In advance of a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” CNN released a video in which Bourdain is asked for the most underrated travel destination in the world. His answer is Marseille, where the episode is filmed. He calls the city a “glorious stew of Mediterranean madness, easily the most interesting, under-visited, underexploited place I’ve been in a really long time.”
In the episode itself, he declares his love even more openly: “I could retire here. That’s sort of the measure of a place, for me, if you start thinking thoughts like that.” These are strong words coming from the notoriously cynical Bourdain. What is so special about Marseille that it makes even Anthony Bourdain lose his edge? And why has it been under appreciated?
A Cultural Melting Pot
Marseille is the second largest city in France and was settled by the ancient Greeks, who named is Massalia. As a port city, it has long been home to a wide variety of immigrants, including large groups of North Africans, Italians, Corsicans, and Armenians. Its religious diversity also contributes to reputation as a cultural intersection point. While a majority of the population identify as Roman Catholics, about 30% are Muslim, and there is a large Jewish community as well. This blend of influences with colliding cultures makes Marseille feel more like a diverse international seaport than a resort town in Provence.
But as Bourdain also notes in the CNN video, Marseille is a “victim of bad reputation.” Many in France associate Marseille with the drug trade and gang violence, a perception that is heightened by the city’s relative poverty and high unemployment rate. But violent crime has taken a sharp downturn in recent years, and the people of Marseille take great pride in their city and their sense of community. They are fiercely devoted to their club soccer team, Olympique de Marseille, and to their own flourishing local rap scene, which has produced popular groups such as IAM and Le 3ème Oeil.
Historic Sights and Natural Beauty
Marseille is known for its sunny beaches, such as the Catalans and Pointe-Rouge, and its relaxed seaside atmosphere. Many of the shopping streets in the city center have been blocked off as pedestrian zones, making leisurely strolling the ideal means of transportation. For the perfect rambling tour, start at entrance to the Old Port, which is flanked by two forts constructed in 1660 by Louis XIV, and continue up La Canebière, the city’s most famous historic shopping street. From there, head to the stunning Palais Longchamp, which houses a museum of fine arts and a natural history museum. Then turn south to see Notre-Dame de la Garde, a basilica in the Roman-Byzantine style. It’s built on the highest elevation in the city, and from the top it offers a panoramic view of Marseille and the sea.
For a taste of Marseille’s multiculturalism, head to the Noailles market, where Algerian couscous and Corsican cheese are sold side by side. And for the traditional Marseille culinary experience, bouillabaisse is essential. It’s served first as a broth with grilled bread and a rouille of saffron and garlic, and followed by a large platter of fish. The best in town may be from Gérald Passédat at Le Petit Nice, who holds three Michelin stars.
The area around Marseille offers stunning natural beauty as well as historic architecture. The Frioul archipelago off the coast is home to the Château d’If, where Edmond Dantès is imprisoned in Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” The beautifully isolated limestone structure is accessible by boat from Marseille. And for a sunny day adventure, head to the Calanque de Sugiton, one of the stone inlets that dots the Mediterranean coast. This one is accessible by boat or by hike and offers a lovely sea view.
Marseille served as the European Capital of Culture in 2013, which boosted the city’s profile and helped to improve its reputation. The city spent millions of dollars to revamp the port area, fix up old buildings, and make the city center greener and more inviting. The most notable addition is the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, which opened in 2013 as part of the festivities. The stunning modern building sits right on the waterfront, contrasting and complementing its neighbor, the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean. The building was designed by Algerian-born French architect Rudy Ricciotti, who trained in Marseille.
Marseille’s unique charm comes from the blending of disparate elements: Africa and Europe, nature and architecture, old and new. Those influences fuse into a strong identity and sense of place for its inhabitants. And if travelers can look past the city’s reputation, they will find a truly singular experience in Marseille’s intersection of cultures. With Bourdain’s recommendation, the city may not be underrated for much longer, so now is the best time to plan a trip. Marseille will defy expectations, offering a surprise at every turn.