Ahh France, the country of wine, l’amour, cheese, baguettes and a pretty big tower. France has a lot to offer to visitors, which is no surprise seeing as it is the most visited country on Earth, with 85.7 million foreign visitors in 2013. While most people head to the capital Paris or the pristine beaches of the Côte d’Azur, the rest of the country should not be overlooked! In this post, I will guide you the wonders and secrets of Toulouse, a city I lived in during my Erasmus and somewhere that holds a special place in my heart.
How to Get There
Toulouse (Tolosa in Occitan, a minority language spoken in France,Italy and Spain) is France’s fourth city and is the capital of the Haute-Garonne department and the region of Occitanie. It is located in the southwest of the country on the confluence of the Garonne river and the Canal du Midi, which connects Toulouse to the Mediterranean. Toulouse-Blagnac airport has both domestic and European flights. Aer Lingus fly direct to Toulouse seasonally. A shuttle bus and tram link it the city. If you are already elsewhere in France or Mainland Europe, you can reach Toulouse by train or bus. Gare Matabiau is served by frequent TGV’s (train de grande vitesse, high-speed train) to other cities such as Bordeaux, Marseille, Paris and Carcassonne. Bus routes connect the city not only to the rest of France, but to Spain as well, particularly to the Basque Country and Catalonia.
How to Get Around
Tisséo runs an extensive bus, metro and tram throughout the city. 1-, 2- and 3-day passes (€5.50, €8.50 and €10.50) are available from Tisséo offices in the airport and from the Arenès, Balma-Gramont, Basso-Cambo, Jean-Jaurès and Marengo SNCF (the metro station that serves Gare Matabiau). You must scan tickets upon boarding the bus or tram or before getting on the metro. Tickets can be bought on the bus (for one or two journeys) or in ticket machines at metro and tram stations. Be warned though, ticket machines only accept coins. So unless you have buckets of change, I would suggest buying a travel pass at the airport and taking the tram into town.
Top 5 Places to See
Place du Capitole
The metaphorical and literal heart of Toulouse is the main square, Place du Capitole. It gets its name from the Capitole, the city’s hôtel de ville or municipal administration. Brazen in the centre with a giant Occitan cross, a symbol commonly associated with Toulouse, take a look around you and you will see the distinctive red bricked buildings that give Toulouse its nickname “la ville rose” (the pink city). People often like to take a stroll across the square or sit at one of the cafés which surround the square, watching life go by. But don’t be fooled, this place can get pretty vibrant as well! Flea markets are often held here on the weekends and during the Christmas season, the square is filled with many stalls selling food, drink, clothes, jewellery, musical instruments and much more. Within the Capitole building itself, you can find the Théâtre du Capitole, an opera house and ballet company and the Salle des Illustres, a room which houses works of art from the 19th century. If you head south of the square towards the river Garonne, you can stumble across all kinds of quirky cafés, restaurants and secondhand shops.
France has the fourth highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world. One of these sites can be found in Toulouse, the Saint-Sernin Basilicia (Basilique Saint-Sernin), and is listed as one of the World Heritage Sites of the Route of Santiago de Compostela in France in 1998. The construction of basilica began towards the end of 4th century and was completed sometime during the 11th century. The architect Eugène Violette-le-Duc restored the church in 1860. The basilica contains several relics donated King Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire which date from the 8th century, a bell tower, an alcove in which you can find the tombs of the four Counts of Toulouse, a crypt and the Cavaillé-Coll organ, built in 1888 and considered one of the most important organs in all of France. Entry into the main building is free and it costs €2.50 to go into the crypts (€2 each if you come in a group of more than 10 people). Right beside the museum, you can find the Musée Saint-Raymond, a museum with many antiques, especially from the Roman period.
Musée des Augustins
As you probably guessed, France loves preserving its cultural and historical heritage and you are sure to find at least one museum in even the tiniest village. Toulouse’s most famous museum is without a doubt the Musée des Augustins. As the name suggested, the building which houses the museum was formerly an Augustinian convent. It is one of the oldest museums in France, opening for the first time to the public in 1795, shortly after the Louvre in Paris. It contains collections of paintings from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century and Romanesque sculptures, particularly those representing the Occitan culture of southern France. The cloister also contains a reconstructed medieval garden. Entry is €5 (€3 per person for large groups) and entry is free for the permanent collection on the first Sunday of every month (same applies to all museums around the city!)
Cité de l’Espace
Most of the things I have mentioned so far involve fine arts. If that’s not your thing, check out a museum focused on the future, the Cité de l’Espace (Space Town). Take the 16 bus to the very last stop and it’s a short walk from there. The “town” contains several space artefacts, a mini observatory and a space walk simulator. It might not look like much but it’s very easy to spend an entire day here!
Prairie des Filtres
Just along the south bank of the Garonne lies the Prairie des Filtres. This park gets its name from the sunlight that filters through the trees. It is particularly popular during the summer months, when you’ll see many inhabitants of this city having picnics, playing games, walking their dogs and forgetting about their worries. Another toulousain tradition you might see around here is people sitting by the river in the evening and having a few drinks, known as an apératif, or apéro for short. Another popular spot for this are the steps down from Place Saint-Pierre, a place famous for its bars full of university students.
Of course, this list is only a handful of things to do and places to go. There are many more gems to be discover in this place I got to call home for a year. Come see why I fell in love with la ville rose.