As the London autumn approached, we were in need of a bargain late summer getaway for a last dose of sunshine. We scoured skyscanner and narrowed our options. With a soft spot for France, we leaned towards Toulouse, a mostly unknown destination for us. On the basis that most French cities we’ve visited thus far have been beautiful, add in a bit of french food and wine on the side… what could go wrong – we booked it!
In the weeks prior to our visit, Toulouse had been basking in 28 degree celsius sunshine. However this weekend, Toulouse had other ideas. The heavens opened… and rarely stopped! Determined not to let the rain stop us we headed out and explored all the same.. And thankfully we did as Toulouse had plenty to offer.
A little bit of history…
Toulouse is a charming city situated in the southwest of France – not far from the Pyrenees mountains and a short drive from the mediterranean sea. It is France’s fourth biggest city and the layout is typically French. The wide and tree lined main streets are edged with those beautifully detailed, old apartment buildings seen in all the big cities – the ones that sit no more than four stories high with tiny little balconies for sipping coffee or drinking wine on. Many of the buildings are made with terracotta pink bricks and thus it is known as ‘la ville rose’, ‘the pink city’. Place du Capitole is the heart of the city, an incredibly grand square guarded by the beautiful neo-classical town hall. Cafes line the square and are a perfect spot to devour croissants and watch locals and tourists alike.
La Vieux Quartier (the old quarter) is an enchanting tangle of winding streets and impressive churches. The tiny pedestrian avenues are packed with shops, cafes and eateries, it’s window shutters and doorways coloured in pinky pastels. The river Garonne divides the city with the town centre sitting on the eastern bank. Several amazing bridges link each side, providing great views up and down the river. There is also a huge network of canals circling the city, offering endless trails for walking and biking.
Things to do in Toulouse
– MARKETS –
Victor Hugo Marche
If, like us, you’re a sucker for a good food market then Toulouse is a city for you. The first market we stopped by on Saturday morning was the Marche Victor Hugo – the largest covered market in Toulouse. When you’re used to the gorgeous buildings that Toulouse offers, the market may come as a bit of a surprise. Located in a 1970’s above ground, multistory concrete carpark, the outside is an eyesore and leaves much to be desired. But it’s the inside that counts right?! Inside you can find all the things that french food dreams are made of! Boucheries, boulangeries, fromageries, et crèmeries, all selling Toulousain specialities; saucisse de toulouse, foie gras, endless cheeses and artisan chocolate. Small cafes are dotted throughout, the type of places where locals tuck in to an espresso, a glass of red or a refreshing beer from 9.30am. We opted for a cappuccino at a lively spot that appeared to specialize in four things – wine, beer, coffee and boiled eggs. An unusual combo but after washing down our egg with a coffee we were totally onboard!
On the second floor of the market are a handful of restaurants set up side by side. We didn’t have time to eat there, but we’ve heard it’s a reasonably priced, quality lunch. Promising feedback. If you have time, I’d try it!
Marche Victor Hugo is open everyday except Mondays, from 6am-2pm.
Marche des Carmes
For a slightly quieter, possibly friendlier, and more local experience head to Marche des Carmes for your dose of Toulousain market (or go to both-like us!). It is a covered market much like Victor Hugo and has over 50 stalls of fresh produce – fruit, veggies, meat, cheese, bread and plentiful pastries. We bought a picnic lunch from here; a chunk of toulousain sausage, goat’s cheese, fresh pain de campagne, a few delicious tomatoes and a canelé to finish. Bon appetit!
Marche des Carmes is also open everyday except Monday, 7.30am-middayish.
Saint Aubin Flea Market
If food markets don’t tickle your tastebuds or you’re after a more tangible souvenir, then this is the place to be. Every Sunday morning under towering trees near the Church of Saint-Aubin, over 70 exhibitors gather to sell their vintage wares. From paintings and posters, to books, baskets, crafts and furniture you’ll find treasures (or trash!) for all tastes. As one of the oldest flea markets in France it is full of character. Worthy of a visit! And if the market isn’t your thing, perhaps a stroll around the Saint Aubin neighbourhood is? It’s a lively, artsy, feels-like-a-village type of place. Also, there’s plenty of food options to keep you going!
Note: This market is normally referred to as Brocante Saint Sernin, and is usually held at Basilica Saint Sernin, however due to works around the Basilica it has relocated to the Church of Saint Aubin from January 2017-2019.
– CHURCHES –
The city of a hundred beautiful churches. I have never come across so many magnificent buildings in such a short two days… cathedrals, churches, basilicas and monasteries are scattered throughout Toulouse. Built between the 11th and 19th centuries, their architectural styles vary from Romanesque to Gothic and pop up around every corner. Enormous, historic, magnificent. Definitely take a moment to visit a few of these – even if you’re not the religious type. The architecture of each is breathtakingly beautiful, with peaceful interiors and rich and interesting histories.
A few of my favourites were… (and these are just a select few, there were many more!)…
Couvent des Jacobins – if you must choose just one religion-themed building to visit, make this the one… Built in 1229 the Couvent des Jacobins is a large rust-coloured Dominican monastery that includes a church, side chapel, bell tower, and an incredible courtyard. The courtyard has tall cypress trees, squares of green grass and perfectly manicured hedges. It is surrounded by perfect stone arches and passageways. A tranquil, beautiful spot.
Couvent des Jacobins is open everyday except Monday, 10am-6pm. To access all areas of the monastery you need to pay an entrance fee of €4. Promise it’s worth it.
Toulouse was made for meandering! The main streets of La Vieux Quartier are a photogenic jumble of cobbled, winding and (mostly) pedestrianised rues (few cars would dare to brave the narrow lanes!). Rue des Filatiers (turning into Rue des Changes) is one of the main streets, a multitude of cafes and bars spill onto it’s cobbled paths. On that note – we stayed in an AirBnb on Rue des Filatiers. Make sure you stay any where in this area as you will be in amongst all the action here. Also, venture off the main track – there are so many hidden side streets to be explored. The Saint-Étienne quarter (near the cathedral) is known for its antiques and secondhand shops. It too has beautiful buildings and was one of my favourite neighbourhoods.
Hire a Bike…
While (I think) the old town is much easier to discover by foot (there are a few too many people to dodge and the buildings are distractingly beautiful), I would definitely recommend hiring a bike to explore a little more of the city. Like a lot of French cities Toulouse is well set up for biking. With bike rental stations on almost every corner and cycle paths on most roads, you have no excuse! Cycle down the picturesque tree-lined canals to see the suburbs or over Pont Neuf, the city’s oldest bridge (built in 1542!) to enjoy views down the Garonne. You can cover distance quickly on a bike and you’ll soon find yourself lost in lively little neighbourhoods.
What and where to eat and drink
For evening drinks and to feel like a local head to the hip side of town – La Daurade (nearer to the river). We stopped at Le Petit Voisin, a particularly busy and vibey little place that overflows onto the street. Beer on tap and a Kir de Cassis (french aperitif) were our choice, accompanied by complimentary bowls of crisps, peanuts and saucisson. It’s a great place to people watch. La Competesse, in the same area was also very popular spot for the evening too.
Another great option is to grab a few beers or wine of your choice and head down to the banks of the river Garonne. Local’s and tourists sit on the grassy banks, soaking up the afternoon sun and watching the world go by.
Toulouse is famous for it’s cassoulet and while the city apparently twinkles with michelin stars restaurants…. these aren’t quiet in our travel budget yet (one day!). We wanted to try the cassoulet however, so after a spot of research decided on the restaurant La Gouaille, a ‘cassoulet cave’. A popular and funky little place, that (due to popularity!) has two restaurants in Toulouse, one on Rue Joutx Aigues, and one in the La Daurade area (called La Petite Gouaille).
We had a hearty traditional soup to start and followed with a duck and bean cassoulet, washed down with une carafe de vin rouge. It’s a cosy, busy spot and is good value.
Le Bol Bu – tucked away down a quaint, unassuming alleyway in the centre of the old town, we stumbled upon this gem, a little Salon de thé. The oldest tea room in Toulouse it serves over 100 different teas and specializes in delicious crepes and fresh salads. It does not serve alcohol, but let me tell you – their cinnamon drinks are something else! It is a higgledy-piggledy, eclectic place with artwork scattered all over the walls, baskets hanging from the ceiling and dried flowers in vases. It’s a great place to hang out for a while, or escape the rain – as we did!
Le Grenier de Pépé – while we didn’t get to try this place (it’s hours are little unusual), we really wished we had! We’ve been recommended it again and again.
Located near the Jean-Jaures metro stop, it has highly rated galettes and crepes by day, with fondues and meat added to the menu by night. It is reasonably priced, feels very local and is supposed to be incredibly delicious. Definitely go if you can.
It is open Monday to Friday from noon to 2 pm and from 7.30 pm to 9.30 pm, and on Sundays from 7.30 pm to 9.30 pm. Closed Saturdays (all day) and Sunday Midday.
There are some cities you visit where you leave feeling like you have hardly scraped the surface. After a weekend in Toulouse I felt like we had got to know it pretty well.There is plenty we didn’t do, but it feels like one of those cities that is very ‘doable’ for just one weekend or couple of days. If you do have longer however, I would suggest tucking in to the museum and gallery scene (which is thriving!) or exploring some of the stunning french countryside.
Mes amies, that is Toulouse… a picturesque little city full of character – stop by for a wonderful weekend.