Marseille's Vieux Port is one of the oldest harbours in Europe. Today, fishermen as well as yacht owners cavort here, while tourists enjoy the typical Mediterranean flair along the promenade lined with cafés and restaurants.
The Old Port of Marseille was once the most important port in France, a transshipment point for goods from all over the world and a heavily fortified centre of trade and culture. Today it is a perfect starting point for sightseeing in Marseille and is on our list of the top 10 sights in Marseille.
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PICTURES: Old port (Vieux Port) of Marseille
Photo gallery: Old port (Vieux Port) of Marseille
History of the Old Port of Marseille
The Old Port of Marseille is really old. It has its origins in antiquity, when Marseille was founded by the Greeks around 2,600 years ago. Archaeological finds still bear witness to this time today.
Until the middle of the 19th century, the Old Port was the hub of France's maritime trade with its colonies and the countries on the Mediterranean. Both galleys and ocean liners, which often spent months at sea, sailed in and out of here daily. Some of the former fascination can still be felt today.
Today, the Vieux Port is of little importance for maritime trade, because with a draught of 6 metres it is too shallow for the modern freighters that revolutionised seafaring after the Second World War. However, as a mooring for fishing boats and sleek yachts and a tourist centre with numerous restaurants and cafés, the oldest port in the city is still an important economic factor for Marseille.
Vieux Port as a tourist centre
The picturesque harbour of Marseille is bursting with Mediterranean joie de vivre. Tourists and locals stroll between noble yachts and cosy pubs. Especially at night, a walk along the illuminated harbour promenade inevitably evokes a holiday feeling. The Vieux Port is also an ideal starting point for exploring Marseille's numerous sights.
Sights at the Old Port of Marseille
Directly at the harbour are the two fortresses of Saint Jean and Saint Nicolas. In addition to the Château d' If on the island of If off the coast, which was already built in the 16th century, these two citadels were built by Louis XIV. On the one hand, they were intended to protect the harbour, but on the other hand, they were also to be a sign of his power to the rebellious inhabitants of Marseille.
Also on the harbour promenade are the small 16th-century church of Saint-Ferreol (on its site was the seat of the Knights Templar in the 12th century), the Old Town Hall, as well as museums, art galleries, concert halls and the renowned Théâtre de la Crièe.
Various fish markets can also be found here. Especially on the front side of the harbour basin, on the Quai des Belges, there is a lot going on in the morning, when the local fishermen loudly hawk their nightly catch or leave the jetties in no time at all with their colourful boats to set sail again.
Park Jardin du Pharo
Diagonally opposite Fort Saint Nicolas, on a small hill, lies the Jardin du Pharo park with a small palace. This secluded spot offers a fantastic panoramic view over the old harbour to the new harbour behind it. The new port of Marseille lacks a bit of the typical Mediterranean flair, but its 20 km long quay, where up to 150 ships are lined up, still offers an impressive sight.
Churches around the Old Port of Marseille
Just a stone's throw from the Port Vieux is Marseille's magnificent cathedral, whose immense dimensions can be compared to St Peter's Basilica in Rome. A long stone staircase leads up to the hill with the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, which offers a breathtaking view of the harbour.
Excursions from the Old Port of Marseille
Boat trips through the Old Port and tours to If Island depart from Port Vieux. The former state prison "Châteaud'If", which gained worldwide fame through the novel "The Count of Monte Cristo", is enthroned on this famous Frioul island. The fortress was built in the 16th century under Emperor Francis I and protected France's most important trading port at the time.
The Calanques, one of the greatest attractions of the Côte d'Azur, can also be reached by boat from the Old Port. These enchanting bays have cut into the steep limestone walls along the entire coast between Marseille and Cassis and can only be reached by boat or on foot.
The glistening turquoise sea and the steep rock faces not only offer dreamy postcard motifs, but also bathing and snorkelling pleasure with a backdrop of the finest kind.
Tip: If you stop in Cassis as well as Marseille, you should book the trip to the Calanques from there. Due to the lower number of tourists in Cassis, the tours there are offered at a lower price.