Marseille’s most iconic building is a bit of a hike to get to, but the reward includes a magnificent 19th-century basilica and the city’s best views.
Notre-Dame de la Garde’s enormous gilded statue of the Virgin Mary is one of the first things visitors to Marseille notice. From nearly anywhere in Marseille, see the Madonna casting a protective eye over the busy city below. Note that the cathedral near the port is the official heart of the Catholic church in Marseille; however, for a sense of the city’s real religious life, visit Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Although it’s built on the city’s highest point, which is a nearly 500-foot (150-meter) limestone massif south of the Old Port, the basilica is even more imposing than the hill.
Before entering, appreciate the views stretching out from the multiple levels of balconies and patios. Spot the Château d’If on its tiny island and the Frioul Islands farther away. Look for fishing boats bobbing in the sea. Huge container ships steam steadily toward Marseille’s industrial port.
Turn around and admire the neo-Byzantine striped exterior, alternating bands of white limestone with green sandstone imported from near Florence.
Inside the cathedral, relatively small windows keep it pleasantly cool even on summer days.
Notice the many votive offerings on the wall, a distinctly Mediterranean religious phenomenon that attests to the affection Marseillais and other seafarers feel for the “Bonne Mère,” as they call the cathedral.
Admire the elaborate decoration and perfect striping on the wall. The simplicity of the crypt is almost shocking after the profusion of color above. In the crypt, monuments pay tribute to some of Marseille’s founding families.
Notre-Dame de la Garde is visible from most spots in Marseille’s center, south of the Old Port. Located at the very top of the hill, it is a rewarding 25-minute walk from the Old Port, but can be difficult for people with mobility issues. Travel by bus from the Old Port in 15 minutes or drive in 10 minutes. The main train station is a 15-minute drive or 25-minute bus ride away. Free on-site parking is available, with a staircase to the church.
Visitors to Notre-Dame de la Garde are welcome daily from early morning to early evening, at no charge.