7 Reasons to Go to Marseille (Before Paris)

3:37 PM

At MuCEM - the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. 


1) Because the Internet is full of lies. It's a wonderful thing that I let my friend decide on a pre-Paris stop for us and that I didn’t research Marseille at all before we booked the ticket. Otherwise, I would have absolutely refused to go. The Internet paints it as a very dirty town run by gangs everywhere you look, where not getting pickpocketed would be a miraculous occasion. Instead, not only was I not the victim of any sort of theft or crime, but I explored a beautiful port city with a super-Mediterranean feel that made me look at France in an entirely different way (fun fact: it's not just Paris). 

2) No one speaks English. We were there from Tuesday evening to Saturday morning, and we found approximately no one working in cafés or stores who parler-ed anglais. More surprisingly, we heard only two or three English-speaking tourists on the street. Why? Refer to #1. We suspect there is an elaborate plot to keep American tourists out of Marseille. 

It is a great idea to hit up a place analogous to Marseille before getting to your study-abroad destination, especially if you're going to a snooty place like Paris. It gives you ample time to make a fool of yourself and remember key vocab where people are relatively nice (lots of sun, you know?). 

You can also ask stupid questions at restaurants without fear of ever seeing anyone there again, like..."Why did you give us a glass of ice and a spoon with our wine?" Answer: for pouring rosé over individual chunks of ice in your own glasses. Duh. 


3) Food! And not just French food! Of course we cannot speak for all of Marseille and all of its cultures, but it seems that the ethnic diversity brings a lot of excellent cuisine into play. Because, how many times can you eat Salade Niçoise? We went to an amazing Tunisian restaurant right on our street called La Kahena. I ordered a bowl of couscous with stewed lamb, and it also came with cooked vegetables, chickpeas, and a bowl of red broth probably made with harissa to ladle on top of the whole thing. Multi-step meals feel more...satisfying, right? Like you're responsible for 1% of the 'wow'?

I am not a huge fan of couscous, but I am thinking about how much I want to repeat this meal as I type. The very sweet mint tea and selection of “Tunisian cakes” for dessert brought out on a platter for our selection made the night for me. What doubly made it was that I realized I left my phone there, and I came back maybe 10 minutes later, and the staff joyfully returned it to me. Good people are everywhere. (People - 1. Internet - 0.)

Honorable mention: the ice cream at Maison de la Glace on rue de la République.  

4) You can take day trips to Provence. Although some fantasize about doing photoshoots (or Instagram hyping) in the fields of lavender, 'twas not the season for that on our trip. Instead, we took a 30-minute, cheap bus to a small town called Aix-en-Provence. Somehow, I had an image of cows wandering the streets in a tiny village undiscovered by 80% of the world (except for L'Occitane customers) in my mind. Or at least a very small town. Reality check: it was pretty, walkable, full of charming alleyways and restaurants, and yes, a flower market...but not that small or provincial feeling. I mean, they have electricity and everything, imagine that! Now that I look at Wikipedia, yes, there are 143,000 people living there. Whoops. Sometimes, the Internet is right.

Honestly, I am listing Marseille's proximity to other towns in the South of France as a bonus, but I wouldn't specifically insist on you going to Aix. Maybe hit up St. Tropez, instead? The highlight of it for us was visiting Paul Cézanne's artistic atelier. Less so the part where we got more than twenty mosquito bites each in the garden (the pics are too gory). 



5) The Calanques! See my entire photo post devoted to raving about them here. Hehe, cheating.

6) It's like going to Italy and France in one trip. I've been to Venice and Rome in Italy, and Paris and Nice in France, and Marseille felt like it had more in common with the former than the latter...architecturally, by the attitude of the people who lived there, and by the over-abundance of Italian restaurants (perfect veal scallopine at Fuxia). My travel bud Alisa said it felt like Naples, with amazing food and a lot of grittiness if you only look at it at a surface level. There's actually a great museum about European and Mediterranean civilizations where we may or may not have accidentally snuck into the gallery for free called MuCEM where you could probably learn about the blended history of Marseille. You know, if you spent more time in the galleries than enjoying the (free and stunning) gardens and grounds. 


7) Last but not least – when your AirBnB host finds you curled up in the fetal position on her couch, crying and muttering “I just want to go home,” you will be able to thank your lucky stars that she is not your actual host family and you will never see her again after three more days. 

If you don't take some time before moving in with your host family in your primary study abroad city, the meltdown might well happen there. Which is totally ok, too...but in Marseille, the salty (and very cold) ocean can wash your tears away. 

Bonus story: every list of "what to do in Marseille" includes bouillabaisse, a traditional fish stew made with fresh seafood caught in the Mediterranean, and we honestly planned to eat it. I researched where to go, we both set aside the requisite €45-60 (per person)...and then it somehow came out that neither of us particularly liked fish stew. And we decided not to have it. Making this decision was oddly satisfying! Rejecting a traditional rule of Marseille tourism seemed almost blasphemous, but hopefully we set a trend for the rest of our semester in Paris. Imagine if guidebooks just said "You do you..."


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