Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is a lavish 19th-century icon that's visible from across Marseille. It sits on the remains of a 12th-century chapel and a 16th-century fort. The structure has been used as both a place of worship and a part of the city's defenses. Today, locals come to the basilica to pray for or give thanks for safe journeys and recovery from illness.

The basilica's splendid setting draws visitors for its breathtaking views as much as for its opulent interior. It's the focus of many of Marseille's major celebrations, as well as an excellent spot to watch the fireworks on Bastille Day. At the very top of the building is the golden statue of the Virgin Mary, La Bonne Mère. It's said to guard over the city.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille - one of the highlights of 9 Best Things to Do for Couples in Marseille and 10 Things to Do in Marseille on a Small Budget (Read all about Marseille here)

A brief history of Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

Garde Hill has been used as a lookout point in Marseille for centuries. It’s also a place of pilgrimage for sailors who would pray for safe passage at the 12th-century chapel. During the 16th century, a fort was erected on the orders of King François I to defend the city from Spanish invaders. The Château d'If was built around the same time.

The first stone of the current basilica was laid in 1853. It is built on the fort's foundations, and you can still see King François' symbol, a salamander, carved above the north door. The architecture takes inspiration from Byzantine churches, with a striped exterior formed from red and white stone, ornate domes and extensive mosaics covering the interior.

What are the highlights and features of Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde?

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde's most striking feature is the colossal statue of Mary and Jesus at the top of the bell tower, which is made of gilded copper and stands 11 meters tall. Everything about the church reflects Marseille's close relationship with the sea, from murals of boats and sailors to model boats hanging from the ceiling. Visit the basilica’s onsite museum to learn about the hill's long history as a destination for pilgrims.

Inside Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, you’ll see extravagantly decorated bronze entrance doors, a statue of the Madonna in silver, and votive offerings covering the walls. Many stones are engraved with people's grateful messages for Mary's help through storms, bad health, or exams. The terraces which surround the church give a 360-degree view of the city, with telescopes set up at key viewpoints.

Good to know about Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is around 2 km north of central Marseille. The walk up the hill is very steep, so it's easier to catch bus 60 from around the Vieux Port. Alternately, take a tour on the tourist train, Le Petit Train Touristique, which stops at the basilica for 20 minutes. Tour groups mostly arrive in the middle of the day, so you can avoid the crowds by coming first thing in the morning or late afternoon.

Opening hours can vary during vacations and religious festivals. The basilica is still a working church, so expect daily religious services. An onsite restaurant, L'eau Vive, offers a good selection of simple French food, snacks and ice cream. You can also find a small gift shop selling religious statues, medallions, crosses, and other paraphernalia, as well as Marseille-themed souvenirs.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille

Location: Rue Fort du Sanctuaire, 13281 Marseille, France

Open: Daily from 7 am to 6.15 pm

Phone: +33 (0)4 91 13 40 80

Victoria Hughes | Contributing Writer