Looking over the Old Port of Marseille to Notre-Dame de la Garde. Photo: Craig Nelson
While most travelers might pop into Marseille for a quick stop on their way to Nice or Aix-en-Provence, Cheapos should really make a point to spend some time in this bustling port city.
If you don’t mind a little grit with your beauty, you’ll instantly fall for Marseille. Nestled right in the heart of the famous French Riviera, Marseille is a much more affordable option that other jet-setting towns in the region.
Strolling around the Old Port is always fun, but get off the main drag a bit, and you’ll find plenty of affordable restaurants (from fresh seafood to pizza), sandy beaches, and bustling markets.
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Located just a three-hour train ride away from Paris, this spectacular city has been at the center of trade and migration along the Mediterranean for centuries. The people reflect this rich history with a diverse population unlike almost anywhere in France. At night, you can literally watch the ferries sail off to Tunisia and Algeria every night. The connections between Marseille and the world are still as relevant as ever.
This vibrant mix is also a big plus for budget travelers. While a lot of tourists come seeking the high life in Provence, get away from the restaurants and hotels along the Old Port, and there are incredible deals to be found.
The best part of visiting Marseille? The unforgettable view of the boats bobbing in the harbor is always free!
When to go to Marseille
Tourists flow through here during the summer high season seeking sun, Pastis on patios, and leisurely strolls along the port. As a result, prices tend to soar beyond our budget during July and August.
Our solution? Beat the heat (and the crowds) and come in the off season. On a recent trip in October, the Old Port was buzzing but not packed, and the prices were very attractive for Cheapos.
Getting to Marseille
From Paris: You can take the TGV high-speed train from Paris to Marseille-Saint-Charles Station in a little over three hours for prices starting at €25. Book at least two or three months in advance to get the best deals. The train drops you off right in the center of town, about a 10-minute walk to the Old Port.
Related: How to get cheap tickets on the TGV train in France
From London: You can take budget airlines like Ryanair and easyJet direct to Marseille from London for as low as $33. Check times and prices on CheapoSearch.
Getting around Marseille
The easiest way to get around to the city’s main attractions is on foot. You can easily stroll from the Old Port to Le Panier (Marseille’s oldest district) in just a few minutes. There are some hills that are a steep climb, but the views are worth it.
There is also a subway and tram system for those intrepid travelers wanting to explore the outer neighborhoods. Check the RTM transit website for more details or look into getting a CityPass that includes free public transportation on the bus, tram and metro (along with museum perks). Get a 1-day pass for €26, a 2-day pass for €33 or a 3-day pass for €41.
There’s also a tourist trolley, called the Marseille Fun Train, but it was hard not laugh every time it went by. It looks like a toy train you’d find at a kiddie amusement park!
Free and cheap things to do in Marseille
Considering there aren’t many major tourist attractions, it’s hard to spend a lot of money on sightseeing in Marseille. Instead, soak in the views of the harbor, visit a museum or historic church, then head to the Old Port for an after-dinner walk.
The Old Port (Vieux Port)
You can’t come to Marseille without taking a leisurely stroll around the Old Port. The walkway is car-free, and the sunset views and people-watching won’t cost you a thing. If you need a break, you can always grab an outdoor table at a cafe and enjoy a drink for a few euros or take a ride on the Ferris wheel for a great view of the city.
Le Panier Neighborhood
Wandering around Le Panier, the oldest district in Marseille, leads you down ancient streets where you’ll find small shops and neighborhood restaurants. The graffiti-strewn walls add a touch of grit, and it’s hard not to be charmed by the architecture.
For something more sacred, just steps away is the massive Marseille Cathedral (free admission).
Take a spectacular walk or bus ride that hugs the sparkling Mediterranean coast. Just south of the Old Port, you’ll come across neighborhood beaches, charming fishing villages, and seaside restaurants. Just follow the road Corniche Président John Fitzgerald Kennedy until you get tired of the amazing views.
Notre-Dame de la Garde
Also known as “La Bonne Mère” (the good mother), this magnificent Neo-Byzantine church perched high above the city opened in 1864. You can take a bus up to it, but if you’re in the mood for a heart-pumping walk, the views along the way are incredible. Admission is free.
Opened in 2013 when Marseille was the European Capital of Culture, MuCEM is short for the “Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations”. It has a fascinating collection documenting history and culture in the Mediterranean basin and is connected to the imposing Fort Saint-Jean that dates back to the 1600s. Admission is €9.50.
To see the multi-cultural side of Marseille beyond the tourist districts, head to this lively city square. Check out the street art, pop into a bookstore or vintage clothing shop, or browse the outdoor market selling everything from fruit to antiques.
There are several harbor cruises that leave from the Old Port. We like the boat ride that goes to Château d’If, the famous island where the classic novel The Count of Monte Christo takes place. The cruise costs €10.80 per person.
Admission to the island is extra, so you can save a few euros by just riding the ferry out to the island and back. The views are amazing, and if you take a late afternoon excursion, you can be back in time for a Pastis in the Old Port.
Cheap Eats in Marseille
With its deep connection to the sea, it’s no surprise that Marseille has excellent seafood. However, the famous bouillabaisse (a decadent seafood stew) doesn’t come cheap. If you want to try it, we suggest staying away from the touristy restaurants right along the Old Port. Here are few places to enjoy a nice meal in Marseille without blowing your entire budget:
43 Rue Lorette
A classic Marseille spot for pizza and seafood in the heart of Le Panier, Chez Etienne doesn’t disappoint — especially when we received a plate of complimentary olives and anchovies to kick off the meal. It attracts just as many as locals as tourists, so get there on the early side to get a table.
La Boîte à Sardine
2 Boulevard de la Libération
It’s a little bit of a splurge for Cheapos, but you can still enjoy a delicious seafood lunch with wine for about €25 per person. Feast on fresh sardines, oysters, and the catch of the day.
Bar des 13 Coins
45 Rue Sainte-Françoise
Located in Le Panier, this friendly corner cafe and bar serves surprisingly good food, including daily specials, burgers, and salads. You can also just stop by for a coffee or a drink at one of the outdoor tables.
98 Quai du Port
For a memorable Moroccan meal with a view of the Old Port, Le Souk is a nice splurge for budget travelers. Enjoy a tagine, couscous and grilled meats with The entrees are around €15 but the portions are quite big.
24 Rue des Feuillants
Surprisingly, Marseille adores pizza, and that’s great news for budget travelers. We dare you to walk by Charly Pizza and not grab a slice or two. A slice of anchovy, cheese, olive, or sausage is huge (a quarter of a pie) and will only cost you €1!
Pizzeria La Bonne Mère
16 Rue Fort du Sanctuaire
Off-the-beaten-path from the central city, this pizzeria is run by an Italian couple that really knows their dough. The wonderful pizzas go for €10, and during our visit, we enjoyed an espresso and grappa on the house! Our total bill, including two pizzas and a bottle of wine, was just €34. Before you make the trek, make sure to secure reservations because they only have two seatings a night.
Food markets in Marseille
With its diverse population, the flavors of Marseille come from across the world. The markets bustle with the flavors of North Africa with a large selection of Middle Eastern products alongside French favorites, and of course, a great selection of fresh seafood.
Vieux Port Fishing Market
Browse the fruits of the Mediterranean at this fish market that doubles as a tourist attraction. It kicks off each morning around 8 am and winds down around 1 pm. Even if you don’t have a kitchen to cook up a feast, this marché aux poissons is still worth roaming around to soak in the atmosphere of old-world Marseille.
5 Rue du Marché des Capucins
Just a short walk from the Old Port, the Market Noailles features outdoor vendors selling fresh fruit and produce. Pop into nearby Saladin World of Spices (10 Rue Longue des Capucins) for sensory overload for you eyes and nose.
Pastis with a view, nightlife, and culture for less
Marseille has dozens of waterfront and bars, but most of them are unfortunately way out of our budget. However, if you don’t mind a little walk, you can find a lovely patio where you can enjoy a couple of drinks for a decent price.
We liked Bistrot Plage (60 Corniche J.F. Kennedy) which poured a round of cassis for €5.
For a more classic experience right on the marina try the Bar de la Marine (15 Quai de Rive Neuve), although their prices are not exactly cheap, we loved the old-world atmosphere inside.
Cheap hotels in Marseille
Unless you require a view of the harbor or four-star service, there are quite a few budget hotels in Marseille. Even in the summer, you can find deals for under $100 per night. Some hotels offer free breakfast, and if you’re willing to stay a little farther out, you can score a harbor view for less at some of the hillside hotels.
Here are a few of our picks for budget hotels in Marseille:
• Hôtel Hermès is perched right next to the historic Le Panier district and features an amazing roof deck.
• Radisson Blu Hotel Marseille Vieux Port has an excellent location and a swimming pool to boot.
• Hotel du Pharo has simple two-star rooms with balconies and free Wi-Fi.
• For a lovely B&B just outside the city center, check out La Close du Jas with a Mediterranean garden and homemade pastries for breakfast.
Looking for even more hotels and apartment stays in Marseille? Search more than 590 hotels in Marseille.
Your tips for Marseille
Have you been to Marseille? Share your tips for visiting the city on a budget in our comments section below!