Marseille's Old Town, Marseille

Marseille's Old Town (Self Guided), Marseille

Marseille's Panier (Old Town) is full of history. The nick "Panier" means "basket" and it comes from the 17th-century inn, Le Logis du Panier, that once stood on today's rue du Panier.

Over the course of centuries the cobblestone streets of Marseille's Old Town had been a haven for refugees, criminals, and prostitutes, as well as Resistance fighters, Jews and Communists. Despite the Nazis' blowing up 1500 houses in the lower section of the Panier during WWII, what's left of it today is still a vibrant community with tonnes of original flavor and authenticity.

The Vieille Charité – jewel of the Old Town, is a three-storey gallery built in 1671-1749 to a design by the great Marseille artist and architect, Pierre Paul Puget; currently a home to a cultural centre and museums.

A handful of other historic locations spared by the Nazis include the Maison Diamantée (Diamond House) with its singular raised diamond pattern on the façade and an impressive staircase (usually closed to the public) – constructed in 1570 for the rich merchant, Pierre Gardiolle.

One of the most intriguing and oldest buildings in the city – the Hôtel de Cabre – is a Renaissance-Gothic mansion commissioned by merchant Louis Cabre circa 1535.

Another one of the oldest relics, or at least its distinctive studded tower, dating from the 14th century, is the Accoules Church.

The Hôtel Dieu – a magnificent 18th-century former hospital, is now turned into a luxury five-star hotel.

Alongside these and other historic sights, there are many more fascinating hides awaiting visitors on almost every street in Marseille's Panier. The best way to explore the district is on foot. If you're ready to spend an hour or so on a pleasant walk around the area and be surprised, take this self-guided tour!
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Marseille's Old Town Map

Guide Name: Marseille's Old Town
Guide Location: France » Marseille (See other walking tours in Marseille)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 13
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.9 Km or 1.8 Miles
Author: leticia
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Vieux-Port (Old Port)
  • Église of Saint-Ferréol les Augustins (Church of Saint Ferreol)
  • Jardin des Vestiges (Ruins Garden)
  • Église Saint-Cannat (Saint Cannat Church)
  • Hôtel de Cabre (Cabre Hotel)
  • InterContinental Marseille Hotel Dieu
  • Church of Notre-Dame-des-Accoules
  • Maison Diamantée (Diamond House)
  • Hotel de Ville (City Hall)
  • Eglise Saint-Laurent (Saint-Laurent Church)
  • Fort Saint-Jean
  • Cathédrale de la Major (Marseille Cathedral)
  • La Vieille Charité (Vieille Charité Center)
Vieux-Port (Old Port)

1) Vieux-Port (Old Port) (must see)

The Old Port of Marseille is located on the Canebiere, the "Main Street" of the old city. Yes, the city is old, like very old. Originally used as a seaport of the ancient Phoenicians, a sea-faring nation that had colonies throughout the Mediterranean.

The old port itself was established in 600 BCE by Greek settlers from Phocaea. Shipyards were established by both Louis XII and Louis XIII during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Louis XIV erected the forts of Saint Jean and Saint Nicolas at the harbor's entrance. Apparently, in France, there has been no dearth of Louis.

In it's busy heyday, in the 1850s, the port was host to as many as 18,000 merchant ships a year. This amount of traffic rivaled that of major European ports like Liverpool or Le Havre. With the advent of steam the shallow depth of the harbor created problems for the deeper draft steamships.

In World War II German occupation forces, with the help, unfortunately, of the French police destroyed most of the harbor to deny its use by the allies. This became known as the "Battle of Marseille".

The Old Port today serves mainly as a marina. It is a terminal for local boats and ferries. It also has a fish market. It stars in quite a few movies, such as, The Count of Monte Cristo, featuring the Chateau d'If, and The French Connection and French Connection II, featuring Gene Hackman and Tony LoBianco.

Why You Should Visit:
The Old Port has been thoroughly renovated and it is mostly open to pedestrians. The harbor and the many historical sights and buildings can be seen when walking along the Canebiere.
Église of Saint-Ferréol les Augustins (Church of Saint Ferreol)

2) Église of Saint-Ferréol les Augustins (Church of Saint Ferreol)

The Church of Saint Ferreol in Marseille is a Roman Catholic church with a fascinating history. Originally owned by the Knights Templar, it was later given to a community of Augustinian hermits in 1369. In 1447, they took the initiative to construct a new church building, which was finally dedicated in 1542, although the vault's completion came later in 1588.

In the Ancien Régime (15th-18th century), the church hosted professional ceremonies. Ship-porters had altars for Saint Peter and Saint Paul since 1390. Notably, Pope Clement VII married Catherine de' Medici and Henry II of France there on October 28, 1533. During the French Revolution, the church was almost destroyed but saved. It was later renamed after Saint Augustine, changed ownership, and finally returned to the Catholic Church.

The church boasts remarkable architectural features. The high altar, along with the altars of the Augustinians and the ship-porters, was skillfully designed by Dominique Fossaty. Inside, you can find the Mazenod family's tomb, dating back to 1564, and the Montolieu family's tomb from 1695. Additionally, the church houses the relics of Saint Louis of Toulouse (1274–1297).

As an artistic treasure, the Church of Saint Ferreol exhibits three paintings by Michel Serre (1658-1733), featuring Sainte Marguerite, La Vierge à l'enfant apparaissant à Saint Pierre, and Saint Paul. Also, a bust of Saint Ferréol de Vienne and a sculpture of Saint Augustine, both created by Raymond Servian (1903-1953), grace the interior. Another sculpture of Saint Theresa by Élie-Jean Vézien (1890-1982) and one of Joan of Arc by Louis Botinelly (1883-1962) can be admired. A more recent addition, sculpted by Yves le Pape in 1979, depicts the Holy Family.

The church's neogothic pipe organ, a masterpiece designed by Augustin Zieger, dates back to 1844, adding to the grandeur of this cherished place of worship.
Jardin des Vestiges (Ruins Garden)

3) Jardin des Vestiges (Ruins Garden)

Marseille has been there forever, it seems. In the Ruins Garden see the ruins of a port that goes back as far as 2000 years or more. Foundation stones bear mason's marks from ancient Greece and Rome.

Imagine the noise of wooden ships bumping against the stone docksides. The ruins of the port were discovered while excavating for the neighboring Centre Bourse shopping mall. The garden holds many pieces, going as far into the past as the 6th century BCE.

The Garden was created and developed by Joel-Louis Martin, a celebrated landscape architect. It is managed by the Museum of Marseille. The wharves and docks of this busy ancient port are plainly visible.

The Ruins Garden is close to the Old Port and access is granted by the purchase of a ticket from the Museum of Marseille. There are panels on site in three languages (English, French and Italian) which explain everything to sailors and landlubbers alike.
Église Saint-Cannat (Saint Cannat Church)

4) Église Saint-Cannat (Saint Cannat Church)

The Saint Cannat Church (Église Saint-Cannat) stands proudly as a Roman Catholic church in Marseille, specifically in the 1st arrondissement, which is one of the city's 16 boroughs.

This beautiful place of worship was dedicated to Canus Natus, a revered French Roman Catholic Saint from the fifth century. Its construction commenced on December 31, 1526, and finally, on May 18, 1619, it was consecrated for sacred use. The distinguished architect Joseph Gérard took charge of the facade's construction from 1739 to 1744, adding to its grandeur.

Inside the church, one can marvel at several noteworthy works of art. Among them are two remarkable paintings by Michel Serre (1658-1733) – "The Virgin and Child" and "Purification of the Virgin." Additionally, the painting "The Baptism of Christ," created by Pierre Parrocel (1664–1739), graces the interior. Not to forget, the splendid sculpture of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897) designed by François Carli (1872-1957).

Furthermore, an impressive pipe organ, dating back to 1747, was skillfully designed by Jean-Esprit Isnard (1707-1781), contributing to the church's harmonious atmosphere.

Given its historical and cultural significance, the church building has been rightly recognized and listed as a Monument historique since November 2, 1926.
Hôtel de Cabre (Cabre Hotel)

5) Hôtel de Cabre (Cabre Hotel)

Constructed around 1535, the Hotel Cabre is thought to be the oldest building in Marseille still in use today. It was constructed in a strange mixture of gothic and renaissance style by Louis Cabre, Second Consul of Marseille in 1544.

Also known as la maison de l'Echevinde Cabre, the hotel is situated at the angle of Bonneterie Street and Grand Street in the 2nd arrondissement. The house passed several centuries with a minimum of damage. However, in the revolution, vandals destroyed the armories of flowers which adorned the facade.

In 1943, during the raid on Marseille, German forces almost all but destroyed some streets bordering the north bank of the Old Port. Some buildings of historical value were preserved, like the Diamond House and the Hotel Cabre.

On the front of the hotel are effigies of the owner and his wife along with amorous cherubim and a statue of Saint James, a reference to Jacques de Cabre, father to Louis Cabre.
InterContinental Marseille Hotel Dieu

6) InterContinental Marseille Hotel Dieu

The InterContinental Marseille-Hotel Dieu is a five star luxury hotel that has been in operation since 2013. But it was not always a hotel. The building has served Marseille as a hospital for over eight hundred years.

It occupies the site of the Saint-Esprit Hospital which was opened in 1188. For six hundred years the hospital underwent several alterations until 1866 when the present building was inaugurated by Napoleon III. In 1963, the hospital was designated a registered national monument.

The ancient hospital became a luxury hotel in 2003. It has 172 rooms with prices going as high as $6,000 USD or more. It still bears the name Hotel-Dieu, a spiritual reference to its mercy days. In 1993 the Hospital stopped receiving patients and converted to a teaching hospital.

The Hospital saw continuous service to the city for 825 years. Through pandemics, wars, revolutions and sufferings of every kind. The Hotel Dieu is now actually a hotel, offering a different kind of refuge to the city of Marseille.
Church of Notre-Dame-des-Accoules

7) Church of Notre-Dame-des-Accoules

The Notre-Dame-des-Accoules church, along with its bell tower, holds significant historical importance as a designated Historic Monument since July 7, 1964. It is the only remaining part of the medieval church, which was demolished in 1794. The ensemble also includes a Calvary erected in 1820 and a new church constructed between 1824 and 1826.

Legend has it that this church was erected on the ruins of the ancient temple of Minerva. The nuns from the Abbey of Saint-Sauveur in Marseille took over the site and became its rectresses in 1033. By 1060, the church was associated with the property of the monastery known as Sancta Maria ad Acuas, which was then linked to the Abbey of Saint-Victor. An inscription on a preserved column attests to the church's rebuilding in 1205.

During the turbulent times of 1793, the Accoules church served as a meeting place for a municipal section involved in a federalist insurrection against the Convention. Following the defeat of the federalists, representatives from the Bouches-du-Rhône department ordered the demolition of buildings that were used as their meeting places.

Despite the destruction of the rest of the significant Gothic structure, the bell tower survived due to its vital function of providing time for the port and city activities. The back wall of the old church also remains, displaying traces of the building's three naves.

In 1820, a crypt featuring the Holy Sepulcher surmounted by a rock calvary was added against the back wall of the old church. Additionally, the Place du Calvaire was created in front and enclosed by a gate.
Maison Diamantée (Diamond House)

8) Maison Diamantée (Diamond House)

The Diamond House, the old hotel of Saboulin Bopllena, is located right behind the mayor's residence, the City Hall. It gained its name from the diamond shaped stones that cover its facade. Along with the Hotel Cabree is one of the most well preserved domiciles today.

It was erected in the 15th century on the grounds of the old palace gardens of Provence by rich Spanish and Italian investors. The house has sheltered the great families of Marseille such as Pierre Sebolin de Bollena, second sheriff of Marseille in 1685 and then his nephew, Francois de Sabolin Bollena, first sheriff of Marseille in 1702.

From 1967 to 2009 the building housed the Museum of Old Marseille. Then afterward the collections were made a part of the Marseille History Museum. The museum makes a fair presentation of life in the city in the 18th and 19th centuries and it also has a very impressive exhibit on the Plague of 1720.
Hotel de Ville (City Hall)

9) Hotel de Ville (City Hall)

The Hotel de Ville is, of course, not a hotel. It is the City Hall of Marseille. Built in 1656, it has been Marseille's civic center ever since. It replaced the "Maison de Ville", which had served the same purpose since the thirteenth century.

The Hotel de Ville is a pink stone building constructed in the Genoan Baroque style. It fronts the harbor's edge of the Old Port of Marseille. It has an ornate facade, designed by Gaspard Puget. The facade is adorned with sculptures and flags.

Above the main entrance is the seal of the city, designed by Pierre Puget, yes, Pierre is related to Gaspard. They were brothers. Pierre was a favorite of Louis XIV, so naturally there is a bust of his royal highness. He perches high above all else, overseeing the bustling harbor and the boulevard below.

The kings did not survive the 18th century. However the Hotel de Ville did survive. It survived regimes, revolutions (France has had more than one), and even World War II.

It is often referred to as "La Loge", from the Italian word "Loggia" because of it's Baroque style. Around the back of the building is a bridge connecting the two main levels of the Hotel.

In the 18th century the floors were disconnected to separate the nobility, who occupied the top floor, and the merchants and other lesser souls who used the ground floor. The bridge now reunites the classes, which is a sign of progress!
Eglise Saint-Laurent (Saint-Laurent Church)

10) Eglise Saint-Laurent (Saint-Laurent Church)

Located at 16 Esplanade de la Tourette, Saint Laurent is a church in the Provence Romanesque style of architecture. It was established as a fisherman' parish and erected over the remnants of a temple of Apollo.

There was no sign of Apollo, but a capital was unearthed that certainly must be Apollo's. At least it looks like it very well might be. In any event, this mysterious capital is now on display at the Marseille History Museum.

The Saint Laurent Church has fared much better than Apollo. The church along with the Saint Catherine Chapel survived the devastation of the so-called Battle of Marseille during the German occupation. The current state of the building is ok, but its main draw is history. A long history in a city full of incredible histories.

It sits across from Fort Saint Jean, accessible by footbridge. The Saint Laurent Church appears rather plain looking. Perhaps its facade and interior do not compete well with the other churches in town. But if you go inside, the weight of all those years of struggle and hope will touch you.
Fort Saint-Jean

11) Fort Saint-Jean

Fort Saint-Jean, established in 1660 by Louis XIV at the mouth of the Old Port in Marseille, is a formidable fortification. The construction of the fort involved the integration of two pre-existing structures: the twelfth-century Commandry of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, which once served as a monastic hospice during the crusades, and the fifteenth-century tower of René I, King of Provence.

In April 1790, Fort Saint-Jean fell into the hands of a revolutionary mob who beheaded the commander of the royal garrison. During the subsequent French Revolution, the fort was transformed into a prison, where it held prominent figures such as Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, along with two of his sons, Louis-Charles, Count of Beaujolais, and Antoine Philippe, Duke of Montpensier. Tragically, after Robespierre's overthrow in 1794, approximately a hundred Jacobin prisoners imprisoned within the fort were brutally massacred.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Fort Saint-Jean remained under the ownership of the French Army, serving as a barracks and clearing station for the Army of Africa. However, during World War II, the fort fell under German occupation in November 1942. The liberation of Marseilles in August 1944 saw the fort suffer immense damage when a munitions depot exploded, severely impacting its historic battlements and structures.

Recognized as a historical monument in 1964, the damaged sections of Fort Saint-Jean were meticulously reconstructed between 1967 and 1971. Today, it stands as the home of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, preserving its rich history for generations to come.
Cathédrale de la Major (Marseille Cathedral)

12) Cathédrale de la Major (Marseille Cathedral) (must see)

Also known as Cathedrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille, it is actually two cathedrals, old and new. In the latter part of the 19th century Napoleon III, Emperor of France, decided to replace the 12th century provencal romanesque cathedral ("Vielle Major"). He had it demolished, all but the choir and one bay of the nave.

He spared the remnant when the outraged population demonstrated against the change. The new cathedral ("Nouvelle Major") is a massive Romanesque-Byzantine Revival structure. Towering over the waterfront, it is 469 feet long, and the main cupola is 231 feet high. It can hold up to some 3,000 souls.

It is located on the Plaza Major. The facade is formed of two different types of stone tile, giving the effect of horizontal bars of color. The locals were reminded of bedtime attire and they often refer to the cathedral as "the Pajamas", no offense intended. The interior features Carrera marble, Tunisian onyx, and Venetian mosaics.

The remains of the old 12th century cathedral huddle alongside La Major. There is not a lot left of it after Napoleon III's smashing venture. There is a chansel and an apse with smaller apses on the side. The vault is cylindrical with an eight-sided cupola above the transept and a seven-sided cupola above the cross of the transept.

Why You Should Visit:
This is an awesome structure. It declares not so much spiritual glory as it does the past glory of Imperial France. Dominating all around it, it declares power forgotten but never outdone. And besides, admission is free.
La Vieille Charité (Vieille Charité Center)

13) La Vieille Charité (Vieille Charité Center)

La Vieille Charité, originally built between 1671 and 1749, stands as a former almshouse but has now been repurposed into a museum and cultural center, located in the heart of Marseille's old Panier quarter.

The main structure is a rectangular building (112 x 96 meters) made of pink and yellow-tinted molasse stone from Cap Couronne quarries. It has no outward-facing windows but contains three arcaded galleries overlooking an interior courtyard (82 x 45 meters). At the center of the courtyard stands a magnificent Baroque chapel designed by Puget, featuring a round church with an ellipsoidal dome and a Corinthian column-adorned portico, showcasing his creativity and skill.

In the 17th century, France harshly dealt with beggars using "beggar-hunters" to catch them. Non-residents were kicked out of Marseille, while locals were jailed. Almshouses became workhouses where beggars, including children, worked as domestic servants, cabin boys, or apprentices.

Over the years, the building underwent many changes. It survived the French Revolution and was later used as an asylum. In the nineteenth century, it served as barracks for the French Foreign Legion until 1922. Later, it became a shelter for those displaced by the district's demolition behind the Bourse and for the homeless after the dynamiting of the Old Port in World War II.

In the aftermath of World War II, the building faced challenging times with squatters occupying it, living in precarious conditions. However, between 1968 and 1986, thanks to the intervention of the Ministry of Culture, La Vieille Charité underwent a meticulous restoration, meticulously returning it to its former grandeur.

Why You Should Visit:
Beautiful and interesting exhibitions and rich, varied collections of great quality, all in a splendid setting.
The stone used, the general layout and tall ceilings of the corridors and rooms make this a unique attraction.

Don't miss the chapel/church nearby, and there's also a popular café and pleasant courtyard for lunch.

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