Why go now?
France's leading coastal city is also arguably its most fascinating, a rich mix of Gallic cool and Arabic flavour – the latter the result of endless waves of North African immigration into this busy port. Marseille is also currently in a state of flux, halfway through an overhaul that will see it emerge as a European Capital of Culture in 2013. Those who visit in the next eight days can gain a taste of what is to come via the annual Fiesta des Suds – an eclectic festival of music and arts that runs until 30 October (dock-des-suds.org).
Whether you fly or go by train, you have to start in London. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) fly from Gatwick; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted.
Marseille-Provence Airport (00 33 4 4214 1414; mrsairport.com) is 32km north-west of the centre. Official airport taxis (00 33 4 4214 2444; taxis-aeroport.com) cost from €46.
The Navette shuttle-bus runs from outside arrivals every 20 minutes (5am-midnight), and takes half an hour to reach Marseille-Saint-Charles station (1) on Esplanade Saint Charles, just east of the centre, for €8.50 (00 33 4 4214 3127; navettemarseilleaeroport.com).
By rail, the trip from London St Pancras to Marseille's main station takes seven hours via Lille or Paris (where you need to transfer between Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon). Tickets available via Rail Europe (08448 484064; raileurope.co.uk).
Get your bearings
The capital of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, Marseille lies at the mid-point of France's south coast. Unusually, it faces away from the open Mediterranean, gazing west.
France's oldest city was founded as Massalia in 600BC by Phocaean settlers. These early Greeks built their outpost on what is now the northern side of the harbour. The modern city spreads out around the Vieux (Old) Port– steeply to the south, where a high-rise limestone bluff holds the landmark basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde (2).
Marseille's compact centre is explorable on foot, but public transport is efficient, with an integrated metro (two lines), bus and tram system (00 33 4 9191 9210; rtm.fr). Single journeys on all three cost €1.50, while a 10-ticket carnet is €12.60; sold at metro stations.
A City Pass, which covers admission to 14 museums and all public transport, costs €22 for one day (or €29 for two days). You can buy one at the main Office de Tourisme (3), which is open daily 9am-7pm (except Sundays, 10am-5pm) at 4 La Canebière (00 33 826 500 500; marseille-tourisme.com).
Pitched just a block from the harbour at 6 Rue Beauvau, the Hôtel Carré Vieux Port (4) is a comfortable three-star with doubles from €97, room only (00 33 4 9133 0233; hvpm.fr).
Next door at number 4, the Grand Hotel Beauvau is a more gilded option. Chopin stayed here in 1839. Doubles start at €139, room only (00 33 4 9154 9100; accorhotels.com).
Finally, the Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port (5), is a five-star overlooking the marina at 36 Boulevard Charles Livon, with doubles from €171, room only (00 33 4 9115 5900; sofitel-marseille-vieuxport.com).
Take a hike
Starting at the bottom of Marseille's main street, La Canebière (6), go west into the original part of the city, tracing the north side of the Vieux Port on Quai du Port. Blame the mundanity of the buildings here on the occupying Germans who destroyed much of the district in 1943. A lone survivor of the pre-war waterfront lingers at the base of Rue de la Mairie, where L'Hôtel de Ville (7) is all alcoves and ornamentation since 1653.
At the end of Quai du Port, admire the wide Fort Saint-Jean (8) guarding the harbour. Nominally built to protect the city by Louis XIV in 1660, its purpose became clear when, on completion, its guns were trained inland by a king, weary of Marseille's rebelliousness.
From here, stroll along Avenue Vaudoyer to the Cathédrale de Sainte-Marie-Majeure (9), an elegant Byzantine pile whose towers rear in stripes of limestone and granite (00 33 4 9190 5287; marseille.catholique.fr). Oddly, this 19th-century structure is so unloved by the city that it hosts only two Sunday services a year. Nonetheless, it's open 10am-6pm daily except Monday, and you may have its beautiful marble confines to yourself.
From the cathedral, cut east into the Panier district. This cluttered nest of narrow streets is the Marseille of old. Much of it is the work of 17th-century architect and local boy Pierre Puget – not least the Centre de la Vieille Charité (10), a grand complex at 2 Rue de la Charité.
Lunch on the run
Pause at the Centre's al-fresco eatery Le Charité Café (00 33 4 9191 0841), where a salad of goats' cheese and sun-dried tomatoes is €7.
Built as a poor house between 1671 and 1749, the Centre de la Vieille Charité (10) lives on as a cultural enclave (00 33 4 9114 5838; vieille-charite-marseille.org), open daily except Monday, 10am-5pm. It proffers two museums. The Musée d'Archéologie Mediterranéenne (00 33 4 9114 5859; marseille.fr; €3), has a clutch of ancient Egyptian artefacts, while the Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens, Amérindiens (00 33 4 9114 5838; marseille.fr; €3) is a mix of tribal totems and
ebony carvings from Africa and Polynesia. Both justify inspection, but are eclipsed by Puget's finest hour: the chapel at the heart of the Centre's colossal courtyard.
Elsewhere, the Mémorial de la Marseillaise (11), at 23-25 Rue Thubaneau (00 33 4 9191 9197; memorial-marseillaise.com; daily except Monday, 10am-noon and 2-6pm; €7), salutes France's national anthem on the street where, in 1792, it was first sung in the city whose name it bears – although it was actually written in Strasbourg.
The Musée d'Histoire Antique de Marseille (12) on Square Belsunce (00 33 4 9190 4222; marseille.fr) details the city's Greek genesis. The museum is currently being rebooted ahead of 2013, but you can peer at the archaeological ruins of the "Jardin des Vestiges" from Rue Henri Barbusse.
You can find 21st-century mall shopping in the Centre Bourse (13) at 17 CoursBelsunce (00 33 4 91 14 0050; centre-bourse.com). But retail therapy is more engaging in Marseille's many small stores, such as Librairie de la Bourse (14) at 8 Rue Paradis (00 33 4 9133 6306), a travel bookshop stuffed with maps and knowledge.
Place aux Huiles (15) sells olive oils from 2 Place Daviel in the Panier district (00 33 4 9190 0555; placeauxhuiles.com). Meanwhile, La Maison du Pastis (16) does France's favourite aperitif at 108 Quai du Port (00 33 4 9190 8677; lamaisondupastis.com). And Savonnerie Marseillaise de la Licorne (17) is an aromatic soap outlet at 24 Quai de Rive Neuve (00 33 4 9612 0091; soap-marseille.com).
Place Jean-Jaurès, colloquially known as "La Plaine", is one of Marseille's nightlife hubs where Au Petit Nice (18) (00 33 4 9148 4304) – a lively bar at number 28 – sells beers for €2.30.
Dining with the locals
Below La Plaine, Place Notre Dame du Mont boasts a cluster of restaurants such as Le Goût des Choses (19), at number 4 (00 33 4 91487062; legoutdeschoses.fr), where sautéed lamb in honey is €23. Beside the harbour, Chez Madie Les Galinettes (20) at 138 Quai du Port (00 33 4 9190 4087) does duck with lavender for €17, while Le Miramar (21), at 12 Quai du Port, excels at Marseille speciality bouillabaisse. A sharing portion of this thick fish stew costs €58 per head (00 33 4 9191 4109; bouillabaisse.com).
Sunday morning: go to church
Resplendent on her hilltop at Rue Fort du Sanctuaire, Notre-Dame de la Garde (2) (00 33 4 9113 4080; notredamedelagarde.com) is Marseille's pouting prom queen, stealing the cathedral's thunder with an 11-metre tower-topping gold statue of the Virgin and Christ and views across the city. Accessible from the port via an exhausting hike up Port-Notre-Dame and Boulevard André Aune, the basilica dates to 1864, and is worth the tired legs required to reach it. The main chapel is surprisingly small, but dazzles with a feast of mosaic and ornamentation. Sunday services take place hourly between 8am-midday, then again at 4.30pm.
Out to brunch
East of the harbour, Rue d'Aubagne is a slice of North Africa – a street that, alive with the smells and sounds of the souk, could be in Marrakech or Algiers. Spend half an hour here and you quickly understand Marseille's multi-ethnic character. You can also pick up lunch. Fournil D'Aubagne (22), at number 37 (00 33 4 9133 3067), does Arabic breads and pizzas from €4.50, while Restaurant Le Mamounia (23), at number 27 (00 33 4 9133 0804), is so proud of its couscous that it advertises its price (€6) on the wall outside.
Take a ride
Set on an islet half a mile off-shore, Château d'If (24) is Marseille's Alcatraz. Built as a fortress by Francois I in 1524, it became a prison that housed enemies of the state – both fictional (Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo is set here) and factual (Philippe de Lorraine, lover of Louis XIV's brother, was held here in 1670).
The ferry sails from the Frioul-If Express quay (25) at 1 Quai de la Fraternité, daily between 9am and 5.30pm (00 33 4 9146 5465; frioul-if-express.com; €10 return). The boat also visits the weekend playground of the Frioul Islands beyond. The chateau is open daily except Monday, 9am-5.30pm, €5 (00 33 4 9159 0230; if.monuments-nationaux.fr). Even now, you can grasp the torment its inmates must have endured; seen through the bars, the city is almost tangible.
A walk in the park
On the south side of the Vieux Port at 58 Boulevard Charles Livon (open daily 8am-9pm), the Jardins du Pharo (26) are not big, but offer a breezy panorama – massed yachts in the marina; the chugging Algeria ferry as it docks behind Fort Saint Jean (8).
The icing on the cake
If the weather is pleasant, Plage des Catalans (27) is a popular urban beach at 3 Rue des Catalans, open daily 8.30am-6.30pm. Alternatively, return to the Panier district, where Le Bar des 13 Coins (28) is a café at 45 Rue Sainte Francoise (00 33 4 9191 5649) that, with its tables on a small square and coffees for €1.50, is France at its most glorious.