France’s famous pink city, Toulouse, is a vibrant metropolis where you can drink, dine and party until the early hours without ever feeling like a tourist
While the tourist hordes may flock to the likes of Paris and Nice, Toulouse is an altogether quirkier and less obvious proposition, with a vibrant arts scene and buzzing nightlife, where you can get a real taste of day-to-day life in a French city. Known as the ville rose thanks to the distinctive pink hue of the local brickwork, Toulouse combines beautiful historic buildings and cobbled streets with an ever-evolving programme of cultural events including live music, film festivals, cutting-edge art and thought-provoking photography.
The huge modern art museum Les Abattoirs should be your first stop, an airy, contemporary space that boasts over 2,000 works of art in its permanent collection. Les Abattoirs also hosts eclectic temporary exhibitions, meaning you never know exactly what you will find there. If you prefer art on a smaller scale, head to the Galerie Municipal du Château d'Eau, a converted water mill that has become a gallery of contemporary photography. Or, for a real sense of art in action, visit the radical and rebellious Mix’Art Myrys collective, which has previously occupied historic buildings in the centre of Toulouse.
At the other end of the artistic spectrum, the Saint-Sernin Basilica is the largest Romanesque church in Europe, and any local will tell you it’s an unmissable sight. A look round the magnificent 16th-century mansion Hôtel d'Assézat follows on perfectly from this, as it houses the Fondation Bemberg, with its dazzling collection of historic paintings, bronzes and works of art that will transport you back to another age.
Shopping-wise, the Saint Etienne quarter in Toulouse is where you will find the city’s high-end fashion boutiques, and even if shopping there is beyond your budget, it’s a lovely area to walk around, with attractive mansions lining the narrow cobbled streets. Toulousains are also very proud of their culinary heritage, and the covered Victor Hugo market is a great place to stock up on regional products such as the ubiquitous wine and cheese. Check out the Saint-Aubin market on Sunday mornings too, to meet small-scale producers from all over the region selling their wares. The Petit London café is a popular coffee stop once you’ve finished shopping.
As you would expect in a nation of gastronomes, finding a great place to eat in Toulouse is not difficult. France is a carnivore’s paradise of course, and Chez Carmen in particular (appropriately located opposite Les Abattoirs) has a reputation for superb meat dishes. The Art Deco-style brasserie Le Pyrénéen, meanwhile, serves the best homemade steak and chips in the city, not to mention huge seafood platters, with chocolate profiteroles for dessert if you’ve got any room left.
For a daytime stop-off I would highly recommend Le Bol Bu, a petite salon de thé tucked away on a tiny cobbled street (Rue du May) offering crepes and salads alongside a huge variety of teas, all served in colourful bowls. The rickety furniture and vintage film posters adorning the walls all add to its charm. Try the violet tea – violets are a speciality of the city. If the mercury is soaring, stop off at Octave on Place du Capitol (the main square) for an exquisite gourmet ice cream.
As night falls, head back to the Petit London to find a lively crowd enjoying live music and cheap drinks, or try the historic Le Petit Voisin (known as the PV to regulars), where young people gather to drink, gossip and play table football while DJs spin until the early hours, or local bands perform their latest sets.
When it’s time to sleep, the typically French Hotel Albert Premier
is a popular budget choice right in the centre of the city. More expensive, but with real wow factor, is Hotel Les Bains Douches
, a converted public baths with ultra-stylish rooms.
British Airways, Air France, easyJet and KLM all fly to Toulouse from various airports in the UK. Or, if you’ve got the time, you can do the eco-friendly thing and take the Eurostar to Paris, then change to a high-speed TGV, which will take you to Toulouse in around five hours. There are plenty of chateaux and vineyards to spot along the way.