Continue along here, and you’ll reach Cours Julien. Once a no-go area after dark, this graffiti-emblazoned hilltop is now the city’s cool creative quarter with hip bars, vintage shops, and one-off fashion boutiques.
Cours Julien itself has a popular Wednesday organic food market, a monthly flea market, and numerous trendy cafés with outdoor terraces. Among the independent shops is La Licorne, a workshop-cum-boutique selling handcrafted Savon de Marseille (a distinctive olive oil soap that’s been made in Marseille for over six centuries), and hip concept-shop Oogie LifeStore, with vintage and contemporary fashion, vinyl records, and a casual brasserie.
With its graffiti-covered façades, nearby rue de Trois Rois is worth visiting for hip hangouts like Waaw. Around the corner, Le Cabanon du Cours is a trendy little bistro specializing in hearty Marseillaise cuisine, as well as options like red mullet with Provençale sauce or Daube, a local stew of beef marinated in red wine. You should also try panisse (deep-fried chickpeas), a popular local street snack.
This hip quarter is also home to Mama Shelter Marseille. Open since 2012, it was second in a new family of hotels created in Paris by Club Med co-founder Serge Trigano, in collaboration with French designer Philippe Starck. Following Lyon, Bordeaux, and Istanbul, a sixth Mama Shelter opened in Los Angeles in February 2015.
Occupying the ground between budget and boutique, Mama Shelter is a chic and convivial hotel concept, designed to evoke a warm and communal feeling. Its restaurant, terrace, long bar, and open kitchen all share the same cool space, ensuring everyone intermingles. The restaurant includes a table d’hôte-style sharing table, so solo travellers needn’t dine alone. Guaranteed to make you smile, quirky details include inflatable swim rings hanging above the bar, black chalkboard ceilings decorated with graffiti, and a huge table soccer painted a pretty shade of pink.
The 127 guestrooms and suites are more understated, although an unusual in-room amenity are PVC masks of Looney Tunes characters like Daffy Duck and Tweety Bird, or superheroes like Batman and Spiderman. Cunningly used to filter the glare of bedside lamps, guests may also use these masks in more playful ways. Each room features a 27-inch iMac TV with photobooth and videobooth facilities for taking selfies, which guests can upload to the hotel’s social net- work, although optional, the wearing of masks is extremely popular in these pictures.
The iMac’s also function as a virtual concierge, and come loaded with a selection of free films, including free x-rated gay films, proving that Mama likes to provide shelter (and stimulation) to all her guests.
New from Summer 2015 is Mama Beach, where candy-colored loungers face the crystal-blue Mediterranean Sea. The beach club’s rustic-chic restaurant serves sun-friendly fare including salads, burgers, and fried fish. Located 15-minutes by taxi from Mama Shelter, it’s also easily accessible via bus number 19.
You may also take bus 19 to Marseille’s gay beach, Mont Rose. Ride the bus to its final destination, Madrague de Montredon, then continue on foot along avenue du Mont Rose, crossing a car park, to reach a flat outcrop of rocks. Facing west, it’s at its busiest late in the afternoon on summer weekends, when locals come to enjoy the option of sunbathing nude, then enjoy a beautiful Mediterranean sunset. Later on, the action shifts to the top of the hill, beneath the pine trees.
Although not an obvious choice for a seaside vacation, Marseille boasts a stunning coastline. Its beaches are more laid- back than farther along the coast in exclusive, expensive resorts like Saint-Tropez, Cannes, and Nice, but the real attraction is the 20m stretch of inlets and sea cliffs between Marseille and the picturesque coastal town of Cassis. These are the Calanques, a series of Mediterranean ‘fjords’ formed by glaciers millions of years ago. Due to their unique geology and ecosystem, in 2012 the area was declared a protected National Park.
Boat trips visit the Calanques from Marseille’s Vieux-Port, and although they provide dramatic views, and occasionally drop anchor to enable swimming, to truly experience the Calanques you should explore this rugged landscape on foot. There are numerous pre- marked hiking trails suitable for all abilities, as well as stunning and secluded beaches to discover.
You can access the Calanques from Marseille by taking bus 19 to its terminus (just as if you were going to the gay beach), continuing via bus 20 to the pretty fishing hamlet of Callelongue. Situated on the waters edge of Calanque de Callelongue, here you’ll find the excellent and surprisingly grand Restaurant La Grotte. The more intrepid can hike for one hour along the coast from here to Calanque de Marseilleveyre and discover rustic beach tavern Chez le Belge. Inaccessible by car, ingredients and essentials like fresh fish and local wine have to be delivered daily by boat or carried overland, so the food is simple but very satisfying.
A one-hour walk from Luminy University (terminus of bus 21), Calanque de Sugiton is another idyllic example—a few gay sun- bathers frequent the small naturist beach on the left side of the rocky coast.
Although remarkably small for a city of this size, Marseille’s gay scene still offers something for everyone. The only gay venue in the Vieux Port area, L’Endroit is a small, tradition-al-style gay bar. Attracting a younger crowd, Play Bar is a small but sleek choice that gets busy around midnight. Le Trash Bar is a men-only cruise bar with guest DJs, a dark room, flirtatious theme nights, and live porn shows at weekends. Cargo International Sauna Club is large and modern with a Turkish bath, a Finnish sauna, small swimming pool, Jacuzzi, bar, relaxing cabins, and play areas. Open since 1991, Marseille’s one and only gay dance club The New Can-can has been partying for 25 years, and although open throughout the week, it is best during weekends. There are also occasional gay soirées hosted by Crazy Time, transforming the shipping containers of Dock De Suds with themed décor and a show with hot go-go dancers and performers (check their Facebook page for details).
Rather like a good bouillabaisse, Marseille is a perfectly balanced melting pot of history, modernity, culture, diversity, and sexuality— it’s so tasty and tempting that you’ll want to come back for more.