Seedy, salacious, sexy Marseille is the Med’s largest, most vibrant port and was recently the recipient of a £420m regeneration programme, which is being used to transform the city before it takes on the mantle of European Capital of Culture in 2013.

Be blown away by the city views and 19th-century architecture at the hilltop Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, the Romano- Byzantine basilica that dominates Marseille's skyline. Built between 1853 and 1864, it is crowned with a 9.7m-tall statue of the Virgin (+33 4 91 134 080; Montée de la Bonne Mère; 7am-7pm).

The southern quay of the Vieux Port is where it all happens. Marseille's old fish auction house is now the Théâtre National de Marseille at No 30; locals play pétanque at legendary nightclub Le Trolleybus at No 24; and cafés buzz until the early hours on Cours Honoré d'Estienne d'Orves.

Immortalised in Alexandre Dumas' 1840s novel The Count of Monte Cristo, 16th-century fortress-turned-prison Château d'If sits on the tiny island Île d'If. Frioul If Express boats sail to it from the Vieux Port (+33 4 91 465 465; 9.30am-5.30pm; £8).

Originally the site of the Greek agora (marketplace), Le Panier's cobbled lanes remain lined with specialist shops and artists' ateliers. Best buy: savon de Marseille (soap) from Compagnie de Provence (1 Rue Caisserie).

Santons are a Christmas tradition in Provence - tiny terracotta nativity statues of anything from angels to chestnut sellers. Watch the figures being hand-painted at Atelier du Santon (47 Rue Neuve Ste-Catherine), or visit the Musée du Santon next door (+33 4 91 13 61 36; Tue-Sat; free).

Eat and drink
Created around a veggie patch and herb garden, La Passarelle has the air of a secret garden. Retro vintage tables and chairs sit on a terrace beside the strawberry beds. Everything growing in the garden goes into the organic menu (+33 6 68 627 787; 52 rue du Plan Fourmiguier, 7e; lunch and dinner Tue-Sat; mains £12.50).

Marseille has some of the best North African food this side of the Med. At Le Souk dine on great tagines (slow-cooked stews) and honey-soaked pastries (+33 4 91 91 29 29; 100 quai du Port, 2e; closed Mon and dinner Sun; menus £15-£25).

For a dreamy sunset meal in the calanques, book a table on the covered terrace of Nautic Bar where you'll dine on fish à la Provençale and supions (panfried squid in garlic). Look for the pretty peach cottage with a green canopy (+33 4 91 400 637; Calanque de Morgiou; lunch and dinner Apr-Oct; mains £20).

When it comes to serving up authentic bouillabaisse, the city's signature dish, Le Miramar, with its pretty quayside terrace at the Vieux Port, cannot be beat (+33 4 91 911 040;12 quai du Port, 2e; lunch and dinner Tue-Sat; bouillabaisse meal £42 for two).

Set out over the sea, Peron provides a superior gastronomic experience. Choose the roast duck with candied kumquats (+33 4 91 521 522; 56 corniche Président John F Kennedy, 7e; lunch and dinner; mains £34).

Retro 1950s furnishings and cosy communal spaces give stylish hostel Hôtel Vertigo a relaxed ambiance. The double rooms are particularly funky, two are in traditional cabanons (fishing cabins) in the courtyard (+33 4 91 910 711; 42 rue des Petites Maries, 1er; doubles from £50).  

Wake up to the breezy beach-house vibe of Hôtel Le Richelieu, teetering on a rocky ledge that overhangs the sea. All rooms have spectacular views of the Côte Bleue and Château d'If. The adjacent beach is open between June and September (+33 4 91 310 192; 52 corniche Président John F Kennedy, 7e; from £55).

Antique shops surround the good value Hôtel Edmond Rostand, in the elegant Quartier des Antiquaires. Some of its 16 contemporary-style rooms overlook a tiny private garden, others have views of rooftops and the basilica (+33 4 91 377 495; 31 rue du Dragon, 6e; from £70).

The beautiful Villa Monticelli has five rooms, all individually decorated with elegant period furnishings and large beds. The amazing breakfast of homemade jams, yoghurt and crêpes can be enjoyed out on the terrace (+33 4 91 221 520; 96 rue du Commandant Rolland, 8e; from £82).

Le Petit Nice-Passédat is perched on the rocks above a tiny cove. The 16 rooms are modern in style, and most overlook the pool and cacti garden. The hotel is also home to Gerald Passédat's three Michelin-starred restaurant (+33 4 91 592 592; Anse de Maldormé, 7e; from £190).

How to go
British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair (from £96) serve Aéroport Marseille-Provence, which is 16 miles from Marseille. A shuttle bus connects to the central train station (£8.50). Eurostar trains run from London St Pancras with a change in Lille (from £119).

Find your way
Car rental companies such as Avis are at the airport and central train station (£24 per day). Régie des Transports Marseillais (RTM) runs the bus, metro and tram lines. Tickets can be used on any combination (E1.40; 6 rue des Fabres, 1er for information).


The article 'Mini guide to Marseille' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.