Marseille, European Capital of Culture

Marseille is in the spotlight this year; the historic seaport on France’s Mediterranean coast was chosen European Capital of Culture for 2013. A dazzling array of displays, performances, and exhibitions is underway and, happily for visitors who can’t get there this year, much of it will spill into the future. The city, with government and EU assistance, has renovated museums, constructed new buildings, and brought in artists and performers, all to house or show off the region’s arts, history, and culture.

Marseille Vieux Port

Organizers of the year-long program say Marseille is a mosaic of diversity, a place “to show our differences, stage our disagreements and glorify our contradictions.” In this lively city with roots dating back some 2600 years, the transformation is a creative mix of old and new. Several places offer  visitors help in learning about events and culture walks. The Marseille tourist office at 11, La Canabière, has a wealth of information. Pavilion M, a building of wood and glass in the Place Bargemon, holds exhibitions about the city and its people, as well as a tourist office. Espace Culture, at 42, Canebière, is another source of information and tickets.

Elephant - Art in Marseille

MuCEM (the Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean) is a contemporary building on the J4 pier of the Old Port. Its role is to focus on the history and mix of Mediterranean cultures and the factors that shaped them; it has a gift shop, cafe, two restaurants, a space for children, and a garden with panoramic city views. A pedestrian bridge links MuCEM to the 12th century Fort St. Jean, where visitors can view paintings and photography, learn Mediterranean-style cooking, and attend concerts and performances. The nearby Mediterranean Villa is a striking, unmissable  building by the Old Port, with a cantilevered exhibition floor and underwater conference center. Live shows and films are shown in the 400-seat amphitheater.

Villa Mediterranean, a new contemporary building in Vieux Port

Looking to the past, the Museum of Archeology holds treasures from ancient Greece and Egypt—France’s largest collection of Egyptian artifacts after the Louvre. Borély Castle, a palatial 18th-century country home now restored, is a showcase for decorative arts: ceramics, textiles, fashion, furniture, even perfume bottles. If you’ve yearned to see a fine Chanel collection or creations by other great designers, this is the place for it. The Museum of Contemporary Art features the works of 155 artists from around the world.

Giraffe art in Marseille

The renovated Musée des Beaux Arts in the Palais Longchamp is showing a significant, though temporary, exhibition in partnership with the Musée Granet in Aix—here you can see works by Renoir, Gauguin, Cézanne, Monet, Modigliani, Picasso, and Dali, among others. Also at Palais Longchamps, the Natural History Museum has a show called Lumières (Lights), bringing astronomy, biology and technology into play around the concept of light. Art installations dot the city, from the giant structure with a swinging ship at one end of the Old Port to lifesize animal sculptures in costume at the other end. Circus acts, flash mobs, an “opera slam,” dancing, photography, and music are all part of the continuing festivities that extend beyond Marseille itself through other parts of Provence. Much of it emphasizes the rich history of the region, from the Greek beginnings of Marseille to the Roman ruins of Arles, from the culture of Aix-en-Provence to medieval Salon-de-Provence and on to contemporary industry and architecture.

Art installation in Marseille - ship containers and swinging ship

As Europe’s Culture Capital of 2013, Marseille is making the most of its diversity. This fascinating city has been a tourist destination for a long time, and now it’s even more appealing.

Planning a trip to Marseille? Here are our suggestions for Where to Stay in Marseille

Written by and photos by Marilyn McFarlane for

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