13 Reasons To Fall In Love With Toulouse France, La Ville Rose
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
“Tourists don’t come here to see the Eiffel Tower or some grand historic monument. They come here to experience our fantastic gastronomy, our wonderful wines, the beautiful landscapes and of course our culture. There’s not one great thing but many small, beautiful things that make our city and region special.”
-- Proprietor, N°5 Wine Bar, Toulouse
Here's my guide to the beautiful and underrated city of Toulouse in southwest France. I arrived via TGV from beige Paris to colorful Toulouse, a city set ablaze with reds, pinks, and oranges. Known as La Ville Rose, Toulouse is easy to fall for. Here's my "pink city" travel guide to Toulouse's must see sites, grand architecture, and museums.
Although Toulouse is supposedly pink, it’s a bit difficult to decide what color it really is -- pink, red, or orange. It changes, moodily and to sultry effect, depending on the angle of the sun and time of day.
What's definite is that Toulouse is a feast for the eyes. It's a lovely, relaxing city with infinite restaurants, blushing churches, fascinating architecture, and a delicious regional cuisine.
Definitely not your Haussman Paris. And definitely not the overwhelming crowds of Paris. Toulouse is stress free in comparison, with a laid back friendly vibe. Wrapped in pink, I ambled the cobbled streets and wandered in and out of churches and museums. Toulouse is a place to relax and enjoy life.
The Best Things To Do and See in Beautiful Toulouse France
Here are my favorite things to see in the lovely Toulouse, which I would gladly return to again and again.
1. Place du Capitole
The Place du Capitole is the heart of Toulouse, the grand central square of the city. It has been the seat of government since the 12th century. Pedestrianized since 1995, the Place is lined with lavish red brick buildings. It has a polished marble floor emblazoned with the Occitan cross, a medieval symbol of the region.
The Capitole is rooted in history. It's here that the Bishop of Toulouse, St. Saturnin, was martyred in 257 A.D.
The Romans occupied the building in the 13th century and it was a barracks during the French Revolution. In 1873, the famous architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc built a bell tower in the Flemish style atop the 16th century donjon in back of the building.
The Capitole itself is a grand neoclassical palace, reminiscent of London's Buckingham Palace and the city hall in Nancy France.
On the first floor, a grand staircase takes you to the over the top Salle des Illustres, whose flamboyant paintings call for some neck straining. (Not surprisingly, the Salle is a popular wedding venue in Toulouse.)
One of the Salle's most intriguing paintings is of Paule de Viguier. Her beauty was so extraordinary that she was called a "wonder of the world." She was forced to appear on the balcony of the Capitole once a week to allow herself to be admired by the public.
Mostly, though, the Place du Capitole is where Toulousains and tourists congregate. It is a central hotspot filled with shops, cafes, and restaurants galore. You can easily wile away time people watching over a glass of wine. A popular spot, where you'll have to vie for a table, is Le Florida.
At night, the Capitole is lit up, to stunning effect.
Address: Place du Capitole
Hours: Open daily 8:30 am to 5:00 pm, closed Saturday
Tel: +33 5 61 22 29 22
2. Convent of the Jacobins
Founded in 1215, this monastery is a southern Gothic masterpiece. It's a prime attraction in Toulouse, and yet still an oasis of peace and quiet. The convent was badly damaged during the French Revolution, but was restored in the 1950s. You can still see some of its 14th century frescos.
The adjacent church is exquisite and houses a column that resembles a “palm tree,” called the “Palm of the Jacobins.” It is an architectural wonder made up of a double nave and star-shaped vault under a massive column. There is a floor mirror for you to view the unusual palm tree.
The convent also houses the relics of the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, sometimes called the Aristotle of Christianity. Each year on January 28, his feast day, a service is held honoring the saint.
Address: Parvis des Jacobins
Hours: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm Tuesday-Sunday
Entry: 4 €, Church is free
Tel: +33 05 61 22 23 82
3. Musée des Augustins
Set in a massive 14th century convent, the Musée des Augustins is Toulouse’s finest art museum. It was definitely my favorite museum in Toulouse.
Musée des Augustins houses a treasure trove of Roman, Gothic, and Renaissance sculpture. And it has an eclectic cache of paintings from the 17th-20th centuries, including art by Rubens, Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, and Rodin. It even has a few prints by Toulouse-Lautrec, who was born in nearby Albi and is the region's celebrated son.
The medieval cloister and garden are especially magical, surrounded by salons filled with evocative statues, sculptures, and gargoyles.
The museum's Jorge Prado Exhibition, with modern lights set against a terra cotta backdrop, is simply exquisite. The exhibit showcases the museum's collection of romanesque capitals.
The capitols, reflecting bible scenes, are placed atop modern pillars and lit with hanging lanterns. Instantly, the exhibition become an iconic feature of Toulouse, and is now a permanent display.
Address: 21 Rue de Metz
Hours: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm Wednesday-Monday
Entry: 4 €, Under 18 free
Tel: +33 05 61 22 21 82
4. The Basilica of Saint Sernin
The Basilica of Saint Sernin is a magnificent well-preserved Roman basilica, and one of the greatest churches in France. It is Toulouse's most defining landmark and a must see site. Built between 1080 and 1120, it's now a UNESCO site.
Saint Sernin is a fine example of Romanesque architecture in the characteristic Toulousian red brick, designed in a crucifix.
The basilica is holy ground in Toulouse. The site houses the remains of its eponymous 4th century saint.
Saint Sernin was Toulouse’s first saint. He met his death in gruesome fashion, when pagans tied him to a bull and dragged him down the Rue du Taur (the Street of the Bull) in 250 A.D.
The basilica is also considered an essential stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims:
"flock to the church not only to venerate the saint, who now lies in a baroque sarcophagus, but to see all the other saintly relics that rest here. They lie in chapels and two levels of crypts, along with a piece of the True Cross, which is in an enameled copper reliquary made in the 12th century."
On the weekends, the St. Sernin area is known for its Saturday brocante market, or vintage market, and its Sunday marché aux puces, or flea market.
Address: 3 Place Saint Sernin
Hours: 8:30 am to 7:00 pm Monday-Sunday
Entry: 2.5 € adults, 2 € children, free with Toulouse Pass, online tickets
Tel: +33 05 61 21 80 45
5. Cathedral Saint-Etienne
Saint Etienne is also known as Toulouse Cathedral. It's a 13th century Gothic-Romanesque structure, and a curious confusion of architectural styles. It has a lovely gothic nave, rose window, tapestries, and stone sculptures.
Originally, the Roman part was supposed to be destroyed. But funds ran out, so the Gothic part was built adjacent to the Roman structure, creating a disconcerting confluence of architectural styles.
Address: Place Saint-Etienne
Hours: Daily 8 am-7 pm, Sun 9 am-7 pm, late opening on Thursday until 8:00 pm
Entry: 8 € (full price), 5 € (reduced rate), 2 € during the late opening
Tel: +33 056 152 0382
6. Quartier Saint Cyprien and Les Abattoirs
Across the Garonne River from the town centre, lies a quiet oasis, the neighborhood of St. Cyprien. Start off with a plate of oysters at Madame Ginette’s stall outside the covered food market, then wander across to the Matou, Europe’s biggest poster museum. Next, see avant-garde art at Les Abattoirs (pictured above).
Les Abattoirs was founded in 2000. Gruesomely, it was once a slaughterhouse in Toulouse. Now, it's re-purposed as a well-lit and airy modern and contemporary art gallery. It has over 2300 works of art. Impressive Fernand Leger mosaics decorate its brick exterior.
The museum isn't for everyone. But if you like contemporary video art and installations, it will suit. There is a series of "solid light films" by artist Anthony McCall. You walk through hazy, dimly-lit rooms while shards of light beam down, accompanied by eerie music.
The museum has frequent exhibits. When I was last summer, there was an astonishingly good and well-presented exhibit by the Spanish sculptor, Eduardo Chillada.
Address: 76 Allées Charles de Fitte
Hours: Wednesday to Sunday from 12:00 pm to 6 pm, late closing Thursday until 8 pm
Tel: +33 5 34 51 10 60
7. Toulouse’s Grand Mansions
Toulouse is just brimming with gorgeous grand mansions from the 16th and 17th centuries, when Toulouse’s merchants had unparalleled prosperity due to the pastel trade. Some of them are even open to the public.
The one that you shouldn’t miss is Hôtel d’Assézat, known as the Fondation Bemberg. It is a 16th century palace and a hidden gem in Toulouse.
It houses a prestigious, if uneven, private art collection of medieval and impressionist art. It’s not Paris, but the Bemberg Fondation has over 50 works by Pierre Bonnard, the Impressionist painter, and works by Picasso, Sisley, Degas, and Monet. There are even some works by Toulouse-Lautrec, though one wonders why the works are not in his eponymous museum in Albi.
The Fondation closes between 12:30 and 1:30 pm, which can be a bit of a nuisance, so plan your time there accordingly.
Address: Place d'Assezat
Hours: 10:00 am to 12:30 pm & 1:30 pm-6:00 pm Tuesday-Sunday
Entry fee: Full price 8 €, reduced price 5 €, Under 7 years Free
Tel: +33 05 61 12 06 89
8. Toulouse Markets
Toulouse has several atmospheric covered markets, where you can indulge in the city’s famed culinary delights. The best is Les Halles Victor Hugo, home to the top food producers. It was built in 1892, and renovated in 1959. While the building itself is undistinguished, it is situated among the lovely mansions of Toulouse.
Inside, you'll find over 100 stalls selling a mouth watering array of beautifully displayed food, including salami, cheeses, fruit preserves, fish, meat, foie gras, chocolates, breads, and pastries. The French really know how to eat. The market is considered one of the most prestigious food markets in France, and is really a must see.
There are cafes, bars, and 5 restaurants on the upper level of the market. Four times a year, there is a Victor Hugo Festival where you can stock up on victuals and listen to live music from 6:30-10:30 pm.
Victor Hugo Market:
Address: Place Victor Hugo
Hours: Open daily except Monday, 6 am to 2 am
9. Street Art: L’Enfant au bonnet d’âne
L’Enfant is a sculpture by rising Toulouse street artist James Colomina, who specializes in surprise installation. Colomina's sculptures are installed in a public space, and then often abruptly withdrawn and installed elsewhere.
L'Enfant is a life-size red resin sculpture of a child in a donkey or dunce’s cap. The sculpture is perched on a non-accessible spot on the 16th century Pont Neuf overlooking the Garonne River. L'Enfant is intended to represent people stigmatized and isolated by society.
Famously, in the summer of 2017, L'Enfant was stolen by petty thieves. Police recovered the sculpture and Colomina cleaned and restored it to its iconic spot, deciding that the Pont Neuf was where "it was destined to be."
Many tourists mistake the sculpture for a devil or demon. You can even buy souvenirs of L’Enfant in many of Toulouse's shops and museums.
10. N°5 Wine Bar
In 2017, N°5 Wine Bar was voted the best wine bar in the world. It’s a relaxed hipster spot with an expert-level menu for oenophiles.
You can purchase a prepaid card to access up to 30 wines from the Enomatic wine by the glass dispenser. Or, there is an impressive wine list offering 300 wines by the glass and more than 3300 wines by the bottle.
It is also a small and lively tapas bar. The cuisine is a gourmet French take on tapas: creative nibbles like truffled egg, scallop carpaccio, grilled artichoke, and plates of local cheese and charcuterie. Just be sure to make a reservation if you plan to eat there.
Address: 5 rue de la Bourse
Hours: Open daily except Monday from 6:00 pm to 12:00 am
Tel: +33 5 61 38 44 51
11. Canal du Midi
Running for about 150 miles, UNESCO site Canal du Midi links Toulouse with the Mediterranean Sea. The canal is up to 65 feet wide and is about 6.5 feet deep, and is the oldest navigable canal in Europe.
It is lined on both sides by the tall trees, providing shade and a peaceful ambiance. Locals using the banks for either cycling or jogging, and you can too escape in nature away from the teeming buzz of the pink city.
You can rent bikes or take a boat excursion lasting up to 2 hours or the entire day. Or book a dinner cruise.
12. Cité de l’Espace, The Space Museum
If you're interested in science and space travel, you should not miss the futuristic theme park and museum, Cité de l’Espace.
It's an interactive museum where, according to one of the museum's designers, "the general public could come to learn what space exploration was all about, and how it’s done.” If this sounds similar to the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C., you’re right.
Take a tour through the original Mir Space Station, gaze up at the towering Ariane space rocket, and vicariously experience travel to Mars. There is even special a playground for children called the Little Astronaut Square.
In July 2017, a completely renovated planetarium reopened with cutting edge technology.
Address: Avenue Jean Gonord, Parc de la Plaine
Tel: +33 05 67 22 23 24
13. Carmes Neighborhood
I stayed in Toulouse's fetching Carmes neighborhood, in a lovely renovated red brick Air Bnb with an interior courtyard and stained glass windows.
I was absolutely entranced by this neighborhood. Carmes feels like a small village with ancient streets and an authentic, slightly hipster vibe. And the architecture and architectural details are stunning. I fell in love with the colorful doors and windows.
Les Carmes is also home to a myriad of small organic food markets, restaurants, music shops, and small cafés. It’s a perfect neighborhood to stay in Toulouse and only a few minutes walk from the Garrone River and the Capitole.