Table of Contents for this Episode
Today Elyse shares with us the 7 things you should not miss in Toulouse. If you are in Toulouse and would like to book a tour with Elyse, check out her website.
Toulouse Place du Capitole
Toulouse is one of the cities that is growing the fastest in France, it’s a bustling and popular city with a very large aerospace industry. Toulouse is considered to be the fourth largest city in France, this is contested by several other cities. Paris is the largest as far as density and population, Marseille and Lyon are second and third, and Toulouse is fourth.
Toulouse is at the midway point between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, but quite far South in France. It’s about 120 km as the Crow flies south into the Pyrenees before you get to Spain and if you do go to the Mediterranean by car it would be about an hour and a half away, and if you need to go to the Atlantic you drive about 2 and a half hours. Toulouse is not on any coast, it is landlocked. The city has a temperate climate rather than a Mediterranean climate, it usually does not get very cold in the winter, but it can get very hot in the summer.
Toulouse is a very old city and was founded as the city by the Romans when they conquered Gaul. Toulouse has managed to preserve its old city center.
Population Around 700,000 and Growing
The population is around 700,000, it is growing very quickly and has done so for the last 30 years because of its aerospace industry, as well as research and universities. There is also medical research, genetic research, whether research and station. It is not a very touristy city, but lots of people come to Toulouse for work. Having so many people move into the city is a problem when it comes to development and congestion sometimes, so it is both a blessing and a curse.
La Ville Rose
But, today, we are going to talk about Toulouse as a tourist attraction. The nickname of the city is “La ville rose” which means the pink or brick city. There are three cities in France that are mostly built with brick: Toulouse, Albi, and Montauban. We can argue whether the color of the brick is pink or orange, but the technique for making brick came from the Romans, and that is why those are called Roman bricks.
Roman Red Brick
There is a lot of clay in the Garonne Valley which is the main river that cuts through Toulouse, and this clay is excellent for making terra-cotta. This terra-cotta has remained the staple for building in this area for the last 2000 years because it was cheaper to build with brick than with stone. Stone it is not readily available around Toulouse as there are no major stone quarries.
It is an irony of history that brick which used to be a cheap building material has now become expensive and reserved for the rich. We’re now talking about handmade local bricks. There are buildings in Toulouse that sport the original brick from 1500 years ago, and that is astounding.
The Garonne River
Toulouse is a dynamic city built along the banks of the Garonne River, and the Garonne opens into the Atlantic in Bordeaux. The Garonne which starts in the Pyrenees and it goes all the way into the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux. The Romans set up Toulouse as a commercial center and not as a military outpost.
The center of the city of Toulouse has been in the same place since the Romans established it around 50 B.C.E.
City in the Shape of a Heart
The center of Toulouse is basically in the shape of a heart, and the reason why it has that shape is because that’s where the ramparts were. Walls surrounded the city starting with the Romans and those became defensive walls during the hundred years war between the English and the French. These walls stayed up for so long that other cities established outside of the walls eventually, but not until the 1700s.
Tearing Down the Fortification Walls
Fortification walls were torn down to make room for new homes and new developments. Medieval Toulouse was very dense and stuffy. In the place of these walls we now have the boulevards which are big wide avenues that circle around the city. There are old maps from the Middle Ages that show very well the heart-shaped character of the city. Most of the buildings are made of brick, some are half timbered and are private houses.
Charming Toulouse: Medieval Streets
One of things that make Toulouse very charming is that it does not have the hordes of tourists that you find so many other places in France. When people come here they are astonished how beautiful it is and how well you can appreciate everything not being surrounded by so many busloads of tourists.
There is a whole section with narrow medieval streets, there’s a part of it that has a lot of tiny half-timbered houses, there are also areas with magnificent palaces from the 16 and 1700s. The city is divided in half by a major road, on one side you had all the craftspeople who became affluent in the Middle Ages, and in the other side you had the aristocratic landowners who built larger houses. But anyway you look, you will see old architecture everywhere starting from 1000 years ago and going all the way into 19th century very elaborate sculpted architecture.
A Walkable City
The old city center is not very big, so you can visit everything here by foot. It is a very walk-able city, even for everyday life. Anymore, the streets in the old city center are highly restricted to car traffic. Only residents who live on those streets can get a driving pass that will lower the metal posts that block the way to other cars. Many streets are semi-pedestrian as a result, and by semi-pedestrian we mean that people who live on those old city center streets or own up shop there have car access. These restrictions on cars have made the old city center much more pleasant for pedestrians.
Toulouse: a City for Young People
Toulouse residents have always loved to go downtown just for the sake of it, or just to take a walk. Paris is probably the most beautiful city in France. But Toulouse is a wonderful place to live in because it’s not too big yet has a wonderful sense of history, a lot of art, a lot of beautiful places. Toulouse is not the overwhelming city.
Largest Student Population of France After Paris
After Paris, Toulouse has the largest student population in France. With its science school, medical school, business school, and everything that you would consider University and up, there are over 100,000 students in Toulouse. This makes Toulouse a very lively city. Lots of music, lots of theater, lots of movie theaters, there are over 1000 restaurants, and all of this makes it a great place to visit. There are music and dance festivals in the summertime along the river and other places.
The Banks of the Garonne River
The banks of the river are very nice in the summertime. They set up a fake beach along the Garonne River in the summer it is called “Toulouse Plage” and they do the same thing in Paris as well. Activities there are free and it’s a great place for people to bring their children. There is a no swimming in the Garonne River however. Sometimes people come to Toulouse as a way of getting somewhere else. But if they stay a day or two, they discover how wonderful Toulouse really is.
Seven Things You Should not Miss when You Come to Toulouse
Now we will talk about the seven things you should not miss when you come to Toulouse. There are a few monuments or buildings that are the most important elements to any visit of the old city center.
#1 Saint Sernin Basilica
The oldest structure still standing is a church called Saint Sernin and it is 975 years old. There are two places Annie always takes visitors to in Toulouse: the Saint Sernin Basilica and the Salle des Illustres in the Capitole building. Saint Sernin is a Romanesque church, it is not very high but has beautiful rounded forms, and it is made of stone and brick in the old Roman style, hence the name Romanesque.
This church was started in the year 1075 and it is a pilgrimage church. It was designed to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims. This church is part of the Saint Jacques de Compostelle Pilgrimage, which ends in Spain, in Santiago. The church we see today is pretty much as it was in the 1100s. The “clochet” or church tower is unique, it looks like a layered cake, something like a five tiered wedding cake, made of brick and stone.
This church is very beautiful, very unique, it is very difficult to describe it and do it justice, so you really need to go to the website and look at the pictures. Saint Sernin is nothing like Notre Dame or the Chartres Cathedral. Saint Sernin is the largest Romanesque church left in Western Europe, and it still works as a church. It’s a wonderful place to go listen to concerts, and it’s a great place for weddings and christenings and funerals.
#2 Capitole and “Salle des Illustres”
The second-place you should not miss in Toulouse is the center plaza of the city the “place du Capitole” and the Capitole building which contains the “Salle des Illustres”. The “place du Capitole” is a wonderful open square with hotels, cafés, brasseries. The square itself is all paved, there are no trees or grass, but there is always something going on in that space in Toulouse.
Depending on the day, there will be markets, musical events, outreach events, political demonstrations, celebrations for sports victories, arts events, associations and groups events, etc. This is one of the reasons why locals like to go into the city just to see what’s happening on this plaza.
The First Two Weeks of August
During the first two weeks of August anywhere in France life will slow down considerably, if not stopped completely. The students have gone home, most people are on vacation, many restaurants and shops close, it is as if life stops in France. Paris is not like that, but outside of Paris expect the first two weeks of August to be really slow as far as events and activities are concerned.
#3 The Capitole, Toulouse’s City Hall
City Hall in Toulouse is a beautiful classical architecture building, made of brick and stone, there are beautiful columns on the outside. They started building City Hall in 1750 and it took about 125 years to finish. This building replaced several disparate smaller buildings.
Fourth of July Party for Americans in Toulouse
For many years now, the mayor of Toulouse has been throwing a very nice champagne party with petit fours, to honor the Fourth of July. Americans who live in and near Toulouse are invited to come celebrate and socialize. It’s a very nice event where presidents of local American associations get to make speeches, someone from the American consulate is also invited to speak and renew ties with the local community.
The Toulouse city Council decided to create a gallery where special events could be held. This room is about 90 m long and it was designed to be a copy of the Farnese Palace in Rome (Prix de Rome). It is a very ornate gallery with paintings, statues, marble columns, and overall very beautiful.
Everything you see in this gallery is dedicated to illustrious people and illustrious events of the city of Toulouse. You wouldn’t guess how ornate to an elaborate this room is going to be just by looking at the outside. The outside is very classical and elegant, but the inside is very showy and spectacular.
Civil Weddings in Toulouse
In France, in order to be married, you have to have a civil ceremony. You can also have a religious ceremony if you wish but in order for the marriage to count you have to have a civil wedding. So, if you want to be married, and you live in Toulouse, you must go to City Hall. And this is nothing like doing a City Hall wedding in America. In Toulouse, your civil wedding is going to be performed in the Salle des Illustres.
In the spring especially, there are so many weddings taking place in this gallery that proceedings have to be quick and efficient. In May June and July there are weddings taking place in this gallery every day except for Sundays and Mondays, you sign up for time, their slots every half-hour. So if you want to gawk at the beautiful dresses, you can just watch wedding parties take turns one after the other and see very beautiful elaborate dresses, especially for brides for whom it’s the first time getting married.
If you happen to visit while weddings are going on, you will not be able to stay together as a big group. You need to split up and mill around and be a little bit discrete soul you do not disturb the wedding ceremonies going on.
#4 Les Jacobins
The Jacobins is referred to as a church because that’s what it was but it is not a church anymore, it’s a historical monument open to the public. It was built 150 years after Saint Sernin. It is entirely made of brick and is quite impressive to see. It is reminiscent of the Cathedral of Albi because it is 100% brick. This style of church is very unique to the South of France.
This church used to be a part of a monastery complex that housed Dominicans. The order of the Dominicans was created in Toulouse in the 1200s. The buildings that used to house the Dominicans are still standing today, you can visit them, there is a wonderful cloister. They charge three euros to get into the cloister but it is well worth it. There are times in the year where access to the cloister is free because of other events going on in those buildings.
#5 Renaissance Mansions in Toulouse
Hôtel d’Assézat, Toulouse
Toulouse has quite a collection of Renaissance mansions. You cannot visit most of them but you can walk into the courtyard and look at the beautiful façades.
The oldest house in Toulouse is from the 1300s and you can see it on rue Croix Baragnon and this house is Gothic in style, it’s very unique and has been renovated. Rue Croix Baragnon is where you go to buy designer clothes and fancy things in Toulouse. You could spend a day in Toulouse just walking around looking at these Renaissance mansions and their beautiful doorways.
#6 Walk along the Banks of the Garonne River
Another wonderful thing to do in Toulouse is to walk along the banks of the Garonne River. There are three bridges that are part of the city center of Toulouse, you can start at one and and finish it the other. For instance you can start with the pont Saint Pierre and work upstream.
The banks have been renovated so it is lovely to walk along them. If you go at the end of the day he will have a gorgeous sunset on the river, you will see some beautiful houses both from the 1800s and medieval times, they are a couple of secret places that are fun to find out about along the way (but for those you’re going to have to hire Elise!)
Then you get to the Pont Neuf which by definition means it’s the oldest bridge because nobody calls the bridge the new bridge anymore. Nowadays if they built a new bridge they give it a name, but back in the 1500s when this bridge was built, they just called it the new bridge. The Pont Neuf is a gorgeous bridge and it’s very special because it’s the only one in Toulouse that has been there for 500 years and has not been washed away by floods.
When you walk along the river in Toulouse there are two ways to do it. You can either walk almost at water level or up above on top of the levee wall where the road, sidewalks, and cars are. We recommend you stay up above because there are sometimes groups of vagrants with their dogs hanging out on the banks. They are typically harmless but you might as well stay out of their way.
Sometimes it’s tourists and students that hang out down on the water level, but it depends on the day you go. Also, if you stay on the upper level, you will find cafés. In Toulouse, it is easier to walk along the river on the right bank. You know you’re on the right bank because when you face the water, it flows away from you and the water is to your left.
You can continue as far as the bridge called Saint Michel and it makes for a lovely walk (around 2 kilometers) where you will glimpse at various bits of Toulouse history along the way.
#6 Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi begins in Toulouse (see episode 22). You can do a little boat ride along the canal and it’s a lovely way to see Toulouse. The is a Capitainerie along the canal too (Capitainerie Port Saint Sauveur) and around there you can see a lot of the people who are touring on the canal.
Parks in Toulouse are not as old as Renaissance mansions or bridges. But we do have two parks that are from the 1700s: one is called the Jardin Royal (Royal Park) and the other le Jardin des Plantes (botanical Gardens, but it’s not really a botanical garden per se, but there used to be zoo animals there which ended in the late 1970s). A more recent, yet beautiful, park is the Japanese garden in an area called Compans Cafarelli.
# 7 Food Markets in Toulouse
There are three covered markets that are very interesting in Toulouse. They only open in the morning every weekday except Mondays. These are food markets where you will see some of the strange foods locals eat, the food is very fresh and those markets are usually bustling. Nowadays it’s mostly people who live downtown shop at these markets.
We recommend you visit the Victor Hugo covered market which also has some very fun restaurants that are only open for lunch above the market. Those are not gourmet restaurants but they are very typical of normal lunch fare in Toulouse. There is a great Sunday morning market around the church called Saint Aubin that will give you a very good idea of local life.
Museums in Toulouse
Compared to Paris, Toulouse is a more laid-back fun city. Toulouse only has a few museums, the archaeology Museum is called Saint Raymond, another is Les Augustins and specializes in medieval art and is really worth visiting, the modern and contemporary Museum is called Les Abattoirs (the slaughterhouse). Les abattoirs is quite recent and when they converted from a slaughterhouse to Museum they also re-did a lot of the surroundings and it’s a lovely place to visit.
You can also visit the Airbus factory but only by appointment ahead of time.
Aviation in Toulouse
The aviation industry has been at the heart of Toulouse for many decades. A group of enthusiasts are working on a proper Museum of aviation. Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the author of the Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) is very important in local history.
Toulouse also has a lot of aerospace industry (satellite and rockets) and you can visit the Cité de l’Espace which is particularly good if you have children between eight and 14. The Museum of Natural History is also pretty good in Toulouse they have remodeled it recently and it’s now much better than it used to be. They do interesting special exhibits and it is situated inside of a very nice park so it’s a great thing to do if you visit with children.
Toulouse Food Specialties
It is now possible to get all different kinds of foods all over France, but these are foods that are originally from Toulouse. The meat of choice here is duck. Cassoulet is the local food and it is made with that, sausage, and beans. In Toulouse just about every restaurant will offer duck breast (magret de canard), duck legs (manchon de canard), foie gras also. As first they mostly come from the Pyrenees (Tome des Pyrénées).
Toulouse is not a major wine producer, but we are close to major wine producing regions, namely Gaillac or Corbières, or Fronton, or a little farther Cahors.
People in Toulouse have a very healthy diet based on olive oil and lots of fruits and vegetables. Statistically there are fewer problems with heart disease in the Southwest of France than other places in France, so maybe eating duck, beans, lots of fruits and vegetables, and some red wine is good for you!
Conclusion: How to Come to Toulouse
If you are in Paris the easiest thing to do is to get on one of the many flights between Toulouse in Paris, they are probably close to 10 a day. The flight takes an hour and 10 minutes. Toulouse has always invested heavily in two air transportation and not so much on train transportation.
Toulouse is the last major city in France to not have bullet train service (TGV). The quickest train ride you can do between Toulouse in Paris is to go Paris to Bordeaux on the bullet train, then the train slows down to normal speeds between Bordeaux in Toulouse. You do not have to get off, it’s just that the train cannot go as fast on the older rails. That train ride is 5 ½ hours.
If you fly Orly to Toulouse (not Charles de Gaulle Airport) flying is faster than the train even taking all the check-in time into consideration.
Driving between Toulouse in Paris is also possible, but it will take 6 to 7 hours and you will need to go 800 km.
There is now a fast train between Toulouse in Barcelona which only takes three hours. There are many ways to get to Toulouse from various large cities all around Europe.
Toulouse is a wonderful city to discover, we hope you come here and love it as much as we do! And when you’re in Toulouse this is your chance to take a tour with Elyse.
Lonely Planet just named Toulouse as one of the top 10 destinations in the world for this coming year so we’re not just saying all these nice things about Toulouse just because we’re from here!