Vieux Port Marseille: From Past to Present

From Massalia to Modernity: Tracing the evolution of Old Port through centuries

The “Vieux Port” of Marseille is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, with “Notre-Dame de la Garde” and the “Canebière” at its base. The residents of Marseille use it as a focal point for celebrations, important events, and fireworks.

It was here that the ancient Greek settlement of Massalia, which subsequently became the Roman Massilia, was established, making it the historical epicenter of Marseille. Old Port also served as the focal point for medieval Marsiho. From that point on, two forts—Saint-Nicolas and Saint-Jean—guarded the port’s entrance.

The city looks out over the Mediterranean since it is surrounded by cliffs made of limestone. The ‘Vieux Port’ of Marseille was built for commercial purposes, and as time went on, trade connections emerged with ever more remote areas.

The transporter bridge, a metal structure built in 1905 that connected the two forts, was a symbol of the ‘Vieux Port,’ but it was sadly destroyed during World War II.

Vieux Port Marseille
Vieux Port Marseille

In 2013, the same year that Marseille was named European Capital of Culture, the Old Port was rebuilt (improved access, less traffic, and a new shade structure designed by architect Norman Foster). Even still, with Notre Dame de la Garde keeping an eye on the city, the ‘Vieux Port’ is the beating heart of Marseille.

This fish market, held daily on Quai des Belges, is a fixture in Marseille, welcomed by several restaurants in search of fresh seafood. Seafood is seasonal, although you can usually find bream, mussels, and red mullet on the menu. Have the fishmongers prepare your catch for you by cleaning and filleting it before you purchase it.

History of Old Port of Marseille

The Lacydon, a rocky Mediterranean bay that is now the Old Port of Marseille, was settled by Greeks from Phocaea in the sixth century BC. They established a marketplace on the hills above the northern coast.

The Old Port of Marseille was the hub of the city’s marine industry until the early nineteenth century. The name of Marseille’s main street, the Canebière, comes from the fact that in the Middle Ages, hemp was grown on the ground at the further end of the harbor so that rope could be made locally for sailors.

Between the third and ninth centuries, the enormous St. Victor’s Abbey was constructed on the slopes to the south of the Old Port, on the site of a Hellenic burial cemetery.

The 'Vieux Port' of Marseille
The ‘Vieux Port’ of Marseille

John Murray estimated that 1,200 ships may have arrived at the Old Port at its peak activity in 1854. About 18,000 merchant ships a year used the port, transporting about 20 million barrels of merchandise. This accounted for nearly a fifth of Liverpool’s commerce at the time.

However, steamships encountered difficulties with the harbor’s 6-meter depth in the latter half of the century, necessitating the construction of considerably deeper piers at La Joliette.

The Old Port was completely destroyed during World War II. According to eyewitness accounts, the Nazis had the help of the French police in blowing up much of the historic old town and the enormous aerial ferry or “transbordeur,” which had become a main landmark of Marseille, comparable to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, in January 1943. Battle of Marseille was the name given to this conflict. The damaged old quarter was rebuilt in 1948 under the direction of Fernand Pouillon.

Many port-related enterprises left the Old Port when, beginning in the 1840s, new harbor moles, quays, and Docks were constructed along the shore of the La Joliette quarter to the northwest.

Eventually, new harbor facilities were constructed further northwest, resulting in the modern Grand Port Maritime de Marseille, which includes continuous harbor facilities all the way to L’Estaque and the southern entrance to the Rove Tunnel, as well as “satellite” extensions around Fos-sur-Mer and along the coastline of the Étang de Berre.

Night-View of Vieux Port Marseille
Night-View of Vieux Port Marseille

The Old Port is now a marina, the starting point for boat tours, and the location of a fish market. Old Port was mostly transformed into a pedestrian mall in 2013 when the city was named the European Capital of Culture. After an international competition, which Michel Desvigne Paysagistes won with the help of Foster and Partners, it was transformed into a vast public space.

What to do when visiting Old Port of Marseille

Even when more maintenance and improvement work is being done, the neighborhood retains its vitality thanks to its abundance of late-night eateries such as pubs and brasseries. It’s a terrific place to people-watch and to see the many boats and yachts in the area. You may take in the sights of the port and city from a new angle by taking a ferry out onto the water.

Those interested in French cuisine may get the freshest fish to cook up a feast in Marseille at the daily fresh fish market, held each morning in the Old Port, where sellers set up shop on the Quai des Belges.

If you’d rather not cook, don’t worry; there are plenty of fantastic restaurants in the neighborhood where you can enjoy mouthwatering seafood and other specialties of the region while taking in the breathtaking scenery of this stunning French coastal city.

Take a trip to the beautiful Phare de Sainte-Marie, the bright white lighthouse from the 19th century that stands at the northernmost point of Marseille’s bay on the Esplanade de la Joliette.

The 'Vieux Port' of Marseille, Frace
The ‘Vieux Port’ of Marseille, Frace

Visit the Museum of Old Marseille, housed in the stunning 16th-century palace Maison Diamantée, which is located just several blocks inland from the port and features a café with a breathtaking panorama.

Naturally, the greatest time to visit is in the evening, when the sun sets over this stunning landscape. Enjoy the remaining hours of daylight as you sip a stiff drink on a French bar’s balcony and watch the amazing sunset over the lake, the gently bobbing boats, the walking residents and visitors, and the gorgeous buildings laid out below you. That is, without a doubt, the best way to spend a night in the town in the beautiful city of Marseille.

Location, accessibility, and best time to visit Old Port of Marseille

Marseille has about 300 days of sunlight every year, so there aren’t many unfavorable seasons to go there. The same can be said about the Vieux Port, albeit the months of July and August see the greatest influx of visitors. Get there early if you want to check out the fish market at the harbor; it’s only open from about 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The Vieux Port of Marseille is conveniently situated in the city’s center, First Arrondissement. Get off at the Vieux-Port-Hôtel de Ville stop on Metro Line 1 to reach your destination. Or you may take a stroll down La Canebière, Marseille’s main boulevard, right down to the water’s edge.

Vieux Port, Marseille, Frace
Vieux Port, Marseille, Frace


The Old Port of Marseille is a particularly beautiful area of France’s second-largest city. From ancient times through the Middle Ages and into the modern day, this neighborhood has been the beating heart of Marseille.

The Vieux Port (Old Port) is the city’s most significant historical landmark. The ancient Greek colony of Massalia was established here, and in the late Eighteenth Century CE, the Roman colony of Massilia was established there as well. The Old Port was renovated and awarded the title of European Capital of Culture in the year 2013.

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