In a nutshell: France's main Mediterranean port – a bit of an outsider, but a lot of fun.

Don't miss: The Vieux Port, Chateau D'If, La Plaine, Les Calanques

If Paris could be personified as a 19th century aristocrat in an elegant coat, and Lyon as a gourmet chef, then Marseille might well be a sailor on shore leave, looking for a spot of mischief. France's second biggest city and largest port is often seen as a different beast to its “more sophisticated” counterparts further north – and there is a modicum of truth to this. It can be a little rough at the edges; a place of comings and goings, where big boats and ferries pull into harbour on a daily basis, and the Mediterranean sun beats down hard. It lurks the best part of 500 miles from the capital – and it revels in this sense of distance.

But this also makes for a really intriguing place in which to spend a few days. You can eat well in any French city, but Marseille's location, peering south across the water towards Morocco and Algeria, means that you can find a discernible North African influence to its cuisine. Inevitably, you can dine well on seafood too, in the restaurants laced around the Vieux Port (Old Port) – the thick fish stew that is bouillabaisse originated in the city and is very much a specialty. There are plenty of bars for a drink too – particularly on Place Jean Jaures, the square colloquially known as “La Plaine”, where the evening runs on late.

Not that Marseille doesn't have its moments of beauty. Although it was built by Louis XIV (in 1660) as much to keep an eye on Marseille's rebellious citizens as protect them, the Fort Saint-Jean is as splendid a coastal stronghold as you could wish to see. Out in the bay beyond, on a lonely rock, Chateau D'If is just as dramatic – it once held political prisoners. And the Cathedral (Cathedrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure) is one of France's most beautiful, a vision in stripes of black and white stone – although it is arguably eclipsed by Notre-Dame de la Garde, a 19th century marvel which crowns a hilltop high above the harbour. The walk up to reach it is pretty steep – but the view is certainly worth the effort.

Marseille's seafront position means that it also offers urban beaches – such as Plage des Catalans in the heart of town, and Plage du Prophete and Plage du Prado a little further to the south. These tend to be busy on warm days, but there is always a cafè alongside for a beer or an ice cream. Of course, if you want to visit the shoreline, you are well advised to explore Les Calanques – the protected zone of limestone gorges and sharp-sided inlets which spreads out some nine miles from the centre. France has only 11 national parks – and, as of 2012, this is one of them. That an area so photogenic sits so close to so huge a city is incredible. You can reach the park easily by taxi, train or bus, hike for an hour or so – and be sitting on La Plaine, downing a tipple or two, before the sun has started to set.

Content supplied by the Telegraph’s travel expert Chris Leadbetter