Explore the newly transformed Vieux-Port (Old Port), the city’s historic, formerly gritty waterfront area that’s now home to bars and restaurants, repurposed buildings, new exhibition spaces, and a commodious esplanade that spans 3.7 acres. Architects Norman Foster and Michel Desvigne were responsible for the multi-million-dollar makeover, which was completed this year to coincide with Marseille’s designation as a 2013 European Capital of Culture. The centerpiece of it all is Foster’s Ombrière, a massive stainless-steel canopy with a mirrored ceiling that reflects the pedestrian space below.
Marvel at the architecture of the newly opened Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM; $11 admission), the first museum dedicated to the diverse cultures of the region. With its long history as a melting pot of people from across Europe and northern Africa, Marseille’s reputation has long been stymied by crime, but it’s finally gaining attention as the cultural cradle of southern France thanks to its diverse art, food, and design, all of which the MuCEM celebrates. Among the three temporary exhibitions currently on display is “The Black and the Blue. A Mediterranean Dream,” a collection of paintings, photographs, sculptures, and original manuscripts that explores more than three centuries of history.
Climb up to the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica (“La Bonne Mère” in local parlance), the emblematic neo-Byzantine guardian perched at the city’s highest point, for views of the terra-cotta roofs, bays, and beaches below. Wander through the vaulted interior and marvel at striking mosaics, ornate marble murals, and poignant ex-votos. Afterward, follow the new GR2013 footpath back down to the Old Port and relax on the balcony at La Caravelle, a cocktail bar with standout mojitos.
Cruise the craggy coastline lined with dramatic limestone sea cliffs and majestic inlets called Les Calanques, now classified a national park. Croisière Marseille Calanques operates several tour-boat circuits, but opt for the three-hour complete guided visit ($36 for adults; reserve online in advance), which sails by all twelve Calanques and offers the most immersive experience.