Why I chose Marseille over Paris for the Olympic Games

With 100 days to go until the start of Paris 2024, Natalie Wilson explains why she’s trading the French capital for the French Riviera to see the sporting spectacle

Thursday 18 April 2024 14:57 BST
Marseille will host football and sailing sessions at this summer’s Games
Marseille will host football and sailing sessions at this summer’s Games (Getty)

Forget Emily in Paris. I’ve always thought “Natalie in Nice” would have a great ring to it. Or any stretch along the French Riviera, if I was given the opportunity for an international relocation. The sun-soaked coast studded with pinstriped parasols, croissants and coffee haunts has always had a glitz that’s quietly cooler than the sophistiquée arrondissements and renowned landmarks of Paris.

I know one could while away weeks in the French capital but for me, Paris has always felt most palatable as a one-time pit stop for a classic city break. France’s poster child – the city of love – is gearing up for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on 26 July – with that comes an overwhelming summer swarmed with tourists that I was making a conscious effort to avoid.

However, the Olympics’ return to Europe for the first time in a decade is hard to resist. Nostalgia had got the better of me and memories of my experience at London 2012 returned, such as watching Nigerian rower Hamadou Djibo Issaka compete in the men’s single sculls heats with just three months of training. I was prepared to face the sporting mobs of Paris.

So, I signed up for the ballot in January 2023 because I “saw it somewhere” – a TikTok ad told me to – and enlisted all of my family members to do the same, feeling rather pessimistic about our chances for an Olympic do-over of the very rainy rowing session at Dorney Lake in the UK 12 years ago.

Harbour views in Marseille
Harbour views in Marseille (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

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To my surprise, all four of my family members were successful in phase one of the draw but it only took logging into the first ballot slot for us to trip over a seriously high financial hurdle. Tickets to the big hitters in Paris – the opening ceremony, swimming and athletics – were either sold out or up to €690 (£590) a pop and, even with the age-old comfort of “cheaper than flying” Eurostar travel, seemed scarily steep for the back row experience.

Those sports that weren’t, in the €85 to €160 range, were the subject of great debate between my sister and parents before being deemed “not worth the trip”. When my 24-hour timeslot to create a “Games Pack” finally came around in March, I was resigned to the fact the trip would require a lottery win and simply skimmed the prices before logging out.

I think I laughed when I was redrawn for the single tickets sale in mid-May – and regrettably held the same financial status – but when curiosity got the better of me I went back to the drawing board. Safe to say my eyes lit up when I discovered one of the “other” Olympic cities: Marseille.

Hosting the sailing, windsurfing and football games, sports everyone would agree on, who would say no to a south of France weekend, with a side of sea swimming instead of sweating on the metro? France’s coastal second city is even a summer spot for Parisians, with a charming old town, Le Panier, sandy swathes and a vibrant culinary scene. Between the busy spectator stands I pictured indulging in culture in the Mucem museum, topping up my tan, and feasts of navette biscuits and bouillabaisse fish soup backdropped by stunning views of the Med.

Marseille’s own Notre Dame
Marseille’s own Notre Dame (Getty/iStock)

This may have been one of the very few times where a long weekend in the south of France has been regarded as the more affordable option, with tickets under €30. I’m sure others found similar savings in the handball and basketball games of Lille, though it may have been a different story for the surfing in Tahiti...

Category D tickets to an evening women’s football quarter-final in Marseille Stadium cost us €30 per person. Though there will be no Team GB on the pitch, the winners of the 2A and 2B groups could at best, be the USA, France or Australia. Similarly, a day spent watching the sailing, windsurfing and various water sports competitions at Marseille Marina cost just €24, ideal for taking our first family holiday since 2014.

Securing the 12 tickets last spring thankfully marked a successful end to my ballot-based shenanigans that I could have avoided altogether had I splashed out to secure tickets from the Olympic’s official provider, On Location. Hospitality and travel packages were available to the general public from January last year – though pricey, they include locked-in rates with some Parisian hotels.

Booking ahead left plenty of time to secure British Airways Avios seats to fly to Marseille – strong disclaimer that these came from the credits of my “travels for business” dad, not my current “glass of wine and potentially some pringles” tally of BA loyalty points. On the downside, this was also enough time for three separate Airbnbs to cancel our accommodation, presumedly in preparation for price hikes across France as a result of the games.

As it stands, in a typical 300-room hotel, as many as 120 rooms could be empty during the Games – compared with just 28 last July – possibly due to peak Games’ price increases of up to 120 per cent. British visitors to this summer’s Olympics in Paris could cash in on last-minute bargain hotel rates if this remains the case, according to my colleague Simon Calder.

I’m not saying that going to the Olympics is a budget holiday, or that the Marseille experience will be anything like a night watching the 100m final and dining out afterwards near the Eiffel Tower, but the €54 per person sporting portion of the holiday, “free” flights and three-bedroom apartment near the marina offer a different slice of the action on the Mediterranean – one that I am very excited for.

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