Free activities to do in Marseille

Simply soaking up the energy of everyday life unfolding in every cafe-covered square and boat-lined quay is a hit attraction in this charismatic and heady town in the hot south of France – and it’s is free.

Marseille may not be as cheap as it once was, but this former “Cité Phocéenne” offers good value for money compared to Paris, Lyon and other French cities. With savvy planning and smart information, visitors can even get to France’s second-largest city without spending a dime.

Notice to museum lovers: the permanent collections of municipal museums, including the Musée des Beaux-Arts (fine arts), the Marseille History Museum (history), the Cantini Museum (modern art) and the Center de la Vieille Charité (African, Oceanic and Pacific Art and Culture) in the atmospheric old quarter of Le Panier, are free; only temporary exhibitions are chargeable. Or visit Marseille in May when the city’s museums and monuments open for free from sunset to sunrise on the annual Nuit des Musées.

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Watch local life unfold at the Old Port

There’s no more evocative place to understand Marseille and revel in the frenetic Vieux Port smorgasbord of daily sights, raucous sounds and fishy smells than where it all began in 600 BC. For thousands of years, fishermen have been selling the catch of the day here from the quays on the seafront and the fish market in the old port is an emblematic institution of Marseille.

To appreciate the big picture, hike the entire horseshoe, from the star-shaped Fort St-Nicolas that guards the south side of the harbor to Fort St-Jean on the north side. On the Quai des Belges, take funky snapshots of local life reflected in Sir Norman Foster’s giant mirrored canopy, cut from a 46m x 22m polished stainless steel panel and suspended dramatically above the quay of the waterfront as a hybrid sunshade art installation.

Admire the sunset on the terrace of the Notre Dame de Garde Basilica in Marseille © vichie81 / Shutterstock

Live a sacred experience at the Basilica of Notre Dame de Garde

From the terrace of the Notre Dame de Garde Basilica, views of the port city and its timeless ocean location unfold – where the spectacle of the sunset is breathtaking. The opulent Roman-Byzantine church teeters on the highest point of the maritime city, protecting sailors with a 9.7m-tall statue of the Bonne Mère (“Good Mother”) since the 19th century.

The totemic Cathédrale de la Major de Marseille, built of Florentine green marble and slate gray stone from the village of Cassis further up the coast, is another church well worth exploring. Attend free organ and classical music concerts – stunning acoustics – at the fortress-like St-Victor Abbey.

Plug into multicultural Marseille on the Cours Julien

No street offers such a vivid snapshot of multicultural Marseille as Cours Julien (“Cours Ju” to the locals): think fun, funky, deliciously gourmet and a riot of color with its street art murals. The world cuisine restaurants lining the Place Elongée cook fusion, French, African, Creole, all cuisines under the Marseille sun – rightly so given that it was the site of Marseille’s central fruit and vegetable market of 1860 until the 1970s.

Markets continue to be the heart of the street several days of the week: flowers and an organic farmers’ market on Wednesdays, old books on certain Saturdays and old stamps on Sundays. From the Cours Julien mooch to the aromatic Marché des Capucins loaded with spices from North Africa in the increasingly gourmet district of Noailles.

Snorkel in the big blue to discover underwater art

One of the most unique and – literally – coolest museums to open recently in Marseille is free. Put on a swimsuit, snorkel, mask and snorkel to admire the underwater sculptures of the revolutionary Underwater Museum of Marseille. The Underwater Art Museum is easily accessible from the urban beach Plage des Catalans – swim 100m from the sandy shore – and is as much about encouraging biodiversity and environmental protection as it is about delighting visitors with 10 sculptures giant languishing 5 m deep on the seabed.

Before or after the dive, watch volleyball players in tan bikinis compete on the golden sand volleyball court at Plage des Catalans.

Colorful kayaks in the famous French fjords of Calanques National Park
The trails of Calanques National Park offer panoramic views of sparkling turquoise waters © Gaspar Janos / Shutterstock

Ride on exhilarating sea views along the coast

Grab a low-cost, shared Levélo city bike (free for the first 30 minutes, then €1 an hour) from one of the city’s 130 stations and take a ride south along the Corniche President John F Kennedy. Fascinating views of the bay unfold along the wide, gentle coastal promenade as you sail south to the boat-filled fishing cove of Vallon des Auffes and beyond to Marseille’s main beach , the Prado Beaches. Stroll on the modest dunes backed by the succession of sandy beaches and wink at Jules Cantini’s marble copy of Michelangelo’s David. If you are in town in the summer of 2024, the huge bay will host the nautical events of the Paris Summer Olympics.

From there, Ave Pierre Mendès France meanders along the coast for 8 km to the peaceful fishing village of Les Goudes and beyond to Cap Croisette, a place of beauty with a small beach of wild sand and beautiful views of the uninhabited islet of Île Maïre. In the nearby seaside hamlet of Callelongue, park and hike along well-marked paths in the Calanques, protected by the national park. To say the sea views along the trail are exhilarating is an understatement.

Spiral staircase and modernist apartment in Marseille, inspired by the Cité Radieuse
Admire the impressive modern architecture of Marseille, including the Unesco World Heritage site Cité Radieuse © Chris Hellier / Getty

Learn about modern architecture at the Cité Radieuse

It was in Marseille that modern city life in Europe was redefined in the 1950s by Swiss architect Le Corbusier. His radical 337-apartment building is said to have inspired apartment buildings across the continent and is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Marseille’s tourist office runs excellent guided tours for a nominal fee (€15), but parts of the groundbreaking ‘vertical garden city’ can be walked independently – and for free.

When you arrive at La Cité Radieuse, sign the visitor’s book at reception and press the button to signal the elevator: the third and fourth floors of the 17-storey building can be explored freely. Finish on the stunning rooftop terrace.

Smell the flowers in a city park

Marseille is teeming with bustling street markets, noisy scooters, traffic and – in summer – tourists, but its green spaces are harder to find. The city’s parks are a short walk from the city center, but are free to enjoy and promise a sweet, fragrant respite from the urban chaos. Follow the inhabitants in search of serenity to the 17th century Parc Borély, the most beautiful park in Marseille with ornamental pond, castle, floral botanical gardens and giant insect hotel.

Château Château d'If is one of the many sites you can discover in Marseille on a guided tour
Take a guided tour with a volunteer in Marseille and you’ll discover architectural marvels © Romrodphoto / Shutterstock

Delve into hidden corners of the city on a guided tour

Architecture, street art, football, stairs with a view of the sea and hidden corners of the city are all varied themes explored by local volunteer guides during walks led by Marseille Provence Greeters. Guided walks can be booked online, last around two hours, are free (donations welcome) and offer a great opportunity to chat with a local.

Explore the artistic rooftops of Marseille

While admission to MUCEM’s flagship museum and its fascinating exhibits exploring European and Mediterranean civilization comes at a price, its soaring roof and elevated walkways don’t cost a dime. The eye-catching building – an icon of contemporary Marseille – was designed by Algerian-born Marseille architect Rudy Ricciotti and Roland Carta, and promises bird’s-eye views. Come back down to terra firma, walk through the museum gardens for free.

From May to October, the huge rooftop of Friche La Belle de Mai – a recycled tobacco factory – vibrates with fantastic free concerts (usually African music or other world music), DJ sets, film screenings and alternative cultural events.

Let your hair down at a Marseille festival

From the Fête de la Musique in summer to the costumed street celebrations around Mardi Gras during the Marseille Carnival or the traditional fireworks display in the Old Port on July 14, Marseille festivals promise a good party. Best of all, dozens are free and provide a valuable opportunity to hang out with the locals, get acquainted with French musicians and other artists, and sometimes dance until dawn. The city’s festival calendar encompasses everything from music and dance, to theatre, film, circus and storytelling – the Marseille tourist office has it all.

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