Travelers in the French Riviera often wonder whether to choose Nice or Marseille for a few days stay. While they’re relatively close to each other, these two cities are very different in terms of size, population mix, vibe, tourist attractions, and overall experience. In this post, my aim is to help you get a clear idea of which of Marseille or Nice is the best choice for you,
As you may know, the area called French Riviera or “Côte d’Azur” extends along the Mediterranean sea from Marseille in the West to Menton near the Italian border in the East.
Marseille is a bigger city with a population of about 1 million (1.6M for the metro area), the second most populous city in France. Nice is significantly smaller with around 350.000 people (1M for the metro area).
Nice or Marseille: what travelers say
- Overall, Marseille is a gritty working city, a big lived-in old port city comparable to Genoa, Naples, or Liverpool. Nice is smaller, more polished, and much more tourist-friendly. Nice is neat, amenable, and organized.
- A vast majority of travelers like Marseille but prefer Nice for a stay, though many feel Marseille has more of a real city character and soul and is an often-overlooked city.
- Both Nice and Marseille offer great day trips, Marseille to the Provence region, Nice to Riviera resorts and pretty hill villages.
- Nice has very good public transportation with easy access to the cities and towns along the coast, including Cannes and Juan-les-Pins, and to the beautiful hill villages. Nice is also very walkable.
- There are many things to see in Marseille, though the distances are larger and there are some not-so-pretty areas, although the city has been cleaned up considerably in recent years.
- Marseille has many sights including a picturesque and historic old port, the Chateau d’If site, the nearby islands, and the perched Notre-Dame-de-la Garde church overlooking the city.
- Both Nice and Marseille have great art offerings. Nice (and surroundings) has a Chagall, Matisse, and Picasso museums. Marseille was elected the European City of Culture a few years ago and now has a nice range of both brand new and refurbished old museums.
- Nice has a long, scenic, easily accessed urban beach bordered by the Promenade des Anglais seafront. However, the beach is mostly covered with pebbles. Marseille has beautiful sand beaches and blue coves, but they are further away from the port and city center.
- Marseille has cheaper accommodation and is generally more affordable than Nice.
Nice or Marseille: access & transportation
From Paris, you can find cheap trains to either Marseille or Nice if you book your tickets well in advanced e.g. 3 months ahead of time. There are also plenty of flights, many of them affordable except in high season (Christmas, summer, and other holidays).
The Nice airport is right at the edge of the city, a few minutes from the old town. The Marseille airport, in contrast, is 20-30 minutes away by car/bus from the city center.
Marseille and Nice are about 2 hours apart by regular train. The train is the best way to travel from one to the other as the railroad runs along the coast in a highly scenic route worth the time. In contrast, the highway runs inland with not much to see. Highways in the area are also quite expensive.
Nice or Marseille: vibe & people
Nice is both a student city and a place for retired people. Therefore, the population is mixed in terms of age groups. Marseille has a large youth population with many ethnic groups. Marseille is known for its very diverse population, including significant Arab and African communities.
Nice is a beautiful city that’s easy to visit, feeling like a collection of small neighborhoods. The Promenade des Anglais seafront on the Mediterranean is incomparable. It has great sights and restaurants, a unique artistic offering, and good outdoor options.
While Nice is immediately enjoyable, being well-maintained and easily walkable, Marseille takes a bit more effort to appreciate and get into the city’s rhythm. Unlike Nice, however, Marseille has a lot more to offer than the tourist area (see the Sights section below).
Marseille is an interesting city with vibrant local life, distinct from all other French cities. It’s colorful, lively, and with a very rich cultural life, a result of the astonishingly diverse population – some areas of Marseille feel just like being in Algeria or Africa. The city has ample and beautiful parks and some stunning modern architecture buildings and exhibitions such as the MUCEO (see Sights section).
Nice or Marseille: sights & culture
The first thing that attracts visitors in Nice is the beautiful, palm tree-lined Promenade des Anglais beachfront with its stunning sea views.
As mentioned, Nice is also a good place to be for art lovers as the city and surrounding areas have the best art museums in France after Paris, namely the outstanding Matisse Museum and Chagall Museum.
The nearby town of Antibes also has an excellent Picasso museum which besides paintings also has some of the artist’s pottery drawings.
There are also museums in the surrounding villages such as the Fondation Meaght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the Renoir Museum in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and the Leger Museum in Biot. The interior of the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence was painted by Matisse.
The Orthodox Cathedral in Nice is considered one of the most beautiful outside of Russia. Near the Musée Matisse, there’s also an archaeological museum sitting on an impressive Roman ruins site. The Nice old town area has many nice parks, historical buildings and streets, churches, plazas and palaces, and more good museums such as the “Belle Epoque” Musée Massena.
In Marseille, the Vieux Port (Old Port) is the heat of the city as it has been around for 26 centuries. The pedestrian area around the port is an important hangout place with stylish hotels all around. Near the port area is the “Le Panier” (the basket) neighborhood, a historic neighborhood with a special charm. The iconic “La Canebière” avenue that leads to the Old port has some great historical buildings with impressive architecture.
The Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde Basilica overlooks Marseille and the Mediterranean, built on an ancient fortress on a high point of the city to which you can take a nice and long walk from the city center.
The Palais de Longchamp is worth a visit as it houses both the Natural History Museum and the Art Museum. The Palais Pharo built by Napoleon III offers great seaside architecture
Aside from these staple sights, Marseille has a lot of recent urban and cultural enhancements. The MUCEM is a new museum devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations – which Marseille is a great blend of. It was opened in 2013, the year Marseille was the European City of Culture, in the port next to the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean – the two are linked by a high footbridge.
Another recent cultural venue is La Friche, a tobacco factory near the St-Charles train station turned into a trendy cultural area with a skate park, startup offices, a large terrace, and regular cultural events. La Friche may be compared to Nice’s huge municipal abattoir which was also repurposed as a dedicated space for cultural exhibitions and performances.
Cours Julien is another trendy area in Marseille, considered the main artist district with numerous cafes and terraces, works of street art, hip artsy boutiques, pedestrian area, concert hall, art movie theater, and street market.
La Corniche Kennedy is a long Marseille boulevard running alongside the Mediterranean and overlooks the sea and islands. Besides fishermen’s barracks, it has beautiful 19th-century villas such as Villa Valmer and Gaby Deslys Villa.
Nice or Marseille: nature & outdoors
Both Nice and Marseille are paradises for outdoors lovers. In Nice, you can do all sort of outdoors activities including great hiking in the hills around villages and in the huge Mercantour national park about an hour’s drive from Nice.
Besides trekking, around Nice you can go jet skiing, whale-watching, scuba diving, rafting/kayaking/paddleboarding, kitesurfing (Saint-Laurent du Var), mountain biking or skiing in the Alpes Maritimes (Valberg, Isola ski resorts), sailing or boating from the Nice marina, and more.
Like Nice, the Marseille area has great opportunities for water sports, including sailing – given the city’s constant strong winds, hiking and camping in the stunning mountains of the Provence natural parks, scuba diving, mountain biking, etc. Marseille’s Les Calanques natural park offers panoramic hikes and kayak tours in breath-taking landscapes with gorgeous steep cliffs and small coves on the Mediterranean.
Marseille has some wonderful beaches though a bit harder to find and access than the Côte d’Azur resorts like Nice and Cannes, which live and breathe around their beaches. Plage du Prado is a wide and open family beach with attractions for kids and skate parks. You can also find beaches off the beaten path along La Corniche Kennedy.
Marseille also has some awesome parks for running and biking on trails, the biggest one being Parc Borély. Parc Longchamp is also a nice place to hang out and work out after visiting Longchamp Palace.
Nice or Marseille: food & nightlife
Most of the food scene and nightlife in Nice takes place in the Old Town where you can find a plethora of restaurants and bars such as Ooh Poo Pah Doo, a traditional bistro, and Peixes, one of Nice’s best fish restaurants near the Opera house.
Although Nice does not have an extensive young crown, the old town does have some decent late-night activity.
Marseille, on the other hand, has more going on in terms of nightlife than Nice, being a bigger city with an overall younger population.
As mentioned earlier, the Cours Julien is one of the edgier neighborhoods not only for cultural events but also for nightlife, with some of the best bars, restaurants and clubs in Marseille. Some trendy pubs can also be found around the Vieux Port.
There’s also a very diverse food scene in Marseille, a lot of it around and East of the Old Port. The port is the best place for eating a bouillabaisse, a traditional Marseille seafood stew fisherman originally made using fish they couldn’t sell. Chez Michel is widely considered the city’s best bouillabaisse restaurant, being a multi-generation family place.
Ethnic food places are abundant in Marseille. There are lots of couscous restaurants by the Old Port and in the Noailles area. For an even more local and affordable experience, you can check out the grill shacks near the train station.
You can also have a great African dinner East of the Cours Julien area, with food from many different countries.
You’ll also find many restaurants and bars along the Corniche Kennedy boulevard.
Nice or Marseille: shopping
Most of the shopping in Nice is located in and around the Vieille Ville (Old Town) including the ample Place Massena plaza and the busy shopping street Rue Jean Médecin. You can also catch the popular Flea Market in Cours Saleya on Sundays.
Marseille concentrates a lot of stores and small commercial centers around the Old Port area but also has major commercial centers on the outskirts of the city including Prado Shopping and Aushopping Marseille Saint-Loup.
Nice or Marseille: lodging
In Nice, most travelers recommend staying in the old town. The beaches are accessible on foot, and the château mount is within short hiking distance.
Another smart option is the Musicians area / Carre D’Or, an area south of the station, bounded by Gambetta in the West and Jean Medecin Ave in the East. Places in that area are close to the beach, the train station, the center, and the old town, but it’s quieter.
Travelers often recommend the Nice Garden Hotel which is very conveniently located, close to the airport bus stop and to the train station, within short walking distance to the restaurants and bars of the center and the old town, yet very quiet. The staff is very friendly, and there’s a nice garden for breakfast and hanging out (no pool though).
Another recommended place is the impressive Hotel Impérial, also close to the train station. Impressive 1930s style with high ceilings, parqueted floor, cage lift, hand-painted frescoes on the walls, chandeliers … The place served as headquarters for the German Army during the war.
Travelers also praise the Citadines Apart’Hotels (now “Residhome”) in both Nice and Marseille. One of the one-bedroom apartments easily accommodates a family of four.
In Marseille, there are hundreds of hotels but most travelers recommend staying around the Vieux Port area, a very lively area with easy access to public transport and within walking distance of many sights.
Among the hotels most highly praised by travelers are La Résidence du Vieux Port and the Grand Hotel Beauvau Vieux Port MGallery. The former has friendly staff, great breakfast, and clean comfortable rooms with unforgettable views on the port and hill, optionally with a balcony.
The Grand Hotel Beauvau also has a great location and a breakfast room with the most amazing view of the Vieux Port.
(1) Featured photo: “Marseille Harbour” (CC BY 2.0) by rightee
(2) “Baie des Anges, Nice, France” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by mattk1979
(3) “Notre Dame de la Garde over Marseille” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by ylraw
(4) “Le cours Saleya (Nice)” (CC BY 2.0) by dalbera