A Capital of Culture with coastal charm

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City Slicker: Marseille - This sunny seaside city has great service and a roster of new sights. Rhiannon Batten offers ideas for new and returning visitors

Why visit?

Being somewhat off the well-trodden tourist trail means Marseille has to work hard to keep its guests happy, and it does.

Instead of the blasé approach of so many more-visited cities, here you're likely to find a helpful, friendly and efficient attitude to service, whether you're seeking out the best bouillabaisse in town or setting sail from the city's harbour. And the goodwill starts at the local tourist office, which is more enthusiastic than many others.

Their task is made easier by the fact that Marseille is surprisingly picturesque and, at least in tourist terms, compact. Founded by Greeks from Phocaea in 600BC, at its heart is a spectacular old port, surrounded by pavement cafés and bars, overlooked by an iconic hilltop church.

The city is currently undergoing a major overhaul in preparation for its stint as 2013's European Capital of Culture. Those in the know will want to visit before then to avoid the increased crowds and get a head start on a string of developments being rolled out in the run-up to the event. The first of these is a new electric bike and scooter hire service (wattmobile.fr) that was introduced earlier this year, hot on the trail of Marseille's public bike hire scheme (levelo-mpm.fr). MuCEM (musee-europemediterranee. org), the new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, will be the city's cultural centrepiece when it opens in 2013.

In the meantime, although some of Marseille's major museums are currently closed for renovation, there are plenty of ways to get a taste of the the city's cultural scene – not least its maritime culture. Until 2 October, the Septembre en Mer festival takes place across the city, celebrating the its seafaring heritage with exhibitions, films, sport, and arts events (septembreenmer.com). For programme information in English, contact the local tourist office (marseille-tourisme.com).

Don't miss...

The Vieux-Port (Old Port)

The centre of the city, and the site where Marseille was founded, is home to a very scenic harbour – and a small but lively daily fish market. A new pedestrian area will be created here before 2013, under the direction of architects Norman Foster and Michel Desvigne, but it's a great place for a stroll already. Admire the bobbing boats, stop for lunch at one of the waterside cafés, and carry on to look down on the port entrance from Fort St Jean or Fort St Nicolas; you get an even better view if you pass through them on a boat trip to the Ile d'If or the Calanques (see below).

A hike to Notre Dame de la Garde (ind.pn/lS0sXZ)

A lookout post and fortress turned basilica, set at the city's highest point, "La Bonne Mère" is the overriding symbol of Marseille. It's worth making the climb up (or taking Le Petit Train: petittrain-marseille.com) to admire a gilded and gently maritime-themed interior and panoramic views over the city.

Lunch on the terrace at Le Ventre de L'Architecte, within Le Corbusier's La Cité Radieuse housing project (leventredelarchitecte.com)

Part of the modernist architect's striking 1950s "city within a city" (easily reached from the centre with the number 21 bus), it offers a taste of what living in one of the neighbouring apartments might be like, plus sweeping views of the coast from outdoor tables. The tourist office runs regular tours of the housing project for those who want to see inside an apartment. (The on-site hotel has only niche appeal.)

A boat trip to the Ile d'If (frioul-if-express.com)

Just 20 minutes from the Old Port, this tiny island is home to a ruined castle that was built in the 16th century as a defence against attacks on Marseille by sea, but later became a notorious prison. Since the 18th century it's been better known as a setting for Alexandre Dumas's book The Count of Monte Cristo.

A stroll around Le Panier, Marseille's old town.

Among Le Panier's winding, hilly streets and pretty squares is the Centre de la Vieille Charité (vieille-charite-marseille.org), as well as cafés, boutiques and churches. Just up from here is the palatial Hotel Dieu, an 18th-century hospital that's in the process of being transformed into a lavish InterContinental hotel.

What's new

Cours Julien

The area around this street, about 15 minutes' walk east from the Old Port, is the place to head to for contemporary galleries, boutiques, quirky cafés, organic teas or offbeat bookshops. Once home to a fruit and veg market (farmers' markets are still held here on Wednesday mornings), Cours Julien was renovated in the 1980s; you know you've arrived when you see its artfully graffiti'd buildings.

Details: ind.pn/mw9bRG

Hotel La Résidence du Vieux Port

One of the modernist buildings along the quayside built after the Second World War (Pablo Picasso is said to have been among its early guests), this four-star hotel and restaurant reopened in July 2010 after a comprehensive renovation. Its retro, primary-coloured interiors are inspired generally by the 1950s and specifically by Le Corbusier, but the key selling point is the hotel's location – all but the very cheapest rooms have balconies looking out spectacularly over the Old Port.

Details: hotelmarseille.com

Mémorial de la Marseillaise

This new attraction focuses on the history of the French national anthem. The rallying call of the French Revolution, "The Marseillaise" was first sung by volunteer troops from France's second city. There isn't as yet a lot of information in English among the exhibits, recordings and other attractions, which include a 360-degree audio-visual display covering early scenes from the revolution.

Details: ind.pn/mrzHXk

The Calanques National Park

The Calanques National Park is set to be inaugurated towards the end of this year, covering about 15,000 acres of land and sea just to the east of Marseille. At its heart will be the Calanques themselves, dramatic limestone fjords lapped by turquoise water and often ending in a village or beach. There are various ways to see them, from Icard's new sailing and swimming trips (visite-des-calanques.com) to lower-impact tours on board Green Calanques' new hybrid boat (croisieres-marseille-calanques.com). The best by far, however, is by kayak (kayak-marseille.fr).

Details: gipcalanques.fr.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Return train fares from London to Marseille start at £108 (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk).

Further information

Go to marseille-tourisme.com and marseille-provence.info

Insider Secret

David Karoubi, Bar and pension owner(pensions-eidelweiss.fr)

"When I want to eat fish I go directly to La Boîte à Sardine. The owner, Fabien, is very kind and always serves great food. It has a very good atmosphere, and cool customers." (laboiteasardine.com)

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