History & Culture

History of Marseille

Discover the forts, port and vibrant cultures that make up Marseille’s fascinating history with LeShuttle’s handy guide for your trip.

Explore Marseille's fascinating historical sites

Marseille charms visitors with its architecture, museums and sun-kissed landscape. It's no surprise then, that the city gained the title of European Capital of Culture in 2013. We've picked some of the key dates and locations in the history of Marseille, so you can delve deeper into its story.

600 BC - Greeks founded Massalia

The sloping streets of Le Panier (the old Greek quarter) saw the beginning of Marseille. The Greeks took over Massilia (the Old Port and the peninsula on the north side, facing the sea) in 540 BC and established a thriving central port and trading area.

Today, the ancient Place de Lenche is a bustling square where you can grab a bite to eat and watch the action from one of the café terraces. A short 5 minute walk from the square (to 2 rue de la Charité) is the Vieille Charité which houses two museums. The Museum of African, South Seas and American Indian Arts and the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology, are places to immerse yourself in the history of Marseille, Europe and civilisation. Designed by Pierre Puget in the 17th century, this striking golden-pink limestone building was once used as a charity shelter – housing the beggars, tramps and homeless people pouring into Marseille in the 18th century. It later became a hospice for children and the elderly.

1482 - Marseille became part of France

The city grew from Vieux Port (Old Port) and ships have docked there for almost 3000 years. Thanks to its thriving trade, Marseille remained independent for a long period of time. It wasn't until King Louis XI inherited Marseille, after the death of René d'Anjou (Count of Provence), that the city became part of France.

Today, Marseille is the second-largest city in France, after Paris, and its largest commercial port. You'll see throngs of fishing boats (selling their fresh catch of the morning), and plenty of pleasure boats filling the old port.

1660 - Fort Saint-Jean was built

Fort Saint-Jean was built by Louis XIV at the entrance to the Old Port. During the French Revolution, it was used as a prison and later taken over by the French army (19th and 20th centuries) and used as a barracks and clearing station for the Army of Africa.

Today, Fort Saint-Jean houses 1 of 3 sites of the Mucem in Marseille (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations). You can climb to the Salle du Corps de Garde (guardhouse room) in the upper levels of the fort to watch videos about the building's history and architecture. Wander around beautiful landscaped grounds and the Garden of Migration to get a sense of the layers of history underfoot.

When you're finished in the fort, cross the footbridge to the reach MuSEM's new building on J4 pier, designed by architect Rudy Ricciotti. Here you'll find a permanent exhibition exploring the historical significance and diversity of Mediterranean civilisations.

19th century – period of growth

The 19th century saw an intense period of construction in the city. The Canal de Marseille opened in 1849, bringing fresh drinking water to the population. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 meant that trade with North Africa was at its peak.

Today, you can browse the markets and sample delicious North African cuisine in Marseille's Arab quarter. The colourful food market at Noailles is one of the best. It's open every day and can be found along the narrow streets around La Canebière, close to the Old Port.

1864 - Notre-Dame de la Garde is rebuilt

The Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde (1853-1864) dominates the skyline of Marseille at its highest point. This Neo-Byzantine church, built on the foundations of a 16th-century fort, is known as the protector of the city. Inside murals predict the safe passage of sailing boats and its north face bears the scars of Marseille's Battle of Liberation (1944).

Today, you can take the short 1km walk from Vieux Port to the church and enjoy panoramic views across Marseille. Or, for a more leisurely trip, hop on the tourist train or number 6o bus up the hill.

1948 - The station sanitaire was built

The health station for immigrants was designed by architect Fernand Pouillon, in 1948, and sits on the seafront at Allée Regards de Provence overlooking the port. Immigrants arriving by sea or air went through a disinfection, screening and vaccination process in a bid to fight Marseille's threat of epidemics.

Today, it's been transformed into the Musée Regards de Provence, displaying over 900 artworks of Marseille, Provence and the Mediterranean. It's also worth browsing the permanent Memory of a Quarantine Station exhibition, to hear the story of the station and Marseille's quarantine history through special effects, sounds, light and water works. Look out for remaining room signs (déshabillage, desinfection and service DDT) revealing what awaited the immigrants.

Getting there: Explore the history of Marseille at only 9 hours' drive from LeShuttle's Calais terminal along the A26 and A7. If you'd like to break up the journey with a stopover, Lyon is a good choice at 6 hours' drive from Calais.