The port city of Marseille is one of France’s most mysterious– and misunderstood– cities. This Mediterannean jewel is rich with thousands of years of history, stunning coastlines, distinctive cuisine and a diverse local culture marked by passion and pride. Founded in around 600 BC, the city once called “Massalia” by Greek and Roman settlers offers as much rich cultural history as anywhere in France– perhaps even more. Yet most luxury travellers overlook this stunning French metropolis, assuming it’s too “rough around the edges” to offer anything of worth to those seeking a high-end getaway. But the best Marseille private tours prove that wrong. They can help you to unlock all the beauty, cultural riches, exceptional flavours and luxurious corners of the city. Our expert travel planners and docents offer entirely bespoke, unique tours and luxury adventures in and around Marseille and Provence. Read on to learn why to embark on a private excursion with us to this remarkable city on the French Cote d’Azur.
Marseille is situated on the Mediterranean Sea, in a warm and bright corner of the Riviera that benefits from some 300 days of sunshine each year. Especially in the fall and winter, when you might need an extra dose of warmth, blue skies and Vitamin D, the centuries-old city can make an ideal stop on a luxury getaway to the Cote d’Azur.
While it’s not exactly a seaside resort– its coastline is far too rocky for the sorts of glamorous beach activities you see in nearby Cannes or St-Tropez– it’s nevertheless a breathtaking maritime city.
Your private tour of Marseille will certainly include a stroll along the Vieux Port (Old Port), an area that offers something of the epic and the mythical. During the Antiquity, Greeks and Romans built up the seaside as a bustling hub of Mediterranean and Middle-East trade, putting the city firmly on the map as a regional powerhouse. Lined with restaurants, hotels and shops, the U-shaped Port is filled to the brim with colorful, comely boats and yachts. The views over the deep azure sea and the waves crashing up onto the craggy clifftops offer drama and sublime beauty, and will mesmerize anyone with a love for maritime landscapes.
A Bit Further Afield Along the Coast…
For lovers of all things luxury and postcard-pretty, the valleyed coastal area and small fishing port known as the Vallon des Auffes is one of the city’s most-coveted centres for romantic strolls, style and gastronomy. Browse trendy and high-end boutiques while strolling along the village-like seaside path known as the Corniche Kennedy, punctuated by the dramatic bridge connecting the valley to the rest of Marseille. You might also enjoy a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant in the area. L’Epuisette and Chez Fonfon two gourmet seafood restaurants offering stunning views and fantastic local fare, including Marseille’ famous fish stew, bouillabaise.
For lovers of culture, history, and literature, a visit to the 16th-century Château d’If on Frioul Island can make a perfect excursion. The first royal fortress of Marseille, it once held prisoners in miserable and unhygienic conditions. Legend has it that the Count of Monte Crisco himself was imprisoned here, but managed to escape. The island’s distinctive and lighthouse are worth exploring and admiring, too.
Our Suggestion: Why not take a private cruise aboard a boat or yacht, tour the island and coastline while enjoying lunch or an aperitif prepared by a private chef? The deep blue sea is yours…
If a sandy beach with swimmable water is on your “must” list during your bespoke tour of Marseille, it’s time to head over to the “Calanque de Sormiou”. Here, a 60-meter-long sandy beach, crystal-clear waters and abundant marine life await. Overhanging the beach, you will find a prized seafood restaurant, Le Château, exclusively serving fish caught earlier the same morning by local fishermen.
No trip to Marseille would be complete without tasting superior examples of its gourmet local specialities. Marseillais locals are incredibly proud of the gastronomic traditions that continue to be carried out in some of the city’s finest restaurants (which will of course feature on your private itinerary).
But to really get a sense of the incredibly vibrancy and cultural hybridity of Marseille’s gastronomy, we recommend taking a private food tour and even a French cooking class with a local chef to really understand the heart and soul of Provencal cuisine.
Your private culinary tour may include whirls through some of the city’s most-beloved and authentic markets, or meetings with chefs, fishermen, shellfish specialists and other locals who take pride and joy at preserving the traditions of Provencal and Marseillais cuisine. As always, the focus is on culturally authentic experiences and flavours that you will savour long after your trip is over.
Some Typical Marseille Specialities to Try
Heavily based in locally harvested produce (seasonal fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, spices and even flowers!), the cuisine in Marseille is light and intensely flavourful. It is heavily marked by Provencal cooking more broadly, but the city has some of its own cherished traditions, too.
The famous Bouillabaisse: Renowned worldwide, this fish and seafood soup is commonly enjoyed by locals over Sunday lunch with family. Seafood lovers will enjoy the eclectic and delicious melange of fish and shellfish such as rascasse, scorpionfish, red mullet, conger, spiny lobster and crab– all native to nearby waters. The immense stewpot is prepared and left to simmer, combining seafood with vegetables, herbs, and spices including tomatoes, onions, leeks, garlic, fennel, orange peel, bay leaves and saffron. A true delight for the palate and senses, and a cultural mainstay.
The Anchoïade: This one’s essential for any elegant Provencal aperitif! A classic Provençal dip or spread made from the very finest anchovies and olive oil, white wine vinegar, and garlic, it’s usually eaten by locals as they sip on a good rosé wine. Most enjoy spreading it over a piece of toasted bread rubbed with raw garlic.
Aïoli: Garlic lovers are probably familiar with a rich, creamy mayonnaise made with garlic, egg yolks, lemon juice, and olive oil, and bearing this name. But in the south of France, Aïoli refers to a complete dish: boiled filet of cod served with a variety of vegetables (usually: carrots, green beans and potatoes) and a scoop of cooked supions (tiny cuttlefish)– then accompanied by the beloved, garlic-rich mayonnaise.
Poutargue: Frequently referred to as “Provencal caviar”, this dish consists of a small, sausage-shaped pouch of salted, dried mullet fish eggs. Poutarge is wonderful when accompanied with crusty bread and a glass of Pastis (see below).
Pastis: Especially in the South of France and during Summer, it is a cherished tradition to relax after work and before dinner over an aperitif “apéro” (as locals say)– likely with a glass of pastis. In Marseille, it seems to be everywhere, from the dockside bars to quaint cafes along the cobbled streets; from the hands of elderly men rolling pétanque balls to the tables of hipsters in trendy restaurants. But what exactly is pastis?
This relatively strong anise liqueur has black licorice accents and a strong alcohol-forward personality. It is served with ice- cold water to dilute it (very few drink it on its own). You can also add a bit of mint syrup to enjoy what’s locally known as a Perroquet (parrot), or syrups flavoured with grenadine or tomato. It may be “ordinary”, but tasting the best examples of Pastis in Marseille is simply part of encountering the local culture!
True, Marseille isn’t associated with luxury goods or shopping in the same way Paris or Monaco are. But it’s a vibrant, cosmopolitan city buzzing with creativity, cultural diversity and its own brand of style. Anyone looking for something a bit different to add to their wardrobe or a special decorative piece of art to bring home will find Marseille’s numerous shops, boutiques and galleries inspiring.
If you’re interested in adding shopping to your bespoke itinerary, your private guide will ensure it’s a true VIP experience and stake out hidden corners of the city. Private fittings with local and up-and coming designers, visits to artist’s galleries and ateliers to choose the perfect acquisition, and strolls through stylish Marseille areas and shopping centres are all possibilities.
The area known as “La Butte” is especially coveted by the style-conscious. Traditional soap manufacturers still thrive in the area, but trendy concept stores have also sprung up, peddling clothes and accessories from global and local designers.
The nearby Cours Julien is also buzzing with designer shops, bookshops, gourmet restaurants and trendy bars. Its pedestrianized esplanade has become a favourite spot for the style-conscious.
The Canebière and The Saint Féréol street: The “Champs Elysées” of Marseilles, La Canebière is an avenue running northwest from the end of the Old Port, lined with shops from major fashion brands and accessory makers. The Saint Féréol street is another prized style hub leading to the recently inaugurated “Centre Bourse” shopping centre.
Meanwhile, Rue de la Tour, closer to the city centre, is home to a number of global fashion brands and designer shops. Old Town and the area known as “Le Panier” (the Basket) mesmerizes visitors not only for millenia-long history and breathtaking architecture, but for its fine epiceries (gourmet shops) and artist’s galleries. It’s also a wonderful place to walk and take in Marseille’s buzzing, diverse culture, ambling through and exploring its narrow little streets and passages. Le Panier has notably gained fame in recent years for its lively street art and murals.
Last but certainly not least, Marseille is home to some stunning monuments and cultural artefacts that will plunge you into centuries past. Anyone interested in history and French cultural tours will want to spend some time exploring these fascinating places. Your private itinerary might include some or all of the following, as well as many others:
The Fort Saint Jean: This is perhaps the most impressive historic site in Marseilles: A seventeenth-century fortress, built by King Louis XIV, that stands guard over the entrance to the Old Port. Included in the Fort Saint Jean are the 15th century Tour du Roi René (King René’s tower) and the Commandery of the Knights Templar. Access to the Fort Saint Jean is free; there is a charge only for access to special displays which are part of the Mucem and included in the price of the ticket. Among the free attractions of the Fort Saint Jean are fine views over the old city, the old port and the sea, a Mediterranean botanical garden, and the joy of wandering around the ramparts and into some of the historic buildings, including the Tour du Roi René. The upper terraces of the Fort Saint Jean are connected by aerial walkways to the Mucem and to the Old City.
The Mucem: The Museum of the Mediterranean is a modern cultural and historical museum devoted to the civilizations and culture of the Mediterranean. An aerial walkway connects the Mucem to the Fort Saint Jean on the other side of the wharf. This is a wonderful collection allowing you to better understand the constantly shifting cultural influences in Marseille over thousands of years, includes waves of immigration from around the Mediterranean and North Africa that have profoundly marked local culture.
La Vieille Charité: Not to be missed in the quartier du Panier is La Vieille Charité, a former 17th century hospice with colonnaded facades situated around a central courtyard. The complex contains several museums, including an archaeological museum and a museum of African art and history.
Notre Dame de la Garde: This 19th-century neo-byzantine church is unmissable: it can be seen from all over Marseilles. It stands at the highest point in the city, about 160 meters above sea level, to the south of the Old Port. Locals say that the Church (referred to as a “she”), is their protector and cares for the city. It is easily recognisable from its black-and-white striped façade, dome and the magnificent golden statue that almost appears suspended in the air. Climb to the top and admire breathtaking views– perhaps the best you can get– of Marseilles and its many fascinating faces.
Cultural Notes: Learn the “Marseille-itude”
Before you go, it’s important to understand the local culture and Marseille and strive to adopt the city’s frank, warm and straightforward approach!
The Marseillais culture is “raw” and direct: people speak and act in frank ways that may initially strike you as surprisingly to-the-point. This is all part of the city’s special charm, but it can be a little disconcerting at first. Luckily, warmth and generosity are also very common traits among the locals.
It’s all part of the fun and adventure of learning a new culture! Try to interact with people as much as you can, asking for advice, directions, and tips. Locals here are very proud and will seize any opportunity to brag about their beloved town if they see that you’re interested and curious! You might even end up enjoying a sunset aperitif on a terrace with them.
Our biggest tip for visiting this marvellous, charmingly rough-around-the-edges city? Be open, curious and ready to interact with all sorts of people.
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Persuaded that a high-end holiday in Marseille and around the Cote d’Azur might be perfect for your next trip to France? If so, get in touch with us. We’ll craft a luxury tour or itinerary for you that’s completely unique– and full of exclusive discoveries.
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