Take In the Cultural Renaissance in Marseille

1. Where to Stay

Hotel 96 is among the city's new openings that offer an alternative to older, staid properties.Photo: Courtesy of Hotel 96

Avoid the din of the city’s bustling center at the Philippe Starck–designed Mama Shelter (from $90), located in the back streets of the trendy Cours Julien neighborhood. Like its Parisian sister, this year-old property features minimalistic rooms that contrast with Starck’s signature graffiti and creative décor elements including local slang covering the elevator walls and neon inner-tube light fixtures above the Island Bar.

Wake up to views of Mount Puget at Hotel 96 (from $128), a family-run, independent boutique hotel-cum-bed-and-breakfast that opened last November less than five minutes from the Calanques National Park. Overlooking the on-site garden, each of the thirteen color-themed rooms is accented with repurposed vintage furnishings and high-end linens.

Choose from five one-of-a-kind rooms at Au Vieux Panier (from $136) in the quiet hillside district of Le Panier. Formerly a Corsican grocer, this seventeenth-century hotel particulier was converted in 2011 into a boutique hotel that doubles as an art gallery, with rooms (ranging from small to apartment-size) that are transformed by local artists every year. The rooftop terrace is an added bonus, with its panoramic views of the harbor and the Marseille Cathedral.

2. Where to Eat

L’Epuisette serves the city's finest bouillabaisse.Photo: Courtesy of L’Epuisette

Book a coveted spot looking out at the Mediterranean and the Frioul Islands at L’Epuisette, a 55-year-old institution that remains a standout in the city’s emerging restaurant scene. Locals come here for the expert take on traditional bouillabaisse ($78), a two-course meal of an aromatic soup served with toasted baguette slices covered in a spicy rouille, followed by four or five types of fish. The kitchen also turns out contemporary dishes, such as John Dory fillets braised in vin au noix and served on a bed of locally sourced mushrooms and spinach ($59).

Dine above the Vieux-Port at Le Grain de Sel (39 rue de la Paix Marcel Paul; 33 4 91 54 47 30), a two-year-old seafood-focused spot that Le Fooding named the Best Bistro in France last year. The menu is small but accomplished; order the gnocchi sarde, cooked and served in a cast-iron cocotte with mixed seafood ($26). In the warmer months, skip the narrow dining room and request a table on the ten-seat patio.

Head to Michelin-starred Une Table, Au Sud for a selection of more than 400 wines and imaginative dishes that showcase exceptional Provençal produce. Originally made famous by chef Lionel Levy and his creative riffs on bouillabaisse, the restaurant is now presided over by his right-hand man Ludovic Turac, whose daily tasting menus ($63–$103) feature local catches like red mullet, sea bass, and blue lobster. For gentler prices, go for the three-course lunch menu ($38) offered Tuesdays through Fridays.

3. What to Do

A bridge leading to one of the three sites that comprise the MuCem.Photo: Courtesy of MuCem

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.

4. Insider’s Tip

Marseille is famous for its soap, but it's difficult to find an authentically-produced version.Photo: Vinicius Pinheiro, via Flickr

One of Marseille’s oldest, all-natural commodities has become increasingly harder to find. All across the city, you’ll find shops peddling what they claim is the authentic Marseille soap (Savon de Marseille), but at least 90 percent are imitations that are produced outside of the city and substitute animal fats for the traditional olive or palm oil. Locals know to head straight for the Savonnerie Marseillaise de la Licorne (34 Cours Julien), one of the last remaining soap factories in the region, for the real deal.

5. Oddball Day

The stunning coastline near La Ciotat.Photo: akunamatata, via Flickr

Get out of the city by taking a day trip to the seaside ports of La Ciotat and Cassis. Begin with tea ($4–$6) and fresh pastries ($7) at Cup of Tea (1 rue Caisserie; 33 4 91 90 84 02), a quaint tea salon and bookstore situated at the edge of the Panier neighborhood. Next, rent a car from Hertz (from $47 per day) and drive about 35 minutes southeast to La Ciotat, best known as the birthplace of cinema thanks to the Lumière brothers’ 1895 film The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Stroll south toward the harbor along the Grande Plage, one of six white-sand beaches that stretch nearly seven kilometers. About ten minutes into your walk, you’ll see the Eden Theater, the oldest movie theater in the world (currently closed for renovations, grand reopening slated for October). Continue south on foot for a lunch of stewed octopus with espelette pepper ($30 including appetizer or dessert), the house specialty at Le Sud. Afterward, walk around the Port de Plaisance and pick up a beach tote (from $58) at Les Toiles du Large, a sustainable local shop specialized in producing bags, accessories, and decorative homewares from recycled boat sails. Hop back in the car and drive about five minutes to explore the Parc du Mugel, a 30-acre botanical garden, and the adjacent Plage du Mugel, more of a pebble inlet than a true beach but no less relaxing. Next, head uphill ten minutes on the marked trail to reach the magnificent lookout point of the Calanque de Figuerolles. Back in the car, drive along the scenic Route des Crêtes for twenty minutes until you arrive in Cassis, a picturesque port town and international destination for rock climbers. For dinner, try the charcuterie platter ($18) and seafood risotto ($31) at the hillside restaurant La Cigale et La Fourmi (11 rue Brémond, 13260; 33 6 26 78 53 18) before grabbing a cup of homemade gelato ($4.50) down the road at I Gelati. Make your way back to Marseille and spend the night at Carry Nation, a new clandestine cocktail bar that serves Prohibition-era cocktails in a secret location that’s only revealed to reservation holders.

6. Links

The official European Capital of Culture website has all the latest details on exhibits and events in the city as part of Marseille-Provence 2013 and is available in app format.

Fantastic Provence is L’Occitane’s slick, vibrant guide to everything the region has to offer.

For history, local traditions, and up-to-date information on cultural events and activities in the region, consult Marseille-Provence, an informative blog written by a British journalist and longtime resident.

MyProvence Tables 2013 is a mobile guide to 200 seasonal and local restaurants in the Bouches-du-Rhône region, selected by the department of tourism.

Find direct flights from New York to Marseille on XL Airways, currently offering promotional rates. If coming from Paris, the best way to get to the city is by the TGV high-speed train, which departs from Gare de Lyon.

Take In the Cultural Renaissance in Marseille