Now that you’ve decided to visit Marseille, it won’t be long before you meet someone who tells you: Please be careful, it’s a dangerous city! Now you probably wonder if Marseille is safe for tourists.
People who tell you that may be under the influence of the “Marseille bashing”, a tendency that we often see in films, in the media and sometimes among French people as well.
I am going to explain you where it comes from and why this is more a fantasy than a reality.
1. A nefarious reputation
a. A port city
Marseille is a port city, the oldest city of France and its Mediterranean port is known since Antiquity.
As any other port cities, Marseille suffered the bad reputation attached to it. All sorts of smuggling and traffics always took place in commercial ports.
This situation has been a fertile ground for the imagination of many authors and film makers who used Marseille as a background for their stories.
b. Imagination vs reality
The most famous stories about Marseille are Alexandre Dumas’s book “the count of Monte Cristo” who took place on the island of the Château d’if and the film French Connection (1971) of William Friedkin.
Unlike what many people think, the count of Monte Cristo is not a true story and in the French Connection film, where Marseille is portrayed as a drug capital city, it was in reality just a city among many others where the international drug trafficking took place.
French Media also like to portray Marseille as a crime capital bringing the spotlights only on drugs related crimes that often take place in the north of the city…but in reality, statistically, Marseille is not different from any other cities in France concerning the organised crime rates and drug related crimes.
Statistics show one thing about Marseille: Here, cars and two-wheeled vehicles are slightly more stolen than in other places. If you bike ride in Marseille, keep that in mind.
2. Marseille is an atypical city
a. The city center is poor
When traveling to Provence expect to see some charming city, very clean and organized like Aix-en-Provence, relaxing and elegant like Nice or Avignon. And…atypical like Marseille.
We are used to consider the heart of a city as a front window, everything must be clean and polished.
It is is changing now due to gentrification, but for decades the heart of Marseille which is the old port and the neighborhood around the St-Charles train station, has concentrated a lot of poverty.
These were and still are the poorest areas of Marseille , during the day, apart from a few beggars and drunk people, you don’t really see it as it is very busy. But during the night poverty is more visible and the atmosphere is different. This makes it a very popular city, where poverty is not hidden and where social classes and social and cultural differences coexist. For this reason Marseille is unique.
b. Marseille people are friendly
Marseille people are known for being friendly. They are chatty and helpful too. You often see strangers talking to each other in public transport or in cafés. Unlike many big cities, you will always found someone to talk to !
They are also very keen on giving you a hand or a direction. They are not shy, they talk loudly and have a tendency to exaggerate when telling a story.
Actually one ancient world famous navigator, Pytheas, was from Marseille, he is the one who sailed to the northern sea of Europe for the first time, when he came back and told what he saw, nobody believed him… Later on historians found out that he was telling the truth!
3. Safety tips in Marseille
Since Marseille became the European capital of culture in 2013 the city center has been transformed.
Facade have been cleaned, some streets have been forbidden to cars. But poverty remains, 40% of inhabitants of the 1st district live under the poverty line.
a. 1st and 3rd district are busy and noisy
However around Saint-Charles train station, Noailles and la Canebière (all parts of the 1st district) pickpockets are very active and during the night it is very noisy.
Do not expose any valuable belongings like photo camera, jewelery or mobile phone particularly in these areas. (1st and 3rd districts).
b. Marseille by districts
The 2nd district is the new business district (La Joliette, Docks village, Terraces du port area)
The 4th 5th and 12th district are calm and more residential, that’s were you will found a cinema and plenty of nice local shops.
The 6th district is where you’ll find the Basilica Notre dame de la Garde ( and an amazing panoramic view )
7th 8th and 9th districts are the wealthiest, near the beaches of Prado, the Corniche, the Pharo, Saint victor Abbaye (7th) and the Velodrome.
The 15th and 14th are deprived neighborhood in the north of the city.
The 16th district is also in the north and more like a small fishermen village, you can go there by sea shuttle from the Vieux-port.
Overall, I think Marseille is a safe place for tourists, people who travel alone and woman can be reassured, there is nothing dangerous about Marseille and I am pretty sure that you will always find someone willing to help you if you need help. You will be surprised by the beauty of the city and its rich history. With a few precautions concerning your valuables, I am sure you will have an amazing stay. If you want to learn about the history of Marseille, come with me and book your free tour right here : → City Tour