Like many of Marseille's unique pleasures, Pension Edelweiss doesn't give itself away too easily. Trundling down the rue Lafayette, a long, narrow street of townhouses that slopes down from the Gare Saint-Charles, we had to double back to find the heavy wooden door marked only by a small plaque. We felt a little like characters arriving at the home of a grand, distant relation in a Zola novel – an impression only reinforced by the imposing staircase that leads up to the informal "reception" area on the first floor. But if this guesthouse is steeped in old-fashioned charm, it's finished with an insouciance perfectly in step with a city that wears both past and present casually.
Vintage-lover Bernadette Rochat has brought her retro sensibility to Edelweiss's five bedrooms, favouring a mix of mid-century pieces that sit happily alongside marble fireplaces, thick carpets and ceiling fans. Hung with old prints of Marseille and gently foxed mirrors, these are atmospheric rooms, but coolly vibrant colour schemes and offbeat touches, such as a giant anglepoise lamp, inflect the decor with contemporary style and humour. Expect a high-quality flea market edit, rather than exemplary antiques, but it's elegantly brought together.
We stayed in the recently opened suite on the ground floor – a large, high-ceilinged double adjoins a smaller room with two daybeds, giving out on to a small terrace, so it's a good option for families. Our room came with a couple of caveats – the old glass patio doors required careful handling, and the shower rail in the large bathroom preferred a soft touch – but if you value character over function, you expect a few idiosyncrasies.
On weekdays, breakfast is served at the Comptoir Dugommier, an old-style brasserie also owned by Bernadette and partner David, about 100m from the pension. Though some may find the stroll in search of sustenance a little irksome, for us it was a bonus – with only a short time in the city, the chance to take up a table and get in a bit of people-watching was welcome. Granola, yoghurt, croissants and breads make for a plentiful breakfast; at the weekend it's a more personal affair, with guests invited to eat in Bernadette's apartment, in communal table d'hôte style.
Bernadette Rochat and David Karoubi opened Edelweiss last year, although Bernadette takes charge of its running these days. If her passion for vintage design informs the place's aesthetic, her laid-back nature defines its feel – she's flexible about arrival and departure times, will look after luggage and you're free to come and go with your own key.
Marseille's cocktail of old Provence and ebullient, urban modernity makes the city gloriously difficult to classify in its entirety. Though occasionally bemusing, the pay-off is that everyone will find at least one element that appeals. Those in search of a more traditional Mediterranean experience can head to the Vieux Port, the city's picturesque historic harbour, and the Panier, Marseille's oldest quarter, whose narrow streets are peppered with artisan shops and some vibrant cafés.
If you prefer your bohemianism cut a little more roughly, take the 52 bus from the Gare Saint Charles to La Friche la Belle de Mai (lafriche.org) – a former factory that has been converted into a vast arts centre containing a gallery, workshops, event space and skate park.
Cultural offerings proliferate next year as Marseille assumes its European Capital of Culture 2013 mantle; new openings, such as the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM) will be staggered through the spring: check mp2013.fr for details.
The Pit stop
It's hard to know where to begin, so plentiful are the dining options around the old port. Head to the rue Sainte and lunch like a local at Le Bistrot à Vins (00 33 4 91 54 02 20), where you'll enjoy an "assiette du jour" – a generous ploughman's à la Provençale with local cheese, cured meats, salad and bread – with a glass of wine for €11.50 (£9). Though a view of the port at sunset is appealing, drink it in with your aperitif – try Hotel Belle Vue's first-floor Caravelle bar (00 33 4 91 90 36 64; hotelbellevuemarseille.com) or walk up to the local Rowing Society's clubhouse (rowingmarseille.fr) for an unparalleled sea view – and give the overpriced harbourside eateries a miss. The city's foodies have been scurrying to Le Malthazar (19 rue Fortia; 00 33 4 91 33 42 46), a Marseille institution recently reopened by celebrated chef Michel Portos. Refined bistrot classics such as salade niçoise appear alongside Portos' signature Asian-accented Mediterranean cuisine. The fixed menu begins at €22 (£18).
Pension Edelweiss, 6 rue Lafayette, Marseille, Provence, France (00 33 9 51 23 35 11; pension-edelweiss.fr). B&B doubles start at €85 (£68).