From Soup to Nuts

Once known mostly for bouillabaisse, Marseille is suddenly brimming with cutting-edge architecture and art. Alex Moshakis gets a taste.

marseille france

Large and largely misunderstood, Marseille suffers from a mixed reputation. To outsiders, the gritty French port town stands out like a sore thumb among Provence’s picturesque destinations—a gang-run city-state plagued by violence and unemployment. For locals, however, Marseille’s civic troubles are trumped by its delights: fresh fish plucked daily from the sea, a glorious coastline punctuated with isolated coves, a relaxed way of life that is more Mediterranean than Gallic. And this year—along with Košice, Slovakia—France’s second largest, and oldest, city has been named European Capital of Culture, an honor that has given rise to an international art program, numerous architectural projects, and serious urban renewal. The facelift is already under way: Norman Foster has transformed the historic Old Port into a dynamic pedestrian zone with multiple pastis bars; two new museums anchor the renovated harbor; and countless events are beginning to attract crowds.

1. Stay: Mama Shelter The first Mama Shelter hotel opened in Paris in 2008, followed last year by a second outpost in Marseille’s center. Boasting 127 brushed-concrete rooms replete with hip fittings (Philippe Starck furniture, Kiehl’s bathroom products), the hotel is both laid-back and reasonably priced. Book one of the larger rooms—the small ones really are small—and make use of the ground floor: a busy open-plan restaurant, bar (serving 40 kinds of pastis), and music venue. (64 Rue de la Loubière;


2. Visit: MAMO Three years ago, the designer Ora Ito took over the roof of Le Corbusier’s iconic building La Cité Radieuse. The top floor, which offers unobstructed views of the Mediterranean on one side and Marseille’s mountains on the other, was initially used as a communal terrace (incorporating a gymnasium, a solarium, and a kindergarten), but Ito is ambitiously turning it into a public center for contemporary art—his “gift” to the city he grew up in. MAMO’s inaugural exhibition will feature site-specific works by the artist Xavier Veilhan, who has been infiltrating architecturally significant venues for his ongoing project “Architectones.” (280 Boulevard Michelet;


3. Visit: Le MUCEM Marseille is fast becoming an architectural playground. Zaha Hadid’s tallest completed tower, the new headquarters of the French shipping firm CMA CGM, stands prominently in the city’s business district. On the recently revamped harbor docks, Stefano Boeri’s Regional Center for the Mediterranean nears completion—as does Rudy Ricciotti’s Le MuCEM, a daring marriage of glass and concrete with a decorative facade inspired by traditional arabesque patterns. The museum will join the already vibrant Old Port via a miraculously engineered footbridge, providing a symbolic link between Marseille’s past and future. (1 Esplanade du J4;


4. Visit: La Friche la Belle de Mai Many of Marseille’s cultural highlights are now dreamed up in the vast studio spaces of La Friche la Belle de Mai, a former tobacco warehouse turned creative hub where circus groups, theater companies, and designers get down to work—many of them in an eye-catching box-shaped addition by local architect Matthieu Poitevin. The lure for visitors is La Friche’s mammoth gallery space, currently providing a platform for an exceptional group of international artists. (41 Rue Jobin;

La Friche la Belle de Mai

5. Eat: Le Petit Nice Marseille is most well known for bouillabaisse, a typical Provençal fish stew. Locals pick up the ingredients from the early-morning market at the Old Port or get their fix at Chez Fonfon. But there is more than one way to cook a fish: At Le Petit Nice, the only three-star restaurant in town, fresh octopus, bass, urchin, and squid dishes light up the menu. Chef Gérald Passédat runs the kitchen in the restaurant his grandfather founded in 1917 on a rocky outcrop just beyond the city center—where the views are as wonderful as the food. (17 Rue des Braves;

Le Petit Nice

1: courtesy of the Venue (2); 2: © Olivier Amsellem; 3: Lisa Ricciotti (2); 4: Caroline Dutrey/Courtesy of La Friche La Belle de Mai; 5: Jean Fondacci