Surrounded by the enchanting scenery of rural Provence, the port of Marseille is the oldest city in France. It recently emerged as an international tourist destination and its neighboring villages provide travelers with countless places to explore and activities to experience.
Although the nearby villages of Provence remained a well-kept secret to most people over the centuries, luminaries ranging from Catholic popes to artists like Van Gogh and Matisse chose to live there.
Located at the junction of the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone River, Marseille was founded by the Greeks in about 600 B.C. It soon turned into a major trading port and continues to fulfill a similar role today. Marseille’s historic monuments attract visitors from around the world.
Discover beautiful buildings and narrow streets as if you are stepping back through hundreds and thousands of years in time. Provence is also a great place to sample and shop for products ranging from wines and cheeses to lavender oil given the extensive farming activities in this fertile region.
As with any other cruise to Europe, our vacation experts have put together a list of great things you can do while you cruise to Marseille. These tours make it easier for you to get the most out of your time during your vacation. You can do most of these through guided shore excursions, and most excursions provide free time, too, for exploring on your own.
Here’s our list of the top 11 things to do in Marseille, France.
1. See the City Essentials
The Old Port, near your cruise ship in the harbor, is the main tourist area in Marseille. Take an Easy Tour of Marseille & Free Time, where you will board a motor coach and take a narrated drive along the Corniche J.F. Kennedy through the Old Port and beyond, offering lovely views of offshore islands from the coastal road.
Your motor coach will then travel from the center of Marseille past the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde. Built in a fabulous Byzantine style of gold and multicolored stones, this basilica sits on top of Garde Hill.
You’ll have the opportunity to photograph this centuries-old military observation post and religious pilgrimage site Graced with a statue of the Virgin Mary on its bell tower, the basilica is said to watch over sailors, fishermen and the whole city of Marseille.
You’ll also see Longchamp Palace, a large and lavish monument inaugurated in 1869 to celebrate the construction of the Canal de Marseille, which brought water from the Durance River to Marseille. This canal was direly needed during the mid-1800s, and gave the city additional water supply and access to new trade routes.
After visiting the monument, return to the Old Port and enjoy some free time for shopping.
2. Taste Cheeses and Wines
No cruise to Marseille and Provence is complete without a wine and cheese tasting. On the shore excursion, Aix en Provence, Cheese & Wine, you’ll visit a cheese shop above a restaurant in Aix, directly after a tour of this fascinating Provencal town. You’ll taste six cheeses and three wines.
Before your tasting, you’ll enjoy a walking tour of the Cours Mirabeau. This wide thoroughfare is lined with glorious old mansions and shaded by trees and was built in the 1600s on the city’s medieval ramparts.
You’ll see a fountain dating back to 1743, which streams 93 degree Fahrenheit water. Be sure to take note of the various architectural styles of the Saint Sauveur Cathedral, which date between the fifth and 17th centuries.
3. Get Next to an Ancient Roman Aqueduct
The Pont du Gard is a famous Roman aqueduct bridge, built around the year 40 A.D. It once carried 44 million gallons of water a day. On an excursion known as Avignon, Pope’s Palace & Pont du Gard, you’ll drive to the aqueduct and observe this amazing ancient engineering feat from a nearby vantage point.
You’ll then move on to nearby Avignon for a walk around this delightful, historic town, which remains within its 14th-century walls with beautifully preserved ramparts and bell towers. Wander the vast galleries and great halls of the Palace of the Popes, the largest Gothic structure in the world and home to nine Popes from 1309 to 1378.
Visit Avignon’s boutiques and art galleries, and craft, jewelry and souvenir shops. After the tour, you’ll return to Marseille via the highway, you’ll travel through breathtaking vineyards, orchards and cypress trees in the countryside.
4. Enjoy a French Lunch
On the excursion called A Day in Provence With Lunch, you’ll first journey to Roussillon, a quaint village located on the highest hill between the Coulon Valley and the Vaucluse Plateau. These striking hills are made of ochre rock in many shades, which are featured in the local houses, too.
You’ll visit the ochre quarries and then spend some free time in the village. Hop on to your motor coach for a short drive to a countryside restaurant for a local French lunch.
You’ll then travel onto Gordes to walk through this traditional Medieval village, beautifully situated between a rocky cliff and the delightful inlets and sandy beaches of the seacoast. Browse the many craft shops and art galleries.
5. See the Home Town of Nostradamus
On a shore excursion called Beautiful French Towns: Arles & St. Remy, you’ll visit the ancient Roman town of Arles, where the famous artist Van Gogh spent time living and working during the late 1880’s. Then you’ll go to Saint Remy de Provence, where the 16th century prognosticator Nostradamus was born.
You’ll depart by motor coach for your 75-minute journey to Arles, an ancient Roman-Gallo town situated along the Rhone River. You’ll view the Roman amphitheater and the beautiful Romanesque St. Trophime Church. Enjoy a lunch of French cuisine, this time at a restaurant in Arles.
Next you’ll go to the enchanting town of Saint-Rémy de Provence. Before you enter the town, you’ll pass by the St. Paul Mausoleum and Sanatorium, where the artist Van Gogh created many paintings in 1889.
6. Learn About Lavender
On another excursion, Luberon Villages and Lavender Museum, you’ll first travel to the provincial village of Lourmarin. You’ll walk the cobblestone streets and get a great view of a nearby castle.
Then you’ll take a guided tour of the unique architectural structures in Roussillon. Unlike anything you’ve seen before, these structures are made up of gorgeously colored rocks in a spectrum of ochre tones.
On the final leg of this trip, you’ll rejoin the motor coach and drive to Coustellet for a look at the lovely lavender fields. A stop at the intriguing Lavender Museum will give you the opportunity to learn about the history of lavender and its uses. You’ll also have time to try beauty products, such as lavender oil, and purchase some if you wish.
7. Catch a Fishing Village
Fishing is another important aspect of traditional Provencal life. On the shore excursion called A Magical Day at Cassis, you’ll drive by the stretched seashore and the Calanques National Park.
From the park, you’ll be transported by shuttle train to the center of Cassis, a vibrant fishing village.
The guide will take you on a tour of the town that’s served as inspiration for famous painters like Matisse, Vlaminck and Dufy. Then you’ll have the opportunity to get a bite to eat, explore on your own, shop or head to the local beach for sunbathing.
8. Visit a Winery
On the shore excursion Châteauneuf du Pape and Avignon, you’ll visit a local winery and taste a trio of superb wines. In Châteauneuf du Pape, vineyards were originally planted on land owned by Avignon popes, who spent summers there during the 14th century. The vineyards still actively produce some of the best wines in the world.
Next you’ll experience a guided tour of Avignon. Located above the town, on a huge rock, is the palace of the Avignon popes and a fabulous cathedral combining Baroque and Byzantine architectural styles. The church is topped by a St. Mary lantern, which gives off a glow that can be seen at night for miles around.
9. Get the Best of Two Worlds
On the excursion Arles & Aix en Provence, experience the contrasting atmospheres of two Provencal villages in a single day. In the Romanesque town of Arles, visit the Roman amphitheater and the beautiful St. Trophime Church.
In Aix en Provence, the former capital of the Provence region, explore the Cours Mirabeau, the wide avenue built in the 1600s on the site of the city’s medieval ramparts. View the fountain dating back to 1743, known for the healing properties of its warm waters.
10. Familiarize Yourself with a French Fort
Another interesting thing to do on a cruise to Marseille is to visit the Fort Saint Jean, a 17th-century fortress constructed by King Louis IV to protect the entrance to the Old Port. Free attractions at Fort St. Jean include a Mediterranean botanical garden, wonderful panoramic views of the Old Port and the opportunity to explore the ramparts and some of the historic buildings, such as the 15th century King Rene’s Tower.
Upper terraces of the fort are connected by aerial terraces to a museum and other buildings in the city. These attractions include the Eglise St.-Laurent, a simple Romanesque-style church built during the 12th and 13th centuries.
From the St.-Laurent church, it’s an easy walk to the sumptuously decorated La Major Cathedral, which dates from the 19th century, and to the Quartier du Panier, also known as “la butte.” First occupied more than 2,500 years ago by the Greeks, the Quartier du Panier is now a network of narrow streets with small shops, restaurants and street vendors.
11. Revitalize Yourself at a 21st Century Park
Marseille is sandwiched between the sea, the hills and the Calanques, a bright white limestone landscape, and now a national park, featuring deeply chiseled creeks. Half of the city consists of natural spaces, including 400 hectares, or nearly 1,000 acres of public parks and gardens.
Indeed, not everything in Marseille is ancient. Opened in 2001 on the site of an old train station in the central part of the city, the 26th Centenary Park is a beautiful place to unwind during your cruise to Marseille.
The park includes a lake and four themed gardens: Provencal, Asian, Oriental and African. Above the lake, you can get a wonderful birds-eye view of St. Cyr and the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde. Marseille’s 2,600 years of history is symbolized by the 26 sequoias in the park, among its 1,500 other trees. At a buvette, or small café, inside the park, sit in the shade and revitalize yourself with a cold drink.
When you’re sailing with Carnival®, it’s easy to find excursions that pique the interest of anyone in your group. From foodies to history buffs, Marseille has a variety of options to offer. It’s no wonder why this destination continues to attract thousands of visitors each year!