Toulouse in south-west France boasts an enviable climate and proximity to ski resorts in the Pyrenees. Its distinctive terracotta ‘foraine’ brick work has earned it the moniker La Ville Rose and the city centre’s 220 hectares are one of the largest protected urban areas in France. Narrow streets lined with ancient buildings, an arcaded central plaza and three UNESCO heritage sites make France’s fourth city well worth a visit.
1. Basilica Saint Sernin
Built in the 11th and 12th centuries, this beautiful red-brick church is said to be one of the largest Romanesque buildings in Europe. Charlemagne put Saint Sernin on the map when he donated a huge collection of relics, making the Basilica a notable stop on the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage and a pilgrimage destination in its own right. The Bell Tower above the eastern transept has five tiers and a slight tilt towards the west and is one of the church’s most visible features – not to mention audible: as a student I lived in the Place Saint Sernin for several months and frequently cursed the extraordinarily long and loud bell ringing. Traditionally a lively weekend flea market has been held in the area. Following renovation works and the pandemic, plans are afoot to bring open-air sellers back.
2. Place du Capitole
A stroll south along Rue du Taur will take you past Le Sherpa, a beloved and quirky teahouse and creperie, to Place du Capitole, a vast 18th century square dominated by the classical façade of the Theatre du Capitole and town hall – built to consolidate the power and prestige of the ‘Capitouls’ – the medieval municipal council. Pedestrianised since the 1990s, the 12,000 square metres of pink granite are decorated with an enormous Occitan cross and around the edge cafes sit beneath shady arcades. Regular and Christmas markets attract locals and tourists alike, and on special occasions such as a football or rugby victory the Place fills with music and crowds.
3. The Garonne
From Capitole wind your way south west along Rue Léon Gambetta. On the left, Rue des Gestes takes you into narrow back streets where I recommend a stop at hidden gem Caminito, a family-run Argentinian empanadería (the Spanish and Latino influences are strong in Toulouse). Back on Rue Léon Gambetta, keep going and you will hit Place de la Daurade, a green space with ramps giving access to the wide River Garonne, which runs north from Spain’s central Pyrenees to the Atlantic.
The banks of the Garonne in Toulouse offer not only a welcome breath of fresh air but also wonderful views across the river to listed monument the Hotel Dieu Saint Jacques and the iconic dome of the Grave chapel. From Place de la Daurade you can see both Pont Saint Pierre and Pont Neuf spanning the Garonne. Turning left to stroll southwards, you can admire Pont Neuf’s celebrated 17th century engineering which withstands flooding thanks to openings in the masonry and irregular arches – reflected in the wide calm waters of the Garonne, they should provide some Instagram-worthy memories.
4. Chateau d’Eau
Crossing Pont Neuf, you will reach Galerie le Chateau d’Eau. This was the first gallery I ever visited in Toulouse and it holds a special place in my heart. It sits like a red-brick chess piece overlooking the ‘filter prairies’, a sedimentary island that eventually became attached to the shore and now offers parkland and picnic meadows. The Chateau d’Eau was of course originally designed as a water tower. But Toulouse has always had a special relationship with photography. As early as 1892, the city offered formal photography studies under Professor Charles Fabre, who authored the first photography encyclopaedia. 80 years later the city opened France’s first municipal gallery dedicated to photography in the converted Chateau d’Eau. Inside the old workings and wheels are visible behind glass portals and under walkways, while photo exhibitions adorn the walls.
5. Jardin des Plantes
Back over the river across the Pont Saint Michel and you’re on your way to the Jardin des Plantes, a historic botanical garden where medical students could once upon a time harvest the medicinal plants. The garden’s seven hectares include fountains, waterfalls, play areas and even pony rides.
6. Jardin Japonais
Alternatively on the other side of the city near the Compans-Cafarelli metro you can visit the Compans-Cafarelli park and its Japanese gardens with a tea-house and an appealing bridge over an ornamental pond.
7. Canal du Midi
North of the Japanese gardens, you’ll find the Canal du Midi – another of Toulouse’s UNESCO monuments and 17th century engineering wonders; it was even studied by American founding father and President Thomas Jefferson when he was looking at linking the Potomac River to Lake Erie. Along with the Canal du Garonne and Canal des Deux Mers, the Canal du Midi connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Aimed at developing the wheat trade, construction was started in 1666 and the canal is now one of the oldest working European waterways. Enjoy the canal’s tranquillity by hiring a bike to cycle along its tow paths under arching plane trees. Or take a day trip (or longer, through vineyard heartlands) on a barge.
Head outside the city towards the airport at Blagnac and you will find Aeroscopia, an aviation and aerospace museum housing a number of aircraft including military planes, Concorde, and Airbus – whose manufacturing plant is situated nearby. Inside a vast hangar you can step inside these iconic planes, experience simulators and games and learn about the history of aviation which is intimately linked to Toulouse, where Clement Ader achieved the first powered heavier-than-air flight.