“Fifth gear in Provence?”
Marseille is one of those places that is a perfectly interesting destination in its own right, whilst also being a gateway to a number of popular rural areas, the most prominent being of course the region of Provence.
To advise on whether or not to get a hire car in Marseille we would naturally ask whether or not potential car hirers were visiting just the city and surrounding areas, or heading into deeper Provence. Unsurprisingly, the city areas and nearby coastal stretches lean more towards not needing a hire car, whereas one would naturally associate getting around the rolling hills of Provence with having the flexibility of a hire car.
- Provence — fairly obviously, this beautiful but rural region needs a hire car to do it justice.
- Coastal regions — you do not have to travel far from Marseille, whether east or west, to find superb coastlines and great beaches. Again, these areas are always easier to explore with a hire car.
- Public transport limitations — as you will read below, you certainly can travel between the major cities in this region by train, but the system is not very well integrated. For example, there is no railway station at Marseille airport, despite it being one of the busiest in France outside Paris. Instead, you will have to take a shuttle bus and then a slow local train.
Marseille might be the southern end of France’s trunk TGV route, but this is only really useful if you want to head back towards Paris.
Even for relatively local journeys such as to Avignon or Aix, the TGV only stops infrequently and it will not take you into the city centres. There are even fewer options for heading inwards to Provence, as the main railway line that serves this region (the Digne line) leaves from Nice, not Marseille.
- Pont Du Gard — I will admit that I visited the world-famous Roman aqueduct at Pont Du Gard in the summer of 2008, and I did so without a car. I had flown in to Marseille that morning, and was continuing through to Perpignan where I was meeting family. The first stretch of my journey involved a short coach ride and then a brief hop on the TGV between Aix-en-Provence and Avignon. From there, I had to catch a bus into town and then another bus out to Pont Du Gard — so far so good — a little bit of a complicated journey, but it all ran to plan. Having spent a couple of hours at Pont Du Gard, there was no sign of the bus to take me onwards to Nimes. After waiting around half an hour, I called the helpline, and was told it would be along shortly. Eventually, the bus turned up, but it would have been difficult to have known where you stood if you don’t speak workable French. The onward train from Nimes was also heavily delayed. This is all a great deal of hassle to go through, even if the bridge itself is well worth the effort!
- City of Marseille — Marseille is often overlooked by tourists who are heading towards Provence and other areas inland, which conform to the more traditional picture postcard definition of scenic. Instead, Marseille offers a truly lively city with a huge range of different cuisines, as well as some spectacular modern architecture. All of this can easily be done using the excellent public transport that the city has to offer, including a small metro system. By far and away the most important modern building in the city is Le Corbusier’s “Unite D’habitation” — love it or hate it, this is what skyscraping accommodation blocks and streets in the sky were supposed to be like. Another modern classic is the “Big Blue” county hall building, designed by the British architect Will Alsop.
- Calanques – this superb area of cliff trails is one of the few national parks in the world you can quite literally walk to from within the city limits. Note that this area is closed during the hottest summer months (July and August) due to the fire risk.
- Multiple city tour — basing yourself in Marseille, you can easily visit the former papal headquarters of Avignon and the Roman city of Nimes by train.
- Coastline — the railway line between Marseille and Ventimiglia in Italy has some absolutely superb coastal stretches, whilst also taking in world-famous resorts like St Tropez and Cannes before passing through Nice and then Monaco. See our Nice page for more about this.
- Bike it — there is no doubt that, as mentioned above, the area around Marseille offers some superb opportunities for touring by car, but this is also top-notch cycling territory, and many world-famous cyclists and triathletes train in this area. As many of the roads around here are steep and unforgiving, you will need to either hire a decent road bike or bring your own.
- Train from London — if you want to head somewhere on the Mediterranean but also would rather get there by train, then Marseille is naturally your first port of call. You can do this journey with a simple change in Lille, or you can travel via Paris and take in a few city sights on the way. Allow around six hours to reach Marseille from London, or just over three hours for the fastest TGV trains from Paris to Marseille. If you are already arriving by train, then you will be near the city centre and you may well want to continue onwards by train.
However, if you do want to get a hire car, be prepared to pay significantly more in Marseille city centre. In fact, based on price alone, you may well find it cheaper to alight at Avignon or Aix-en-Provence station instead. Note that Eurostar do also offer weekly trains to Avignon during the summer — these arrive in the city centre, not the cathedral like TGV station.
- Boat trips and ferries – several options are available for taking boat trips from Marseille, including for excellent views of the Calanques. Marseille is also a gateway port for destinations further afield, including Corsica.
- Cost — car hire in France is relatively expensive when compared with other European countries, especially if you’re used to hiring cars in Spain, and hiring a car in Marseille is no cheaper than anywhere else – in fact, expect to pay around 30% more than for comparable car hire at Nice airport.
Do you need a car in Marseille? Conclusion: We started with the expectation that if you are flying into Marseille and then carrying on in to Provence, then there isn’t really much argument to say you could get by in this region without a hire car.
However, that should be reasonably obvious anyway, so it isn’t really worth basing our verdict on that kind of trip.
If on the other hand you want to fly into Marseille and actually base yourself in the city, then there should be more than enough places that you can easily get to without needing a hire car, including some great scenery which is close to the city itself.
For these reasons, our verdict for Marseille itself is a firm no.
Overall verdict – no
Note — despite launching with a big fanfare, the budget “mp2” terminal at Marseille airport has only managed to sustain a limited number of low-cost routes from outside France, so you might also want to consider flights to Avignon or even to nearby Nimes or Montpellier. Alternatively, a much wider choice of flights to Nice is available from most UK regional airports. Nice also offers relatively easy access to the interior, as well as the Cote D’Azur region. See our Nice car hire advice page for more details.