Toulouse in 2 Days: A last minute summer escape
France was calling out to me and as a Francophile and travel lover that desire for a return trip was increasing rapidly, especially as I had only been for a day trip to Paris earlier in the year! Fortunately, there was still a late summer bank holiday in August here in the UK to take advantage of which would satisfy that wanderlust! So, I decided to test that concept of a ‘last minute deal’ to determine whether they still existed! Therefore, it was only on the Friday morning that I thankfully finalised my booking to Toulouse, in the south west of France, with a departure the following day!
As exciting as a spontaneous trip had initially seemed there was the sudden realisation of having insufficient time to organise everything! Fortunately, a luxeadventuretraveler‘s blog post about a weekend in Toulouse and Kash from Budget Traveller‘s post about a day trip to Toulouse came to my rescue! I certainly felt slightly relieved knowing that I had reserved at least one activity for the weekend ahead, which was a city tour, but there will be more about that later! It was to be my first time in Toulouse which is the fourth largest city in France and also known as La Ville Rose. Hopefully, you might also feel inspired to visit this lovely city after reading this post!
Arrival in Toulouse – Day 1 (Saturday)
At just under two hours, a breakfast flight meant that I landed in Toulouse late morning. It is also possible, for a more scenic journey, to travel via Eurostar connecting at Paris if you are planning to visit for a longer period. However, knowing that the majority of French people are on holiday in August, I was not certain as to what I should expect to be available to me for a weekend trip. So, I had opted to stay right in the heart of Toulouse in the old quarter near Capitole at the elegant Le Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra to avail myself of the many delights of the city quickly, particularly as I was travelling solo.
For the first time in many years, I had arrived at an airport without any pre-arranged transport and so had to re-live those early days of travel as a student standing at the tourist information desk at the airport awaiting transport details!
Technology had truly failed me as the only option that Google maps had presented to me to travel to my hotel was a Bla Bla Bus (that name always seems to make me smile) route departing the following day! In the spirit of adventure, I relied on the more traditional travel planning with a map, a guide book and my memory to navigate my way around Toulouse.
From the airport, it is possible to take a shuttle bus into central Toulouse for EUR 8, one way, or to take the tramway line, T2, and connect to the metro at Arenes for EUR 1.70 to travel into central Toulouse. As my city tour was not until 3pm, I had some time at my disposal to take the metro. However, the airport shuttle is supposed to be the quicker route if you are in a hurry. One tip that I would provide, if the metro is your preferred route, is to ensure that you also have Euro coins as the ticket machines will not accept notes as payment! Furthermore, it is necessary to validate your metro ticket on the tram and the metro and so you should not discard it until the end of your journey.
Fortunately, it was a very sunny morning, which facilitated matters, as the check in at Le Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra did not commence until 3.30pm! It was therefore the perfect opportunity to orientate myself with the surroundings.
I had already traversed Place du Capitole, en route to the hotel, and it seemed to be a particularly busy day, being a Saturday, at the Capitole building, which is the opera and town hall, as many weddings were occurring! The Place du Capitole also seemed reminiscent of the Grand Place in Brussels in terms of size and structure!
The Capitole building by all accounts is stunning! As the first monument that I encountered in Toulouse, I was mesmerised by its pink marble and columns and it was the perfect complement to the bright, blue skies that day. Toulouse’s nickname La Ville Rose, pink city, is derived from the terracotta colour of the bricks of the city’s buildings. At such moment, I was reminded of my trip to Armenia, earlier that summer, as its capital Yerevan is similarly nicknamed the pink city!
One thing that immediately struck me was how quiet the centre seemed but it was one of the last weekends in August and so it was still the peak holiday period. This meant, however, that some independent businesses were closing that weekend for a late summer break before la rentrée!
Fortunately, Place du Capitole and its surrounding areas were teeming with life with a flea market on the square, lots of violet shops, violet seems to be a symbol of Toulouse, and lots of cafés for people watching!
However, time was limited … arriving in Toulouse on a Saturday ultimately meant that there was only one day available to explore the local shops for any souvenirs. Indeed, as is the case throughout the rest of France, the majority of shops and some restaurants are closed on Sundays and also Mondays. Given that I still had time at my disposal, I opted to be that flâneuse to explore the old quarter.
Rue d’Alsace Lorraine is one of the longest streets for central Toulouse, with beautiful, pink infused architecture, and it is where the majority of the traditional shops such as Galeries Lafayette and Monoprix are located. The Monoprix is still open until lunchtime on Sundays in case you require an additional pain au chocolat!
Another point to mention is that the streets in Toulouse are referenced by two names! You will therefore notice two signs for each street, with one being the name in French and the other is in the regional language Occitan. Toulouse does understandably have a very Catalan and colourful feel to its areas and I could feel its passionate spirit as I explored further.
A beautiful fountain emerged whilst I was wandering around Place Roger Salengro and it was difficult to resist capturing a shot, you will see why when you visit!
Another good spot for photos is that of the courtyard of Hotel Assézat. The Fondation Bemberg art gallery is housed within the same building, but it was far too sunny outdoors for me to go inside at that point!
From there it was quite simple to walk to Esquirol towards Pont Neuf and La Garonne river. Typically, when I am on holiday, I enjoy discovering the location of the other hotels that featured within my research. So, I was pleased to discover Hotel des Beaux Arts opposite Pont Neuf. It certainly seemed as though it would have been a good destination for lunch overlooking the river, only 15 minutes from Capitole, if only I did not have to return promptly for that afternoon’s city tour!
This part of Toulouse leaves behind the slightly touristy feel of the area around Capitole and reminded me of the banks of the Seine in Paris. The views from Pont Neuf, of the Garonne, are hypnotic and this is Toulouse’s oldest bridge. It is certainly one of the Toulouse highlights to visit.
Whilst by the banks of Pont Neuf, I shared my admiration of the beauty of the Garonne with a Frenchman visiting from Marseille; it seems that there were mostly visitors in Toulouse during August, including myself! I would certainly enjoy a return visit when most of the Toulouse residents have returned to absorb the city’s usual dynamics!
City Tour of Grand Toulouse Monuments
The starting point of the tour is at the tourist office at the back of Capitole. Tickets for the monuments tour, organised by the Toulouse tourist office can be purchased online for EUR 12. The tours are available in French and English. However, if you are in possession of a Toulouse tourism pass then the price of the tour is waived. The tour lasts for slightly over 2 hours and so good walking shoes will be useful! It is a very useful method to orientate yourself with Toulouse and so I would recommend reserving a place on the tour.
Most of my sightseeing within Toulouse was accomplished during this tour, which of course, was in French, with a very informative guide! At the start of the walk we were shown the violet and pastel (blue) plants, which are the two symbols of Toulouse!
The impressive Basilique St-Sernin, Couvent des Jacobins and Hôtel de Bernuy were also covered in the tour. I just revelled in the lovely architecture and being surrounded by so much pink as well as the blue shutters along the route. It was fascinating to learn about the origins of Capitole due to merchants, the Capitouls. Equally fascinating was the fact that Toulouse used to be a separate kingdom to the rest of France.
Basilique St-Sernin is the impressive church that you can see from a distance in Toulouse. It is a Romanesque church from the 11th century and is one of the must see buildings of Toulouse. This church also features on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
Couvent des Jacobins, built in 1230, is renowned for the palm shape contained within its interior, where one of its pillars meets the vaulted ceiling to form the shape, which is a fascinating sight to view. The Couvent is also the location of the relics of St Thomas Aquinas. There is also a nice garden to relax within by its cloisters.
Whilst on the tour, I noticed the Cinémathèque de Toulouse which was still hosting its outdoor cinema programme. Fortunately, there were screenings that evening for the last day of its festival and so I returned to book a ticket to formalise my evening plans. It had also been mentioned on the tour that it is widely accepted in Toulouse, that if a door is open then you should certainly peer inside! It was the perfect opportunity to be slightly nosy whilst walking around!
Along this street, rue du Taur (‘Taur’ means ‘bull’ in Occitan), are a few bars and cafés which are not extremely touristy, which is surprising given the location. I settled at the bar l’Esquile for an aperitif in such a great location for people watching and cycling watching! It was such a warm start to the evening, temperatures had been 29 degrees, and so with two glasses of rosé at only EUR 5.60, I could have whiled away my evening there! The bar staff were friendly and I was given recommendations for dining options that evening, such as Au Poêle de la Bête, as well as helpful suggestions of places that would also be open on Sundays.
For dinner, based on the recommendations, I walked to Rue Gambetta. Given that I was due at the cinema for 9.30pm, I was not seeking an elaborate three course dinner! Le Bruit qui Court, was conveniently located, had outdoor seating and a formule on its menu and was therefore ideal! Given that I did not have a lot of time at my disposal, I only ordered one course which was pavé du saumon (salmon) for EUR 19, which was cooked well and was also served with accompaniments such as vegetables and chips.
There was also the possibility of a formule with two courses, reasonably priced at EUR 24. The location is also en route to the Garonne and so there is a tranquil ambience which might also be an ideal location for you. The restaurant is located on one of the opposite corners of Place du Capitole but it is still ideal if visiting the theatre or opera.
Open Air Cinema Festival
La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night) by François Truffaut was the final screening for the open air cinema programme, which was a film that I had not watched before and so I was pleased to have stumbled across the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. The seating was within the courtyard with a giant screen erected and at 9.30pm it was still pleasantly warm, and so there was a hypnotic ambience. The tickets were approximately EUR 7 and I would certainly recommend attending its outdoor cinema events for a non-touristy experience. The films within the programme were both in English and French language including classics such as Thelma and Louise, the Usual Suspects, Blade Runner, A Bout de Souffle and Psycho.
I was certainly in my element as a film lover and enjoyed being in a film festival in France which is the home of many classic films. Plus, La Nuit Américaine is set in Nice, which I have previously visited, and its premise concerns the making of a film (mise-en-abîme) and so was apt! It is a delightful film which I would recommend watching.
This film festival was certainly one of the highlights of the trip for a film lover like me!
Sunday in Toulouse – Day 2
Outside of the centre, there are limited options for Sunday activities. Again, I had not made any advance arrangements for the Sunday and whilst mentioning this on Twitter, Kash from Budget Traveller was helpful again with a few suggestions of Sunday flea markets.
However, as it was the August holiday period, some of those markets were not operating but a post found on the Lonely Planet forum referenced a food market which sounded ideal for a relaxing Sunday! I was also conscious that the Capitole building was open on Sundays and so that was another option!
Marché Victor Hugo
Marché Victor Hugo is a covered market located near Place du Président Thomas Wilson, which was an area that I had not as yet ventured to during my wanderings, and so it appealed to my inner explorer! Again, I revelled in the pink façades of Rue d’Alsace Lorraine, it is just so pretty, but also the construction of Place du Président Thomas Wilson, with its curved buildings, reminded me of Regent Street in London.
Place du Président Thomas Wilson is the ideal location for people watching with cafés surrounding a relaxing square with a fountain, which is Jardin Pierre Goudouli, which had a manège (carousel); what could be more French?!
It seemed to be an area frequented by locals for that relaxing Sunday.
Equally, Marché Victor Hugo was teeming with the local Toulouse residents! This was clearly the place to be for a Sunday!
The market is only open until 2pm on Sundays and so you should head there early! It has fresh food stalls, bars and also restaurants. The first floor is entirely dedicated to restaurants and so I would recommend visiting early to find a reasonably priced lunch!
Whilst I did not have the time to eat at the restaurants, Le Magret did look appealing for a return visit and has a balcony as a bonus. So, it may be somewhere of interest for your visit. The balcony overlooks Rue Victor Hugo which was teeming with life in the restaurants below and so there are plenty of nearby lunch options!
I was, however, tempted to have a glass of rosé at the buzzy Chai Vincent bar on the ground floor. Virtually everyone in the market seemed to have a glass of wine in their hand and so when in Toulouse … Plus, it was only EUR 3 to indulge in a glass of rosé at Chai Vincent and so I definitely could not resist!
You can also have a plate of tapas for EUR 5 whilst sampling the available wines at Chai Vincent. For me, there is just something so intoxicating about having a refreshing glass of rosé on a summer’s day in the south of France and so I did feel inclined to purchase a bottle of the Toulouse rosé by Joliet to re-live the experience back in London!
It was soon time to embark on a Sunday stroll and to awaken that inner flâneuse!
Sunday stroll in Toulouse
Central Toulouse is rather compact thereby making it simple to traverse many areas by foot. So, my stroll took me past the Hôtel de France on to Alleés du Président Frankelin Roosevelt to Boulevard Strasbourg. This area seemed akin to other big French cities that I have visited, as it was adjacent to the mainline stations and resembled Boulevard Saint Michel in Paris to me in parts, with a Hippopotamus brasserie similarly on the road, but it also had an inner city feel. There are a few hotels in that area but I would recommend staying centrally if you are only in Toulouse for a weekend.
I finally felt as though I was getting my bearings, however the plan on the itinerary was to return to Place St Sernin albeit via a slightly different route to discover the flea market! This provided me with the perfect excuse to bring out my inner flâneuse and just wander through the streets soaking up the atmosphere and the pretty pink façades!
One thing that I noticed on my stroll is the abundance of cinemas in the area and so this is also an option for a Sunday activity. Rue St Bernard also had quite interesting building designs which I couldn’t hesitate photographing … there is just such an intoxicating feel to being surrounded by these pink buildings!
Whilst Place St Sernin seemed ideal for people watching, unfortunately the flea market was already closed for the summer. However, as I was in flâneuse mode I just let my legs guide me to another location! So, I spotted the delightful restaurant, Sept, which is Michelin starred, but it was also already closed for its summer break. It had such a pleasing exterior and is away from the tourist throngs and so may be ideal for a spot of lunch and so I made a mental note to add it to my list of places to experience on a return visit to Toulouse! Plus, it is adjacent to a crêperie called Ma Cri’perie as an added bonus!
But, my legs were leading me towards the river and so I followed the street signs taking in the university, which is also in pink! From there, a slight breeze from the river can be felt which offers some respite when visiting Toulouse during the summer months!
It simply is the perfect activity in Toulouse to go on a Sunday stroll by the river Garonne, which on a second view had not lost any of its charm for me! Eglise Saint Pierre des Chartreux is also nearby for a quick visit to inject some sightseeing into your Sunday stroll. It is one of the smaller churches with a few paintings to observe.
En route to Pont Saint-Pierre, I could hear the peals of jazz music being played. Being naturally curious, I decided to discover the source. I was certainly delighted to discover an outdoor swing dancing event on Place Saint-Pierre. As you may know, I take a blues dancing class and so I was certainly captivated by the dancing in front of me. It appears that this event was part of Bal Swing St Pierre which occurs on various Sundays and the next one appears to be in November 2019 if you wish to join in!
However, if you are unable to participate in the dancing then you might be tempted, as I was, to indulge in some ice cream whilst sitting on the Place enjoying the dancing. Fortunately, the Moustache ice cream stand is directly on the square and offers a wide range of ice cream flavours! I opted for rum and raisin and must admit that it is one of the best rum and raisin ice creams that I have eaten for some time!
Despite it being so tempting to while away the rest of the afternoon on the square with the hypnotising jazz music, the Garonne was just too enchanting to resist! Plus, it is such a great sensation to be eating ice cream on a stroll by a river! On my descent to the banks of the river, I noticed Pont Neuf in the distance and realised that it is a rather simple journey to walk between the two bridges!
However, before doing so, I was keen to walk across Pont Saint-Pierre and to see the hospital, La Grave. You will notice, if visiting Toulouse in 2019, that there are a few mannequins sitting nearby or swinging from the bridges.
Marine at the Toulouse tourism board, advised me after my trip, that these mannequins feature in an installation by American designer Mark Jenkins as part of the biannual Toulouse street art exhibition, Rose Béton, until the end of September 2019. If you are planning a trip to Toulouse this autumn then you might still be able to view them as they are certainly striking! There will also be a street art exhibition to follow at Les Abattoirs, the museum of modern and contemporary art.
Across Pont Saint-Pierre is a beach area, Port Viguerie, which will quite often have stalls and other activities but is equally just an ideal location to sit on the grass with a picnic admiring the views of the Garonne.
On the route back you may wish to stop by No.5 wine bar which has received numerous awards for being the best wine bar in Europe and indeed in the world! Unfortunately, the bar was already closed for a summer holiday when I walked by.
This did, however, provide me with sufficient time to visit the area of Carmes. It seemed however that I could not completely escape London whilst there as I noticed a pub bearing its name!
Carmes has a chic neighbourhood feel and you may wish to pop into the covered market whilst in the area. I was only able to view an outdoor bar as the rest of the market was closed but it will certainly feature on a return visit!
It felt apt to visit the Capitole building in the early evening just before the sun set to view its rose marbelled façade glimmering in the sunlight! The building is open until 7pm and it is free to enter. When entering the building you know that you are in for a treat from the outset due to the ornately decorated, sweeping staircase. I do like a sweeping staircase and so I was instantly impressed! Plus, the hotel in which I resided, the Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra similarly had a dazzling staircase and so I was certainly in admiration of the interior of these Toulouse buildings.
Due to the walking tour, I was already aware that the 8 marble pillars at the exterior of the Capitole building represented the 8 original Capitouls who were the head of the city.
The Capitole building is also the town hall and so the room where the municipal council sits can also be seen whilst visiting.
However, the true highlight of the interior of the Capitole is the unmissable Salle des Illustres. This room contains a mesmerising fresco as well as post impressionist paintings in a long hall. It is certainly worth a visit!
Place du Capitole at sunset
The Capitole building shut promptly at 7pm which was the perfect time for a sunset cocktail on Place du Capitole. I would certainly recommend viewing the painted ceilings by La Floride bar, whilst on Place du Capitole. Plus having a refreshing sunset drink in the area is a must!
Capitole simply looks stunning at sunset with the pink marble glistening and I was truly transfixed by its dreamlike qualities.
There are several bars surrounding the square, with a good sunset vantage point, to enjoy a refreshing drink. I opted for a drink at Le Bibent, which is not touristy, which is surprising given its location, and also has a happy hour from 6pm to 8pm!
One cocktail quickly led to two on that perfect summer’s night whilst I was admiring the Capitole basked in the sunset. So, I would certainly recommend sampling the refreshing Spritz à la Française cocktail at sunset whilst watching the world go by on Place du Capitole! Apparently, the interior of Le Bibent is also very nicely decorated with art deco designs which may be another reason to visit!
For dinner, I received some recommendations again, such as Hotel des Beaux Arts and Place St Georges, but these were suggestions from the hotel on this occasion. Quite a few of the restaurants are closed on Sundays and so I could have quite simply opted to eat at the hotel’s café. The hotel’s Michelin starred restaurant, Les Jardins de l’Opéra was unfortunately also closed on Sundays. However, I was keen to visit a new location. So, I followed the advice to visit Place St Georges.
En route to Place St Georges, you may walk on to the elegant street Rue Antoine which has shops such as The Kooples and Sandro. For a Sunday night, the area remains quite busy and was in fact buzzing! There were people sitting on the grass and outdoors in the many cafes and bars surrounding the square. You will therefore be spoilt for choice for Sunday dinner options!
I opted to eat at Crêperie St Georges, as I always prefer to be eating French cuisine when in France.
There is a good ambience at the creperie plus three types of formule ranging from EUR 13 to EUR 16 offering a savoury and sweet crêpe or salad combination and are all accompanied by the traditional cider! It was truly a very French experience for my final night in Toulouse! The crêpes were light and scrumptious although the marron and chantilly crêpe was too sweet for my liking! I would recommend visiting for an authentic French experience, however!
Closing at approximately 10.30pm, the crêperie was an ideal location being only a stone’s throw away from the hotel! Place St Georges was certainly a lively area for dining and I would return in the future plus, there were more neighbouring roads to discover such as Place Occitan.
The night was still very warm as I returned to the hotel and my red room! With a morning flight on the horizon, I knew that I would miss wandering around the pink city that is Toulouse. So, I vowed to return to Toulouse and I was already planning which areas to discover, such as La cité de l’espace and the Airbus museum, and those to re-visit for my next trip to soak up its delightful pink infused ambience again!
Has Toulouse featured on any of your French trips or are you now interested to visit? Let me know in the comments below.