Among the many things to see in Toulouse, we wanted to choose 10 reasons why you should spend a weekend in this beautiful French city.
Toulouse is perhaps best known as an Erasmus destination in the South of France. We can understand why so many students want to be here, too! The fourth largest city in France has so many bars, cafés and plazas, as well as a history that dates back to the Romans and Visigoths. The capital of the Midi-Pyrenees region also offers delicious gastronomy, local markets, art museums, architecture and a space museum that is sure to spark your interest. If you only have a few days to explore Toulouse, here are our top 10 recommendations to make the most of your time.
The Basilica of Saint Sernin
The Basilica of Saint Sernin dates back to the fourth century. Well, that’s technically not true, but in the fourth century there was already a little basilica that contained the remains of Saint Sernin who was the first bishop of Toulouse in the year 250. The story of how he became a saint is well known in Toulouse (and Pamplona, where Saint Sernin is also the city’s patron saint).
As the story goes, one day the good bishop decided to take a walk. It turned out to be an ill fated idea because he came upon a group of non-Christians who were about to sacrifice a bull. When they caught sight of the bishop, these non-Christians got the bright idea to tie Sernin to the tail of the bull. When they did, the bull took off running through town. The bull went straight up the Rue du Taur (yup, you guessed it! The Street of the Bull); and Sernin came to an untimely end, thus becoming a martyr and earning his sainthood. As he was the first bishop of Toulouse, martyr and now a saint; the city built a small basilica to keep his remains.
The basilica became a stop on the famous Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago). Over the years, more and more pilgrims stopped at the basilica, and as such; they needed to build a much bigger basilica because the pilgrims not only came to pray, but also to sleep and rest. In fact, the balcony was constructed in part to give the pilgrims a place to sleep while the community of Toulouse could continue using the basilica for their daily prayers. The architecture of the basilica is impressive with very high (we’re talking 21 meters) vaulted ceilings. The ceilings were so high that they had to build double stone supports (which you can see from the outside of the church) in order to keep the ceiling structurally sound. As you may have guessed, this is the largest Romanesque church in all of Europe!
If you have extra time: Visit the Jacobean Church and Cloister. The convent suffered serious damage during the French Revolution, but it was restored in the 1950s and you can see some of the 14th century frescos. A truly gorgeous church inside, although the plain outside might suggest otherwise.
The Old Section and the Rose Colored Architecture
Toulouse is known as the Rose Colored City because it has so many brick buildings that are a soft red color. There is a very simple reason for all this brick. It turns out that when the city was being built the material of choice was actually stone, but the closest place to get stone was the Pyrenees. While today the mountains are a quick drive down the highway; it wasn’t such an easy task at the time. The solution? Make the buildings out of brick! We suggest you take a walk through the charming narrow streets of the area near the cathedral. The winding cobblestone streets have one beautiful house after another, along with charming boutique shops and little hidden courtyards.
If you have extra time: Take a walk across the river to the Spanish section. This is where lots of Spanish immigrants settled when they fled the country to escape Franco’s dictatorship after the civil war. It’s an area of Toulouse that not many tourists explore, and you can get a real feel for what local life is like. This area used to be less desirable for rent because the river would flood after every big storm. Since building a dam, that problem has been solved and instead of the river water, apartment prices are now what is rising!
Citée de l’espace
Before visiting Toulouse, I didn’t realize the importance that the city had in space exploration. In fact, it is one of the capitals of aerospace in Europe. The Space City is a kind of interactive museum where, according to Jean-Noel Plachez, who was one of the exhibit designers, “…the general public could come to learn what space exploration was all about, and how it’s done.” If this sounds a bit like the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., you’re right. There are loads of hands on exhibits where kids (and adults who are still kids at heart) can test their space knowledge. We especially loved walking inside part of the Mir Space Station and seeing the humongous Ariane 5 mock up in the grounds surrounding the museum.
If you have extra time: Make sure to see one of the IMAX films. We enjoyed a film explaining the work NASA astronauts are doing towards a mission to Mars. As someone who is not necessarily “into science” I was glued to my seat for 45 minutes. The museum café is highly recommended as well. We were expecting cafeteria style sandwiches or burgers and fries, but what we got were delicious pork chops and a salmon salad. The Space City is well worth a visit!
Capitole (inside and out)
It’s no surprise that we suggest you visit the Capitole square. The huge town hall is a gorgeous building and it is, without a doubt, the star of the plaza. The façade dates back to the 1750s and, of course, it uses that characteristic pink brick Toulouse is so famous for. What I loved most about the Capitole, however, was the inside. Although it looks a bit intimidating, anyone in Toulouse can go and visit the inside of the Capitole building, and well they should.
Up a grand stone staircase you will find several rooms with high ceilings and artwork lining the walls. In fact, one room has murals painted on the ceiling along with gold details and huge mirrors. It may as well be a nobleman’s palace, but instead, it belongs to the town of Toulouse. If you were from here, you could get married in a civil ceremony with these impressive surroundings. Not a bad deal, I’d say!
If you have extra time: Take a stroll around the perimeter of the plaza and look up. Artists have painted along the ceiling of the walkway on the far side of the plaza. All the paintings tell part of the story of Toulouse and it’s more famous residents. Look for Saint Sernin and the bull on one of the panels. You can also enjoy a coffee or drink in the plaza. Yes, you’ll pay a bit more, but those views are really worth an extra euro or two!
Victor Hugo Market
One of our favorite places to visit in any city is always the market. There is so much you can learn about how people live from their interactions at the market. In Toulouse there are several markets, but the one where people tend to go for an aperitif is the Victor Hugo Market.
Although it might not be much to look at (the market is found just next to a rather urban looking parking garage), there are rows of stalls with absolutely beautiful foods from the area. From sausage, to horse meat, to cheese, even croissants and wine, this market has it all. As Sydney food blogger, John Bek puts it, “Fancy a glass of red with your almond croissant? You can have it here and nobody will judge.” Absolutely! Sign us up!
If you have extra time: Visit Saint-Cyprien Market. The market is open every day except for Mondays. Why Monday, you might ask? That’s the day that book stalls open in the market. Sometimes you can find collector’s editions, so if you are a literary buff, this is the place to go. Another reason to visit? It’s the only covered market in Toulouse to remain in its original state, so you get a feel for what the other markets must have been like years ago.
Sunset by the River
This really doesn’t require much explanation. The river in Toulouse is the Garonne. Now, if you are as terrible in geography as I am (sorry to my 7th grade teacher, Mr. DiPaolo, who made some valiant efforts at making maps interesting) the Garonne flows north toward Bordeaux (which I remember because famous wine comes from that area). What you need to know, however, is that the sunsets are golden and gorgeous when looking out over the river. Plus, someone cleverly added a set of stairs just next to the Pont Saint Pierre bridge to have a place to enjoy the view.
If you have extra time: Buy a little picnic dinner or a few macarons to enjoy as you watch the sun slip away. Either that or your tripod, which we sadly did not stuff into our over packed suitcase on this trip.
Museum of the Augustins of Toulouse
This fine arts museum features classical art including sculptures and paintings from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. The museum is a former monastery that dates back to the 14th century, so if you are interested in architecture, the building itself is gorgeous. My favorite part is the courtyard because of the gargoyles that sit along one of the walls and the garden that provides a bit of green space.
If you have extra time: Head over to Les Abattoirs, the contemporary art gallery. With over 2,000 works of art, this is a must see if you are a contemporary art lover. Also, if you are lucky, you might visit when the “Picasso Curtain” is on view. It was a work designed by Picasso and Luis Fernandez, and although it’s been fully restored since it was made in 1936, the curtain is not always on public display.
All things pastel (and violet)
While this isn’t so much a monument or an attraction, it is something that is very much part of the identity of Toulouse. Pastel is actual a kind of plant material that they used to dye things blue back before they had all kinds of chemicals, and before they discovered indigo in the Americas. It turns out that the plant to make the pastel was really hard to cultivate, and in Toulouse they had perfect weather conditions.
Some very astute pastel businessmen got very rich selling pastel because the King liked blue and then everyone wanted to be like the king. The pastel was sold in balls and they made it from the plant powder mixed with water, and rolled into a ball. Then they sold the balls and whoever was dying the fabric or string or what have you would break the ball and add water again to make the dye. The dye turned everything a gorgeous periwinkle blue. There are several stores around Toulouse where you can buy anything from facial creams to scarves or sweaters made with pastel.
And what’s this about violets? Another thing Toulouse is known for are violets. It has become one of the unofficial symbols of the city and there are lots of shops where you can find violet cakes, candies, and violet decorated souvenirs. I know it sounds strange, but the candies actually taste the way you would expect a violet flower to taste!
Right next to our hotel we found one of Toulouse’s public gardens, the Jardins Compans Caffarelli. This green space was perfect for us because we were traveling with our dog, Dino. As we walked along the green paths enjoying a break from the city streets, we came upon a Japanese Garden. Sadly, the dog was not allowed into the Japanese garden. Even so, there were beautiful corners with a small red bridge and a large tea pavilion. If you are looking for a place to take a walk or get in touch with nature, this is a unique and unexpected space.
If you have extra time: Visit the Royal Gardens. This was the first public park in Toulouse. Along with the exotic plants and gorgeous grounds, it is also home to a duck pond, which I’m sure Dino would have loved!
Have a bite to eat!
One of our favorite things to do while traveling is try out some of the local spots to eat. On this trip we found a couple favorites. For something sweet, you can’t miss the macarons at the Patisserie Conte (37 rue Croix Baragnon). We tried a violet macaron and it was airy, sweet perfection. And I’ll tell you, it tasted like France to this american!
We also stumbled upon a great neighborhood place for crepes. It was off the beaten path and filled with locals, so we figured we were onto something. Le Grenier de Pépé (1 Rue Denfert Rochereau) served up simple savory and sweet crepes. We ordered two different savory crepes and each came with a side salad topped with a delicious mustard dressing. We washed it down with a carafe of the house wine and couldn’t have been happier when the bill was less than 10 euros per person. The service was excellent, too!
For a fun wine bar, check out Nº5 Wine Bar (5 Rue de la bourse) You can buy a special card and then using the machines along the wall choose to buy a taste, half glass or full glass of various local and international wines. There is something for everyone (red, white, rose or bubbly), and you can also order something to eat along with the wine. We suggest a cheese plate. After all, this is France!
Still hungry? Try Le Genty Magre (3 Rue Genty Magre) This restaurant specializes in French food, and we ordered the duck. It’s a nicer restaurant, so save this for a special occasion, but if you are looking to treat yourselves, it’s a cozy setting right in the center of town. My favorite part of the meal was when they brought out the mini madeleine cookies after we asked for the check. Talk about a way to make paying the bill less painful! And if you are still hungry after all that, make sure to try the typical dish of Toulouse: El Cassoulet.
Where to stay in Toulouse
On this trip we stayed a little bit outside the city center; although it was very easy to walk everywhere. The Novotel Centre Compans sits next to the Japanese Garden and the business area in a quiet part of the city that becomes more lively during the day. The hotel itself offers all the ammenities for a relaxing stay with comfortable beds, WiFi, a nice restaurant and they even allowed Dino to stay at the hotel. We fully recommend the Novotel Centre Compans as a great place to stay in Toulouse.
Of course, if you would like to see more options for where to stay, check out this link where you can see all the hotels in Toulouse.