Marseille: the new ‘Old Port’

Marseille - MUCEM - The French poet Charles Baudelaire once wrote: “a town, alas,/ Changes more quickly than man’s heart may change”. 

Although this line wasn’t written about Marseille, it could have been: the oldest city in France, Marseille is always changing, always reinventing itself.

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Marseille, the European capital

The motivation for the transformation came about when Marseille was awarded the honour of ‘European Culture Capital of 2013’. It had to rise to the challenge to prove wrong all those who proclaimed that it didn’t deserve the title; that the beautiful town had been sleeping for too long and had fallen victim to a bad reputation.

I have to admit, I wasn’t sure it deserved the award either…

The MUCEM, an architectural innovation

Marseille - MUCEM -

When I stepped foot on the sacred forecourt of the MUCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation), however, I was speechless. Not only is the contemporary architecture of the brand new building spectacular, but the restoration project has now put the people of Marseille back in direct contact with the sea.

I could actually touch the sea; a reminder that Marseille is indeed a port city. Rejuvenation of the ports (historically used for cargo storage) has revealed new spaces that talented architects have been able to invest in.


I walked into the elegant raw concrete shell – concrete lace, I should say; unique technology that broke the light into infinite rays.

I climbed to the top; the view was sublime. The Mediterranean – sometimes blue, sometimes green – opened out under the awed eyes of tourists and locals, united at this moment by their astonishment.

The port of Marseille now boasts a truly majestic entrance.

The Saint-Jean Fort

Marseille - MUCEM -

A 115-metre-long footbridge links the museum to the Saint-Jean fort. The enormous gathering of buildings, constructed by Louis XIV, defended the entrance to the port. The building, formerly dedicated to military use, is now open to the public.

But here too, the space has been completely restored and reworked. It offers visitors a stroll through a Mediterranean garden, through laneways between chapels, guided tours through secret passages – the visit is magical. The contrast between secular architecture and contemporary designs lends a charm that is unique to this place.

At the heart of the Old Port

The fort presents a panoramic view of the town and provides a link to the quays of the famous ‘Old Port’. A second walkway leads visitors to the entrance of the old quarter of Marseille: le Panier.

Marseille - MUCEM - This area, once a rough part of town, is now the most visited of the Phocean City. I enjoyed immersing myself in the heart of the mythical neighbourhood, wandering through the little streets… so charming and so typically Marseille.

A grand luxury hotel has just opened up right here at the foot of the maze of steep streets. The InterContinental has majestically set itself up in the frame of an eighteenth century building that is officially classed as a historical monument, the Hôtel Dieu.

I ended my visit at the bar of the hotel sipping a cappuccino in a magnificent courtyard that overlooks the old port (it’s a tough life being a correspondent for My French Life™!).

The sun gently warms my face – it’s true what they say: the sun shines all year in Marseille!

Marseille never ceases to surprise me… What about you – can you see yourself coming and discovering the new charms of the second biggest city in France? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

 Translated by Emily Arbuckle.
All photographs © Julie Guégan.

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Julie Guégan

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One Comment

  1. Esme Wakefield Jan 28, 2014 at 9:37 AM - Reply

    Great article! I visited Marseille last year and was pleasantly surprised, as almost everyone had told me not to go, as it ‘wasn’t particularly special’ or was ‘unsafe’. The latter may well be but is as with any big city.
    It was great to see the blue waters of the Med and walk around the cultural delights on display: France at its best.

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