospital that was operable until the early aughts. In 2013, it reopened as the InterContinental—Hotel Dieu, and is now one of the most luxurious homestays in Marseille. There’s the Michelin-starred Alcyone onsite, serving inventive Mediterranean fare, as well as the terraced cocktail bar Capian offering aerial views of Vieux Port and Notre-Dame de la Garde. As for the rooms, well, it’s an InterContinental after all; you get stately accommodations designed in mineral tones to match the city’s rocky coast. The icing on the cake is the onsite Clarins spa, fit with a warm indoor pool, experience showers, hammams, massage and spa treatments, and an adjacent fitness studio.

Le Petit Nice Passedat: The 16-room Le Petit Nice Passedat offers 5-star luxury with views of the sea—and private terraces from which to take it all in. It’s connected to the 3-Michelin-star restaurant by the same name, serving eclectic regional seafood (get the Marseille favorite bouillabaisse fish stew multiple times in town, but order the deconstructed, reimagined version of it from the fixe prix menu). Both hotel and restaurant are passionate undertakings of noted chef Gérald Passédat. While you’re a couple miles from the city center, it’s no inconvenience given the day or two you’ll spend near the coast or daytripping from the city altogether.

The old Vieux port of Marseille with Notre Dame de la Garde at back
The Old Vieux Port of Marseille with Notre Dame de la Garde in the background. Plages du Prado / Shutterstock

What to Do in Marseille

If you plan to hit the city’s key tourist attractions and want unlimited public transit access (in particular its bold-and-bright orange metro), then consider purchasing a Marseille Tourism Pass for intervals of 24, 48, or 72 hours (for 27, 37, or 43 euros, respectively). You can purchase it at various spots in Marseille: the Tourist Office and Convention Centre, La Capitainerie des Docks, Vieux-Port and Saint Charles metro stations, or Airport Information Office.

Hike the Calanques: See “Day Trips” below.

Vieux Port (Old Port): Marseille’s central bustle seems to swirl around the Vieux Port, a hotel- and restaurant-lined marina that stays boisterous at all hours of the day and night. You can nestle in for aperitif or a late-night bar crawl, stock up on soaps and market souvenirs, catch the boat to Chateau D’If, or marvel at religious relics like Saint Victor’s Abbey (5th century), or Saint-Ferréol les Augustins (15th century).

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Buy soap: Since the 17th century, Marseille has been known for soap-making, and the city is still famous for its 72-percent-oil recipe. And because it’s more of a tradition than a reliable global export these days, Marseille soap makes for a terrific gift or souvenir from your travels. Save some room in your suitcase, and never mind if you have yet to appreciate this craft: You’ll have a hard time narrowing down which scents and shapes to bring home—and for next to nothing. (At the very least, you’ve got to get some lavender soap, since it’s Provence.)

Stock up at these stores and makers: La Savonnerie Marseille, La Maison du Savon, Soap Factory — Le Serail, or The Marseille Soap Museum.

Unité d’Habitation/Corbusier’s Radiant City: Le Corbusier’s architecture is characterized by the marriage of colorful expressionism with functional spaces, and this “Radiant City” apartment complex is one of the most famous structures. (It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and French National Monument.) This residential complex largely influenced the brutalist movement and redefined urban living for its residents, thanks to symmetrically designed apartments and thoughtfully executed public spaces. Most notable is Le Corbusier’s use of color, which you’ll see from inside and out. Book an English tour while in town for an eye-opening tour at the complex, including a preserved apartment room. (The others are now inhabited by some of Marseille’s upper class. A pre-booked Saturday 10 a.m. tour is requisite for viewing, unless you otherwise visit the onsite cafe or stay in the onsite hotel.

Coastal R&R: Head to the coast for aperitifs, sunbathing, long walks on the cliff, romantic dinner views, and more. Just note that sandy beaches are few and far between and rather small, hence why most residents are totally fine lying out on the rocks. If you crave sand, point yourself to Plages du Prado, Plage du Prophete, Plage Borely, Plage de L’Estaque.

If you want to relax under the sun on a reserved beach lounger, drink in hand, with a ladder into the big drink, then call one or two days ahead to Le Bistrot Plage, a restaurant and public beach club that will have you feeling like you’re at the Riviera, minus any absurd prices.

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Chateau d’If and Frioul Archipelago: You might know this 16th-century army fortress as a key setting in The Count of Monte Cristo. Chateau d’If on the smallest island of the Frioul Archipelago, just two miles west of the city. Book a roundtrip ferry to and from the Old Port to the Chateau for a 45-minute tour (plus ferry travel time), and you can even hop off at Ratonneau, one of the larger of the Frioul Islands, for lunch or leisure, before returning to Marseille’s port. (Walk to the cozy but sandy Plage de Saint Estève from the Frioul Port if you want some snacks and beach time away from the city.)

MuCEM and Villa Méditerranée: If you fancy some art, history, or both, then check out MuCEM, or the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, as well as the neighboring exhibition hall Villa Méditerranée. At the very least, take a walk to the end of the harbor where they reside, to gawk at their marvelous facades.

Cathédrale La Major: In stark contrast to the neighboring and aforementioned art museums, this massive 19th-century Byzantine-Roman-Revival–style cathedral is all-imposing.

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Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde: Marseille’s compass rose, if you will, this hilltop Catholic basilica can be seen from nearly everywhere in the city, and offers stunning panoramas for that same fact.

Parc Borély: In a city not known for its parks, the 17-hectare Borély stands out as one of Marseille’s prettiest features. Catch some fresh air in its formal gardens, mosey across the promenade to the coast, or visit the neighboring botanic gardens.

La Vieille Charité Cultural Center: History, culture, art, and performance come together at the 17th-century grounds of La Vieille, in the heart of Marseille’s old quarter, Panier.

Orange Vélodrome: Be it rugby, soccer, or stadium concerts, the Orange Vélodrome is probably playing host to some event while you’re in town. You can also tour the century-old, ever modernized stadium, in case you can’t catch a game.

Pizzeria Chez Jeannot
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Where to Eat and Drink in Marseille

Pizzeria Chez Jeannot: It’s not just a pizzeria—really, get the steak or the catch of the day—but it’s very much a staple tucked inside the cozy port de Vallon des Auffes. It makes for a romantic date night, or a great group dinner. Book ahead.

Chez Fonfon: A perfect place to slurp bouillabaisse and savor a bottle of wine. The fancy Fonfon resides next to the aforementioned Chez Jeannot inside port de Vallon des Auffes. Yes, it’s worth coming to this nook twice in one weekend.

Carlotta With: Seasonal dishes, local ingredients, all done real nice and French-like. Come for any meal, or a respite between.

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Le Café De L’Aabbaye: Plan at least one hours-long aperitif here, alongside Marseille’s hip and scene-y crowd. You might even see a few French A-listers enjoying the same vices. (We did, apparently, according to our sharp-eyed and starstruck hosts.)

Le Four des Navettes: Marseille’s oldest bakery (dating back to 1781), and perhaps still its most notable. Get their famed orange blossom biscuits.

Le Carrousel: Come here for craft beer, with a dozen on tap and two dozen by the bottle.

La Côte de Boeuf: This Vieux Port staple has every cut of meat you might want—not just beef—and 400 kinds of wine with which to chase it all.

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Le Miramar: Have your pick between the bouillabaisse or bourride stews, the fixed menu (with the likes of scorpion fish and truffle bass), or the shellfish platter for two.

Le Café des Épices: A deep-dive into colorful Mediterranean flavors, with dishes like octopus-pan-fried chard and confit lemon boneless rabbit.

Madame Jeanne: Natural wines paired with fresh, small-menu dinners—like confit rabbit-shizo squash. Where else can you get that?

Calanques Hiking
Gaspar Janos / Shutterstock

Day Trips From Marseille

Calanques Hiking: The rocky coastline of Marseille leads to the Calanques National Park, a 200-sq. mile grade-changing wonder with an equally rugged shore. It’s most spectacular from its various inlets, the actual calanques, which are walled in by dolomite or limestone and collect the crystal-blue waters in their public basin. You’ve got to earn this reward though, by parking your car and hiking through the national park itself—some of them are reachable under half an hour, others twice or triple the distance. It can be unpredictable, but think of this as a beautiful hike with a relaxing reward at the end (on rough, rock-covered beaches), rather than framing it as a beach day preceded by a hike. I think that mentality will better suit the experience—and will inform the necessary footwear you must wear for the walk.

Rent a car; pack water, sunscreen, lunch, and a backup phone charger; and head to the Calanques for at least one full day of your visit—and budget the day, starting early to maximize water time. And yes, you can also boat into some calanques from nearby Cassis or other small towns. But that’s kind of cheating. Oh, and during the hottest months of the year, namely July and August, the park is susceptible to fires, and oftentimes closes for entire days. So check the park calendar the day before you go, to see the forecast and clearance for the following day.

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Avignon or Aix-en-Provence: Provence provides plenty in lieu of humbler urban day trips. The medieval, walled-in historic center of Avignon makes for a charming and humbling day trip, just one hour by car and half that by train. Or opt for Cézanne’s birthplace, Aix-en-Provence, which is buzzing with academic energy. It’s a half-hour from Marseille by train or car.

Lavender fields near Luberon and Verdon: Want to see Provence’s trippy purple lavender fields? Rent a car and point it to the various farmlands between Luberon and Verdon. Do this in late spring through mid-July, and you’ll feel like you’re on another planet, with sprawling rows of purple—not to mention the soothing scent lingering in the winds. As a landmark, you can route yourself to the picturesque town of Valensole for dinner or lunch—you won’t miss the lavender fields on this drive, so long as you’re in season.

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