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Marseilles’s Vieux Port is a lively mix of chic restaurants, such as Le Solaris, and old-school fishmongers.François-Xavier Prévot

In every trip is a moment when you say to yourself, "I've arrived." It could be that rush of humidity as you deplane in the tropics, or when you see the Pyramids peeking over Cairo rooftops.

In Marseilles, that moment happened while enjoying lunch at Chez Etienne, a popular neighbourhood restaurant in the Vieux Panier quarter. Halfway through a very rare steak, my server, a leathered woman in her late 40s, noticed that I had not eaten the bread slices that were served with my meal. In one swoop she grabbed them out of the basket with her bare hands and launched them into the basket of the table next to me, which had run out. Nobody flinched.

During the meal, servers yelled back and forth, cats wandered in and out and a dog sat dutifully on the chair next to his owner waiting to be cut small slices of entrecôte – just in case I forgot I was in France. When I fumbled my order the waitress threw up her hands and walked away.

Marseilles has long had a bad reputation. It is France's grittiest, most multicultural city, just a small step away from the chaos of North Africa's bustling capitals. It is a fascinating microcosm of the Mediterranean, having been established by the ancient Greeks and later settled by everyone from the Romans to the Visigoths and finally the French. Now it is a city that contains every race, creed and colour stemming from one end of the great sea to the other. But the city is mostly overlooked by visitors to France, who are warned of rampant crime.

That mauvaise réputation could change this year. Marseilles is a 2013 European Capital of Culture, a title given annually by the European Union to promote arts and culture in two cities on the continent. The award is usually followed by a giant capital injection to spruce things up and attract attention. And that's exactly what is happening: It's estimated that nearly €1-billion ($1.3-billion) has been invested. When I visited recently, construction was under way throughout the downtown core – on new museums, extensions to old ones and a refurbishment of the Vieux Port. There, the crowning achievement is the Norman Foster-designed Ombrière, a massive stainless-steel structure that reflects images of people walking beneath. As well, 400 cultural events are planned for the city and its surrounding region. If Marseilles ever has a chance to shed its notoriety, it's now.

I arrived here one evening from Bordeaux, a patrician city with leafy streets and quaint alleys that lead to well-tended squares – a sharp contrast from Marseille's visible grit. I had low expectations, but was quickly heartened by the view from the Saint-Charles train station – a sweeping panorama of the city and its hills.

After checking into my hotel, I ventured into the city's hectic streets in search of a snack and a glass of Marseilles's famed pastis, an anise-flavoured spirit. It was Friday and the port was buzzing. On the pretty pedestrian Cours Honoré-d'Estienne-d'Orves, tables spilled out onto the streets and rosé seemed to be the drink of choice. I skipped what appeared to be touristy venues for L'Unic, a surprisingly lovely dive bar. A glass of pastis was only a couple euros and served with a few ice cubes. I took a seat alone on the patio and was mocked by guys at the next table for being an apparent social outcast. Just as I began to rethink my plans, my abusers invited me over for a drink. We toasted with another glass of pastis, then another.

With an aching head from the unpredictably powerful spirit, the next morning I hobbled to the artist quarter Cours Julien, a square full of cafés, bars, galleries and cozy lunch spots. I stopped at Oogie, a hybrid café, hair salon and boutique, for an espresso before heading down the street to renowned soap maker La Licorne in search of a gift for my mother.

Lunch was at La Boîte à Sardine, a fishmonger and restaurant near the Canebière, Marseilles's main artery; it's not fancy but serves the freshest fish in the city. Ignorance about seasonal seafood is met with typical French disdain. When I asked my waiter about sea urchin, he shook his head in disbelief. "Not the season for that." Instead, I had pasta with cuttlefish ink and a plate of the best oysters I've ever slurped. When I asked for the bill, the waiter once again looked at me in disbelief. "Are you going somewhere important?" he asked.

Marseilles's facelift hasn't changed its oldest and most picturesque neighbourhood, Vieux Panier. With labyrinthine streets and pastel houses, it is still a place where locals live and work and a reminder that the Mediterranean is only steps away. Laundry flutters on lines hung across narrow streets and parents scolding their children can be heard through wooden shutters. Days are consumed with long lunches in cobblestone courtyards.

Nearby, just over a hill, I found the Museum of Civilizations from Europe and the Mediterranean (Mucem) under construction next to the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean. The hulking yet beautiful museum, designed by provocative Algerian-born French architect Rude Ricciotti, is set to open in May at the mouth of the old port. Many believe it will become the city's architectural masterpiece. The first museum in the world dedicated to the Mediterranean and its culture, it is a fitting symbol for Marseille: a city steeped in history, with a chance to change its future.


Getting There

The cheapest way to get to Marseilles is via Paris by TGV high-speed train. There are numerous direct flights from Paris every day on Air France. Budget airline EasyJet also flies to Marseilles from London's Gatwick airport for less than $100 if booked early.

What to see

Musée des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCem) The new space will opens its door in May and will be the first to focus exclusively on the great sea. The site will also encompass Fort Saint-Jean, built in 1660 under Louis XIV. Promenade Louis Brauquier;

Vieux-Port The city's old port has received a massive refurbishment into a pedestrian-friendly area in recent months, including the Ombrière, a polished-steel pavilion by architect Norman Foster. Although it is spruced up, morning fishmongers still keep visitors entertained.

Notre-Dame de la Garde

Anywhere you go in the city you can see Marseilles's bonne mére watching over. The sumptuous interior of the church is worth a visit. Rue Fort du Sanctuaire;

Villa Méditerranée A new exhibition space opening mid-April next to MuCem hosting Mediterranean-themed exhibits and talks. Esplanade du J4;

Where to stay

Au Vieux Panier A boutique hotel in the heart of the city's oldest neighbourhood. The rooms are relatively small, but the area is quaint. Rooms start at €90 ($120) a night. 13 Rue du Panier;

Where to eat

Chez Etienne One of Marseilles's most famous restaurants is unpretentious and delicious, serving pizza along with perfect rib-eye steaks. 43 Rue de Lorette

La Boîte à Sardine A fishmonger and restaurant that serves fish and shellfish lunches to a business crowd. 7 Boulevard de la Libération;

Oogie A so-called lifestyle boutique that serves coffee and food along with haircuts and clothes. 55 Cours Julien;

L'Unic Marseilles's pre-eminent dive bar, which pours some of the cheapest pastis in town. 11 Cours Jean Ballard