I took a bus to Marseille on a gloomy afternoon last November. The stay in Nice was cut short by two days because of some conflicts with my couch-surfing host. This time, to save myself from troubles I booked accommodation at a two-star hotel in the heart of Marseille instead of looking for free beds, and asked myself to stay in as the sun goes down.
Dropping off my backpack at the hotel room, I headed out for steep uphill walks to the iconic Notre-Dame de la Garde and reached the entrance just to find the Sunday service had begun. I found myself a seat in the back and quietly admired the church’s magnificent Byzantine-style architecture while following the rituals. Almost no meter square of the church’s interior was left plain. The arches were adorned with red and white stripped marble, ceilings lavishly painted with giant frescoes and side chapels filled with votive offerings. Being France’s second largest port city, the maritime theme was visually evident everywhere from the boat and anchor motifs in the mural paintings to the model ships under the ceiling vaults.
The service lasted for no longer than thirty minutes but the crowds took forever to dwindle. After a short self-guided tour around the church I walked out the door to be stunned by a spectacular sunset over Vieux-Port and across the city, which unfortunately couldn’t be captured because my phone ran out of battery. By this time the whole church facade had been lit up and turned into a bright and shiny gem emerging from the hill. Located at the highest natural point of Marseille, the Notre-Dame was without doubt the perfect choice for a sky view of the vibrant ancient city.
The following morning I set out to check off some attractions downtown Marseille, starting with the unmissable Vieux-Port. Traveling in the off-season I was blessed to see the port city real and raw as it is. In the morning, the promenade near Quai des Belges was lined with a bunch of fish stalls which invited local shoppers in with the freshest catch although the food seemed a little pricey. The city may not have that fancy and glamorous look compared with other cities in the French riviera like Nice and Cannes, but for some reason it gives me a sense of familiarity, something to remind me of my coastal hometown back in Vietnam.
Vieux-Port in the morning
Musée d’Histoire de Marseille (History Museum)
Cathédrale de la Major (Marseille Cathedral)
Le Cours Julien was probably the most fascinating neighborhood in Marseille with trendy cafe, vintage restaurants, souvenir shops and colorful street art that brought the whole streetscape to life. I discovered this area accidentally by turning into any random corners and keeping walking for no purpose. The deeper I ventured into the neighborhood, the more lively it became. Not all who wander are lost. Marseille was full of nice surprises that only came along with fresh minds and low expectations.
Street art in Le Cours Julien
Marseille may have been notorious with drugs, crime and insecurity but not necessary a blacklist destination. Here are my two-cents for solo (female) travelers:
- Try to squeeze the sightseeing and street roaming in the day-time which is absolutely doable since most of the city’s top attractions are in the walking distance. Avoid walking alone at night.
- Stay in the safe neighborhoods in the center like Vieux-Port or Le Panier so you won’t need to commute on the packed buses/trains and thereby reduce the risks of being pick-pocketed. Strongly recommend the great-value Hotel Moderne on Rue Breteil.
- Don’t make yourself look like a tourist by glueing your eyes on maps and taking pictures constantly.
- Don’t bring too much cash or valuable items with you. Or you can travel with a neck wallet and wear it under your shirt (although it may look not so cool…