Last updated on December 12, 2023 by Wandering our World
When most people plan a trip to France, they focus purely on Paris. But there are so many other fabulous French cities to see beyond the famous romantic capital, with Montpellier and Marseille being two terrific examples. Plus, both of these cities are situated in the southern part of the country, where the weather tends to be the warmest and sunniest.
They’re only a couple of hours apart by car or train, so it’s not too difficult to visit both Marseille and Montpellier on the same trip. However, you might not have enough time to do so, or you might simply want to decide on one particular city to focus on for your next visit. So, which one should you choose?
Should it be the rich port city of Marseille, well-known for its unique culture, dynamic Vieux-Port (Old Port) area, and mixture of modern and ancient landmarks? Or should you instead head to Montpellier, a smaller but arguably more romantic city, with decorative architecture and intriguing museums?
Well, it may not be easy to choose between these two terrific cities, but this guide is here to help. Below, you’ll find a detailed comparison of Montpellier and Marseille. We’ll dig into the key differences between them and the best activities and attractions each one has to offer. By the end, you’ll know exactly which city is right for you.
- A Quick Overview Of Montpellier vs Marseille
- Which Is Best For Activities?
- Which Is Best For Beaches?
- Which Is Best For Day Trips?
- Which Is Best For Nightlife?
- Which Is Best For Shopping?
- Which Is Best For Food?
- Which Is Best For Families?
- Which Is Best For Couples?
- Which Is Best For Backpackers?
- Which Is Cheapest?
- Where To Stay According To Your Budget
- Montpellier vs Marseille: Which Is Better?
A Quick Overview Of Montpellier vs Marseille
Montpellier: A Quick Overview
Montpellier is a city in southern France. It’s in the Occitania region and the Hérault department, not too far from the country’s Mediterranean coast. With an estimated population of close to 300,000 people, Montpellier ranks as the seventh-largest city in the country, just behind Nantes and just ahead of Strasbourg.
The history of Montpellier goes back several centuries, and it was quite a prosperous city during the Middle Ages, when it formed part of the Crown of Aragon. Many echoes of the past can still be seen in the city’s beautiful old buildings and scenic citadel. It’s also home to one of the world’s oldest universities, where famed astrologer Nostradamus once studied.
In more recent times, Montpellier has enjoyed major growth, with tens of thousands of people moving to this city since the year 2,000. It has been ranked as one of the leading cultural cities in Western Europe, finding favor with many for its wonderful climate, safe pedestrianized center, and thriving arts and entertainment scene.
Montpellier has also emerged as one of France’s best cities for tourists to visit, with its romantic and relaxing vibes appealing to couples, families, and solo travelers, too. It doesn’t attract the same big crowds as Paris or Nice, but is still a fabulous place to explore, with a range of interesting attractions, like museums, a zoo, an aquarium, gardens, and more.
Marseille: A Quick Overview
Marseille, also sometimes written like Marseilles, is a major French city on the country’s southern coast. It’s in the Bouches-du-Rhône department in the Provence region, looking out over the Mediterranean Sea, not far from the mouth of the Rhône river. With an estimated population of around 870,000 people, it’s the second-biggest city in France.
There’s a long and storied history to this city, dating back to its founding by Ancient Greek settlers in 600 BC. It quickly became a successful trading port, a status that has continued all the way into the modern era. It’s also notable for being France’s oldest city, as well as one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in all of Europe.
In the 19th century, in particular, Marseille experienced intense growth and development, becoming one of France’s leading industrial hubs. It’s also known for its distinctive culture, diversity, and cosmopolitan nature, almost feeling like its own mini country, separate from the rest of the France – even the locals are renowned for their unique accents and attitudes.
Marseille is also a major tourist hub, with a long list of famous landmarks to see, like the famous Old Part, the beautiful 17th century Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), La Vieille Charité cultural center, and Marseille Cathedral. Visitors to this city are also sure to enjoy the area’s delicious seafood and live entertainment, with everything from opera and hip hop to live sporting events.
Which Is Best For Activities?
One of the best things about big French cities is that they’re always packed full of things to do. From historical buildings and cobblestone alleys to intriguing museums and gorgeous gardens, you’re always sure to find fun ways to spend your time in this part of the world. But, to find out whether Marseille or Montpellier is best for you, let’s look at the top activities in each city.
Montpellier: The Activities
No visit to Montpellier can be complete without a tour of the famed Old Town or L’Écusson district. Stretching from Promenade de Peyrou to the Place de la Comédie, this is where you’ll find all of the city’s most beautiful old buildings and winding, narrow streets, with many well-preserved structures dating back to the 17th century.
The aforementioned Place de la Comédie is also worth checking out. It’s one of Montpellier’s liveliest spots, joining the older center with the city’s more modern districts. There are lots of bars, cafes, and shops here, along with an iconic fountain, known as the Three Graces, and lots of charming neoclassical buildings.
To learn more about the city’s past, make sure you also stop off at key landmarks like the Montpellier Cathedral and Arc de Triomphe-style Porte du Peyrou. There are also multiple museums to explore, like the Fabre, with its massive collection of artworks, including paintings and sculptures by some of Europe’s great masters, including Rubens and Renoir.
Given that the weather is often warm in Montpellier, you might also like to take in some of the city’s outdoor attractions, like the Montpellier Zoological Park or the Pic Saint-Loup – a mountainous landscape just a short drive south of the city, boasting hiking trails, vineyards, and beautiful scenery to drive around and admire.
Marseille: The Activities
While Montpellier has its L’Écusson, Marseile has its Vieux-Port. The Old Port is one of the most impressive parts of the city. This place has been a trading center for centuries, and it’s still filled with fishing boats and yachts that come and go throughout the day. The port is also surrounded by lovely old buildings, the perfect place to sit and relax with a cup of coffee or glass of wine.
But that’s not all Marseille has to offer for history lovers. It also has “Le Panier” Old Quarter, where the first foundations of the city were laid back in 600 BC. Now a thriving multicultural space, this area is awesome to explore, with colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, and a myriad of old churches and famous landmarks from the past
And when it comes to landmarks, Marseille can rival the very best European cities. It’s got a gorgeous cathedral, multiple castles, decorative churches, an abbey, crypts, and more. Then, there are the museums, like MuCEM, which charts the history of European civilization and Mediterranean culture, or the Musée D’Histoire, with its fascinating artifacts and exhibits.
Prefer green spaces and outdoor recreation? If so, check out the Parc Borély. Made up of multiple gardens in the classic English and French styles, this is an idyllic spot for a romantic afternoon. Or, if you’re eager for live entertainment, check out Marseille’s many venues or book a ticket for a soccer match of Olympique Marseille, one of France’s most decorated teams.
Overall, both cities have plenty to offer, especially in terms of history and wonderful architecture. But, of the two, you’ll find more to fill your days in Marseille, with a wider range of activities and attractions for every kind of traveler.
Which Is Best For Beaches?
If you’re heading to the sunny south of France, it’s likely that you’ll want to spend at least a little time on the beach. And, with Marseille right on the coast and Montpellier only a short drive away, both of these cities can work well for beach activities, like sunbathing and swimming.
Marseille has the benefit of being much closer to the coast, with some sands only a walk or quick bus ride away, like the man-made Plage du Prado, which offers lots of space for fun and games. The Plage Bonneveine is another must-see, with a charming promenade and decent kayaking opportunities. For something more natural and scenic, try the Plage de la Grande Mer.
Montpellier doesn’t have any beaches of its own, but you can buses or trains out of the city to pristine sandy stretches, like the Plage de L’Espiguette, which runs on for several miles and has its own 19th century lighthouse, or the volcanic black sands of La Grande Conque. The Plage du Petit Travers is also worth checking out, with a romantic atmosphere and relaxing views.
Overall, neither city is exactly perfect for beach-going, but both of them have decent strips of sand and sea not too far away. Of the two, Marseille is more convenient, but Montpellier’s nearby beaches are bigger and more impressive.
Which Is Best For Day Trips?
Clearly, there’s lots to enjoy in both Marseille and Montpellier. But, if you’re planning to spend a week or two in the area, you might like to take a day out to see another French town or city and explore more of the surrounding regions. So, which of these two cities has the best day trip opportunities?
Well, if you’re based in Montpellier, there are some super spots to visit, not too far away. You could head to the luxury coastal resort of Sète, with its tranquil lagoon waters, or even to historic Perpignan, a prime spot for couples. Alternatively, head inland and explore the old citadel of Carcassonne or even hop on a train to the so-called “Pink City” of Toulouse.
Marseille also has some spectacular day trip options. Nature lovers can head to any of the surrounding natural parks, like Luberon or Camarge. History buffs, meanwhile, can visit the fairy tale-style city of Avignon or the scenic student city of Aix-en-Provence. There are also plenty of sunny port cities if you head east along the coast, like Toulon and Saint Tropez.
Overall, there’s no clear winner in this battle. Both Marseille and Montpellier are surrounded by awesome places to see, which simply goes to show how rich France is in terms of fabulous towns, cities, and natural spaces.
Which Is Best For Nightlife?
There’s more than enough to fill your days in Monptellier and Marseille. But, if you’re the kind of traveler who likes to stay out late, you’ll also want to know all about the nightlife scenes of these two cities. So, which one is livelier once the sun has set, with a greater range of dance clubs, bars, and evening entertainment venues?
Well, when it comes to nighttime entertainment, Marseille is right up there alongside Paris as one of France’s premier party hubs. It’s got dozens of world-famous clubs and entertainment venues, many of which allow people to party out in the open air at the beach or in a rooftop bar. In short, it’s a dream destination for those who love music and dance.
In contrast, Montpellier’s nightlife scene is a little more subdued, not quite as exciting and vibrant after-dark as Marseille tends to be. With that said, there’s still a sizable student population in Montpellier, so the city has an ever-expanding array of bars and clubs to keep young people entertained.
Overall, you can have fun in either city in the evenings, but Marseille is definitely the livelier of the two.
Which Is Best For Shopping?
It doesn’t matter which city you visit, shopping is always one of the best ways to spend some time in France. This is the home of world-class fashion, jewelry, homeware, and more, so plenty of visitors will want to spend at least a few hours browsing the local boutiques and markets. But which city is best to shop in between Montpellier and Marseille?
Well, Montpellier is a fine city to shop in. L’Écusson is home to many big brand boutiques and charming indie stores, while mall-lovers can hit up the massive Odysseum, which also has its own movie theater and family attractions. There are also some super markets in Montpellier, like the Marché du Lez, where you can buy a dizzying array of art and craft treasures.
Not to be outdone, Marseille is also a fantastic shopping hub. The Old Port is where you’ll find lots of markets and souvenir stores, while the Rue Saint-Férréol (or St Fé to locals) is lined with jewelry stores and fashion brands. There are many other shopping streets crisscrossing across Marseille, like the luxury boutiques of Rue Paradis and the cozy stores of Rue de Rome.
Overall, both cities are decent for shopping, but Marseille, with its bigger size and population, is the best. It has more stores, more markets, and more options for all the shopaholics out there.
Which Is Best For Food?
France is famed around the globe for its exceptional cuisine, giving the world some of its tastiest dishes and most delectable ingredients. Whether you’re into fine wine, flavorful cheeses, rich stews, or scrumptious seafood, you’re guaranteed to eat well in pretty much any French city. But which is the best place to eat – Montpellier or Marseille?
First, Marseille. And when it comes to food, few places in all of France can even come close to this city. Indeed, people come from far and wide to sample Marseille’s iconic seafood and traditional dishes, like the bouillabaisse fish stew. Marseille also has fantastic pizza, and a great mix of other culinary styles mixing French, Mediterranean, and African influences.
Montpellier’s restaurant scene isn’t bad, either. There are some interesting traditional dishes to try, like the clapassade, with its sweet and spicy blend of lamb and olives. You’ll also find plenty of budget burger bars and street food spots across Montpellier, catering to the city’s students – thanks to this, it’s pretty easy to find good food at cheap prices.
Overall, Marseille wins in the food department, but you’re sure to eat well in either city, or anywhere else in France, for that matter.
Which Is Best For Families?
Planning a trip to France as a family? If so, Montpellier and Marseille are both decent cities to consider. They both have wonderfully warm and sunny weather for large parts of the year, as well as boasting interesting attractions and historic landmarks to admire. But which one is the better option for the average family?
If you choose Montpellier, you’ll find a surprising mix of activities. Kids can have fun exploring the old historic center and seeing the fountains, squares, and landmarks that make up this city’s story. They’re also sure to appreciate Montpellier’s zoo and aquarium, while the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle is a nice place for family walks and play time.
Meanwhile, if you opt for Marseille, there are also plenty of activities for the average family, like touring the Old Port, roaming the ancient alleys, visiting landmarks like Marseille Cathedral, or having a picnic in Parc Borély. There are also some fun family-oriented attractions, like the Ecopark Adventures zip line and canopy tour park or the Le Bois des Lutins adventure park.
Overall, both cities can work equally well for families, but Marseille may have a slight edge, thanks to its bigger selection of activities.
Which Is Best For Couples?
French cities like Marseille and Montpellier are always popular with couples, too. France is one of the most romantic countries in the world, after all, with dozens of idyllic settings for date nights and honeymoon moments. So, if you’re planning a city break with someone special, which destination should you choose?
Well, if you and your partner prefer a quieter, calmer place for your city breaks and romantic getaways, Montpellier’s the place to go. It’s much smaller and less noisy compared to Marseille, and there are lots of beautiful buildings and romantic cobblestone alleyways to stroll along, hand-in-hand with your special someone.
Marseille is bigger, bolder, and busier. Because of that, it may not seem as quaint or romantic, but it’s still a fabulous place for couples’ breaks, with such a lot to see and do. If you’re looking for an action-packed escape with dozens of different attractions, famous historic monuments, and intriguing museums, this is the city to pick.
Overall, it depends on what you’re looking for. For peaceful romance, head to Montpellier. For more excitement, as well as superior shopping and dining, opt for Marseille.
Which Is Best For Backpackers?
Along with families and couples, backpackers can also have a terrific time in Montpellier or Marseille. Either one of these cities can be a fine place to base yourself for exploring the south of France and embracing all that this wonderful part of the world has to offer.
If you’re a young backpacker, you’ll most likely prefer Montpellier. Since the city has such a big student population, it’s a prime place to mingle with the locals, with those in the 18-30 age bracket feeling right at home. It’s also the cheaper of the two cities, which will certainly appeal to those on tight budgets.
Marseille, meanwhile, may cost a little more, but also has more to offer. With museums, chateaus, the port, the old center, and all the live entertainment, it’s a fantastic place for backpackers of any age to explore. Plus, the people here are renowned for being some of the most down-to-earth in all of France, always eager to greet new arrivals with warmth and kindness.
Overall, once again, it depends on what kind of experience you’re seeking. For low-budget adventures and a youthful population, pick Montpellier. For more engaging attractions and activities, plan a trip to Marseille.
Which Is Cheaper?
It’s always important to consider the cost when selecting a vacation destination, even when you’re picking between two cities in the same region, as prices can vary quite a lot from one place to the next.
That’s certainly true for Montpellier and Marseille, with the former being notably cheaper than the latter. From accommodation to food, you’ll find that most things cost less in Montpellier, making it easier to plan a budget-friendly stay. However, since Marseille is so big, you can still find some low-priced hotels and restaurants, as long as you take the time to shop around.
Where To Stay According To Your Budget
Budget: Campanile Montpellier Ouest – Croix D’Argent is a modern retreat radiating warmth. The exterior’s contemporary lines harmonize with lush greenery, welcoming guests to an inviting haven. Inside, sleek interiors and thoughtful design create an atmosphere of comfort and style, transforming every stay into a delightful experience of modern beauty.
Luxury: Hôtel Richer De Belleval in Montpellier is a tapestry of sophistication. Nestled in historic grandeur, the architecture whispers of a bygone era. Opulent interiors blend seamlessly with ornate details, creating a haven of timeless beauty. Each room exudes a refined charm, enveloping guests in an ambiance of luxurious elegance.
Budget: Maisons du Monde Hôtel & Suites in Marseille Vieux Port is a symphony of elegance. Chic decor graces every corner, melding contemporary design with Mediterranean charm. Expansive windows frame breathtaking harbor views, while luxurious furnishings and artistic touches create a haven of refined beauty, elevating the guest experience to unparalleled sophistication.
Luxury: Le Petit Nice – Passedat in Marseille is a sensory marvel. Perched on the Mediterranean, this culinary sanctuary unfolds in panoramic glory. The azure sea serves as a backdrop to the Michelin-starred restaurant, where refined elegance merges with nature’s beauty, offering an exquisite experience of haute cuisine amidst breathtaking coastal allure.
Montpellier vs Marseille: Which Is Better?
Overall, there can be no doubt that Montpellier and Marseille are two of the best cities to visit in all of France, and particularly in the country’s southern section. They both enjoy lovely weather conditions, fantastic food, great shopping opportunities, and interesting attractions to keep you entertained. But, if you can only visit one, which should it be?
Well, if we look back across our comparison, one city emerges as the winner more often than not: Marseille. Marseille has a greater number of attractions, better museums, livelier nightlife, and even superior food. It wins in most of the key categories, making it the perfect place to stay if you’re planning to enjoy a getaway in France’s sunny south.
With that said, you shouldn’t simply rule out Montpellier right away. It may not have quite as many famous landmarks as Marseille, as it does fall short in a couple of areas, but it’s still a terrific place, with its own unique charms. Plus, it doesn’t get tourists in the same big numbers as Marseille, making it feel a little calmer and more authentic, as well as being much cheaper!