36 Hours in Marseille
By SETH SHERWOOD
From Left: Rue Pastoret on the edge of the popular La Plaine district; a tour boat operated by Croisières Marseille Calanques in the Vieux Port; partygoers at La Dame Noire, also in La Plaine. Credit Rebecca Marshall for The New York Times
FIRST the bad news: Marseille is not Paris. Unlike its culture-rich rival, France’s second-largest city has no world-class museums, must-see monuments or internationally renowned chefs. Now the good news: Marseille is not Paris. Kissed by the Mediterranean, Marseille can claim an un-Parisian combination of near-constant sun, miles of beaches and an ethnic mix — French, North African, Italian, Corsican, Armenian — that lends a flavor unlike anywhere else in the country. No wonder the rest of France calls it Planète Mars. And the news gets better: Named a European Capital of Culture for 2013, the historically gritty port is looking up, thanks to a waterfront renovation, a sleek new tram system, a first wave of design hotels, a generation of young restaurant and night-life impresarios and a homegrown fashion scene. More than ever, there is life on Mars.
1) RIDE THE WAVES
Marseille has been a maritime center since the ancient Greeks first settled here, and the one-hour boat rides offered by Croisières Marseille Calanques (Vieux Port; 33-4-91-58-50-58; croisieres-marseille-calanques.com; 10 euros, or $14.20 at $1.42 to the euro) are an excellent way to contemplate the sea and rocky coast. You’ll glide between the 17th-century forts that flank the port — St. Jean and St. Nicolas — then past the neo-Byzantine Cathédrale de la Major, and then around the Île d’If and its fortress, the Château d’If. Built in the 16th century and later converted into a prison — now disused — the “French Alcatraz” is best known from “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
2) DESIGNER DINNER
Bacon for dessert? That’s just one of the innovations from Alexandre Mazzia, who garnishes papaya-tequila sorbet with a crispy sugar strip larded, literally, with bacon bits. Since taking over in 2009 as chef at Le Ventre de l’Architecte (280, boulevard Michelet; 33-4-91-16-78-00; hotellecorbusier.com), in a hotel that occupies a Le Corbusier-designed building, Mr. Mazzia has given diners gastronomic treats to rival the sea views. Hints of Asia and the tropics mingle with those of the Mediterranean on two nightly tasting menus (65 euros), from creamy curry foam (used to bathe shrimp served with flower petals) to sardine tempura (laid across a succulent disc of suckling pig ringed by mango coulis).
3) BOHEMIAN OPTIONS
By night, Marseille’s bohemian set heads to La Plaine district. A CD of “Spaghetti Disco Classics” (26 euros) and crazily colored socks by Sixpack France (25 euros) pair well with a bottle of Domaine Ramatuelle rosé (24 euros) at Oogie (55, cours Julien; 33-4-91-53-10-70; oogie.eu), a concept store with its own cafe and hair salon. Nearby, La dame Noire (30, place Notre Dame du Mont; no phone; ladamenoir.wordpress.com), a sexy low-lighted lounge, is Marseille’s premier bar for electro-music D.J.’s. Their brand-new after-party spot in the former Trolleybus club (24, quai de Rive Neuve) keeps the dancing going until 6 a.m.
4) BEACH BUFFET
Marseille’s coast serves up a smorgasbord of beaches. The golden sands of Plage des Catalans and the soft gravel of Plage du Prado tend to be overrun, but a peaceful spot is hidden between them on the rocky outcropping below Le Petit-Nice Passédat restaurant. Catch the No. 83 bus in the Vieux Port, get off at Anse de la Fausse Monnaie, take the passageway from the road to the boat harbor, and go to the right around the point. The large rocks are a tranquil spot to listen to the waves while gazing out at the nearby small islands.
5) DEJEUNER, ITALIAN-STYLE
You would have to go to Italy to find an Italian restaurant as authentic and consistently excellent as La Cantinetta (24, cours Julien; 33-4-91-48-10-48). Prosciutto hangs overhead in fatty joints and gets sliced on a hand-cranked machine from Parma, while the ultra-creamy mozzarella is a special cow’s milk variety from Puglia. The chalkboard menu has pasta, seafood and meat dishes that change daily and sometimes lists thin-sliced veal in a sauce that includes veal jus, mustard, white wine and anchovy bits. For dessert, the pain perdu (French toast) will solidify both your arteries and enthusiasm for the restaurant. Reserve — preferably for the lovely garden. A three-course lunch for two costs about 60 euros, without drinks.
6) MARSEILLE à LA MODE
An empty suitcase could be useful as you hit Rue Sainte, where local fashion labels have sprouted up. Though the name American Vintage (10, rue Sainte; 33-4-91-33-02-26; am-vintage.com) is misleading — the brand is Marseille-based and sells new threads — the subdued colors and ultrathin fabrics have garnered enough fans to generate boutiques from Amsterdam to Tel Aviv. The colors and design get more adventurous at Sessun (6, rue Sainte; 33-4-91-52-33-61; sessun.com), where you can pick up funky hot pants with a graph-paper motif (95 euros). Accessorize at Kothai (53, rue Sainte; 33-4-91-33-55-26; kothai.fr), a streetwear shop noted for leather bags embossed with photo images of skylines, Vespas and James Brown (35 to 75 euros).
7) CéSAR’S PALACE
The emperor of Marseille’s art scene is certainly the late César Baldaccini — known simply as César — and his temple is the Musée d’Art Contemporain (69, avenue de Haïfa; 33-4-91-25-01-07, lesartistescontemporains.com/macmarseille.html), which is filled with his playful neo-realist sculptures, from crushed automobiles to gooey quicksand-like puddles. The other artists represented — including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Dieter Roth — are no slouches, either.
8) SEIZE THE MOMENT
Where does the chef Christian Ernst find the time? Opened in 2008, his restaurant, Le Moment (5, place Sadi Carnot; 33-4-91-52-47-49; lemoment-marseille.com), offers wine classes, cooking courses for adults and kids and a regular diet of art openings. It’s a miracle he can squeeze in a pause to regale his diners. But he does — and how. His daily five-course tasting menu (46 euros) might showcase a jazzed-up red mullet (served on a bed of baby octopus tentacles and blackened olives with a saffron foam and sliced tomatoes) or an Asian-style adaptation of baby rabbit (shredded in a spring roll with a mille-feuille scallion pancake).
9) THE LIQUOR LOBBY
Swanky. Style-conscious. Sophisticated. Marseille’s night-life scene is none of these things. But the Victor Café in the lobby of the Newhotel of Marseille (71, boulevard Charles Livon; 33-4-88-00-46-00; victorcafemarseille.com) and Le Carré bar in the lobby of the Sofitel Vieux Port (36, boulevard Charles Livon; 33-4-91-15-59-00; sofitel.com) are trying to add a jigger of luxe. With its pink-illuminated interior and green-glowing outdoor pool, Victor Café serves up a colorful environment to match its glass of anise-flavored Ricard, a Marseille specialty (5 euros). Across the street, sink into a couch, order a Margarita Especial (tequila, Cointreau, agave honey, lemonade; 17 euros), and listen to lounge singers as you gaze at the Vieux Port.
10) MUMMIES AND ICE CREAM
The hillside Le Panier neighborhood is one of the most atmospheric places to stroll. Once a refuge of sailors, the cobbled streets, shady squares and pastel-hued town houses began welcoming immigrants — Italian, Corsican, Algerian — in the 20th century and are now filling with young professionals and arty types. History buffs should make a beeline to the collection of mummified cats and sarcophagi inside La Vieille Charité (2, rue de la Charité; 33-4-91-14-58-80; vieille-charite-marseille.org), a domed neo-Romanesque complex that houses archaeological finds from the Mediterranean (as well as a poetry center and bookshop). Sweet tooths, meanwhile, should line up for the gelato (2.50 euros) at Le Glacier du Roy (4, place de Lenche; 33-4-91-91-01-16).
11) SOME LIKE IT HOT
Tucked in an alley along the Vieux Port, the Zein Oriental Spa (16, quai Rive Neuve; 33-4-91-59-11-11; zeinorientalspa.fr), an upscale hammam-spa that opened last year, is very 1,001 Nights with its keyhole doorways, Moorish tilework, spice-scented air and soft Arabo-electro music. The Hammam Jasmin package (68 euros) includes a rubdown in olive-oil soap, an exfoliation by an attendant with a rough glove, and a half-hour massage.
IF YOU GO
The smell of baking bread has dissipated from the 17th-century edifice at 13, rue du Panier, a former Corsican bakery that since 2009 has housed Au Vieux Panier (33-4-91-91-23-72; auvieuxpanier.com), a stylish B&B. These days you’re more likely to smell paint. The five rooms were decorated by local artists, and the common areas host rotating exhibitions. Rooms from 85 euros (about $120).
Even more chic is Casa Honoré (123, rue Sainte, 33-4-96-11-01-62; casahonore.com), a former printing facility transformed into a luxury four-room B&B built around a lushly planted courtyard with a swimming pool. Rooms from 150 euros.
Boasting harbor views, the 40-room Hotel La Résidence du Vieux Port (18, quai du Port, 33-4-91-91-91-22; hotel-residence-marseille.com) received a Le Corbusier-inspired redesign last year that suffused it with minimalist midcentury-style décor enlivened by splashes of color. Doubles from 160 euros.