The MR PORTER Travel Guide To Marseille
View of Les Bords de Mer, Marseille. Photograph courtesy of Les Domaines de Fontenille
Paris? Non merci. When it comes to French getaways, Marseille should be the only metropolis on your horizon. Once deemed downtrodden and dangerous, these past few years the city has metamorphosed, becoming the destination de choix for the savvy traveller. Set on the craggy shores of la Côte Bleue, Marseille is a proud port town and owes its rich culture to immigrants from Greece, Corsica and North Africa who have historically made a home here. If you’re looking for snazzy boulevards and grands magasins, then look away. Marseille is a city free of such pretensions, moving to its own, distinctive beat.
Where to stay
Courtyard restaurant at Le Moulin, Lourmarin. Photograph courtesy of Beaumier
Entrance to The Tuba Club, Marseille. Photograph by Florian Touzet, courtesy of The Tuba Club
Regularly listed among the hottest spots in Marseille (though it technically sits on the city’s outskirts in Les Goudes), the design-forward beach club and boutique hotel Tuba draws a stylish, international crowd, plus a fair few parisiens. This summer, it’s fresh off a renovation-slash-expansion, with three new sizeable, retro-inspired suites, plus an open-plan living space kitted out with Ligne Roset sofas and a mirrored cocktail bar. Back in the original digs, ultra-pared-back rooms are dotted with upcycled nautical finds and built to cabin-style dimensions – though with each promising a sea view, you’ll likely be lured outside to lounge on the Instagram-famous yellow sunbeds. For lunch, tuck into the local fisherman’s catch of the day, and be sure to rifle through the beautifully curated edit of souvenirs before you bid adieu.
“Unusual stay” is how you might categorise Pavilion Southway, a maison d’art set back from a busy boulevard in the suburb of Mazargues. It was founded by curator and artist Ms Emmanuelle Luciani, who turned her grandfather’s 19th-century home into a gallery and exhibition space, with two bookable bedrooms upstairs. The vibe is Charleston-meets-Mr David Lynch, with Arte Povera quilts and pastel frescoes on the one hand, and neo-gothic, gaudy sculpture on the other. While as a hotel comfort isn’t quite Pavilion Southway’s forte, the novelty factor is worth it. Even if you opt for a flying visit (perhaps after a trip to La Cité Radieuse), be sure to come for the photos.
Les Bords de Mer
For luxurious yet low-key amenities, turn to the chic Les Bords de Mer hotel. Part of the Domaines de Fontenille collection but still boutique in feel, it’s housed in an absolute sliver of a building that’s perched on the rock-hewn seafront and just a five-minute stroll from Plage des Catalans. Space may be scarce here, but it’s no less serene for it, thanks to airy, whitewashed interiors that are bathed in sunlight and unbeatable views of the crystal-blue waters. Then there’s the Susanne Kaufman spa tucked away in the basement. Meanwhile, its equally captivating restaurant, which celebrates seafood dishes with a subtle Asian twist, is worth stopping by even if you aren’t staying.
France’s once-maligned second city is a constant thrum of activity. But venture out an hour north and you’ll find respite in the peaceful, Provençal air of Lourmarin (once home to Mr Albert Camus). Besides the 15th-century chateau and the bustling market, the petite Luberon village’s crowning glory is the Le Moulin hotel, a former mill that’s been lovingly revamped by Jaune architects and is manned by exceptionally friendly staff. No detail is overlooked, here: expect tomes by local authors in the bedrooms, Grown Alchemist toiletries in the terracotta-tiled bathrooms, and a charming village shop where you can pop in for a hearty sandwich. Come dinnertime, settle into the monasterial restaurant for plates of grilled octopus, flamed leeks and chocolate ganache.
Where to eat
Vitello Tonnato at Sarment, Marseille. Photograph by Leslie Collet, courtesy of Sarment
Dining room at AM Par Alexandre Mazzia, Marseille. Photograph by Mr Matthieu Cellard, courtesy of AM Par Alexandre Mazzia
“Simple, but well done, Italian-style and Mediterranean food,” is how chef Mr Harry Cummins describes the cuisine at La Mercerie, his flagship restaurant in an old haberdashery in the commercial Noailles District. Voted the best “sophistroquet” by Le Fooding in 2019, the restaurant’s seasonal, ingredient-oriented dishes are not only flavoursome and fresh but aesthetically intriguing – composed with the painterliness of a Dutch still life. The restaurant’s stripped-back interior includes an open kitchen from which Cummins can be seen cooking most days. Behind-the-scenes, the wine menu has been conceived by sommelier Ms Laura Vidal, with a focus on all things natural and local.
It’d be criminal, frankly, to leave Marseille without tucking into a hearty seafood supper. And while there’s certainly no shortage of brilliant spots to do so, the hidden-away Onassis (so christened in tribute to Ms Jackie Kennedy’s second husband, on a street named after her first) comes highly raved about by locals in the know. Opening hours are limited, even by French standards, but secure one of a handful of tables on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening and you’ll be treated to an array of innovative fishy dishes by chef Mr Joffrey Bohaer in Cote d’Azur interiors. And no need to pick and choose, here – the five-course tasting menu will take you on a journey through the Med by way of delights such as oysters with kiwi compote, lobster-bisque risotto and clams with a kumquat confit.
AM par Alexandre Mazzia / Michel par AM
Gourmands the world over travel to Marseille just to dine at AM par Alexandre Mazzia, one of only a few three-Michelin-starred eateries in the region (although that figure is sure to start creeping up). On the menu? Globally influenced and intricate dishes that harness local Provence produce all while nodding to Mazzia’s childhood years in the Congo with a triad of “smoke, spice and chilli”. Unsurprisingly, you’ll need a good deal of fortune on your side to land a table – the waiting list is expectedly lengthy – but even those who aren’t so lucky can sample his critically lauded flavours. A short walk down the street, chefs from the restaurant take turns to whip up haute-cuisine remixes on hot dogs and croques from the Michel par AM food truck, which is set to pop up at the Paris Olympics.
The gothic colophon and Yves Klein blue façade are red herrings when it comes to what is on the inside of the restaurant Caterine. Headed by chef Ms Marie Dijon and with no serving staff (to cut costs), Caterine operates like a canteen: order your meal at the comptoir and wait a few moments for it to arrive on a silver tray. The menu, which changes every week, is based on local, sustainably sourced produce. It oscillates from bistro classics like steak tartare and filet d’agneau to veggie, fish and seafood-based dishes. Caterine’s large, leafy terrace in the back is the perfect place to escape the heat for a couple of hours. Just don’t forget to return your tray on the way out.
The achingly cool Sarment wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the likes of Hackney or Brooklyn: think sharing plates, deliberately unfinished interiors, and a contemporary soundtrack. But it stops just short of feeling pretentious or placeless thanks to its warm, inviting ambience, with low-lit doily lamps and an exceptionally charismatic young servers. One thing you won’t find in Sarment: menus. Instead, a chalkboard of the day’s dishes will be hoisted in front of you, where you can choose from the likes of hoisin pork breast paired with asparagus and red-eye gravy and tamarind courgettes with taleggio. Wash each down with a natural wine pick recommended by the well-informed waiters, then finish with a refreshing glass of pastis.
Where to drink
Livingston, Marseille. Photo by Mr Adrian Bautista, courtesy of Livingston
The Shaolin cocktail at Apotek. Photograph by Ms Sybille Berger, courtesy of Apotek
Buzzy orange-wine spot Livingston is a product of the team behind upmarket eatery La Mercerie. Which is to say, while it may have picked up the “bar à delices” plaudit from Le Fooding in 2022 (mere months after opening), you could do worse than to drop by here for a small-plates dinner, too, courtesy of Marseille-born chef Mr Valentin Raffali. But pork crokettas and nduja pizettas aside, it’s Livingston’s thoroughly exhaustive list of biodynamic and organic picks that makes it the must-visit destination for anyone who likes their wine a little earthier (note: Livingston is credited with kicking off the trend in the city). And even if you’re not much of a connoisseur, be sure to book in a visit just to soak up the electric atmosphere.
Cocktail bars are myriad in Marseille, but that doesn’t make perky apéro joint Apotek on the rue Consolat any less of a gem. True to the city’s unassuming vibe, it’s a more laid-back local watering hole than glitzy hotspot to see and be seen, with loyal patrons smoking, sipping and tucking into pulled-mushroom tacos under the unmissable bright-green parasols. As for the drinks themselves, it’s a concise but eclectic menu that evolves with the seasons – spring and summer bring with them a eucalyptus-infused Cynar spritz and a coffee-mezcal creation, to name a few. And should be you in the market for a non-alcoholic option, rest assured their equally considered mocktails more than hold their own.
Where to get coffee
Coffee and cakes at Deep Coffee, Marseille. Photograph courtesy of Deep Coffee
Tarte chocolat pralinée noisettes at Petrin Couchette, Marseille. Photograph by Mr Adrian Bautista, courtesy of Petrin Couchette
While sitting en terrasse is something of an art form in France, coffee snobs may find the goods aren’t always up to scratch. Located near Marseille’s Vieux Port, the coffee shop and specialty roastery Deep will be an oasis for any voyagers craving their quotidian flat white, americano or filter coffee. Founded by Mr Tony Collins, who left a career as a music producer in New York to train as a barista, Deep sells a well curated collection of independent magazines beyond its coffee and cake. Meanwhile, its second location in Marseille sits in a disused newspaper kiosk in the 5th arrondissement, with tables aptly positioned for people watching.
The unaffected Café Coogee is named after the Australian beach spot just down from Bondi and feels like a little slice of Sydney in Marseille. A far cry from the bourgeois cafés for which French cities are famed, this place is strewn with succulent plants and reclaimed wood furniture, with a bicycle suspended from the ceiling. The owners are a brother-sister duo: coffee obsessive and former Coogee resident Yoann is the barista extraordinaire, while sister Anais oversees all the food. Beyond its brilliant homemade muffins and top-tier flat whites, head over for a brunch of burrata and tomato-confit toast.
Chef and restaurateur Mr Harry Cummins was inspired by London bakeries such as E5 when Pétrin Couchette, a “boulangerie, café de spécialité et sandwicherie”, opened next door to La Mercerie last year. A joint venture with the British barista Mr Rob Hazzel, beyond the very good coffee, Petrin’s menu includes a rotating cast of sandwiches (tonkatsu chicken, oeuf mayo) as well as sausage rolls, focaccias and patisseries – the kitchen and its eponymous “pétrins” (that’s kneading troughs) are visible from yellow-tiled counter. The 50-cover terrace on the Cours Saint Louis will start offering a brunch menu later this summer.
Where to go
View of MuCEM next to the Fort Saint-Jean at the entrance to the old port, Marseille. Photograph by Mr Cyrille Weiner, courtesy of MuCEM
With the name translating as “together”, Ensemble is the physical shop and exhibition space of publishing house and graphic design studio Loose Joints. Founded by Anglo-French couple Mr Lewis Chaplin and Ms Sarah Chaplin Espenon, who specialize in contemporary photography, the books on sale (both their own and others) are cool and quirky, with a thematic focus on anthropology – keep an eye out for the Marseille-themed literature corner. The store, which is located on a quiet street behind the Vieux Port, contains furniture by Mr Dirk van der Kooij and modular display units by industrial designer CP-RV. These are shifted aside to make room for talks, film screenings, exhibitions and events.
La Friche De La Belle De Mai
La Friche de la Belle de Mai was founded in 1992 as an urban regeneration project on the site of a former cigarette factory in a working-class neighbourhood of the city. Meaning “wasteland”, La Friche is anything but – a cultural complex headquartering 70 organisations and 400 artist residences. Although outside the usual tourist trail, La Friche is still popular among visitors, with art exhibition and concert spaces, as well as a skatepark and Monday farmers market amongst the attractions. In the summer, the 8,000sq m roof terrace is used for picnics as well as concerts. An open-air cinema operates on Sundays.
When Marseille was designated as the Capital of Culture in 2013, one of the city’s most significant new additions was the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM). Located at the entrance to the Old Port, the museum is housed in a lattice-like structure which resembles the oceanic and mineral forms beyond. Inside, MuCEM’s exhibitions, both permanent and temporary, history, art and afterlives of Mediterranean cultures – from Romani migration and motherhood to football and graffiti. The museum also invites international artists to put on displays which make links to the Mediterranean territory. Previous artists have included Messrs Ai Weiwei and Jeff Koons.
Designed by Le Corbusier, La Cité Radieuse is one of France’s most important architectural landmarks. Built in response to the post-war housing crisis, it debuted Le Corbusier’s highly influential vision for the modern apartment block, also known as the Unité d’Habitation. With its pops of colour amid all the brutalist béton, La Cité Radieuse is as sublime as it is avant-garde and earned the architect the reputation as “le fada” (the crazy one). Protected as a Unesco World Heritage Site, tours around La Cité Radieuse allow visitors to properly experience its light-filled interiors, and today the rooftop – with panoramic views of the city – operates as an open-air art space.