Marseilles’ once-polluted Vieux-Port now has impressive restaurants, a can’t-miss food hall, and revitalized historic buildings to house it all.

4. Marseilles, France
Credit: Matthieu Salvaing

Since 2013, when Marseilles was named a European Capital of Culture and began to unveil the first projects of a decades-long urban planning overhaul, the city has been the subject of much discussion. Could this overlooked gateway to Provence shake off its reputation as a grimy, politically corrupt also-ran, to become a bastion of creativity and initiative?

In particular, the city’s hope was that by scrubbing down and pedestrianizing the traffic-clogged and over-touristed Vieux- Port, the locals would have something to be proud of. In 2013, it was too soon to tell; the paint had barely dried on the flashy new buildings, like Rudy Ricciotti’s Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, or MuCEM, for short. Today, the answer is clear. The Vieux- Port area has come into its own, not just architecturally but gastronomically as well. Now that soot has given way to sunlight, stylish locals and travelers alike are venturing here from hipster neighborhoods like Cours Julien. It’s easy to see why—their stomachs are calling.

Most head straight to MuCEM, an unlikely food hub whose lacy concrete screens and extended esplanade have changed the silhouette of the port’s northern edge. The stunning building, among France’s 10 most-visited museums, is now home to a complex of restaurants by Gérald Passedat, chef at Marseilles’ only Michelin three-starred establishment. Previously, diners had access to his cooking only at the starchily formal (and extremely expensive) restaurant at Le Petit Nice Passedat hotel outside the center of town. With Le Môle Passedat, they can choose between a buffet with creative salads and charcuterie, a massive terrace for seafood and cocktails, a café, and the upscale restaurant La Table, where dishes like organic spelt risotto and pan-fried duck’s liver are on the menu.

Another notable opening is Alcyone, chef Lionel Levy’s restaurant in the two-year-old InterContinental Hôtel Dieu, on the site of a 19th-century hospital that faces the port. Even though he’s a native of Toulouse, the Alain Ducasse protégé understands the local spirit, with a warm and satisfying, never too cerebral, take on traditional staples. His deconstructed bouillabaisse is rich in flavor but light in texture, with raw rockfish and wafer-thin squid-ink croutons. Further proof of Levy’s total embrace of his adopted hometown: he became such a superfan of the Olympique de Marseille soccer team that he opens the hotel’s terrace bar for cookouts on important game nights. In a city with such a legendarily low tolerance for fancy airs, Levy has mastered the high-low balance.

A similar mix is evident at Les Voûtes de la Major in the spit-shined 19th-century docks in the arches below La Major cathedral. While high-end retail brands are filling up the southern half of the complex (among them perfumer Fragonard and home-goods specialist Habitat), the highlight is Les Halles de la Major. The food hall is full of picnic-bench seating and ample greasy-napkin fare: delicate fried zucchini and mint fritters from Les Tapas des Halles; fresh catch a la plancha and oyster platters from La Poissonnerie; and knife-cut veal tartare from butcher La Boucherie. And when Les Docks, a shopping and restaurant area, opens this fall in a series of former cargo warehouses, the port’s pedestrian-friendly character will extend farther north to the piers. At this point, Marseilles is on such a roll that not even a politician could mess it up.