With everything abovementioned, Marseille and Montpellier are very similar cities, with only some minor differences at first glance. That is why getting down to the brass tacks will be paramount for your choice of destination, so learn all about them below.
Millennia of history have accumulated in this city, which is typical for pretty much any European destination, so much so that culture and traditions are very well established, deeply engraved in the very elaborate historical and architectural wonders that the region is known for. That is on top of it being the oldest city in France, founded around 600 BC.
Alongside the development of its man-made wonders, the natural landscape along the Mediterranean has evolved to provide a unique set of experiences beyond just sun and sand.
But those are all just the tip of the iceberg, so here’s…
What Makes Marseille Unique
Museum Lovers’ Paradise
With Marseille’s rich history, it is only logical that one museum cannot hope to encompass the depth and breadth of the legacy of France’s forebears. With that in mind, at least 30 museums have been constructed to cater to curious minds who love to dabble in the curiosities from antiquity to the modern age.
If you thought the Louvre was the be-all and end-all of museums, Marseille’s Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology comes in a close second. Peruse its collections that emphasize Mediterranean eastern and central civilizations, particularly its expansive ceramics and lapidary sets.
Are you a coin collector by any chance? Or perhaps shiny metals embossed with famous figures tickle your fancy? Enter Cabinet des Monnaies et Médailles’ exhibition room filled with coins and medals dating back 2400 years. They’re from different eras, namely Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval, among others.
Do you want to see masterpieces from familiar virtuosos like Pablo Picasso? The cultural establishment that is Musée Cantini contains such pieces and more. Marvel at the collections of paintings and sculptures of the masters from the 1900s.
The abovementioned is but 1/10th of the museum crawl that awaits you in Marseille—
There are the more contemporary arts, or a synergistic mix of past and present, in places like Musée d’Art Contemporain and Regards de Provence. Get a blast from the past in the oldest museum of Marseille, Musée des Beaux-Arts. Interact with the exhibits in craft-based museums like Mx Espace Musée and Marseille Soap Museum.
The bottom line is, there’s a museum to look forward to regardless of whatever your inclinations are.
Sites and monuments that have stood the test of time shine bright in and around Marseille. They draw tourists like a moth to a flame, but instead of the bad ending, you’d get a sense of awe wash over you as you bask in the architectural genius and grasp at the historical meaning of it all.
Take for instance the various royal triumphal arches in France. Marseille has its very own L’Arc de Triomphe de la Porte d’Aix. It is an architectural masterpiece showcasing sculptures and Corinthian columns. Look in amazement at the intricate details that tell the story of the region’s triumphant achievements.
Marseille is also rich in religious structures, and one such site is the Notre-Dame de la Garde, which is the imposing landmark atop the city. There is also Basilique le Sacré-Coeur, which is conveniently located to have a magnificent overlooking view of the city. And the Cathédrale de la Major, situated close to the port. It has all the interior opulence one would expect for old-world religious structures.
Traffic roundabouts are, not surprisingly, part of the presentation of artistry. One of them is Place Castellane with its highly ornamented fountain in the center. Another is Place Des Capucines, although its fountain is not as decked. And the Avenue Du Prado’s Le David, or simply the statue of David.
And the list is seemingly endless. There are ports, forts, villas, and other similar structures abovementioned. Feast your eyes on the sights every turn you take, in a vehicle or on foot.
A Synergy of Architecture and Nature
Natural areas abound in Marseille, more than 700 hectares (1730 ac). These grounds bordered by sea, hills, cliffs, or a combination of them are well-kept and have remarkable architecture that pops out at key points. These structures are the perfect highlight of strolling in the numerous parks. Take a quick break during said strolls and set up that perfect photo shoot.
The perfect examples of gardens that have garnered the label of ‘historic monument’ are Parc du Palais Lonchamp and Jardin des Vestiges. The former has a landmark that has a huge attention-grabbing fountain coupled with museums on its east and west wings. For the latter, if you’re into archeology, survey the remains of an ancient Greek port amidst manicured lawns.
Other notable spots are Parc de la Buzine, which is a quaint little park housing a chateau, and Parc Pastré with its manor house within a hiker’s heaven. It’s filled with views of bodies of water, gardens, and the verdant, rugged outdoors.
Limestone La-La Land
The Calanques National Park is a park right out of a wild Mediterranean dream. A calanque is a narrow rocky inlet for turquoise waters from the coast to make their way further inland. Some calanques have fine-sand beaches tucked within their bowels to contrast the rough limestone faces.
Sunbathe, swim, or kayak in the easy-to-reach ones. But for the adventurer in you, challenge yourself to the remotely located calanques that require hiking. The reward of reaching your private getaway cannot be overstated.
If you prefer diving, marine life welcomes you to a world untouched by fishing and unregulated boating. Observe octopuses, anemones, urchins, and a handful of fish species in and around the plentiful Posidonia.
This is another one of those destinations that have weathered the trials of its existence, not the least of them is time. Therefore, it has its fair share of architectural marvels from way back when.
It has its very own Triumphal Arch and a Roman-inspired aqueduct, to name a few of the classic ones. But there are also the more modern ones. A few of them are L’Arbre Blanc, inspired by a tree with all its branches, and Antigone, a monumental neoclassical district.
Montpellier is also home to the oldest operational medical school that nurtured the big names from the Middle Ages, like the controversial Nostradamus. With such a university, the nightlife is only enhanced by the innate demand from the students.
Let Montpellier’s medieval streets lead you through the different sights scattered across the city. Rent a bike to pedal on the copious cycling tracks within and outside of the city. Or take those light trains to make your exploring easier so you can take in more tourist attractions in lesser time.
Soak up the sights, inspect the intricacies of the sculptures, peek into classy courtyards of private mansions, and so much more mentioned in the next sections.
What Makes Montpellier Unique
Place de la Comédie
One of the largest pedestrian areas in Europe, Place de la Comédie, is a pedestrian’s paradise. The place is encircled by historic buildings clad with the ubiquitous French façade akin to that in Paris. Peek at the cafes with alfresco seating and boutiques with their wares. Pick your stimulant of choice while observing street artists do their thing.
And don’t forget to visit the star of this attraction, the Three Graces fountain, in all its splendor. It has a simple theme yet exudes a level of sophistication.
Moreover, Place de la Comédie is a great starting hub for your adventure through the many places of interest across the city. Mass public transport runs right through its side for your convenience.
From here walk or bike to Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle with its share of small monuments, a photography museum, fountains, and measured plots of planting alongside walking paths flanked by pale-trunk trees.
Nearby is also Église Saint-Roch de Montpellier’s imposing, albeit unfinished, neo-Gothic structure plopped in the middle of a relatively modern neighborhood. Its stained-glass windows accentuate the atmosphere inside, and the relics of the church’s eponymous saint add to the sanctity.
And if you can walk around 820 yards (750 m), you can even reach Place du Peyrou, which is described in the next section.
Place du Peyrou is what gives the water of life to Montpellier’s fountains dotted across the city. It is an exceptional esplanade with three larger-than-life landmarks—namely, arc de triomphe in the east, the château d’eau (water tower) in the west, and a statue of Louis XIV on horseback—the centerpiece of the promenade.
Connecting the château d’eau is the aqueduct, Les Arceaux, with its distinctly Roman arches made in roughly the 18th century, which is not exactly in the Roman times—it’s more in the Early Modern Period, which is still an admirable achievement nonetheless.
These combinations of infrastructure and architectural augustness will surely send chills down your spine at the sheer scope of it all. Take it all in.
Enter from the triumphal arch, inspect the king’s monument, and end by overlooking the reservoir from the watch tower. The captivating curves and storytelling of the sculptures will evoke emotions in you that enable you to empathize with the past.
It wouldn’t be a French destination if you did not come across some form or fashion of the complex culture, whether they are highbrow exhibits or simply graffiti—yes, that is still considered art in its most basal form. Sophisticated tastes are catered to and catered to well.
If museums and the works of master artists tickle your fancy, some of the places that have permanent collections and temporary collections, or those that have a limited time for viewing before they are locked away forever(?), are Musée Fabre and Musee D’art Brut. For your fix of new contemporary art, MO.CO. Panacée and at MO.CO. Hôtel des Collections are the way to go.
What about music and orchestra, you say? Well, Montpellier has a theater fit for the phantom of the opera. The Montpellier Opera House is adorned with an array of spotlights, gold trimmings, red velvet seats, a chandelier, and a painstakingly painted dome ceiling—the whole nine yards.
But if you want to keep things simple, where you don’t have to dress up all fancy or limit yourself to limiting spaces, the streets of Montpellier are more than enough for your visual-art cravings. Frescoes, geometric shapes, stencils, lettering, collages, among other graffiti styles overflow the Rondelet district, Arceaux district, and Verdanson area’s walls…that is, if you know where to look.
Famous Food Locals Love
France is quite a vast country so simply categorizing its cities’ cuisine in the basket of French cuisine is a disservice to Montpellier’s unique local gastronomy. Think of it in the way languages have dialects, or cultures have subcultures that may or may not have a recognizable undercurrent. That said, exploring the local food scene is something imperative to the Montpellier experience.
Try, for example, Montpellier’s stews with their signature twist. Look for Cassoulet or La Chichoumeille. The former is a stew from a core collaboration of pork, poultry, beef, or lamb, plus lard and white beans. And the latter stew is for vegetarians who find the meaty stews distasteful. Perhaps ratatouille is the closest relative that you can draw a comparison from.
How about trying something exotic or the never-even-dreamed-of dish? Snails, anyone? Montpellier has its own spin on Escargot, which they call Les Cagarolettes. It’s boiled snails dressed in a spicy vinaigrette. There’s also another peculiar one called La Tielle Sétoise. Calamari and octopus in tomato sauce baked in a pie. [yum]
More often than not, the abovementioned specialties are quite common—staples, even—in establishments serving food around the city. If you come across them on the menu, don’t miss the chance to savor the local offers.
Which Is Better – Montpellier or Marseille?
Because Montpellier and Marseille are practically similar when it comes to what they offer, like museums and parks, it would only make sense for you to go for the location that has the most unique attraction compared to the other.
From an architectural standpoint, it is very hard for the uninitiated in the world of architectural styles to differentiate and establish a preference between the destinations—
The old parts of Marseille consist mainly of Baroque architecture, the type that has an emphasis on lots of embellishment, especially in the interiors, perhaps excessively so. It is quite the eye candy if you like to get lost in all the detail.
While Montpellier is more akin to Paris with its Haussmann Architecture—uniform roofs, unpainted stone facades, spacious ornate balconies, etc. Go here if you want more of a Parisian feel and romanticism without being in Paris. It also has some medieval streets to contrast the buildings.
On the wetter and more natural side of things—
Marseille has a deeper connection to the Mediterranean than Montpellier because of its closeness to the sea—literally—it is very much a port city. On the other hand, Montpellier is several miles from the shore, so it can be quite tedious to get to the seaside. And on that note, Marseille’s beaches are on another level compared to Montpellier in terms of sheer natural wonder.
How so, you ask?
Well, if Marseille had a trump card, it would be its access to Parc National des Calanques with its interplay of beaches and calanques. Starting from the sea inlets along the coast, and as you move toward the beaches sheltered within, the limestone bluffs along the way are a sight to behold, a marvel of nature.
All in all, Marseille has the best mix of the old and new world, it has a special natural environment at the coast, and its port city accentuates its Mediterranean tone. It should be able to cater to varying tastes even if you are in a group, and therefore, consider it as your first choice.
Marseille Airport to Montpellier by Train
Train travel could very well be the standard when it comes to going from Marseille Provence Airport to Montpellier. With 31 trips per day, each leaving every minute, that makes perfect sense.
Your first step is to have a short bus ride (6 min) from the airport to Vitrolles Aéroport Marseille Provence (station). From there, the train heading to Montpellier Saint-Roch is your ride.
Due to its distance of 111 km (69 mi), travel time is reasonable at roughly two hours, where the fastest trip clocked in at 1 hour and 38 minutes. As for the cost, shell out $16.68 for this trip, excluding the bus.