Travel: Skip touristy Paris, head to Marseille

Travel: Skip touristy Paris, head to Marseille

Marseille, France’s oldest city, is a mix of old and new, and a convenient location to explore southern France, and Monaco and Nice

France, for most of the world, is Paris—arguably global pop culture’s most romantic city—and Paris is France. But for the French people, perhaps, present-day Paris is the least French thing about their country. The next thing that the world loves about France is the country’s wine regions. So much so that entire vacations are spent visiting wineries in Bordeaux and Champagne.

Yet, France is a lot more than Paris’ museums, churches, overpriced cafés along the Seine, Eiffel Tower, the world’s most visited monument, or the bubbles and wine tastings in chateaus of Champagne, Bordeaux and Medoc, which are usually bustling with bus-loads of wine enthusiasts and those ticking off an “authentic French experience”.

Paris, a truly global city akin to New York, Berlin, Amsterdam and London, is home to the country’s richest and most successful football club, the Qatari-owned Paris Saint Germain (PSG), which also draws the maximum rebuke from most people outside of the city. And what irks Parisians the most, apart from the high rent and cost of living, is the fact that the city is always teeming with tourists no matter the time of the year; a good number of French people who move to Paris for either work or study, escape it as soon and as often as they can. This summer Paris is going to be busier than ever as it hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

It would be stupid to ignore local wisdom, which always beats Google and influencers’ video itineraries based on “extensive research” of 72 hours in a city, the bulk of which is probably spent in shooting content instead of feeling the pulse and pace of a place. So, I listened to my friends and took a train south to Marseille on France’s Mediterranean coast. The railway station, Gare de Marseille Saint-Charles, is one of the best places to see the city as well as to enjoy a sunset. That’s a good reason to get yourself a drink and snack as soon as you get off the train and witness the golden hour magic as the Mediterranean skies usually put on a stunning show. The only spot that has better views of entire Marseille is the city’s most visited church, Notre Dame de la Garde, up on a hillock, which is also the highest point in the city.

Marseille, France’s oldest city, is a mix of the old and new and you can sense how different it is from Paris the minute you stroll through it. Unlike the wet, cold and congested Paris, Marseille greets you with good weather, moderate temperatures for most of the year and the city is not as busy either. You won’t hear as much English as you would in Paris. While all of France loves its wine and beer, the go-to drink in Marseille is pastis, a herbal alcoholic drink made from anise, fennel seeds and liquorice, drunk with water over ice. This drink, 40-45% ABV, is soothing on a warm day.

You are much closer to nature in Marseille. Cassis offers some great hikes and stunning views of the sea and water from a height, and there is the lovely Calanques National Park where you can hike, spend time on the beaches and swim in the brilliant turquoise waters. You could have a relaxed day on a boat while you make your way to Calanques from Marseille. If pressed for time, you could drive through all this in a day and still be back in the city by dinner time, but you won’t be able to get down to most of the beaches or enjoy yourself in the waters.

Back in the city, the most buzzing part is along the waterfront between Hotel De Ville and Vieux Port. The Vieux Port Metro station, in particular, is not only a convenient spot to meet friends but also one of the most fun spots to be. Under the expansive mirrored roof of the entrance of the station you will see people dancing, bands playing and vendors selling their wares among hundreds of people who excitedly click selfies in the shining overhead mirror. And when you turn to the water, you will find fancy boats and yachts bobbing in the marina. This spot has some of the nicest restaurants and cafés.

While walking along the waterfront you will find numerous churches and hotels, but what stands out is a modern structure which is a museum dedicated to the Mediterranean, simply called The Mucem. I must confess museums tire me and I didn’t go in until my second trip to Marseille. It provided respite from the warm afternoon sun in addition to some interesting architecture and good art. Among other artists, it has displayed Ai Weiwei’s works.

While all this is fun, the best thing to do in Marseille is head to Parc Borély. The locals love this gigantic park and often head there to walk, run and sit but mostly to hang with friends and chat over food and drinks amid all the greenery, flowers and ponds.

Marseille is a convenient spot to continue your explorations of southern France. Drive a couple of hours and you will get to the beautiful fabled countryside of Provence. Walk in the fields and country roads, trot through sprawling olive farms and watch farmers and shepherds go about their days shearing sheep or tending to their crops. Provence draws the upmarket crowds who prefer to rent a chalet away from the madding crowds of Paris. You can head to a brook for a dip and picnic on the banks before heading back to the villages for some shopping and dining and then back to the comfort of your relaxing chalet. Head a bit further east and you can visit Monaco and Nice. Drive in the other direction and you can reach Barcelona in about six hours.

Port Vieux has the nicest restaurants and cafés.

Instead, I went north, stopping in Lyon on my way to Paris. Lyon, zoned into concentric rings, is located at the confluence of rivers Rhone and Saone, surrounded by mountains with an average elevation between 700m and 900m. From the futuristic looking Museum of Confluence to the fascinating fountains and historic buildings, such as the Roman Amphitheatre and the Lyon National Opera, you will find plenty of photo ops for your travel list. It is also home to the country’s most successful women’s football team Olympique Lyon, a matter of pride for the people of Lyon. The other thing they are proud of is their food, which combines the best of northern (chicken, meat, cream and butter) and southern (fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, olive oil, wine) French traditions and produce.

While life happens in cafés and bars everywhere else, in Lyon it happens at their beloved bouchons. This is where you should first try Lyon’s signature pike fish quenelles (dumplings made from ground fish) with a side of the popular Salad Lyonnaise, and complement your food with wine from the neighbouring Beaujolais region. All that food is fuel for the walks through the city watching young men and women break dancing under the Lyon Opera and Hotel De Ville, or catching a panoramic view of the city from the top of Museum of Confluences or just talking a walk along the river taking in the city, lost in your thoughts, before heading back to Paris to catch a flight home.


Trip Planner

How to get there

There are plenty of direct flights to Paris operated by Air India, Air Vistara, Air France and KLM from New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. From Paris you could either fly, take a high-speed train or Flixbus or Ouibus to Marseille and Lyon.

Where to stay

New Hotel of Marseille at Vieux Port in the heart of Marseille

Citadines Presqu’ile Lyon in Lyon


Marseille: Spend time relaxing in Parc Borely, hike and swim in Calanques National Park, visit Cassis, watch the sunset at Notre Dame de la Garde, go to the Mucem, and take a selfie under the mirror roof of Vieux Port Metro station. Definitely buy Marseille’s famous soaps.

Lyon: Walk along the river till the Museum of Confluences, get a panoramic view of the city from the museum terrace, try quenelles at a bouchon, watch people break-dancing at Hotel De Ville and the National Opera building, and take the stairs to Place Rouville on the fringes of the Croix-Rousse district for more great views of the city.

Provence: Take in the countryside, visit a sheep farm, pick olives from olive plantations, stock up on some of the finest olive oil, wander around the countryside, swim in brooks and lakes, and enjoy the tranquillity with some pastis and wine in this gorgeous place.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.


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