Marseille might be France’s oldest city, but it’s young at heart. Emma E Forrest guides you to the best of its family-friendly attractions
Marseille once had a reputation so insalubrius you would never dream of taking kids there, but it emerged from a £580 million revamp when it was European City of Culture in 2013 radiant with inviting new public spaces and striking museums.
There are bold sights for children to enjoy, including dramatic forts, the island 1.5km offshore with its isolated Chateau d’If, and the port, where they can watch sailors tinkering with their yachts. There are also simple pleasures, from the teeny free ferry that takes passengers across the harbour, to an old-fashioned carousel and fabulous playgrounds in expansive green areas.
The city even boasts Europe’s largest suburban park, the Calanques National Park, so you can hike in mountains, loaf on sandy beaches and take a boat trip to the famous calanques – craggy inlets filled with turquoise waters.
Marseille developed from the trade that travelled through its majestic port as of about 600BC, but the ships you’ll see there these days are mainly for fishing and sport.
At the fish market on the Quai des Belges, your kids can see the catch of the day flip around on stalls before taking an upside-down snap of your family’s reflection in the polished-steel canopy designed by Norman Foster.
From here, you can hop on a boat to the Frioul islands, one of which is home to a cartoon-like Chateau d’If. Near the sea, youngsters can scamper along the aerial walkway that links the ancient Fort Saint-Jean to the striking MUCEM museum with its shroud of concrete lace.
A great way to get your bearings is to hop aboard Le Petit Train. On the Notre-Dame de la Garde trip it snakes up from the Vieux Port, round the 5th-century St Victor Abbey and along the corniche with its striking war memorial and 3km-long bench, said to be the longest in the world. From there, you wind through the cluttered streets of Endoume, holding on tight for the final vertiginous ascent to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, a stripped wedding cake of a cathedral topped with an 11m gold Virgin Mary. A stop there allows a staggering view over the city’s red rooftops. | 1 hr & 20 mins, adults £7, children (3-11) £3.50. Check it out here
Marseille is famous for its traditional soap, olive green and sold in great industrial chunks.
La Grande Savonnerie offers succinct workshops that are fun even for little ones. They’re shown how authentic Savon de Marseille is made, but it’s the hands-on bit that is the most exciting: extruding a warm stick of soap, slicing it into bars then bashing an imprint of a seahorse or anchor into it with a mallet. Christmas present? Our kids were transfixed as they watched their greeting for Grandpa being etched in white on a soap in the shop’s engraving machine. | Adults from £6.50, 36 Grand Rue, 13002. Tel 0950638035
Ease your kids into a love for architecture with a visit to Le Corbusier’s stunning 18-storey modernist vertical village. Completed in 1952, this concrete high-rise with its colourful exterior is home to 337 apartments and internal ‘streets’ to explore: there’s a hotel, shops, restaurants, offices, a nursery and a rooftop gallery and paddling pool.
Take a break and watch the boats from the hotel’s cafe, or get a 360-degree view as you let the kids burn off some energy on the roof. To snoop inside one of the period apartments, you’ll need to book a room at the hotel or a place on a guided tour. | Guided tours, adults £9, children £4.50 Check it out here
A group of local designers is behind this joyful boutique dedicated to children. It’s full of tempting gifts, such as Japanese-style nature-inspired jewellery, cute hand-printed onesies, felt-monkey mobiles and knitted wall decorations, all made in Marseille, of course. | 11 Rue du Panier, 13002
Kids are invited to road-test the toys at this fun store
on the Place aux Huiles, near the Vieux Port. The tasteful French-made goodies in stock here include Djeco’s stylish craft sets and beautifully made wooden toys created by Vilac, as well as a huge range of dolls, puzzles, dinosaur figures, fancy-dress costumes, puppets, board games and musical instruments, all selected because they’re attractive but also educational and ethical. Check it out here
This family-run workshop has been manufacturing terracotta figurines or santons since 1900. Pick a family for a Christmas manger or a couple for the kids’ bookshelf. Check it out here
The chefs at this lively trattoria on the Cours Julien will accommodate even the pickiest junior eaters with tailor-made dishes. Most kids, however, will find something to please on the menu: risotto, escalope, pasta. Choose a street-side table for people-watching. Check it out here
The terrace of this family-run pizzeria offers fine views of the sea beyond the fishermen’s cottages and bobbing boats of the Vallon des Auffes, a dinky port tucked away under the corniche in the centre of the city. There are tasty pizzas for kids, and exciting dishes for grown-ups, such as fish soup or calamari salad. Check it out here
There’s no need to be embarrassed if junior is acting up at this family-friendly concept restaurant on Boulevard Longchamp. Everything is designed to make eating out with kids a relaxing experience. There are high chairs, plastic crockery and bibs, but also a games corner and a leafy garden stocked with outdoor toys. Check it out here
This gorgeous boutique hotel set in glorious gardens in an eastern suburb is a welcome retreat for families, lovingly created by a brother-and-sister team in the grounds of their parents’ villa. There’s expansive lawns for kids to run about on, a pool for them to play in and 12 stylish and spacious rooms. Mornings start with breakfast on the veranda, featuring homemade jams and yummy gluten-free madeleine cakes, and for lunch or dinner, you can order in from the local trattoria. | From £113 room only. Check it out here
This quirky Philip Starck-designed hotel is a fun place to stay. ‘Mama loves families,’ so there are free kids’ movies on the iMacs, and a games space with table football and cartoons. The restaurant has a kids’ menu that comes with pencilcase, colouring pictures and stickers, and a Sunday brunch with a child-friendly buffet – and occasionally a junior disco. It’s in a great location, too, a street away from the buzzy Cours Julien neighbourhood. | Rooms from £120. Check it out here
A fab view over the port, pool and warm ‘bienvenue’ for kids are reasons to book this reliable chain hotel. Kids are given a gift when they arrive and there’s a large play area in the lobby with games consoles, kids’ movies, a colouring table and a library. Under-16s sleep for free and a second children’s room is half-price. For babies, there are baths, monitors, buggies, bottle warmers and travel cots. | From £125 a night B&B. Check it out here
How to get there: Eurostar’s new direct service takes just six-and-a-half hours to get from London St Pancras to Marseille St Charles. Easyjet flies to Marseille from Bristol, Gatwick and Manchester from £25. BA flies from Heathrow from £52. Ryanair flies from Edinburgh and Stansted from £19.99. Flying time is just 2 hours 5 minutes.
Best for age: There’s something for all ages here, from carousels for toddlers to skate parks for teens.
How to get around: A City Pass costs from £23 adults, £15 for children 7-15 for 24 hours, and gives unlimited access to public transport and free entry to attractions including museums, the tourist train, and even the boat trips to the island of Frioul, as well as discounts at shops and restaurants. Find out more at Marseille tourism online