Marseille or Montpellier: Which Should You Visit in 2024?

Marseille and Montpellier are two beautiful cities in southern France. Each is full of things to do, places to see, and delicious food to eat, making it difficult to choose between them.

I moved to France more than six years ago and visited both cities several times. I know the top attractions, the best restaurants, and even some hidden gems in each destination.

And I often get asked, “Which should I visit, Marseille or Montpellier?”

The truth is it depends on what you prefer.

In this post, I’ll share the highlights of each city so you can choose which is right for you.

Marseille or Montpellier - Which should you visit on your next trip? This is your complete guide to helping you choose the right destinations for you.
Montpellier vs Marseille

Overview: Marseille or Montpellier?

Marseille and Montpellier are both located in the south of France but have distinct personalities.

Think of Marseille as a bustling port city and Montpellier as a charming, sophisticated university town.

Both cities boast impressive histories, beautiful architecture, and a thriving cultural scene. But from there, they diverge.

Below I’ve summarized the best city for each type of travel style:

✓ Best for History Lovers – Marseille 
✓ Best for Foodies – Marseille 
✓ Best for Art Lovers – Montpellier 
✓ Best for Museums – Both 
✓ Best for a Romantic Weekend – Montpellier 
✓ Best Base for Day Trips – Both 
✓ Best for Nature (and Beaches) – Marseille

Which is Better Montpellier or Marseille?

Montpellier is renowned for its beautiful architecture, elegant boulevards, and stunning gardens. It’s the perfect destination for those seeking a more laid-back, romantic atmosphere.

The city’s historic center, Écusson, has charming narrow streets, quaint cafés, and boutique shops.

This is Rue des Bras Fer in Montpellier's Écusson district. It's a set of stairs and each one is painted a color of the rainbow. Then above, there are triangle flags hanging down. Each one is a different color of the rainbow.
Rue des Bras Fer in Montpellier’s Écusson District

It also boasts impressive landmarks such as Place de la Comédie, Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, and Promenade du Peyrou.

But what I loved the most about Montpellier were the art museums.

My personal favorite was Parcelle473. It features contemporary and urban art that challenges you to think beyond the initial beauty of the piece.

Marseille, on the other hand, is a cosmopolitan city with a gritty edge. It’s known for its role in French history, lively markets, and tasty cuisine.

And as the oldest city in France, there’s a lot to do here.

There’s the Vieux Port that dates to 600 BC, the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica that offers sweeping panoramas, and the MuCEM museum that explores Mediterranean cultures.

This is Vieux Port in Marseille at Sunset. There are boats lined in the harbor on the water. Then, in the back, there are buildings that are lit by the golden sun.
Vieux Port at Sunset

For nature lovers, Marseille offers plenty of options.

Some of my favorite activities were hiking to the Belvédère de Sugiton, exploring the islands of the Frioul Archipelago, and hanging out in Parc Borély.

So which city is better?

It ultimately depends on your personal preferences and travel style.

If you’re looking for a relaxed, charming atmosphere with an artsy vibe then Montpellier is the better choice.

But if you prefer a lively city with a mix of ancient and modern attractions then Marseille is the place for you.

An Overview of Marseille

If you’re planning a trip to southern France then Marseille should be on your list.

Below I’ll cover the top attractions that make it worth visiting.

Major Attractions

This is Marseille's Notre Dame de la Garde. I took this photo from the Passerelle Parvis-St. Jean. There is the Vieux Port in the foreground. It's filled with boats then in the distance there is the basilica sitting on top of a hill.
Notre Dame de la Garde

Marseille has everything from historic landmarks to beautiful natural scenery.

Some of the highlights include:

✓ Le Panier – This historic district is the oldest in Marseille and offers a charming glimpse into its past. I spent hours wandering around and photographing the colorful buildings.

✓ Le Vieux Port – The Vieux Port (Old Port) is one of the most iconic sights in Marseille. Stroll along the boardwalk, watch fishermen at work, or sit and people-watch at a nearby café.

✓ Notre-Dame de la Garde – This basilica sits atop a hill and offers stunning views of the city and sea. But my favorite view of the church is from the Passerelle Parvis-St. Jean (photo above).

✓ MuCEM – The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations is a must-visit for history and culture enthusiasts.

✓ Calanques National Park – This stunning national park offers breathtaking views of rugged cliffs, crystal-clear waters, and secluded beaches. My favorite beach was the Calanque de Sugiton.

✓ Frioul Archipelago – These islands are just a short boat ride from Marseille and offer a tranquil escape from the city. My two favorites were Pomègues and If.

Helpful Tip: If is home to the Château d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

Cultural Experiences

This is the Marché aux Poissons at the Old Port of Marseille. There are two men discussing about the box of fish in front of them. One of them is hold up a fish by the tail and showing it to the other.
Marché aux Poissons

Marseille is known for its rich culture, making it a great place to experience different traditions.

Some cultural experiences not to be missed include:

✓ Marché aux Poissons – This bustling fish market is a feast for the senses. I loved watching locals interact and haggle over the catch of the day. It’s the best place to see what life is like in Marseille.

✓ Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse – This iconic building designed by the famous architect, Le Corbusier, is a must-see for its design and history. You can visit it for free, but I booked a tour so that I could see the inside of the apartments.

✓ Savonnerie Le Fer à Cheval – This soap factory is the oldest in town. You can visit their boutique or take a tour of their facility. I opted for the tour to learn more about Marseille’s famous soap-making industry.

Foodie Things to Do

This is the interior of the Four des Navettes Bakery in Marseille. In the forground there are bags of navettes. Then in the back there is the oven where they are cooked and a board listing the price per dozen.
Four des Navettes

Marseille is a food lover’s paradise.

Some must-try foodie experiences include:

✓ Bouillabaisse – This traditional fish stew is Marseille’s signature dish and can be found at most restaurants. But the best is at Chez Fonfon in Vallon des Auffes.

✓ Navettes de Marseille – These boat-shaped cookies are a local specialty. The best I had were from Four des Navettes, the oldest bakery in town.

✓ Pastis – This anise-flavored liqueur is a popular drink, often enjoyed as an aperitif before meals.

✓ Panisses – These fried chickpea fritters are a popular street food, perfect for a quick and tasty snack. My favorite vendor was Chez Magali in L’Estaque.

An Overview of Montpellier

Montpellier is the second largest city in the Occitanie region in southern France.

It’s a major cultural hub and home to the renowned University of Montpellier.

Below I’ll highlight some of the top things to do.

Major Attractions

This is the Chateau d'Eau at the Promenade du Peyrou in Montpellier. It's a cylindrical stone structure with an arch in the middle. Then into the left there are stairs leading up to it.
Chateau d’Eau at Sunrise

Montpellier’s major attractions are unmatched. Some of the best include:

✓ Place de la Comédie – This bustling square is the heart of the city, lined with cafés, shops, and the infamous Opéra Comédie.

✓ Musée Fabre – This art museum houses the most impressive collection of paintings I’ve seen. My favorite was the Portrait of a Young Edgar Clarke by François-Xavier Fabre, founder of the museum.

✓ Jardin des Plantes – This beautiful garden is the oldest botanical garden in France. It showcases a wide variety of flora and fauna, but most are local to the area.

✓ ÉcussonThis historic district is a must-see. It’s filled with narrow streets, charming squares, and stunning architecture. My favorite streets were Rue du Bras de Fer and Rue des Étuves.

✓ Promenade du Peyrou – This peaceful park offers stunning views of the city. It also features the majestic Aqueduc Saint-Clément and the Château d’Eau. I went at sunrise and felt completely safe.

Cultural Things to Do

This is a collection of pieces from the Musée Art Brut in Montpellier. There are five paintings on the wall and three sculptures in front of them. They are all different versions of abstract art and raw art.
Musée Art Brut

Montpellier also has a variety of cultural activities:

✓ Street Art – Montpellier has an incredible street art scene, two of which are optical illusions. My favorite was the Fresque Murale Place Saint Roch.

✓ Musée Art Brut – This unique museum showcases art brut or raw art. I had to pause at every exhibit so I could study each piece in detail.

✓ Parcelle473 – With a focus on urban art, this museum showcases thought-provoking pieces. Of the art museums, this was my favorite.

✓ Château de Flaugergues – This stunning 17th-century estate offers a glimpse into Montpellier’s elite class. I booked the Backstage Castle and Cave tour so that I could visit the entire place.

✓ Église Saint-Roch – This church features Neo-Gothic architecture and one of the most impressive stained-glass windows I’ve seen.

Foodie Things to Do

This is my order of Aligot from the Restaurant l’Aveyronnais in Montpellier. It's cheesy potatoes with a sausage on top. Then on the right there is a salad and cup with some sauce in it.
Aligot from the Restaurant l’Aveyronnais

While Montpellier isn’t known for its cuisine, it still has some foodie activities.

✓ Les Halles Castellane – This covered market offers a variety of fresh produce, cheeses, meats, and other local specialties.

✓ Restaurant l’Aveyronnais – This cozy restaurant serves traditional Aveyronnais cuisine. I ordered the aligot and it was out of this world.

Comparing Marseille and Montpellier

Marseille and Montpellier are both beautiful cities. Now that I’ve covered the main attractions, I’ll compare the two.

Architecture

This is a street in Le Panier district of Marseille. It's a cobbled street and on either side are colorful buildings lined with potted plants.
Le Panier District in Marseille

Marseille’s architecture is a mix of traditional Provençal style and modern influences.

In contrast, Montpellier boasts stunning examples of neo-classical architecture. There are even a few avant-garde buildings like the Arbre Blanc.

I found the monuments in Montpellier were more elegant than those in Marseille.

But Marseille had a certain charm to it. It’s rough around the edges, but that’s part of its appeal.

The streets were not as perfect as those in Montpellier but instead gave a more authentic and lived-in vibe.

As you can see in the photo above, residents in Le Panier used public sidewalks as personal gardens.

Accessibility

This is a photo of a tram parked at the Antigone stop in Montpellier. There are people walking in front of it.
Tram at the Antigone Stop in Montpellier

Both cities have a central train station but it’s much easier to get to Marseille than Montpellier.

In most cases, you’ll have to pass by Marseille to get to Montpellier.

Marseille also has a larger airport with flights to and from various cities in Europe. It even has some international destinations.

Montpellier’s airport is more limited, mostly serving domestic flights within France.

But both cities have efficient public transportation systems, including buses and trams, making it easy to get around.

Size

This is the view of Marseille from Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse. There are buildings surrounded by trees and in the distance there are the mountains.
View of Marseille from Cité Radieuse

In terms of size and population, Marseille is much bigger than Montpellier.

That means you’ll need at least two days to see the main highlights in Marseille whereas you could visit Montpellier’s top attractions in a day.

Helpful Tip: It took me a week to see and do everything in Marseille. That includes visiting museums, day trips, and exploring different neighborhoods.

But neither city was overcrowded. I never felt like I had to fight through tourists at popular sites.

Helpful Tip: Montpellier has several attractions outside the city’s center like Château de Flaugergues. If you want to do these activities, I recommend planning a three-day itinerary.

Cultural Experiences

This is the interior of the Musée Fabre. It's a long hall with three halls. There are paintings lined side by side on each wall. In the center there are rectangular benches for people to sit on.
Musée Fabre

Both cities offer a rich cultural experience with a blend of old and new.

In general, Marseille has more variety than Montpellier.

There’s the historic Vieux Port area, the MuCEM museum, and the ancient ruins at the Marseille History Museum.

Best of all, a lot of these attractions are free to visit.

You can even visit a replica of the infamous Cosquer Cave at Cosquer Méditerranée.

Montpellier cultural experiences center on its stunning architecture and art museums. There’s the Musée Fabre, Musée Art Brut, Parcelle473, and the list goes on.

While I enjoyed visiting each one, they are all dedicated to art, differing only in style.

Food Scene

This is a bottle of Ricard Pastis from Marseille. Next to it s a glass of pastis mixed with some water.
Ricard Pastis from Marseille

Marseille’s food scene easily wins.

You can find everything from traditional Provençal cuisine to North African dishes.

It also has recipes that come from Marseille like Bouillabaisse or Pastis.

That doesn’t mean Montpellier’s food scene isn’t worth trying. But it features dishes from the region rather than from the city itself.

Conclusion: Marseille vs Montpellier

So, which city should you visit on your next trip?

It depends on your preferences and what you’re looking for.

If you’re interested in history and cultural experiences then Marseille is the better option.

But if you want a relaxed vacation in a city with an artsy vibe, then Montpellier is the perfect choice.

Either way, both cities are underrated and worth exploring.

So why not plan a trip to both and decide which one you prefer?


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I hope you enjoyed my post and found it helpful. Here are some other articles that I think you might find interesting.


Jen Ciesielski
Jen Ciesielski

Jen Ciesielski is the creator of Dabbling in Jet Lag. She has lived abroad for over ten years, traveled to more than 50 countries, and speaks French and English fluently. Her areas of expertise include moving abroad, learning languages, and travel planning. Originally from the United States, she now lives in France, where she has been for more than six years. She has also traveled extensively around the country. She shares her experiences as an expat living in France and helps thousands of people plan their trips every month.

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