Marseille is the embodiment of a well-lubricated port city, fully active in the chaotic realm of trade and commerce. As such, you can expect finds in their markets that reflect this. Of course, don’t forget to visit its architectural and historical sights that really add pizzazz to the place. But most importantly, its calanques experience provides a much-needed break from plain old beaches.
Nice, on the other hand, has an Italian flair to it. The Italian influence has really left its mark on the place—from its choice of architectural motifs all the way to its cultural bedrock. But what really stands out are the party people. Their flower-filled Carnival celebration is truly something to take part in.
You’re in a tough spot now, prioritizing their differences is not trivial. Let this read help you single out your next destination.
This destination has all the features of a big city intertwined with the peculiarities of a fishing village, Marseille is, after all, a port city that is home to one of the major ports of the Mediterranean.
And with it being a port city, it is inevitable to encounter—
Special seafood preparations, with one of them being the famous fish soup, Bouillabaisse.
An atmosphere of trade. And when there is trade, you can be sure that there are unique markets close by. The Noailles district provides such a place where exotic products, on top of the regular, can be found.
A city full of webs of streets, hilly terrain, and stairs all over, with a sprinkling of works of art and monuments to marvel at. Explore them on foot, and don’t be dissuaded by the challenge.
But beyond just the city itself, the natural world within the Marseille territory is priceless. The variations of beaches are not limited to the ubiquitous fine white sand, but rather, it has that plus pebbly beaches and rocky coves. And its most remarkable feature is the calanques along its coast [details further down].
So you see, Marseille has an impressive set of attractions worth your while. Want more details? Scroll down and read more about…
What Makes Marseille Unique
Museum Lovers’ Paradise
Learning about history can be a fun experience when getting to interact with actual fragments of history being showcased in places like museums. Conveniently, all cities of France have museums, with Marseille not being an exception.
It seems to be part of the national identity, being able to preserve the richness of human achievement in special places filled with sophisticated French presentation and artistry.
The first thing that museum aficionados bring up when in Marseille is the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology. It’s what Marseille can put up to slug it out with Paris’ Louvre in terms of quality exhibitions. Mediterranean eastern and central civilizations are the star of this museum. Inspect the quality of the artifacts that they deal with, specifically the ceramics and gemstones.
Coin collectors will rejoice in Cabinet des Monnaies et Médailles’s collection of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and medieval coins and/or medals from 2400 years ago. Scrutinize the intricate details and funky shapes of these old-world curios.
Have you heard of Pablo Picasso? He’s the painter whose name pops up often in art references. A prolific painter of the 20th century, he has fathered many approaches to painting. His works have spread far and wide, so examine them in Musée Cantini to figure out what the hype is all about.
If you want museums catering to modern expression, head over to Musée d’Art Contemporain and Regards de Provence. For something truly historic, visit the oldest museum in Marseille, Musée des Beaux-Arts. They should have something worth your while.
For the combination of history and adventure, entering Cosquer Méditerranée’s secret underwater cave should really get your blood pumping. Or perhaps, try the more chill Underwater Museum of Marseille installed with 10 sculptures under 5 meters (16.4 ft) of water.
The key takeaway from all this is that you are all but guaranteed a museum that’s right for you.
The history of Marseille is filled with historical achievements, and most of them are immortalized in the various landmarks scattered across the city. Some are more decorated than others but still maintain the impeccable artistic character known all the way back to medieval times or even older.
L’Arc de Triomphe de la Porte d’Aix is one such mega monument with tons of reliefs and decorative Corinthian columns. Be in the presence of this imposing yet lone structure in the middle of a wide open space. It sticks out like a sore thumb—for max effect.
The religiosity of Marseille is something that is omnipresent. Nothing says religion more than impressive churches, and one such church that stands above the rest—literally—is Notre-Dame de la Garde. It is perched on the highest point in the city.
Another church on high ground (literally) is Basilique le Sacré-Coeur. Stand in awe on its front lawn (so to speak), it has a spectacular overlook of the city. And for the Da Vinci Code fans out there, Église of Saint-Ferréol les Augustins’ original building was used by the Knights Templar.
Mega monuments are rampant and have seeped into every aspect of the city’s infrastructure, i.e. in roundabouts. Take for example the Obelisk of Mazargues. It is a copy of the Luxor obelisk. It is simple and straightforward yet with just the right aesthetic impact.
There’s also a monument intended to pay tribute to soldiers: Monument aux morts de l’Armée d’Orient. It’s the perfect place to take a short rest on its benches. It’s located by the coast, so put this in your itinerary on the way to Vallon des Auffles and its small port chock-full of traditional boats and local restaurants.
And the list goes on. Experience everywhere small slices of history that enrich even simply walking around the city.
A Synergy of Architecture and Nature
There are destinations that take pride in their natural landscapes and geographical features, while others have their heads held high at their structural and architectural masterpieces. But what happens when you have the best of both worlds?
Enter Marseille’s 700 hectares (1730 ac) of natural areas punctuated by sculptures, works of art, and/or resplendent architecture. These places are not just plain old parks, some are a combination of manicured areas and pristine honest-to-goodness nature—some more rugged than others.
Perhaps the most historic of these that represents substantial beauty from the natural and man-made is the Parc du Palais Longchamp. Not exactly sporting the most rugged of natural looks, it exudes just the right amount of mother nature with an interspersion of works of art—almost like an open-air museum of sorts.
And its ultimate highlight, you ask?
Well, its fountain is extravagantly decked with detail. Observe the water as it cascades from the main fountain filled with sculpture upon sculpture upon sculpture. The intricate embellishments of the concave colonnade add to the already extremely appealing architecture.
For a simpler architectural setting, Parc de la Buzine and Parc Pastré put more emphasis on a grander wilderness feel. Hike the grounds and beyond to find the great outdoors welcoming you. After communing with the great outdoors, rest in the chateaus and manors, which themselves are magnificent representations of their respective architectural styles.
Limestone La-La Land
The southern coast of France represents some mighty fine beaches. But what trumps that, you might wonder. Well, you might have heard of calanques before, but if you haven’t, come into contact with them in Calanques National Park.
But what are they, exactly?
For starters, they are geographical formations characteristic of the Mediterranean coast. They are inlets of the coast with steep limestone walls. And best of all, some of them have a sheltered beach once you reach what could very well be called the calanque’s end, a veritable inner sanctum.
Get to them from an inland hike or a boat tour from the sea, both of which are valid approaches depending on your preference and target activity. Once there, swim, dive, or do some light water sport, you are guaranteed a novel environment for what would otherwise be common water activities.
Nice la Belle… now that’s a nickname befitting of Nice, France. There’s something special to be said about coastal cities facing the Mediterranean Sea, and here, things are turned up to eleven. The views are spectacular. Try the vistas from rooftops or go all-out atop Castle Hill for a sweeping panorama from the high ground.
Whether it be museums, festivals, cultural endeavors, accommodations, architecture, or churches—Nice has its very own twist that inspires you to go further.
If you like Italy, then you won’t be much of a stranger here.
Close to the shared border with Italy, Nice has traces of Italian influence embedded within its culture. It even shows in their choice of architecture and interior design, which you can readily bear witness to yourself as you stroll the old town’s narrow streets or watch a performance in their Italian-style theatre.
Even the shopaholic in you has a place in Nice. Go to the markets to meet vendors peddling flowers, fruit, and vegetables. Avail of flea markets and night markets on certain days or months, respectively. Of course, couture boutiques, specialty shops, and malls can also be found in this glamorous city.
Those mentioned above are but a small taste of Nice, find out all about its other fascinating aspects below.
What Makes Nice Unique
Nice has a ton of events, more than 3000 events are logged into their calendar every year, whether it be sports-related, literature, theatre, cinema, or music festivals. But what could be classified as a truly Nice-only experience would be their take on what a true carnival experience is like…
It’s a two-hit combination: a battle without bullets—with flowers as the projectile of choice—and the ultimate end-of-year celebration, the carnival parade.
First, the flower battle…
How something as delicate as a flower could be used in battle is probably the first thing on your mind. The Côte d’Azur’s hills have bouquets upon bouquets of ammo to dish out for this fateful event. Get to hurl horticultural products at other event participants so you can let out all your pent-up frustrations, if any, without hurting a fly.
The last element that defines the carnival is the Nice Carnival parade—
It is a series of parades whose signature feature is the huge-headed characters and illuminated floats. This series starts with the float with the caricature of a King and ends with the King’s immolation… quite a spectacular display, filled with deep connotations. Perfectly wrap up your Nice vacation by celebrating the ‘Nice’ way.
A Culture of Theatrics
France has always been known to host rich cultural activities, and what better way to experience them than inside an opera house.
Enter Opera Nice Côte d’Azur.
This place has a range of cultural acts and performances that will give you goosebumps. Other than the classic opera, choreographic and symphony shows fills the opera’s calendar. Choose from hip-hop opera, Beethoven, ballet, children’s choir, and more—there are a lot of ways to be bathed in the culture within this hallowed hall.
But the performances are just a part of the experience…
The architecture both outside and inside the place is simply astounding—as to be expected from France. The glorious painted ceiling, the colossal crystal chandelier, the gilded seats paired with red carpets and curtains—the level of detail and opulence are enough to make you pause and reflect all the way to your seat.
If you want to enjoy theatre without the many distractions of the old-world decorations, head over to the more modern establishments like the Francis-Gag Theater, Palais Nikaïa, and Nice Acropolis, among others.
Masterpieces from antiquity all the way to the modern era are plentiful in the city of Nice. And what makes more of a statement than the monuments, and archeological and architectural marvels scattered thoughtfully across the city. Below are some of the structures that you could come across in your adventures.
You can’t be in France and not visit any religious structure. Saint-Hospice chapel provides all the basic needs for a devout follower of the faith. On top of that, its signature statue, the (behemoth) bronze statue of the Virgin is what makes even the most entrenched atheist knock on the chapel’s gate. Stand at the feet of this 11.4-m (37 ft) figure and be in awe.
If you’re after a chapel that is more of an architectural masterpiece in itself, Chapelle de la Miséricorde is right up your alley. Its yellow façade is already a telltale sign of the grandeur within the space as it beckons you to go inside. Once inside, tilt your head towards the ceiling, and an elaborate fresco will greet you in an embrace that washes over you.
Fountains your thing? Walk around Place Massena and find the Fontaine du Soleil sporting five impressive bronze sculptures of apparently “lesser” gods with the marble anatomy of Apollo as the centerpiece. Talk to the locals and discover the humorous history of this [sort of] beloved work of art.
If the feel of the wind blowing on your face is something you look forward to on any trip, The Saint François Tower will satisfy that desire. It is the dominating landmark on the cityscape of the old town of Nice–it stands out like a sore thumb. Climb up the steps to one of the best vantage points in the city.
If you’re into the macabre and tight spaces, the immense underground space called La Crypte Archéologique is the right place for you, especially if you’ve been at the one under the Louvre and are looking for more of the same. Explore in here the very bowels of Nice’s underworld.
Of course, the list of landmarks can go on for several pages, so use this starter pack to springboard your exploration.
Côte d’Azur Camping
Hotels, hostels, rentals, bed and breakfasts, and the like may be the top accommodations choices for the average traveler, but in Nice, and more generally France, adding camping to your list of options should be considered.
Under the umbrella term of camping, rent a caravan, motor home, mobile home, or just a basic tent so that you can partake in the majesty of the natural world from the moment you step out the door. Whether you wake up to the sea breeze and sea spray beside the azure waters, at a well-kempt park in the middle of town, or under the shade of olive, cypress, or pine trees, there are a ton of choices to make.
If you are not willing to let go of all creature comforts and step into the whole man-vs-wild thing, there are campsites that are a combination of wilderness and man-made facilities from the moment you walk out that tent… think water, electricity, laundromat, grocery, pool, playground, among others… it’s like you never left the city.
There are a lot of sites that offer camping services. If you don’t know where to begin your prelim search, use google maps to get started. Do note, though, that most campsites are outside of the city proper, which is one important thing to consider.
Which Is Better – Marseille or Nice?
With all the what-makes-the-place-unique information presented so far, Marseille stands out at least on the front of unique natural beauty. Beaches can get a bit stale, so the calanques experience of Marseille puts it a notch above Nice’s more pebbly beaches.
What if you are not particular about the beaches or water activities?
Well, the other characteristics of these destinations are subject more to your preferences.
If you are a fan of anything Italian, Nice should be right up your alley. You can get to see theatrical performances in their Italian-inspired theatres. Or the architectural styles reminiscent of those proliferated in Italy.
Also, Nice is on the smaller side of the city scale compared to Marseille, so you’ll get a more intimate experience when meandering throughout the city, taking in the sights.
Conversely, Marseille is quite a large port city. With its port being the accent of the city, it is quite an impressive sight if you are into well-developed man-made infrastructure, though it can get quite chaotic. If you are a lover of the sea and seafaring, this place is for you.
Plus, Marseille has a handful of grand buildings overlooking the city with intense views. Take for example Notre-Dame de la Garde and Basilique le Sacré-Coeur. They are perfect for some awesome photo shoots. Although, Nice has its own structures for impressive vistas albeit less grand, places like The Saint François Tower, Castle Hill, and Saint-Hospice chapel.
For an explosive festive experience, head to Nice for their Carnival filled with floral frays and comically large characters. Marseille has its own festivals but they’re not as tremendous.
As you can see, it’s a tough call trying to decide which country is the right fit if you are looking beyond water, sun, and sand. So find your preference from the data above, then add up the points for your ultimate choice.
How Far Is Nice From Marseille?
Nice is roughly 100 miles (161 km), as the crow flies, from Marseille. If you are on land, it’s 124 miles (200 km) on road or rail.
Marseille Airport to Nice
Avail of three options: car, bus, or train. There are buses and car rentals located on the airport grounds, quite convenient upon landing, no?
Bus travel takes a little over 3 hours at $5.20. Car rentals are $20–100 per day, with lesser averages for week-long rents.
For trains, several routes require starting with a bus from the airport to the nearest train station, you then ride a train, and will likely transfer to another train. Realistically, it will take over 4 hours. And the cumulative cost will depend on your chosen route.
The general goal is to reach Saint-Charles station. It’s smooth sailing [on a train] from there.
Marseille to Nice by Boat
As it currently stands at the start of the 21st century, there are no direct ferries to Nice from Marseille. You could try to find some boat charters in the port, but they can be quite expensive—upwards of a thousand dollars per week.
This is best reserved for the time you are keen on spending your extra stash of cash or if you decide to do a complete multicity tour with a stopover at Nice.
Train From Marseille to Nice Airport
To simplify this particular transportation problem, as there are a ton of places you can begin your journey, you need to peg the start point at Marseille Saint-Charles station. From there, it’s a smooth ride for at least 2 hours and 30 mins.
Train From Nice to Marseille Airport
From Nice-Ville station, most routes take the train going to Saint-Charles station if not directly to Vitrolles Aéroport Marseille Provence (VAMP). If not already in VAMP, take a train to VAMP or a bus directly to the airport. The overall journey will take roughly 4 hours.
Marseille Airport to Nice by Bus
Most routes take the L091 Bus to Saint-Charles station. From there ride a bus to Nice Airport, Flixbus is a common option. The overall travel time is around 4 hours.
Terminal 1 is adjacent to a main road entering Nice, so you’re practically in Nice.
Marseille to Nice by Car
There are several inland routes starting from the heart of the old port of Marseille. Take the A8 or D8N that runs 200 km (125 mi) for over 2.5 to 3.0 hours.
However, if you want the potential for a scenic coastal route, A50 is your best bet. Its route branches to Toulon city before converging with A8 halfway along the road to Nice.
Best Way to Travel From Nice to Marseille
Take the train for the convenience of a no-transfer ride that takes roughly 3 hours from Nice-Ville station to Saint-Charles station. The beauty of this particular train is that it touches the coast at the last third of the trip.
If your definition of best is a speedy solution, the A8 car route is the fastest if you can handle a straight 2.5-hour drive.