The Old Port of Marseille (Le Vieux Port) is a historic and natural harbour in Marseille. Fishing trips and excursions often depart from this marina. Fishermen still land their catch on the quayside, just as they’ve always done. Locals come to buy fresh fish from the nearby Quai des Belges market. It’s an ideal place to enjoy a meal in the sunshine or people-watch over coffee from a pavement cafe.   

Marseille was awarded the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture back in 2013. The designation led to a significant investment in the city. As part of the revamp, landscape designer Michel Desvigne envisaged a pedestrian hub with elegant granite paving slabs. English architect Norman Foster and his team contributed a stainless steel canopy to form a pavilion that can be used as an event space.  

Old Port of Marseille (Le Vieux Port) - one of the highlights of 11 Best Things to Do in Marseille and 10 Best Things to Do in Provence (Read all about Marseille here)

A brief history of the Old Port of Marseille

The first boats that dropped anchor in the cove that now contains what locals refer to as Le Vieux Port came from Ancient Greece in 600 BC. They would be the first of many. Marseille’s Old Port became the focus of trade and remained so for centuries. Businesses serving the needs of sailors and their vessels set up nearby. They included fields of hemp which were grown to ensure a steady supply of rope. That’s also how the Canebière, an important street which connects the port to the Réformés quarter, came to get its name.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, the Old Port of Marseille served as a shipyard making galleons. 2 forts were built on both sides of the port during the long reign of Louis XIV, known as the Sun King. The notorious Arsenal des Galères also dates from this time. It was the place where munitions were stored. It also provided accommodation for the unfortunate galley slaves who were condemned to a life of forced labour rowing the boats in the fleet.

By the middle of the 19th-century, ships had grown too big to fit in the Vieux Port and new docks were constructed in nearby La Joliette that were better suited to changing needs. As time passed, more docks were dug to the northwest, creating the Grand Port Maritime de Marseille. But far from being neglected, leisure has replaced industry in the Old Port of Marseille. And the area’s thriving today.

What are the highlights and features of  Le Vieux Port?

One of the oldest buildings surrounding the Old Port of Marseille is the centuries-old Église de Saint-Ferréol les Augustins. This pretty church, located on the Quai des Belges, boasts an Italianate belltower and neo-Baroque façade. The medieval Abbaye Saint-Victor, close to Fort Saint-Nicolas, is also worth a visit.

A foot ferry connects both sides of the harbour. Opposite the fort is MuCEM (Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean). While you’re there, grab a photo beside the Phare de Sainte-Marie, a historic lighthouse dating back to 1855. The 21-metre-high, white limestone structure is no longer in active use.

On your visit, you should hop a ferry to the island fortress of Château d’If. It was built in the 16th century and, like Marseille’s Old Port itself, featured in the Alexandre Dumas classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. Other boat rides to consider include sightseeing trips to see the Calanques, a series of breathtaking fjords dotting the coastline between Marseille and Cassis. 

Good to know about the Old Port of Marseilles

Le Vieux Port is the birthplace of bouillabaisse, a flavoursome fish stew. Local fishermen took home leftover fish that wasn’t good enough for sale. As its popularity grew, the city’s restaurateurs drew up a Bouillabaisse Charter to protect the authenticity of this local speciality. Along with a signature blend of Provencal herbs, it must contain rascasse, a bony rockfish, as well as 3 other types of fish.

The dish gets its name from how it is prepared: chefs boil up a broth (bolh) and then lower the heat to develop the taste (abaissa). A good restaurant will serve bouillabaisse in 2 separate parts: a bowl of cooked fish and a jug of broth. Try a place that specialises in Provencal cuisine, such as Chez Madie les Galinettes, to avoid the worst of the Vieux Port tourist traps.

Old Port of Marseille (Le Vieux Port)

Locatie: La Canebière, 13211 Marseille, France

Julia Hammond | Schrijver