Marseille or Nice? Which City In The French Riviera?

Marseille or nice

The Côte d’Azur, or French Riviera, is one of France’s most popular holiday destinations – and rightly so. With its stunning beaches, warm climate, and expansive views of the glittering Mediterranean Sea, it’s no wonder that tourists have been coming here to unwind since the 18th century. For city lovers, the choice of where to go in the region often comes down to Marseille or Nice, which sit at either ends of the famous shoreline.

The truth is that both cities have their own draws. For its part, Marseille is a 3,000-year-old port – one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the globe, no less – with gritty historic districts and striking monuments. Nice has a rep for being a home to jet-setters, high culture (it’s got the best Matisse museum in the country!), and idyllic pebbly beaches. 

You can see how it might be tricky to pick one or the other. Cue this guide, which runs through a whole host of aspects about each place to help you weigh up where’s best for you this year. We’ll take a look at the general vibe, the beaches, the sightseeing, and the hotels that are on offer, all to make that French Riviera adventure the unforgettable trip it should be. Let’s begin.

Marseille vs Nice: General Vibe

city of Marseille
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Nice is a relatively small and polished city, with plenty of attractive scenery, high-class restaurants, and an interesting, artistic history. The seaside town has attracted tourists since the 1700s, all thanks to its balmy climate and proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. 

Most notably, the famous French painter Henri Matisse called Nice his home for 37 years. The legacy of the city’s artistic past is evident in its beautiful architecture and many great galleries. To put it another way, this is certainly a destination that appeals to those with a taste for the finer things in life. 

Marseille is much larger than Nice. In fact, it’s the second-most populous city in France! (Marseille counts about a million people. Nice, in comparison, has a population of around 350,000 people.) That naturally adds size, sprawl, and energy. Where Nice has a smaller town and at-times touristy feel, Marseille has all the metropolitan characteristics of a large city. 

Nicknamed ‘the City of 100 Neighborhoods‘, Marseille is France’s oldest, and most culturally diverse town. It’s a vibrant place where the cuisine, music, dance, and traditions of many different parts of Africa and Europe converge. A port city with a chaotic charm, Marseille has drawn comparisons to the likes of Naples and Liverpool. If you’re after a manicured, picture-perfect holiday setting, you may prefer Nice over Marseille. But for those in search of a bustling, culturally rich environment to explore, Marseille is the spot for you. 

Winner: Draw – Nice is for R&R, Marseille for urban energy

Marseille vs Nice: Beaches

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Beaches are quite a big consideration on the French Riviera, a region that’s home to arguably the best in the whole of France. So, where’s best?

Marseille has many brilliant beaches within its city limits. There are a number accessible by foot from the city center. Plage des Catalans, for example, is a bustling stretch of sand which is only a fifteen-minute walk from Le Vieux Port, making it the most central beach in the city. It’s the destination for beach volleyball, having played host to many international competitions over the years. Head here as the sun sets to enjoy a drink from one of the snack bars, listen to music and soak in the lively atmosphere.

Further outside the city, there is a great variety of beaches that are accessible via public transport. However, the real jewel in the crown is the Parc national des Calanques, a whole region of dramatic hills that drop vertiginously into the Med. You’ll probably need a car – or, better yet, a private yacht – to get there, but bays like Sormiou and Morgiou never disappoint.

Nice is famed around the globe for its long, urban beach. It runs the whole length of the Promenade des Anglais. The local hotels split it up into a series of private beaches, such as Blue Beach, Castel Plage and Opera Plage, where guests pay entry to spend a day soaking in the sun, with cocktails, delicious food, and excellent service on hand. 

While many of the beaches near to Nice are pebbled, hop on a 15-minute bus to Villefranche and you’ll be greeted with glorious, fine sand and warm waters. Similarly, Eze-sur-Mer is a short drive from Nice center, but well worth the effort for a spot of seclusion, calm waters and some of the best swimming on the French Riviera.

Winner: It’s got to be Nice, though the Calanques is epic in Marseilles if you have your own car/boat.

Marseille vs Nice: Sightseeing

Yacht in Nice, France
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As we mentioned before, Nice is a city for art lovers. It was a popular retreat for impressionists during the Belle Epoque period, and later, in the 1960s, became a breeding ground for the avant-garde with the establishment of the École de Nice, an experimental artistic movement. 

Visitors to Nice have the opportunity to experience its rich artistic heritage in some of the best art museums in France, such as the Matisse Museum and Chagall Museum. The nearby town of Antibes also has an excellent Picasso museum displaying the artist’s paintings and pottery. And there are museums in the surrounding villages aplenty, such as the Fondation Maeght in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, the Renoir Museum in Cagnes-sur-Mer, and the Leger Museum in Biot.

Nice has much more to offer besides art, though. There’s plenty of spectacular old architecture in Nice, making it a truly delightful city to explore. The Orthodox Cathedral in Nice is considered one of the world’s most beautiful. There’s an archaeological museum sitting on an impressive Roman ruin, too. Finally, the Nice old town area has many nice parks, historical buildings, churches, plazas and cobbled streets to wander around. 

Marseille has a busier, more working-city feel than Nice, but there’s no shortage of things to do and sights to see here. The Vieux Port (Old Port) is the heart of it all – it’s a great starting point for any visit, with bobbing boats, a lively atmosphere, and many a great place for an evening (or lunchtime) drink. The port is also the perfect place for eating a bouillabaisse, a local Marseille seafood stew fishermen initially made using fish they could not sell. The nearby Abbaye St Victor has stood on the city grounds since the 3rd century – giving an insight into the city’s lengthy history. 

Built on an old fortress, The Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde Basilica overlooks Nice and the Mediterranean Sea in the distance. It’s well worth the hike up to catch the panoramas. Another place worth visiting is the Palais de Longchamp, which houses both an art museum and the Nice Natural History Museum. And there’s the MUCEM, a relatively new museum dedicated to Mediterranean and European civilizations. It was opened in 2013, the same year that the city was crowned European City of Culture.

However, arguably, the best of Marseille is outside of its museums. Stroll the backstreets of Marseille and you’ll find a true mix of international influences, with businesses run by Algerian, Armenian, Vietnamese and Corsican settlers.

Winner: Draw. It’s Nice for the art lovers and Marseille for those who like city life.

Marseille vs Nice: Location

view of Marseille town
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Nice and Marseille are actually pretty close to each other. Nice is around 160 kilometers to the east of Marseille, or a one-hour train journey that takes you on a scenic route along France’s southern coast. Both cities are accessible from Paris via train and air travel. It’s usually relatively affordable to reach either on the rails from the French capital if you book tickets well in advance. If you’re flying, Nice Airport is close to the old town. Marseille Airport, on the other hand, is about a 20-30 minute drive from the city center. 

There are plenty of brilliant day trips to be made from Nice. Regular trains run from Nice’s main station to Monaco, for example. With a duration of just 25 minutes, they give visitors the perfect opportunity to spend a few hours soaking up the glitz and glamor of Montecarlo without forking out for an exorbitant hotel! 

The famous locations of Cannes and St Tropez are also a relatively short journey away from Nice. And if you fancy a day trip to somewhere a little low-key, the medieval hillside village of Eze is just 20 clicks from the Promenade des Anglais, accessible by a mountainous coastal road. It’s well worth a visit for the views alone! 

Marseille also has a number of interesting destinations in the vicinity. For fans of ancient history, there’s Nimes, which was once a main outpost of the Roman Empire and remains steeped in rich history. The city is home to a 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater, as well as Musee des Beaux-Arts de Nîmes, which showcases 3,000 pieces of art with dating back to its former Roman days. 

Another popular day trip from Marseille is Avignon, at just 30 minutes by train away. The Palais des Papes is its main attraction. This amazing building dates back to the 14th century, created when the Popes fled here from Rome. Oh, and let’s not forget about those incredible Calanques, a national reserve that promises days and days of exploring stunning coves filled with turquoise waters.

Winner: Probably Nice, because it’s the gateway to the more cultural and handsome part of the Cote d’Azur.

Marseille vs Nice: Nature

sunset in Nice
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If you’re a lover of outdoor pursuits, neither Nice nor Marseille will disappoint…

In Nice, you can do all sorts of outdoor activities. The huge Mercantour National Park, which is about an hour’s drive from the city center, is a prime location for hiking. If you’re more into your watersports, Nice offers many opportunities to go jet skiing, scuba diving, rafting, kayaking, paddleboarding, and kitesurfing. Just head to the beaches along the riviera where you can get stuck into that at any number of rental spots and outfitters.

Like Nice, the Marseille area has great opportunities for water sports, especially sailing, which hits a zenith in the Calanques park, a land of panoramic hikes and kayak tours in breathtaking landscapes. There are some great places to hike and camp in the stunning mountains of the various natural parks of the Provence region. If you’re into running or biking, hit the trails in Parc Borély, while Sainte-Baume has wild ridges and cascading forests filled with completely empty paths.

Winner: Probably Marseille because of its proximity to the reserves of greater Provence and the incredible Calanques.

Marseille vs Nice: Nightlife

french cocktail
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As a large and youthful city, Marseille has a great deal to offer when it comes to nightlife. The cool kids hang out around Cours Julien, a neighborhood with a great nightlife scene, featuring some of the most interesting bars and clubs in southern France. This part of the town is also home to a great variety of restaurants, promising hungry diners the chance to sample dishes from all around the world, but with a particular emphasis on North Africa and the Arab world. You should also check out the Old Port in the early evening, where yachters gather for drinks after a day at sea.

In Nice, the vibe is more swanky. Sleek restaurants and expensive clubs take the place of underground venues. The Negresco Hotel, for example, is a famous hangout for a mixed drink overlooking the promenade. Meanwhile, the likes of Ma Nolan’s, Beer District, and Le Marlin are great watering holes for a more laid back evening in Nice. Sunsets are best ushered in with a cold glass of French wine on the English Promenade. 

Winner: Marseille is the better destination for partying, but Nice has plenty of bars and restaurants for those who like to see through an evening in style.

Marseille vs Nice: Price

holding Euro banknotes
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Data from Budget Your Trip suggests that Marseille is a bit more expensive than Nice. Taking into account accommodation, food, transportation, and entertainment, the stats show that the average daily cost (per person) in Nice is €105, while the average daily cost in Marseille is €117. 

Breaking this down a little, it finds that the average price for accommodation for two people in Nice is €94, compared with €112 in Marseille. Meanwhile, for food, the average price per day is €39 per person in Nice compared with around €34 per day in Marseille for food, but, obviously, that’s all dependent on the type of restaurant and the amount of food ordered. 

However, stats don’t tell the whole story. It’s generally considered that Marseille is a more affordable destination than Nice. This is because it’s a larger city, with many areas that exist outside of the tourist circuit where you will find cheaper accommodation and places to eat. With all its private beach clubs, luxury hotels, and swanky restaurants, Nice certainly has more of the glitz and glamor that the South of France is famous for.

Winner: Go for Marseille if you want to save cash if you ask us.

Marseille vs Nice: Hotels

Old hotel sign
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Don’t worry – there’s nowhere on the Cote d’Azur that has a shortage of fantastic hotels. Let’s begin with Nice…

Nice is home to some of the most deluxe hotels on the French Med. Seriously – it’s only the A-list haunts of Villefranche-sur-Mer and St Tropez that really pip it to the post in terms of quality. However, you don’t have to be a Hollywood celeb to be able to visit this one. There are also urban apartments that get you close to the famous flower and food markets, and more midrange hotels that are clean, comfy, and relatively cheap. Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Hotel Le Negresco ($$$) – Palatial and stunning, the Hotel Le Negresco is an opulent spot perched on the hillside above the Promenade des Anglais. It’s got a private section of beach and dining rooms worthy of Louis XIV. Like something out of White Lotus!
  • Hotel Suisse ($$) – This is a primly located midrange hotel with four stars and rooms with views of the sea, all close to the historic core of Nice.
  • Hotel De La Mer ($-$$) – Simple, charming, but above all affordable suites on a gorgeous square in the midst of Old Nice.

The hotels in Marseille vary a lot depending on what part of the city you look to visit. On the outskirts, you can find charming Provencal villas with views of the coast. In the midst of the old port area and Le Panier (the main historic area), there are cozy aparthotels and boutique B&Bs. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Hotel C2 ($$$) – There’s been a whole lot of buzz about the Hotel C2 in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. This five-star palace on the Old Port fuses the old and the new in effortless style. It’s got minimalist rooms that flow into noir lobbies, along with spaces that hold regular musical and art shows.
  • Maison Juste ($$) – A wallet-friendly stay with a boho vibe, the Maison Juste is tucked into the streets south of the port. It channels a retro feel and opens onto a sunny deck space that’s a gift in the hot Mediterranean summer months.
  • NOCNOC – L’Haussmanien ($-$$) – A one-star apartment with a balcony that’s perfect for travelers who like their own space. Great location near Le Panier and the port. Stylish, functional interiors.

Winner: Neither. Both of these spots have a fantastic array of hotel options. 

Marseille vs Nice: For families

Views in Marseille
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There’s little doubt in our mind that Nice makes for a better family escape. It’s smaller, more chilled, generally safer according to the crime stats, and hosts a more mainstream array of family entertainment. Most notably, it’s right on the beach. You only need to walk across the boulevard of the Promenade des Anglais and you can be lazing on the pebbles of the Cote d’Azur. Back in the town center, the kids can be wowed by Roman ruins and bustling flower markets. And, if you rent a car, there are umpteen charming hill towns and other beach resorts to get through.

Marseille is actually one of the more crime-ridden cities in France, and it’s WAY bigger than Nice, so hardly ideal for a family. But incidents remain relatively rare here and there’s still plenty to be said for a visit to the city with the whole crew, especially if it’s just a day or two before breaking out to the lovely Provencal countryside. We’d recommend staying near the Old Port area, which is the most touristic district, and hitting the urban beaches south of the center, which are generally better for families.

Winner: Nice. 

The Conclusion

So… Marseille or Nice, which destination is better to visit? 

While geographically close together, Nice and Marseille are very different places. Nice offers tourists a more manicured experience of the south of France, complete with high-end fish restaurants, a well-maintained promenade, and private beach clubs. It’s got beautiful beaches, a fascinating art scene, and many natural areas to enjoy. Nice is also close to many other highlights of the Côte d’Azur, such as Monaco, Cannes, and St Tropez.

But, while Marseille can’t rival Nice in terms of its polished put-togetherness, it has a rustic charm that we’d say makes it the most interesting destination of the two cities. As the oldest city in the country, and also the most culturally diverse of the two spots, Marseille is alive with traditions old and new. Yes you have beaches and nice restaurants like everywhere else in the Côte d’Azur, but Marseille also offers visitors the opportunity to become acquainted with a multicultural side of France that you won’t see in Nice, Paris or Lyon.  

Reece Toth

Reece is the creator and editor of Travel Snippet. He has visited more than 38 countries over a 10-year period. His travels have taken him through the majestic mountains of Italy, into the cities of central Europe, across the islands of Indonesia, and to the beaches of Thailand, where he is currently living. He is passionate about travel and shares his expertise by providing the best travel tips and tricks to help you plan your next adventure.

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