What are Marseille's must-see forts?

Are you on vacation in Marseille and want to discover the city’s must-see forts? France’s second-largest city has had urban fortifications since antiquity. On either side of the riverbank, the Vieux-Port is bordered by a fort, on one side the fort Saint-Jean, on the other the fort Saint-Nicolas. Let’s take a closer look at these two historic Provençal constructions built opposite the Phocaean city.

Fort Saint-Jean and Fort Saint-Nicolas.

Fort Saint-Jean

Fort Saint-Jean is positioned on the right when facing the Vieux-Port. It belongs to a military complex inseparable from Marseille’s history. Ancient commandery of the Hospitaliers de Saint-Jean, it served as the departure point for the troups to Jerusalem during the crusades of the 12th century. A chapel, church, hospital and palace made up the commandery, which was completed in 1365. The King René wished to build a large square tower – built between 1447 and 1453 – to protect the port more effectively. It wasn’t until in the middle of the 17th century that the round tower that characterizes the fort was put in place.

In 1664, shipowners considered fortifying the site by adding a watchtower visible 20 kilometers from Marseille’s roadstead in order to facilitate the task of trading ships. On the orders of Louis XIV, Fort Saint-Jean was built between 1668 and 1671 following the expulsion of the Hospitaliers. After a rebellion by the Marseillais, it is isolated from the rest of the city by the digging of a moat by Vauban, French engineer and architect. Until the French Revolution, the complex retained a military vocation before being transformed into a state prison. During the Second World War, the fort, which served as an ammunition depot for the Germans, was severely damaged by an accidental explosion.

Facing Fort Saint-Nicolas, Fort Saint-Jean is now one of Marseille’s most visited monuments by tourists and locals alike, who like to stroll there to enjoy an enchanted perspective on the port and harbor. Nowadays, the fort is a cultural venue where exhibitions and audiovisual shows are presented. It is linked to the vast space dedicated to the Mucem, France’s first major museum dedicated to the Mediterranean, and to the Church of Saint-Laurent, by footbridges.

Address:Promenade Louis Brauquier – 13002 Marseille

Fort Saint-Nicolas

Located on the left when facing Marseille’s Vieux-Port and in the immediate vicinity of the Pharo garden, Fort Saint-Nicolas was initially used to protect itself primarily from the Marseilles population and their rebellious spirit, and less so from foreign invasions. It was in 1660, following a succession of political demonstrations and revolts, that Louis XIV ordered the building of Fort Saint-Nicolas to ensure the protection of Marseille’s roadstead against an attack from the sea. The construction was also a way for the Sun King to control a city that had long been hostile to him.

The current location, near Saint-Victor Abbey, was then chosen and work began on March 2, 1660 during the King’s visit to the construction site. Only four years were needed to build the edifice, which is considered a true record in view of the scale of the project.


At the time of the French Revolution, a crowd of revolutionaries distrust the citadel, which they perceive as aphysical and symbolic threat, and decide to destroy it. However, the Assemblée Nationale, anxious to preserve a work for the defense of the city, demands that demolition of the fortress be halted by decree. It wasn’t until 1834 that the citadel was restored, using gray stones that contrasted with the pink tones of those originally used. In 1860, Fort Saint-Nicolas was divided into two parts via the layout of the new Boulevard Charles Livon.

Today, the fort still features two portions: the one on the seaward side is called Fort Ganteaume and houses the military circle and officers’ mess, and the part on the landward side, the high fort, is called Fort d’Entrecasteaux, named after a French navigator. Only one section of the complex is open to the public and can be visited. Visitors can thus climb onto the ramparts of the fort, classified as a historic monument in 1969, to admire a splendid view over the port and the city of Marseille.

If you’d like to visit Fort Saint-Nicolas, please don’t hesitate to contact the Marseille Tourist Office, Leisure and Convention Bureau, who will be able to advise you on possible tours.

Address:2 Boulevard Charles Livon – 13007 Marseille