Marseille or Nice: Which French City to Visit?

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by Brittany Scott-Gunfield


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Choosing whether to visit or stay in Marseille or Nice when travelling to the South of France can be a bit of a quandary. The French Mediterranean coastline has some incredible places to visit, from the Languedoc-Roussillon department that borders Spain, to the Provence-Alpes-Cote-d’Azur department that borders Italy.

Both cities in the South East are beautiful seaside cities with great beaches and even better seafood, as well as a significant history for millennia. But choosing which city to visit or base yourself in can be tricky.

In general, Marseille is a better choice for history buffs looking for a dynamic and multicultural city to visit. On the other hand, Nice is a great choice for those looking for a glamorous beach holiday on the French Riviera.

If you can’t visit both Nice and Marseille, then discover which city will best fit your interests and your budget.

Marseille

Marseille is the third-largest and oldest city in France, founded by the Greeks in 600 BCE, and has been a busy port since – it once boasted a capacity of 1200 boats!

This long history as a port city has made Marseille the great melting pot of culture that it is today, with religion, culture, food and art all happily coexisting or blending their best qualities.

City of Marseille
City of Marseille

Accessibility

Although it’s located on the South coast, Marseille is very easy to get to and has excellent transport connections. From Paris Gare de Nord, a train takes 3 – 4 hours.

The train station, gare de Marseille-Saint-Charles is located very centrally, in the first arrondissement, just a short walk from the famous old port. You can also easily reach Marseille from other French cities, such as Nice, Toulouse, Lyon, or Bordeaux, by train or bus. You can view schedules here.

You can also arrive in Marseille by plane into Marseille-Provence Airport with a nonstop flight from any of London’s airports, as well as Rome, Barcelona and Tunis, to name a few.

The Marseille airport is just a 25-minute drive from the centre of the city, or you can catch the L091 bus, which departs every 10 minutes from the airport seven days a week. There are also private transfers available.

With the exception of the area in Marseille that includes the hill housing the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille is quite a flat city, with most of the attractions a short distance from each other, making it incredibly walkable.

If you don’t want to walk around so much, Marseille has an excellent public transportation system, with buses, trams and metro all taking you around the city quickly and at a reasonable price.

It’s not necessary to rent a car unless you’re in the area for a long time and plan to visit more places in the area, so avoid the hassle of finding a parking space and use public transport!

Palais du Pharo
Palais du Pharo

Affordability

If you’re choosing which city to visit based on expense alone, Marseille is the choice for you as it’s cheaper overall when you look at the general cost of living.

Looking broadly at the hotels in Marseille vs Nice, the general price is significantly cheaper, with many options for hotels and apartments costing less than €100 a night for two people.

A big part of visiting France is indulging in the local cuisine. A standard restaurant in Marseille would be slightly cheaper than the equivalent in Nice, although the location of the restaurant makes a big difference: when you’re in a city, consider the view as an added expense on your bill.

Are you on a rooftop? Do you have a sea view? These factors will make your dining experience nicer, but also pricier, so think about the location if you’re visiting Nice or Marseille on a budget.

There are also 6 Michelin-starred restaurants in Marseille, compared to just 4 in Nice. Of course, you cannot visit Marseille without indulging in bouillabaisse – which can vary in price depending where you choose to eat it.

Travel within Marseille is also a relatively reasonable price compared to other European cities, with one journey on metro, bus or tram costing €1.50 or a pass for 10 journeys available for €13.40.

Cathedrale La Major
Cathedrale La Major

Things to do in Marseille

Marseille has hundreds of great activities to take part in and, like Nice, many of them involve the incredible seafront. But honestly, there are better beaches in the French Riviera.

Marseille is a unique city due to the mélange of culture it holds, which can be seen in the architecture as well as the street art across the city. If you’re looking for a historical or cultural city break, Marseille is the place for you.

Vieux-Port

The Old Port, or Vieux-Port, of Marseille, is the city’s main attraction. A working port for over 2000 years, you can still walk around it today and peruse the fish markets, admire the French fashion in the shopping districts and eat fantastic food in the nearby restaurants.

It’s as lively at night with bars and nightclubs, so if you don’t get the chance to visit during the day, you can have as much fun after dark enjoying the vibrant nightlife of the city.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

If you’ve ever passed through Marseille or even seen a photo of the city, you’ll recognise the late 19th-century Notre-Dame Basilica perched on top of the hill to the south of the Old Port.

Decorated with naval artefacts and quaintly painted walls, the inside is worth visiting as well as taking in the incredible panoramic view of Marseille.

It’s quite a walk up the hill, but the views make it worth it at the end, especially around sunrise or sunset.

Notre Dame de la Garde
Notre Dame de la Garde

Street Art

Walking around the streets of Marseille you’ll come across some incredible pieces of street art, but nowhere more than in the streets of Le Panier. It’s the oldest district of Marseille and is a hotspot for tourists seeking a classic French mural or trompe d’œil.

While you’re in the area, check out the amazing black and white striped Cathedrale de la Major. This cathedral is as eye-catching as the hill-top basilica and can look spectacular in the golden hour.

Château d’If

Famous thanks to Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, this former prison island is just a short ferry ride away from the centre of Marseille and houses an impressive 16th-century fortification. Enjoy your trip across the water and discover the rich history of Marseille as you wander around castle walls.

Palais Longchamp

A huge stone building, ornately decorated by the sculptures of local artists, the Palais Longchamp is home to a Museum of Fine Arts and a Natural History Museum, as well as the decorative gardens. If you want to fill your trip with culture and history, this palace should definitely be a stop on your trip to Marseille.

Palais Longchamp
Palais Longchamp

Where to Stay in Marseille

Hôtel Life Marseille VP – Mid-range visitors to Marseille will love this cosy and comfortable 3-star hotel in the centre of the city. They have a number of great rooms to choose from and a perfect location for exploring all this dynamic city has to offer.

La Residence Du Vieux Port – Those looking for luxury will love this opulent boutique hotel located in the Old Port area of Marseille. They have a range of sophisticated rooms to choose from, plenty of amenities for guests to enjoy and a location perfect for exploring the city.

Vertigo Vieux-Port – Budget travellers or those looking for a thriving social atmosphere will find that this hostel is the perfect accommodation option in this French city. Situated in the Vieux-Port area, they offer both private rooms and traditional dorm beds along with great common areas and self-catering facilities.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Marseille hotels!

Port of Marseille
Port of Marseille

Nice

Nice is by no means a big city but it still has plenty to entice visitors in. With its long beachside promenade and winding city streets leading you from one extraordinary building to another, past markets, bars and restaurants, it’s difficult to decide whether to stay in Nice or Marseille for your city break.

Accessibility

Just 6 hours from Paris Gare de Nord to Nice-Ville and 5 hours from Montpellier and Lyon, it’s very easy to reach Nice by train from all over France.

Nice-Ville train station is located right in the centre of the city so you can easily walk around or take a taxi, bus or tram once you’ve arrived. You can view schedules here.

If you prefer to take in the views from the road rather than the tracks, there are many options for arriving in Nice via the ridesharing app Blablacar or the European bus company Flixbus.

Nice is also well-located if you want to explore another city in the French Riviera or simply want to head out on a day trip somewhere smaller. Places like Monaco, Cannes or Saint-Tropez are all within easy reach of Nice via public transport.

Nice also has an airport, just a few kilometres out of the city centre, so you can actually walk, or take one of the many airport shuttle buses to your accommodation. You can fly directly into the Nice airport from a number of cities across Europe.

Like Marseille, Nice has an excellent public transport system with trams and buses taking you all over the coastal city so if you don’t feel like walking, or want to take a trip further afield, you can easily get about inexpensively.

If you like to walk, you’ll find that most of the attractions in the city are fairly central, within a radius of a few kilometres, however, there are also some great walks you can do around the city to stretch your legs and find some panoramic views.

Gardens on the hill of Cimiez
Gardens on the hill of Cimiez in Nice

Affordability

Cities in France can be more expensive than towns or more rural areas, especially on the famous Côte d’Azur, but since Nice is such a large city, there are options for food, accommodation and transport for all budgets.

Generally, Nice is a more expensive city than Marseille, with comparable bars and restaurants costing more in the French Riviera than the port city of Marseille, however, there are options for all budgets in both.

Staying in Nice can also be more expensive than Marseille, with almost half of the hotels and apartments in Nice costing more than €200 per night for a room for two people and very few options for less than €100.

Conversely, getting around Nice is cheaper than Marseille, with a single journey on the tram, bus or metro costing just €1.50.

Flea Market of Cours Saleya
Flea Market of Cours Saleya

Things to do in Nice

Like Marseille, Nice has a wonderful seafront and beaches, with fresh seafood waiting to be consumed in any of its fantastic restaurants. What makes Nice different from Marseille, is the overall feel of the city.

From the famous Promenade des Anglais to the Old Town to the Roman ruins found in Cimiez, the hue of Nice is rosier than its coastal neighbour, adding to the glamorous feel of the Mediterranean city.

Promenade des Anglais

Nice is not the only French city with a beautiful boardwalk, but this one is iconic. Covering 7 kilometres of coastline, this road is a perfect entrance point for the city as you come across the grand buildings, bustling beaches and looming palm trees.

Stop for a drink at one of the many beach bars, catch some rays or simply admire the architecture, such as the Negresco Hotel which transports you back in time to the eras of Brigitte Bardot, James Dean and Grace Kelly as you take in the scenic views from the terrace.

Promenade des Anglais
Promenade des Anglais

Vieux Nice and Colline du Château

Nice’s old town is bursting with French-Mediterranean character with its winding narrow streets and colourful painted walls. You can also discover a range of handmade products, flowers and even antiques in the markets of the Cours Saleya area. You can also organise a walking tour or food tour here.

Take a short walk up the nearby Colline du Château, or Castle Hill, to see the breathtaking views of Nice from above with the backdrop of a large waterfall and remains of an old castle. If you don’t fancy the walk, you can still see the waterfall from the beach as it’s lit up at night.

Cathédrale Saint-Nicolas de Nice

If you’re searching for something unique in Nice or Marseille, look no further than the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Nicholas.

Just outside the city centre, this awesome structure is the largest Orthodox cathedral in Europe. Walk around the architectural wonder and take in the stunning design, colourful turrets and domes topped with gold from every angle.

Bring a change of clothes or a shawl to cover yourself though as, despite Nice’s incredible heat, you can’t enter the cathedral in vests, shorts or crop tops.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice
Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Nice

Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain

In between sunbathing and fine dining, you should definitely stop at Nice’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Featuring art by big names in the Pop Art world, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, as well as intriguing pieces by Yves Klein and Niki de Saint Phalle, this museum has something for everyone. The building itself is quite a sight as well, with an impressive steel and glass front.

Musée Matisse

If you prefer to enjoy a taste of French art while you’re in an iconic French city, Nice is also home to the Matisse Museum, which holds a collection of works by the French Modernist painter as well as his original drafts and sketches.

The museum is located in the artist’s former home, so you can experience a snapshot of his life as you discover his works in the beautiful villa just 35 minutes walking from the centre.

Where to Stay in Nice

Nice Garden Hotel – Located just off the Promenade des Anglais, this 3-star hotel is an excellent place for mid-range visitors. They have several lovely rooms available along with the option to have breakfast daily.

Palais Saleya Boutique hôtel – If you want luxury on the French Riviera, then this modern boutique hotel has amazing bright rooms as well as larger apartments and suites suitable for families.

Aparthotel AMMI Vieux Nice – This aparthotel is a fantastic choice if you’d like to have your own flat while visiting Nice. There are a range of apartments that are suitable for couples or families. There is breakfast available and an airport shuttle on offer.

Hostel Meyerbeer Beach – One of the best hostels in all of France, they have private rooms and dorms as well as common rooms and a kitchen to make meeting other travellers easy!

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Nice hotels!

View of Nice at dusk
View of Nice at dusk

Marseille vs Nice: Which is Better to Visit

If culture and history are your areas of interest, Marseille is the city for you. With its historic port, 14th-century fort, prison island and neoclassical palace, the centre of Marseille has many significant historical attractions that are a treat for history buffs and those who like to learn about their surroundings.

What’s more, Marseille is a melting pot of cultures, as reflected in its street art, eateries and museums that display the centuries of voyages and migration that have taken place in Marseille.

If that sounds like the opposite of a great weekend for you, then the glitz and glamour of Nice’s flash hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars will surely draw you in for a seductively enchanting trip, immersed in the extravagance of this classic French holiday destination.

Nice is also not just about showing off, it’s also a popular holiday destination for relaxation. With temperatures reaching up into the high 30s in summer, the long golden beach is the perfect place for a relaxed trip, while the unique Russian Orthodox Cathedral can add a splash of culture into your stay.

Sometimes, mobility is more of a priority when it comes to travel, and if this is your case, then Marseille might be a better option than Nice as the attractions are located very close together in the centre of the city so you can easily walk between them.

However, Nice also has excellent public transport, and at a slightly cheaper rate than Marseille, so this may also influence your decision.

Ultimately, if you’re going to visit Marseille or Nice, you’ll have a fantastic time in both, but now you have enough detail to make an informed decision and book your stay.

Are you choosing between Nice and Marseille? Have any questions about either city? Let us know in the comments!

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Brittany Scott-Gunfield

Brittany is a writer for The World Was Here First. Originally from Colchester, England, she is slowly but surely travelling the world as a digital nomad. She loves to hike around different landscapes and has a deep love for travelling around France (and elsewhere in Europe).

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