Arriving in Marseille, southern France, from the air is an awe-inspiring experience. As you sweep over scenic mountains on one side and crystal blue sea on the other, you can understand why the Phoenicians chose to stay in 600BC.
Once I land, the exhilaration continues: I take a motorbike taxi into town. "It's much quicker and convenient," says my chauffeur-to-be, Didier. I am not convinced but am won over by his warm smile and massive Honda Goldwing 1800, which looks unbreakable.
It turns out to be a surprisingly comfortable ride. As we speed along the motorway, I marvel at the bright blue sky and mountainous landscape in the distance. Didier tells me (via our nifty in-built helmet microphones) that temperatures in Marseille are mild for most of the year and sunny and hot for months. This is the sun-kissed Mediterranean at its most alluring.
Marseille may be France's oldest and second-largest city, a thriving centre for music and theatre (it has the highest number of theatres per capita in the country) and one of the world's great multicultural cities, but in recent years it has been in the press much more often for its gang- and drug-related crimes and financial corruption.
Now, a year of exhibitions and events to mark the city's status as European Cultural Capital in 2013, and a slew of fascinating museum openings and major construction and infrastructure projects being completed, means the city's shady reputation looks poised to change. From a waterfront facelift to the pedestrianisation (by British architect Norman Foster) of parts of the old port, from the refurbishment of old industrial buildings to the construction of dazzling new ones, Marseille has spruced itself up without losing its gritty port charm.
One of the most exciting upcoming projects is the new MuCEM (Museum of Civilisations from Europe and the Mediterranean), located at the end of a disused pier in the seafront area known as J4. Designed by French architect Rudy Ricciotti, it is a low-slung building encased in panels of delicate concrete lattice work and connected to a 17th-century fort by a remarkable 135-metre long, slim concrete footbridge. The fort, which has been renovated and will also open to the public for the first time, is connected by another footbridge to the city. The MuCEM opens in April 2013 with an exhibition on the Mediterranean dream between the 18th and 19th centuries.
Next door to the MuCEM is the dramatic symmetrical C-shaped Villa Méditerranée, designed by Stefano Boeri. As of April it will host exhibitions, concerts and lectures about Mediterranean culture and will feature an underwater space. A bit further up is the FRAC (Regional Contemporary Art Fund) museum for contemporary art, designed by Japanese "archistar" Kengo Kuma and opening next month. Another new waterfront venue, J1, is the last of four hangars remaining on the city's docks, with head-on views of the port. It's an international ferry terminal at quay level and a striking 8,000-square-metre arts centre replete with cafe, shop and performance spaces upstairs.
Further afield, in the northeast of the city, is another industrial building to be renovated. An ex-tobacco factory, La Friche La Belle de Mai has been an eclectic community art and cultural space since 1991 but has carried out further renovation work just in time for the celebrations. It now offers 2,400 square metres of exhibition space and panoramic views over the city from its giant terraces. Its shabby chic restaurant, Les Grandes Tables de la Friche, serves tasty soups, grilled meats and salads.
The first exhibition for the Cultural Capital of Europe Marseille-Provence 2013 (MP13) programme of 40 events and 60 exhibitions is entitled Ici, Ailleurs and runs until March 31 at La Friche La Belle de Mai. It's a thought-provoking collection of works by 30 Marseille-based immigrant artists that explore themes of belonging and alienation.
Marseille is crammed with historic monuments in its hilly centre, including the beautifully restored former almshouses of the Centre de la Vieille Charité. The classical 17th-century complex was designed by the official architect to Louis XIV, Pierre Puget. Until April 14 it is showing a collection of black and white photographs of Greek and Roman archaeological sites taken over 21 years in 19 Mediterranean countries by Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka.
Lastly, though not strictly part of the MP13, look out for the opening of an intriguing new art space by Marseille-born and world-renowned architect and designer Ora-ïto, on the terrace of Le Corbusier's famous Cité Radieuse complex built in 1952. Called the MAMO - Marseille Modulor, in tribute to Le Corbusier's proportioning system, and a nod to New York's famous museum, MoMA - its first show will be a collection of site-specific pieces by French artist Xavier Veilhan that will have the sky, sea and the bustling city as a backdrop.
Le Corbusier, one of Marseille's most famous sons, will be celebrated, too: a retrospective of his work will be held at J1 from October 2013 to January 2014.