Later this month, Marseille's new exhibition and conference centre, Villa Méditerranée (00 33 4 95 09 42 52 ; villa- mediterranee.org; closed Monday; free), opens its doors to the public. With its upper storey poised like a diving board over a pool of water, it's the latest in a series of exciting buildings designed to bring life back to the city's waterfront and celebrate Marseille's year in the spotlight as joint European Capital of Culture for 2013. The perfect way to appreciate the makeover of France's oldest city is on the urban stretch of a new long-distance footpath, the GR2013 (ffrandonnee.fr), which was inaugurated last week.
Begin the walk at the neo-Byzantine basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde (00 33 4 91 13 40 80; notredamedelagarde.com), location for the best view in town. From the terrace, you can take in the shiny new dockside development, the encircling mountains and the blue sea. Then follow the discreet red-and-yellow markings of the GR2013 downhill to the Old Port, with its huge silvered sunshade (L'Ombrière). This was designed by Sir Norman Foster as the centrepiece of a paved piazza, which stretches alongside the Old Port. Known as the Quai de la Fraternité, the area has been reclaimed for pedestrians from the mayhem of Marseille's traffic. Carry on past the fish market, an institution where the day's catch is still landed and sold, and follow the Quai du Port round the harbour.
After a few hundred metres the line of cafés, ice-cream parlours and restaurants is interrupted by the 17th-century Town Hall, beside which a long wooden-framed building stretches caterpillar-like inland. This is Pavillon Marseille, the welcome bureau for Marseille 2013. Tourist information is dispensed on the upper floor, while in the cavernous lower levels are exhibitions by local artists and videos about Marseille's history and famous sons, among them the actor Yves Montand (open daily 10am-7pm; 0810 813 813, France only; mp2013.fr).
On the other side of the Town Hall, the GR2013 leads up the Rue de la Prison, into Marseille's Old Town, also known as "le Panier" (the basket). Its honey-hued stone buildings, steep narrow streets and tiny unexpected squares are home to numerous small, quirky shops. Turn left along Rue Caisserie to find a clutch of local treats. At No 1 is Savon de Marseille, selling Marseille's renowned olive oil-based soap, the city's oldest industrial product (00 33 4 91 56 20 94). At No 21, the lunchtime clientele are already sitting down at Le Protis (00 33 4 91 91 11 34) by noon. Don't expect the city's extravagant speciality, bouillabaisse, but a three-course meal including a main course such as sirloin steak or stuffed veal escalope, plus wine, is yours for €12 (£10).
At the end of Rue Caisserie, a pedestrian bridge takes you into the heart of the port-side development. Beside the massive Fort St-Jean (built by Louis XIV) are two eye-catching new buildings. The white concrete and glass of the Villa Méditerranée contrasts dramatically with the dust-coloured cube of the MuCEM (00 33 4 96 13 80 90; mucem.org), encased in extraordinary concrete latticework, inspired by North African architecture and reminiscent of a fishing net. It is scheduled to open in June.
Continue down the Boulevard du Littoral, alongside the Quai de la Joliette. On the right is a long, low building, which in its previous incarnation was the maritime health and sanitation centre. Now it's the Musée Regards de Provence (00 33 4 96 17 40 40; museeregardsdeprovence.com; €5/£4.20), which exhibits works by artists from the region, including Raoul Dufy. Towering above it is the city's cathedral, Cathédrale de la Major (00 33 4 91 90 52 87; marseille.catholique.fr; closed Mondays). Built in the second half of the 19th century in a medley of styles, its most impressive facet is its size – locals call it la gare, the railway station.
The next stretch of waterfront is scheduled for further refurbishment over the next few years, but has not lost its primary purpose as a harbour. Five hundred metres further along the esplanade is the berth of the ferry to Algiers. Beside it, an enormous warehouse, known as J1 (advance bookings via mp2013.fr; €9/£7.60), has been given a new life as an exhibition centre. Until 18 May it is hosting an enthralling exhibition, Méditerranées, which charts Mediterranean history from the fall of Troy to the present day.
From here, at Place de la Joliette, you could embark on a 360km hike along the huge figure-of-eight that the GR2013 takes in as it wanders westwards towards the airport and then back to Marseille via Aix-en-Provence. Or you could go and have a drink: pastis is the local favourite.
Occupying a prime position on the slopes of the Panier, the five-star Hotel InterContinental Dieu (00 33 4 13 42 42 42; ichotelsgroup.com) will open at the end of April. It's been created from the shell of the 18th-century hospital. Head chef, Lionel Lévy, is known for his creative reinvention of Marseille's fishy favourite – bouillabaisse. Doubles with breakfast start at €292 (£247).
The major artistic event of the summer (13 June to 13 October) has the Musée de Beaux Arts in the freshly renovated Palais de Longchamps, hosting De Van Gogh à Bonnard, an exhibition of 100 great paintings (00 33 04 91 13 89 01; culture.marseille.fr; €9/£7.62).
Mick Webb travelled to Marseille as a guest of British Airways and the Provence-Alpes–Côte d'Azur Tourist Board (tourismepaca.fr).
BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Marseille from Heathrow; easyJet (0834 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick, while Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Edinburgh, East Midlands and Stansted.
The four-star New Hotel of Marseille, 71 Boulevard Charles Livord (00 33 4 91 31 53 15; new-hotel.com), is a 10-minute walk (or brief shuttle-bus ride) from the Old Port. Doubles start at €110/£93; breakfast from €10pp.