Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Marseille: Be Aware

Marseille was founded by the Greeks of antiquity so it’s not surprising that Marseille is the oldest city in France. The city has a gentle Mediterranean climate, a climate that is said to be blessed by the Olympian Gods. However, whether or not the city itself is blessed by the Gods is debatable.

Two officers of la Police Nationale

La Police Nationale (Formally, Sûreté Nationale) on the Historic la Canebière
 Photo: FaceMePLS

The situation in Marseille is a sad irony because it is located in the middle of the Provence-Côte d’Azur region, an incredibly beautiful and peaceful region in France, if not the world. Provence and the Côte d’Azur are truly world treasures. But not Marseille.


City in Trouble

Frankly, even most of the French would not think of vacationing in Marseille. Unlike most Western European cities, Marseille is not a city where you want to just wander the streets soaking up the ambiance. First, there’s little ambiance, it’s not an attractive city, it’s grimy and unkempt, and second, what you will soak up would be the perpetually lingering odor of garbage. But there is a third reason– it has a reputation as a “tough town.” It’s so easy to mosey into the wrong neighborhood unawares since there are so many unsafe neighborhoods in the city. And that can be dangerous.

Why is this so?

Marseille is inhabited predominantly by France’s growing North African population that has not been successfully assimilated into French society. Poverty and lack of educational achievement has resulted in high unemployment, and that has created North African youth drug-dealing gangs, known as the “French Connection.” These gangs are more akin to thugs and gangsters, and they are everywhere, unchecked, well-armed, violent, and highly territorial. At one point in September 2012, widespread youth violence was such a problem that a high government official called for the army to be sent to Marseille to restore order.


Do you really want to visit this city?

Actually, a lot of backpackers visit Marseille and they love it. The trick is to be inconspicuous, act smart, and tread lightly:

A neighbourhood street stairway in Marseille, France

A Neighbourhood Street Stairway in Marseille
 Photo: Nicolas Nova

  • Learn what neighborhoods are safe before or quickly after your arrival. Other backpackers, hostel or hotel front-desk staff, and some friendly locals will tell you what neighborhoods are safe and which ones to steer clear of.
  • Only walk in safe neighborhoods and only during daylight. After dusk, take a cab.
  • Don’t make eye contact with strangers on the street.
  • On the streets, walk in a confident manner and at a brisk pace. Never stroll slowly or window shop. You will standout and you could be targeted.
  • Don’t wear gold or silver jewelry, an expensive watch, or appear to have a laptop, smartphone, iPad, or mp3 player. In other words, look as inconspicuous and ordinary as possible.
  • Don’t carry your backpack around with you during the day, store it in a locker at the hostel or leave it with hotel desk staff. In other words, try not to look like a visitor.
  • Avoid walking close to groups of local teenagers or young men, especially on the street, but in general everywhere except in the hostel, except if you hear them speak fluent English, German or another Northern European language.
  • Try to make friends with other backpackers at the hostel, hotel, or nearby café, and suggest travelling in groups for safety.
  • If you are a female backpacker, make a strong effort not to walk the streets alone even during the day. If you must travel outside alone, take a cab.
  • Carry your passport, ID, most of your cash and credit cards in an inner shirt pocket or a secure body or belt carrier worn under your cloths, at all times. But never in your backpack or jeans’ pocket. Some cash can be carried in a front jeans’ pocket.

With extra precautions, you are likely to be safe.


City of the Past

This is the city that provided France with its famous national anthem, La Marseillaise. It is a song of revolution, and one of the most bloodthirsty, bravado-filled national anthems in the world.

Youths filming a gangsta rap video on a Marseille Street

Shooting a Gangsta Rap Video in the Street
 Photo: Henrik Moltke

It is also off the shores of this city that the infamous Château d’If, the world’s original Alcatraz, was built as a prison designed to hold France’s deadliest and most treasonous citizens, including the famous Count of Monte Cristo.

In a city tough enough to survive invasions by everyone from Visigoths to the Nazis, you will not be hard pressed to find places of cultural significance to occupy yourself. However, if the buildings still scarred from World War II bullets and the cherry on top of the town that is the beautiful Notre Dame de la Garde aren’t your thing, there are dozens of beaches all along the coastline with waters so blue I challenge you to find the like in any other major city in the world.


City of Football

If history and relaxation still don’t sate your craving of loud crowds and fierce competition, maybe the wonderful world of European football (soccer) will. The passion of the fans of l’Olympique Marseille are matched only by the boisterousness and dedication of English football fans.

Going to a game in the city’s Stade Vélodrome is as close to a tribal séance as the culture of France has ever produced. For an extra special treat, if you want to experience what it’s like to be despised by thousands of Frenchmen and you’re not in the mood for a casual stroll through the streets of Paris, you can buy tickets to sit in the chain-link fence that encloses the cage the opposing team’s fans are escorted into by a cavalcade of armored French SWAT officers.


City of La Cuisine Magnifique Marseille

Like every region and city in France, Marseille has a strong culinary tradition with many incredible specialties. In fact, you can build an entire menu out of the traditional specialties Marseille chefs have created in their kitchens. One of the supreme Provençal dishes is the legendary bouillabaisse. It is usually made for at least 10 people, so get a group together at the hostel. You’ll be glad you did. The cost should be around $103 USD (€80, £64). The broth is served first, then the seafood and vegetable will be served on a plate as a second course. Check prices and dress code before going, and some restaurants may need reservations as bouillabaisse will be prepared specifically for the number of people in your group.

If every fish in the Mediterranean simmered in one pot doesn’t set your salivary glands into overdrive, for a reasonable price you can order a superbly cooked fish from any of the numerous seaside restaurants. It will taste so fresh you’d think you were eating sushi.

On the other side of the edible spectrum, any visitor would be a fool not to take advantage of the rich presence of the North African cuisine found in Marseille. It should be a law that the adjective “incredible” be attached to the word “couscous” anytime somebody makes a comment about the city’s adopted signature dish. Some restaurants in Marseille serve tastier couscous than many places you’ll find in North Africa. It is remarkable.


City of Travel Options

A big plus for Marseille is its great connectivity to the rest of Europe, and the world. Marseille has major train and bus stations in the city centre, and one of the major international airports of Europe, just a short bus ride out-of-town. Getting in and out of Marseille is the least of any visitor’s worries. Even better about the airport is it’s also being a hub for the budget airline RyanAir. A flight on one of their planes will make you seriously question the value of your own life.

In general, I would not stay in Marseille for long. Move on to the other safer, more beautiful, sweet-smelling, and welcoming cities or towns in south France, which is just about anywhere but Marseille.

For those wishing for a quieter stay outside of town, take a train or to any of a number of nearby locations, the closest of which being Aix-en-Provence, just a thirty minute bus ride.


City of Adventure

A view of Marsille from the harbour.

View of Marseille from the Harbour
 Photo: Patrick Gaudin

For its troubles, Marseille is still arguably a great city. Some things you may hear about it may frighten you. Some things you hear about it may shock you. The city may also not contain what some visitors desire in a travel destination. These people may take a train up north and can have Paris all to themselves. But, if you’re one of the people constantly lamenting the gentrification of all of Europe’s major cities, come down south to Marseille, if you’re brave enough.