Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Easy Way to Do Marseille

Marseille, as you may know, is at the center of the European Capital of Culture for 2013 and the city has been getting ready for its close-up for years. Almost all of the shiny new sites, museums, monuments and attractions are fully up and running and just a few are still to come. Marseille is teeming with excited travelers, anxious to experience the best of the old and the new. Traffic has been re-routed; a new shuttle bus is zipping people around the Old Port; some wonderful new hotels, restaurants and shops have opened; new parking lots have popped up.

And now that the city is all spiffed up, a series of visionary--and slightly crazy--events have been organized. On two evenings last month, all the lights on the Old Port went out to make way for thousands of glowing candles and braziers. Earlier this month, 3,000 sheep (plus hundreds of horses, goats, cows and even donkeys painted to look like zebras) swarmed through the center of town led by a female "centaur" riding three black horses. Later this week, a section of the Old Port is will be briefly transformed into a giant lavender field (more info on that below). The Tour de France will pass through the city on July 3rd while EuroPride happens July 10 to 20. And an impressive schedule of other shows, exhibits, performances, workshops and installations is creating an energetic, festive vibe throughout the entire summer.

But here's the but: Marseille was never an easy city to navigate and none of that has changed. The city has always been crowded and now it's even more so. And since many of the new sites have acronyms or numbers as names--MuCEM, J1, J4 and FRAC are just four examples--you don't really know, at least at first glance, what it is they offer.

Bottom line? If you have just a day or two to explore Marseille you may find it a bit of a struggle. So what to do? You hire Sheila Johnston for a tour, of course!

Sheila has lived just outside Marseille, in one of the pretty western calanques, for more than 12 years and she edits a tourist guide to Marseille and Southern Provence called marseille-provence.info. The girl knows her stuff! Sheila offers walking tours around the Old Port and the winding streets of the Panier (Old Town, with its shops and galleries and craft shops), taking in the Vieille Charité, the Hotel Dieu and the aforementioned MuCEM: Marseille's bold and dazzling new world-class museum and the historic Fort Saint Jean, which has become its annex.

Depending on timing and your preferences, she might take you to visit some of Marseille's colorful street markets...the Maison du Pastis, which stocks 95 different types of Provence's iconic aperitif... a workshop/museum of santons (terracotta Christmas crib figures)...and a navettes bakery where the city's traditional, boat-shaped biscuits are made. 

A full-day tour could also include a ferry trip across to the other side of the Old Port. On this side, the attractions are Notre Dame de la Garde (Marseille's iconic and much-loved "Bonne Mère," with its fantastic views of the city and bay), the beautiful, ancient Saint Victor Abbey and the Jardin du Pharo (with yet more spectacular views across the Old Port). A likely stop en route is the Bar de la Marine, the haunt of Provence's famous writer Marcel Pagnol (and the setting for the climax of the rom-com Love Actually). 

Sheila can also create tours for special interests, such as food and wine, art, architecture, ancient history or football/soccer (Marseille is the home of the legendary Olympique de Marseille).

Private walking tours with Sheila start at 150 € for half a day and 250 € for a full day, excluding lunch and (if needed) local transport. For more info or to book, contact Sheila directly: sheila@marseille-provence.info.
To see the schedule in English for Marseille Provence 2013 (European Capital of Culture), click here

And finally, what about that lavender? As part of the program for MP 2013, a sea of 4,000 lavender plants will bloom on a section of the Old Port in front of the Town Hall in Marseille from Friday June 28 to Sunday July 7, courtesy of the Manosque-based cosmetics company L'Occitane en Provence. Major photo opp! The plants will be sold at the end and the proceeds will go to L'Occitane's foundation for the preservation of lavender against pests and diseases. 

Top photo courtesy of the London Evening Standard, from an article about Marseille-Provence 2013 here. Bottom photo: Sheila Johnston (sheila@marseille-provence.info) loves to share the Marseille she loves with travelers.


  1. I just took a private tour for the first time two decades, and I forgot what an absolutely pleasure it is to see a locale with a local. My tour was of Israel, but Marseille can be crazy, and apparently is nuttier now than ever. I love the idea that you don't need to spend your entire vacation with Sheila, that you can hire her for a couple of days, beeline to the highlights, and move on. Another treasure discovered by Julie.

  2. Thanks so much! Headed to Avignon (Villa Bacchus!) for two weeks in September and have a day on each end in Marseilles.

  3. I love Marseille. I have 2 girl friends who live there so I go in frequently but I am always concerned about getting lost and traffic. But the light off the Mediterranean is fabulous, the food is good and the shopping is great. This is a wonderful city to visit, especially now with all the festivities

  4. What a super and informative article, even for those of us who live in the area. Thanks again, Julie, for helping me to stay on top of so much that is happening.

  5. Hi again Julie, long time no speak!
    If anyone is looking for a summer late deal, 2 weeks from the 13th July....we are offering a luxury 5 bedroom villa with infinity pool on the coast overlooking the beautiful Island of Porquerolles!
    a visit to yourtasteofprovence.com or a call to me on 00 44 77 11 790 178 will get you started

  6. Dear Julie, glad to reconnect:-) my work was very hectic in the past 4-5 months, I could hardly find time to write (but I was reading the posts). But for two weeks I've been in Cannes plunging into French life and enjoying all its colours...
    Thank you so much for the this article; it was instrumental to identify the museums and to plan our family's tour in Marseille.
    Sheila's site turned out a great resource and I recommended it for a few Canadian people that come to visit me in August and are finalizing their plans to tour the calanques near Cassis, and the villages near Marseille. Without Sheila's informative site, any planning would have been taking much more time. The Cote Blue line was the greatest find to us!
    Thank you again!!



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