Read about the city

The Marseille history and sights of the southern metropolis in France are centered around the old port of the city, which was a natural place for Greek colonists. They built their first city in the area right here. It was around 600 BC, and since then several other Mediterranean cultures have influenced the city's development.

The history of Marseille and influencing cultures can be seen at the MuCEM Museum, which was established close to some of the major fortifications at the port entrance. Fort Saint-Jean and Fort Saint-Nicolas are opposite each other as symbols of the French royal power which established the fortifications to control the rebel city which has since given its name to the French national anthem; La Marseillaise.

Marseille is also a city of interesting and beautiful architecture. The 19th-century city cathedral stands beautifully in Neo Byzantine inspiration next to the old church, which was built 800 years earlier in Romanesque style. More recently, Swiss architect Le Courbusier has designed La Cité Radieuse, which with new thinking set new standards for housing.

Marseille is also a good place for excursions to i.e. the island of Château d'If, which was made famous by Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo. The fine sandy beaches along Marseille's coastlines and cities such as Toulon, Aix-en-Provence and Nîmes are also good choices for a day trip.

Other attractions

Fort St Jean, Marseille

  • Saint John's Fort/Fort Saint-Jean: Fort Saint-Jean is a fortress at the entrance to the old port of Marseille, facing the Fort of Saint-Nicolas. It was built under King Louis XIV in 1660.
  • La Canebière: La Canebière is the main street of Marseille leading through the old quarter of the city at the port area of Vieux-Port. The street was laid out in 1666 under King Louis XIV, and it was part of the king's expansion and modernization of the city.

Marseille City History Museum

  • Marseille History Museum/Musée d'Histoire de Marseille: This is a museum of local history and archaeology. The museum opened in 1983 in connection with previous excavations at the site, where new finds from Marseille's history were discovered.

Vieille Charite, Marseille

  • The Old Almshouse/La Vieille Charité: La Vieille Charité is one of Marseilles fine building complexes from the Baroque era and was built as a place for poor people in the city. It was designed by Pierre Puget and built between 1671 and 1749.

Palais Longchamp, Marseille

  • Palais Longchamp: The Palais Longchamp is one of Marseille's large and imposing buildings. The palace-like building was erected on the occasion of the opening of the Canal de Marseille.
History overview

    [expand title="Read about city history" id="historie2" swaptitle="Hide content"]
    The Greek origin
    The Marseille area was settled around the year 600 BC. by Greek colonists from Fokaia in Asia Minor. Fokaia was an important center of trade and shipping, and their southern French colony called the Massalia, which has become today's Marseille. Greeks came to Massalia several times; including about 540, when Persians destroyed Fokaia.

    Massalia was strategically good for trade in the Mediterranean, and in Greek times the city became one of the leading trading stations. At the peak of the city, it had in the 300s BC. about 6,000 inhabitants, and Massalia was surrounded by protective city walls.

    There were several major buildings in Massalia; including temples dedicated to Apollo and Artemis. There was also a form of Republican democracy with a council where the city's 600 richest determined its development.

    Roman Massilia
    In time, the Greek colonies around the western Mediterranean were pushed by new powers that emerged. It also applied to Massalia, who could see Carthage grow and both Celts and Etruscans as people who broadened their influence.

    In response to this new competition and threat, Massalia allied with the Roman Republic. It provided both protection and also access to the lucrative Roman market, which brought Massalia new trade and prosperity.

    Massalia remained independent until Julius Caesar's time in Rome. The city was a party for Caesar's opponents, which ended with a Roman siege and subsequent conquest in the year 49 BC. The Romans confiscated the city's fleet, and Massalia was renamed the more Roman Massilia.

    In Roman times Massilia developed further, and many Greek plants were rebuilt and expanded; this applied to the city's port area, among other things. It was also during this time that Christianity spread and gained its former ancestry with the construction of churches. Thus, the diocese of Massilia was established already in the first century AD.

    Times of rise and fall
    The greatness of the Roman Empire was good for Marseille's development, and even the centuries after the Romans became good times for the city governed by the Visigoths of the 400s.

    With its large port and extensive facilities, Marseille even became one of the entire Mediterranean's leading trading places in the 500s, which was a heyday of the city. Greek and Roman structures continued to be used, and the ancient and existing city walls were an asset for protection and prosperity.

    739 was a fateful year for Marseille. This year, the city was attacked by Karl Martell's armies; he was the ruler of the empire and the real leader of the three Frankish kingdoms of the time. Martell attacked due to political opposition to his governor, and it marked the beginning of several centuries of decline in Marseille.

    900s to the Middle Ages
    After facing several attacks since the victory of Karl Martell in 739, the Counties of Provence from the 9th century developed Marseille to once again become a regional trading center with new prosperity.

    In 1214, Marseille was established as a republic, which of course provided new opportunities. However, it also came to political struggles and defeat; just as the plague ravaged the years 1347-1361. It is believed to have killed about 15,000 residents or more than half of the city. This led to an economic downturn, which was only compounded by the plunder of Aragon in 1423.

    New good times came quickly, however, as Provence Count René of Anjou allowed Marseille to expand with significant fortifications from 1437. On that occasion, the city became the most fortified in France outside Paris. René of Anjou used Marseille's strong harbor as a starting point for his voyage to recapture the Kingdom of Sicily. After this, Marseille's defense around the port was greatly expanded; it happened in the years 1447-1453.

    Marseille in France
    In 1481, Marseille was united with Provence and the following year it became part of France. However, the city became a continuing source of potential revolt against the central government in Paris. When King Frans I visited Marseille a few decades after the association, the construction of the Château d'If off the town's port became one of the defensive results.

    A few years later, troops from the German-Roman Empire besieged Marseille, and the city's port was the home of a fleet from the Franco-Ottoman Alliance, which faced not least the German-Roman Empire and neighboring Genoa.

    The rebel thoughts gained momentum over time, and King Louis XIV himself was at the head of the French army, which was to crush a real revolt with Marseille's governor. It was in the middle of the 17th century, and the king gained control of the city and allowed the forts of Saint-Nicolas and Saint-Jean to erect on either side of the harbor. This was done to strengthen the city's defense, but at the same time the forts were also positions of strength from the king and the government against any new unrest.

    1700s and the Revolutionary years
    Marseille's position as France's most important port on the Mediterranean was cemented through the 1700s, when several developments of both port facilities and site fortification were completed.

    Progress was evident, but there were also significant setbacks for the city, not least the plague that hit several times. As a result of the epidemic of 1720, about 100,000 are thought to have been killed by the disease in and around Marseille.

    Throughout the 18th century many prestigious buildings were erected, and some institutions saw the light of day. It was about the city's science academy, a poor house and the elegant Château Borély a little south of the city center.

    With the French Revolution later in the 18th century, the monarchy declined and a revolutionary government ruled in Paris. The song La Marseillaise was written in Strasbourg in 1792 and it had its breakthrough in Marseille the same year. The song, which became a French national anthem in 1795, was sung at the inlet of Paris by the Marseille forces taken to protect the revolutionary government. In this way, Marseille came to put its long-lasting mark on France due to the revolution.

    New growth
    of the 19th century Throughout the 19th century, strong growth occurred in Marseille through industrialization, the railway, urbanization and other things that generally belonged to the 19th century. In addition, the colonial status of France gained special importance for Marseilles.

    With the French conquests in North Africa, not least Algeria, Marseille became the natural port for trade with the colonies. This resulted in a marked increase in prosperity, which just got better conditions with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

    The favorable economic development allowed for some new construction, and from this time a part of Marseille's large mansions, monuments and so on. These include, for example, the Palais de Justice, the current Notre-Dame de la Garde, the city's cathedral and the Arc de Triomphe at Place Jules Guesde.

    The economy, industries and trade attracted many new inhabitants to Marseille. Throughout the 19th century the population increased from about 110,000 to almost 500,000. New railways and trams were built to cope with the increasing traffic volume.

    The Port of the Empire and Alexander
    In Marseille's status as the primary port and with the considerable traffic on the colonies made the city something special compared to international France. In both 1906 and 1922, large colonial exhibitions were conducted in the city, and large drawers made its mark in several places in Marseille. The city's train station, Saint-Charles, was thus given a new and imposing entrance staircase, which has been laid out with statues and other decoration as a manifestation of the success of the French colonies.

    However, the port and its shops also attracted a lot of crime over time, and between the two world wars of the 20th century, the city had a reputation for corruption and organized crime. A criminal act, inscribed in the history books, happened on the streets of the city on October 9, 1934. Here, King Yugoslav King Alexander I arrived in Marseilles to meet with French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou. Alexander and Louis Barthou were shot and killed at La Canebìere outside the Palais de la Bourse by a revolutionary Bulgarian.

    World War II to date
    Both German and Italian bombings ravaged Marseille in 1940, and from November 1942 to July 1944 the city was occupied by German troops. In 1944, Allied forces bombed Marseille's old port during the liberation of France, and Marseille itself was liberated on August 29 of that year.

    The city was rebuilt in the post-war years, and new architecture saw the light of day with Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse in the 1950s. Housing was also built around the old port; it was and is the La Tourette complex.

    The decades after World War II were also where more than a million immigrants from primarily North Africa came to France, and not least the many from Algeria have since left their mark on the southern French metropolis. Many French also returned from the colonies and settled in Marseilles; those were the so-called pied-noirs.

    In recent decades, much has been invested in tourism. The city center is in former glory and new museums of international character have been opened. Part of Marseille's large port district has also been established as a new area with offices, shops and new housing. The crown of the work of the great effort to develop the city was the status of European Capital of Culture in 2013.
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Marseille, France

Top attractions

Vieux Port, Marseille

  • The Old Port/Vieux Port: The Old Port of Marseille is a natural harbor that has been used since ancient times, and it remains the city's center of activities including the main street of La Canebière. There are museums, castles and other sights around the harbor.
  • Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations/Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée: This museum, also known simply as MuCEM, is a French national museum that opened in 2013 showing civilizations in Europe and the Mediterranean.

Marseille Cathedral

  • La Major Cathedral/Cathedrale de la Major: Cathedrale de la Major is Marseille's Roman Catholic cathedral, which is also designated as a French national monument. The church was built with Byzantine inspiration in the years 1852-1896.
  • Our Lady of Guard/Notre-Dame de la Garde: The church of Notre-Dame de la Garde is beautifully located on the top of Marseille and it is one of the city's landmarks. It is a Catholic basilica built on the highest point of the city. From the area in front of the church you can enjoy a fantastic view of the city.

St Victor Abbey, Marseille

  • St Victor Abbey/Abbaye Saint-Victor: Abbaye Saint-Victor is a former convent with an on-site church, named after the Christian martyr, Victor of Marseilles.The church is worth seeing, and the interior of the church exudes old times and devotion.
  • La Cité Radieuse: La Cité Radieuse is a residential building that became a landmark in style, philosophy and interior design according to architect Le Corbusier's design principles. It was built in the suburbs of Marseilles in the years 1947-1952.
Trips in the area

Château d'If, France

  • Château d'If: Château d'If is a castle built on the island of If, the smallest of the four Frioul Islands, located off Marseille. It is a short boat ride from the city and is known from Alexandre Dumas’ fairy tale novel The Count of Monte Cristo.
  • Aix-en-Provence: The city of Aix-en-Provence is buzzing with Provencal ambience, and the narrow streets are like a picture perfect book of beauty. Le Cours Mirabeau, Musée Granet and the city's cathedral are among the sights.

Toulon, France

  • Toulon: Toulon is one of the major cities along the French Mediterranean coast, and there are several sights and a lovely atmosphere here. You can experience an exciting old town with cozy streets, squares, fountains and markets.

Arles, France

  • Arles: Arles is an old town where you can see some preserved ruins from Roman times; eg the Arena/Arènes d'Arles and the Antique Theater/Theatre Antique, but here are also many other things to see and do.
  • Nîmes: The historical monuments of the city center of Nîmes are numerous, and it is one of the places to see the highest number of Roman remains at all. Most famous are the city's old amphitheater and the Maison Carrée temple.
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With kids
  • Natural History: Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, Longchamp Palace, Montricher Boulevard,
  • Maritime Museum: Musée de la Marine et de l’Economie de Marseille, Palais de la Bourse, La Canebière,
  • Motorcycles: Musée de la Moto, 18 Traverse Saint Paul,
  • Museum: Musée des Civilisations d’Europe et Méditerranée, 1 Esplanade Du J4,
  • Beaches: Plages du Prado, Promenade Georges Pompidou
Practical info