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The city of Marseille in the Bouches-du-Rhône department

Founded in 600 BC by Greeks from Phocaea under the name of Massalia, Marseille is the second-largest city of France. It forms the third-largest metropolitan area, after those of Paris and Lyon, with an estimated population of 1,605,000 in 2007. Located on the Mediterranean coast, Marseille is the largest commercial port of France. The city is also the administrative capital (préfecture de région) of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, as well as the administrative capital (préfecture départementale) of the Bouches-du-Rhône department. Its inhabitants are called “les Marseillais”.


Marseille has a Mediterranean climate, with mild, humid winters and hot, dry summers. January and February are the coldest months, averaging temperatures of around 8 to 9 °C. July and August are the hottest months. The mean summer temperature is around 23 to 24 °C (75 °F). In July, the average maximum temperature is around 30°C.

Marseille is known for the Mistral, a harsh cold wind originating in the Alps that occurs mostly in winter and spring. Less frequent is the Sirocco, a hot sand-bearing wind, coming from the Sahara desert.

Humans have inhabited Marseille and its surroundings for almost 30,000 years: paleolithic cave paintings in the underwater Cosquer cave near the calanque of Morgiou date back from 27,000 to 19,000 BC; and very recent excavations near the railway station have unearthed neolithic brick habitations from around 6,000 BC.

During the Roman times the city was called Massilia. Most of the archaeological remnants of the original Greek settlement were replaced by later Roman additions.


Today, the economy of Marseille is dominated by the New Port, which lies north of the Old Port, a commercial container port and a transport port for the Mediterranean sea. 100 million tons of freight pass annually through the port, 60% of which is petroleum, making it number one in France and in the Mediterranean and number three in Europe. However, its recent growth in container traffic is being stifled by the constant strikes and social upheaval. Petroleum refining and shipbuilding are the principal industries, but chemicals, soap, glass, sugar, building materials, plastics, textiles, olive oil, and processed foods are also important products.

Le Vieux Port (the old port) in Marseille.

Marseille is connected with the Rhône via a canal and thus has access to the extensive waterway network of France. Petroleum is shipped northward to the Paris basin by pipeline. The city also serves as France’s leading centre of oil refinement.

Marseille is a major French centre for trade and industry, with excellent transportation infrastructure (roads, sea port and airport). Marseille Provence Airport is the fourth largest in France. It is the main arrival base for millions of tourists each year as well as serving a growing business community.

All three branches of the University of Aix-Marseille – the University of Provence, the University of the Mediterranean and the Paul Cézanne University – are represented to varying degrees in both Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. The economy is closely associated with the Marseille Provence Metropolis, France’s second largest research centre with 3000 research scientists.

Marseille is also famous for its soccer team “L’Olympique de Marseille” also called “L’OM”, which was the UEFA Champions League winner in 1993 and finalist of the UEFA Cup in 1999 and 2004.

In recent years, the city has also experienced a large growth in service sector employment and a switch from light manufacturing to a cultural, high-tech economy. Marseille acts as a regional nexus for entertainment in the south of France and has a high concentration of museums, cinemas, theaters, clubs, bars, restaurants, fashion shops, hotels, and art galleries, all geared towards a tourist economy.

Marseille’s famous calanques (rocky inlets)


Because of its pre-eminence as a Mediterranean port, Marseille has always been one of the main points of entry into France. This has attracted many immigrants and made Marseille into a cosmopolitan melting pot. By the end of the 18th century, about half the population originated from elsewhere. The main group of immigrants came from Italy (mainly from Genoa and Piedmont) as well as from Spain, Greece, Berbers and the Levant.


Marseille is listed as a major centre of art and history. The city boasts many museums and galleries. There are many ancient buildings and churches of historical interest. Most of the attractions of Marseille (including shopping areas) are located in the 1st, 2nd, 6th and 7th arrondissements.

The most famous monuments and places to visit are:

  • The Old Port or “Vieux-Port“, which is the main harbour and marina of the city. It is guarded by two massive forts (Fort St Nicolas and Fort Saint Jean) and is one of the main places to eat in the city. Dozens of cafés line the waterfront. – The Quai des Belges at the end of the harbour is the site of the daily fish market. Much of the northern quayside area was rebuilt by the architect Fernand Pouillon after its destruction by the Nazis in 1943.
  • The Phare de Sainte Marie, a lighthouse on the inlet to the Old Port.
  • La Vieille Charité in the Panier, an architecturally significant building designed by the Puget brothers. The central baroque chapel is situated in a courtyard lined with arcaded galleries. Originally built as an alms house, it is now home to an archeological museum and a gallery of African and Asian art, as well as bookshops and a café.
  • The Centre Bourse and the adjacent rue St Ferreol district (including rue du Rome and rue Paradis), the main shopping area in central Marseille. (The other two major shopping complexes in Marseille are at la Valentine and le Grand Littoral.)
  • The Musée d’Histoire, the Marseille historical museum, located in the Centre Bourse. It contains records of the Greek and Roman history of Marseille as well as the best preserved hull of a 6th century boat in the world. Ancient remains from the Hellenic port are displayed in the adjacent archeological gardens, the Jardin des Vestiges.
  • The Palais de la Bourse, a 19th century building housing the chamber of commerce, the first such institution in France. It also contains a small museum, charting the maritime and commercial history of Marseille, as well as a separate collection of models of ships.
  • The Musée de la Mode, a museum of modern fashion, which displays over 2000 designs from the last 30 years.
  • The Musée Cantini, a museum of modern art near the Palais de Justice. It houses artworks associated with Marseille as well as several works by Picasso.
  • The Pierre Puget park.
  • The Hôtel-Dieu, a former hospital in the Panier, currently being transformed into an InterContinental hotel.
  • The Abbey of Saint-Victor, one of the oldest places of Christian worship in France. Its early fifth century crypt and catacombs occupy the site of a Hellenic burial ground, later used for Christian martyrs and venerated ever since. Continuing a medieval tradition, every year at Candlemas a Black Madonna from the crypt is carried in procession along rue Sainte for a blessing from the archbishop, followed by a mass and the distribution of “navettes” and green votive candles.
  • The Hotel de Ville (the Town Hall), a baroque building from the 17th century.
  • The Museum of Old Marseille, housed in the 16C Maison Diamantée, describing everyday life in Marseille from the eighteenth century onwards.
  • The Cathedral of Sainte-Marie-Majeure or la Major, founded in the 4th century, enlarged in the 11th century and completely rebuilt in the second half of the 19th century by the architects Léon Vaudoyer and Jacques Henri Esperandieu. -The present day cathedral is a gigantic edifice in the Romano-Byzantine style. A romanesque transept, choir and altar survive from the older medieval cathedral, spared from complete destruction only as a result of public protests at the time.
  • The 12C parish church of Saint-Laurent and adjoining 17C chapel of Sainte-Catherine, on the quayside near the Cathedral, recently reopened after restoration.

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