“Marseilles, for the French, is a bit like Marmite is for the English,” says Matthieu Gamet, the director of Kulte, a Marseilles-based sportswear company known for clever graphic T-shirts and a hipster sensibility. “Either you hate it or you love it.”
Where France’s second-largest city is concerned, count me in the love camp. And not just because of the lunch I shared with Gamet that spring day at Chez Étienne, a menu-less tavern in the medieval neighborhood of Le Panier known for featherlight pizzas (topped with Gruyère cheese, as you do in Marseilles) and proprietors who bill on a sliding scale of whether they like you or not. After seven years of Paris’s gray skies and exasperated pickiness, I’m always eager to return to what young locals call “Planet Mars” for its 300 annual days of sun and let-your-hair-down joie de vivre.
Marseilles may be welcoming, but it’s not perfect. Even after extensive cleanup programs, the city—set in the country’s southeast corner—is not as spit-shined as Paris, its rival, the one that gets all the money. In some neighborhoods, such as hippie-chic Cours Julien, on a hill in the center of town, the graffiti is artful; in others, like around the main drag La Canebière, it’s not. But many parts of the city are stunning, including the sandblasted Haussmannian grandeur of the central Rue de la République; the Brutalist masterpieces ringing the Vieux Port, where city life coalesces around the sea; the charming Provençal peach-washed town houses of Le Panier, on a hill just north of the Vieux Port; and, to the south, the lovely neo-Byzantine, 19th-century church Notre-Dame de la Garde, said to be blessing the sailors and city below.
The constant exchange between sailors, North African ferries, and merchants from around the world via the commercial port a few minutes’ drive up the coast softens the attitude of the locals, who may be more ethnically diverse than anywhere else in France. (Many insist that this is where French hip-hop was born in the 1980’s, and from where the country’s best and most socially conscious examples of the genre still originate.) In fact, the Marseillais are the real reason I’m so in love with the place. They’re as fiercely independent as Texans, with an accent just as twangy. They smile and say hello in the street. Waiters are gracious and informal, never slick, serving food that is mostly simple, garlicky, and uninterested in trends. “When you come to Marseilles, you have the impression you’re in a place with freedom,” Gamet continues as we chuckle over the bill. (They liked us!) “Maybe you don’t wear a helmet riding your scooter, or you smoke a cigarette in the middle of the restaurant, and people don’t give you a hard time.” Basically, if you want to unlearn everything you thought you knew about France, come to Planet Mars.
Marseilles was designated one of 2013’s European Capitals of Culture, an initiative from the European Union that spotlights different cities every year. But even this coup is merely a cherry on top of a much more serious renovation sundae: Euroméditerranée, the largest redevelopment project in southern European history, launched in 1995 by Marseilles’ then-mayor Robert Vigouroux. It has prompted ambitious infrastructure overhauls and building commissions to make starchitects swoon, including French architect Rudy Ricciotti’s Museum of Civilizations from Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM), whose exterior is made from lacelike filigreed concrete. France’s first full-scale national museum outside Paris, it abuts the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean and houses an impressive collection of photographs, paintings, and artifacts spanning 2,000 years of Mediterranean history.
“It may take people a little while to figure out how to live with all the changes that have been coming from Euroméditerranée, but it’s made this city one of the most exciting in the world,” says Ito Morabito, head of the Paris-based design firm Ora-ïto. His pet project in town is the arts center Marseille Modulor, a $9.1 million transformation of the rooftop gymnasium of Le Corbusier’s 1952 residential tower, Cité Radieuse.
Euroméditerranée has focused on the city’s north side—specifically the waterside Joliette business district, with 1.2 million square feet of new and refurbished office and residential space sitting in the shadow of Zaha Hadid’s first-ever skyscraper, the curvy headquarters of shipping company CMA CGM. Nearby, the soaring white J4 esplanade is home to MuCEM and Villa Méditerranée, a project by Milanese architect Stefano Boeri that hosts debates, film screenings, and concerts. Though not officially part of Euroméditerranée, there’s Norman Foster’s shiny steel canopy at the Vieux Port’s just-pedestrianized Quai des Belges, whose mirror-reflective underside picks up the image of the Mediterranean Sea as it laps up against the shuttle boats heading out to the Frioul archipelago for visits to the 16th-century Château d’If prison. Farther south, the seedier areas around the Gare St.-Charles are being scrubbed, with student housing and parks coming in. In Belle de Mai, one of the rougher neighborhoods in the city’s center, the wildly colorful arts complex La Friche, housed in a former tobacco factory in the early 1990’s, just unveiled a massive tower with two performance spaces, a contemporary art gallery, and a brilliantly curated bookstore that sells everything from French translations of the American literary magazine The Believer to the best in international noir comics.
A wave of hotel openings has accompanied the cultural renaissance—and many are as colorful and design-forward as their artistic counterparts. When the Paris-based Mama Shelter hotel, a low-cost, high-style endeavor by Philippe Starck, chose to expand, it picked Marseilles. (Istanbul and Lyons followed; Bordeaux and Hollywood are next.) When I arrived, the lobby’s colored-chalk graffiti and shop selling quirky toys and bric-a-brac had me worried that I might have aged out of its young, urban demographic. But my sixth-floor room, with double views of the red-tiled roofs below, was entirely Zen.
Another high-design property, Hôtel La Résidence du Vieux Port, is filled with 1950’s pop, and the friendly welcome there includes a bottomless basket of pains au chocolat in the lobby, set against the backdrop of a midcentury tapestry by Jean Lurçat.
Just a mile and a half away, up a steep hill, is Au Vieux Panier, a three-year-old design B&B whose five rooms are reimagined by a different artist every year. The designs vary from a cascade of raw wooden blocks dangling over the bed to neon-colored stalactites that crash through the common area of the upstairs suite.
While many of the new developments have an indie exuberance, the city’s crown jewel, the InterContinental Marseille-Hôtel Dieu, is dead serious. Set in a majestic 18th-century former hospital up a wide esplanade, the property—which opened in late April—has 194 rooms, an expansive Clarins Spa, and an 8,070-square-foot terrace with postcard-perfect views of Notre-Dame de la Garde. One evening at the cocktail lounge, I asked the bartender Julien Masson to mix me his favorite drink. He whipped up a Robertino (vodka, Cointreau, mint, and clementine and cranberry juices)—a welcome surprise in a city whose cocktail culture has been defined by a pastis or a Kir.
The hotel’s restaurants—the brasserie Les Fenêtres and the more upscale Alcyone—are run by Lionel Lévy, formerly of the historic port’s Une Table, Au Sud, whose modern take on Provençal cuisine has earned him rave reviews. (Keep in mind Lévy doesn’t have as much competition as he might in Bordeaux or Lyons.) The other reigning king of local toques is Gérald Passédat, chef-owner of Le Petit Nice, the only restaurant in town to have earned three Michelin stars. He is a master of clean seafood dishes such as bonito sashimi with julienned vegetables and slow-cooked sea bass with truffled herb-and-tomato broth.
But the best meals here aren’t at fancy, white-tablecloth restaurants. They’re at such places as Malthazar, a low-key brasserie from Marseilles-born Michel Portos, who left the Saint-James hotel near Bordeaux and came home to dish out entrecôte-frites and Moroccan-spiced whiting to those in need of reasonably priced and beautifully crafted French comfort food. Or at La Boîte à Sardine, a combination seafood market and dive that served me an unforgettable sautéed sole and linguine with clams; I dreamed about it long after my return to Paris. Sit at the bar and the owner, Fabien, will become your new best friend, the saucy small talk running out of his mouth at a breakneck pace. His nasal twang was so thick I strained to understand him, but I made out what I needed to. Most important, he knew I’d be back.