Dubbed ‘la ville rose’ (the Pink City) thanks to its brickwork and terracotta roof tiles, France’s fourth-largest city is dynamic and beautiful, but very relaxed, making it the perfect place for a weekend away.
TEXT: KATIE TURNER | MAIN PHOTO: PLACE DU CAPITOLE © MATTHIEU KRIEGER
Between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, on the Canal du Midi, Toulouse grew rich through trade, coming into its own in the 15th century, when it cornered the market in blue dye known as ‘pastel’. Many of the grand houses in the city centre were built with riches from the industry, which dried up when merchants began to import indigo from India and the New World.
Aeroscopia. Photo © Jesus Abizanda
Today, it’s the centre of the European aviation and space industry, home to numerous French start-ups, a world class rugby team and more than 100,000 students. But the city retains a laid-back feel and the ‘quart d’heure toulousain’ (the Toulouse quarter of an hour) means if you’ve arranged to meet someone, they certainly won’t hold it against you for being late! So just go with the flow.
Aeroplanes, history and the taste of Toulouse
For aviation geeks, landing in Toulouse is, quite literally, the beginning of the experience. Chances are you’ll be flying in on an Airbus, which are designed and made here. Book ahead for a tour of the assembly line, then move on to Aeroscopia, which chronicles the rich history of aviation in south-west France, as well as having nearly 30 aircraft on site.
Basilica of Saint-Sernin. Photo © Atout France-Franck Charel
If you’re not crazy about planes, get your walking shoes on. Start at the Basilica of St Sernin, which is the largest Romanesque church in France and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s been welcoming pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostella since the 11th century.
Meander to the peaceful Couvent des Jacobins, a stone’s throw from the banks of the Garonne River. Round the corner, you’ll find the Place du Capitole, and you can head into the town hall to gaze up at the history of Toulouse on the ceiling in the Salle des Illustres.
Food and drink are a serious business: kids here are raised on the eponymous ‘saucisse de Toulouse’. It’s also the home of foie gras, cassoulet and confit de canard.
Garonne River. Photo © Florian Calas
If you want Michelin stars, Michel Sarran is one of France’s best-known chefs and won’t disappoint. More down-to-earth and with a lovely view of Toulouse’s cathedral, is Le Philibert (5 rue Riguepels), where the menu is short, sweet and seasonal.
For wine, it has to be Au Pere Louis for a trip back in time. For a digestif, L’Heure du Singe offers inventive cocktails and cool tunes into the early hours.
Busy markets and tranquil gardens
No visit to France would be complete without a trip to the market. On Sundays, locals head for the stalls around the imposing church on the Place St Aubin. It’s the ideal place for coffee and a pastry, though just remember down here it’s not called a ‘pain au chocolat’, it’s a ‘chocolatine’! Grab what you fancy and settle into a café to people-watch.
Move on for lunch to the covered Marché Victor Hugo. For light bites and seafood, stay downstairs, where you can buy food direct from producers and enjoy it with a glass of wine from one of the bars. For hearty, meat-based French food, look no further than the Louch’Bem upstairs. It is not possible to make reservations and you’ll be jostling for a seat, but it’s worth it.
Relaxing on the banks of the Garonne. Photo © Robin Alves
To walk off some of that lunch, come off the main drag and into the cobbled streets, a 20 minute walk will take you through Place Wilson, Place St Georges and Place St Etienne, bringing you out at the glorious Jardin des Plantes.
This pretty park houses the Natural History Museum and the Quai des Savoirs (The Quay of Knowledge), which has STEM-based exhibitions, as well as a fabulous interactive space for children up to the age of 7. Both also have cafes with a great selection of cakes. Cross the footbridge into the Grand Rond to see dancers at the bandstand, or locals getting competitive over a game of pétanque.
There’s plenty more to see and do, but your time is up! If you’ve travelled light, take the tram you see in the distance at the main gate of the Jardin des Plantes, and you’ll be in the queue at check-in in just over half an hour.
Cloisters in the Couvent des Jacobins. Photo © Patrice Thebault
Need to know
British Airways, Easyjet and Ryanair all fly to Toulouse from several UK airports. The easiest and cheapest (€1.70) way to get into the city from there is by tram.
Trains and buses bring you into the city from across France. The walk into the centre is short and flat.
There’s pressure on accommodation in Toulouse, and it can be pricey.
In the mid-range, the Hotel des Beaux Artshas 18 rooms, each decorated on a different theme. It’s next to the Pont Neuf on the banks of the Garonne, a ten-minute walk from the Capitole.
If you’re on a tight budget, staying further out but close to the tram line means you’ll get more for your money with easy access to the city centre.
Marché Victor Hugo. Photo © Agence PGO