Provence’s sunny capital hasn’t stopped moving since its stint as a European Capital of Culture in 2013, when billions of euros were spent on sprucing up the Mediterranean port. The old Joliette docks, where the cruise-ships dock, are now unrecognisable, with innovative new museums, cultural centres, restaurants and shopping complexes filling what had been deserted areas.
The Vieux Port – with its colourful mix of workaday fishing boats and glossy pleasure craft – is much more of a joy to stroll around, thanks to rerouted traffic. Even La Canebière, the scruffy boulevard that bisects the city and ends at the port, has been cleaned up. But that’s not to say France’s second-largest city has been sanitised; there’s still plenty of rebellious grit in its cosmopolitan streets.
A comfortable bed
Marseille's newest five-star hotel, C2 (www.c2-hotel.com), was opened in 2014 by architect couple Claire Fatosme and Christian Lefèvre. The light-filled, modern rooms in a 19th-century town house are sleek yet inviting; stylish design touches are found everywhere in the hotel, from the chic bar to the spa. In summer, a boat takes guests to a private beach. Double rooms cost from €219 (Dh894), room only.
You can't beat the views of the Vieux Port from the five-star InterContinental Hotel Dieu (www.ihg.com). Contemporary rooms in this enormous 18th-century landmark on the edge of Le Panier are plush and cocooning, and most of them have terraces with port views. The luxury extends to a Clarins Spa, an indoor pool and the Michelin-starred Alcyone restaurant. Doubles cost from €204 (Dh833), room only.
The cosy Casa Honoré (www.casahonore.com), housed in an old printworks, resembles a Moroccan riad in the way its four rooms overlook a palm-shaded courtyard and its very welcome swimming pool. Rooms take inspiration from the 1950s and 1970s in their airy, understated style. Doubles cost from €150 (Dh612).
Find your feet
Norman Foster's ingenious mirrored sunshade, L'Ombrière, marks the start of the Vieux Port, with the city's tourist office (www.marseille-tourisme.com) a few moments away on La Canebière. To the north of the port is the maze of atmospheric hilly streets that makes up Marseille's oldest district, Le Panier. Just beyond are the new museums and shops of the old Joliette docks, including MuCEM (www.mucem.org), which celebrates Mediterranean culture – its roof terrace has excellent views of the city, too.
To the east of the port is the funky Cours Julien district, with graffiti-covered streets filled with bars, restaurants and vintage shops.
Meet the locals
The streets south of the port, where the sixth and seventh arrondissements mingle, have become a magnet for Marseille's trendy set. Check out the bars on Rue d'Endoume, including La Relève, as well as Fietje (www.fietje.fr) and La Part des Anges (www.lapartdesanges.com) on Rue Sainte. Or head to Cours Julien's Café Vian or Oogie (www.oogie.eu).
Book a table
It's a bit of a trek, but AM (www.alexandremazzia.com) is worth the effort if you want trailblazing, Michelin-star food that doesn't disappear into a foam of pretension. Chef Alexandre Mazzia's carefully crafted tasting menus cost from €69 (Dh282) and lean heavily towards seafood, with exquisite things being done to langoustine and spider crab.
One of the best bets for a meal in the Vieux Port, Le Poulpe (www.lepoulpe-marseille.com) prides itself on its "locavore" ethos. Almost everything comes from within 200 kilometres of Marseille, including the eponymous octopus, which gets turned into a gorgeous stew. The three-course lunch menu for €22 (Dh90) is very good value.
Meander along the lanes of Le Panier, Cours Julien and Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves on the southern side of the port for one-off quirky boutiques, vintage and homeware shops, delis and chocolatiers. On Wednesday mornings, Cours Julien is taken over by a large farmers’ market, and there’s a lively North African vibe to the daily food market at nearby Noailles at the top of Le Canebière. Every morning, the Vieux Port echoes to the sound of the busy fish market.
What to avoid
You might spot bouillabaisse on a menu for €20 (Dh82), but it’s unlikely to be an authentic version. If you want the real deal – and want to splurge a bit – look out for the sign saying that the restaurant is one of the dozen or so that has signed the Marseille Charte de la Bouillabaisse, a charter written by chefs in 1980 outlining exactly what goes into this deliciously rich fish stew.
If you can’t face a steep kilometre-long uphill walk, take the No 60 bus to the lavish neo-Byzantine basilica Notre Dame de la Garde, which sits at Marseille’s highest point and comes with sweeping views of the city and the sea.
Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Nice cost from Dh4,075, including taxes. The flight time is about six hours and 45 minutes. Trains to Marseille cost from €28 (Dh114) each way, and take about two hours and 45 minutes.