Despite the fact that Toulouse is the fourth biggest city in France, it is frequently overlooked by tourists. Anyone who has had the chance to visit (us included) will tell you that Toulouse is still an unexplored gem and can offer much more than any traveller can possibly ask for. Rich history, architecture, exquisite local cuisine, and -unexpectedly- lots of fun outdoor activities. The city has a relaxing and youthful vibe, a vivid nightlife, and what’s more a great climate! It also serves as a good base for organizing several day trips to nearby areas.
Overall, it felt as an ideal destination for friends, couples and families of all ages!
What Makes Toulouse So Unique
Toulouse has been constructed entirely by red brick using mud taken out of the Garonne River. With brick being considered as a rather cheap material, and when compared to the imposing French architectural style where stone was predominating, Toulouse was always seen as the “poor” relative.
Aesthetically speaking, both locals and visitors had noticed that the color of the bricks was giving the city a warm pink glow especially at sunset time. Over the years, and thanks to this pinkish effect, Toulouse became known as “La Ville Rose” (“The Pink City”).
The red bricks might nowadays be part of the city’s touristic charm, however, for many years they were a real shame for its citizens. When Toulouse started gaining prosperity, the government decided to prove that the city could be as elegant as Paris. Architects took over the task of widening the major shopping streets and covering the facade of the surrounding buildings. In this way, the buildings would resemble more to the typical French architecture.
The Language (no, it's not French)
Occitan is historically the official language of the region Toulouse belongs to (Occitanie). Even if French is widely spoken among the population, there is a fair one-third of the people living in the South of France still speaking Occitan in their everyday life.
Truth be told, Occitan is rarely used in social contacts especially among young people. Following this observation, the language has been recognized as endangered and there is a huge effort to be supported through literature, cultural events, teaching material, etc.
To that direction, primary schools in the broader area were given the option to introduce (or not) Occitan to the children at their early age. And indeed many state and private institutions have opted to become bilingual. At secondary state schools Occitan is offered as an optional class, while in the university it is a dedicated subject.
A Short History Lesson - The Golden Age of Toulouse
During the period between the 15th and the 16th century Toulouse grew quite wealthy thanks to the Pastel trade. Pastel (woad) is a tiny plant whose leaves, following a very delicate process, provide a high quality of indelible blue dye. Apparently, the soil and climate in the South of France were the ideal across Europe for the woad to grow. Soon, the area between Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne became world-famous as the Golden Triangle of Pastel.
Back in those days the blue colour had become a symbol of aristocracy. Pastel served as an expensive luxury affordable only by the very wealthy, and trade grew into a very powerful business. Unfortunately, traders did not invest any of their money in developing different cultivation or production methods. Instead, they preferred to construct lavish mansions and increase their political power. Inevitably, it was just a matter of time until a cheaper and easier to process product (indigo) would be introduced in the market. The pastel trade experienced a huge decline until it fell into oblivion.
While in Toulouse, you can (and should) pay a visit to the Terre de Pastel (Pastel Museum). For those who wish to deep dive into the topic, there is a wide variety of Thematic Tours and Discovery Workshops to choose from. Just make sure to register prior to your visit.
It is worth mentioning that Terre de Pastel is not just a museum but a huge complex. Here you will find an 800 m² Health and Wellness Center, as well as an adjacent boutique and restaurant. Pamper yourself by booking an appointment for the facial or body treatment of your choice. During your session you will get the opportunity to experience first-hand products made from pastel! Did I maybe forget to mention that pastel is also used for medical and cosmetic purposes? Well, now that you know, make sure you buy some products while onsite, or check them out on their e-shop.
A Leap into the Future - The Capital of the European Aerospace Industry
Toulouse is famous for its cutting-edge technology, hosting Airbus one of the largest airspace companies in the world. The Blagnac airport is the company’s headquarters and the main manufacturing plant / assembly line of the giant Airbuses.
If you are excited with the idea of getting to see how an airplane is constructed, then you are in the right place! Airbus is giving visitors the opportunity to join one of their tours for an amazing behind the scenes experience! Available for you to choose from are the “Airbus Discovery Circuit” and the “A350 XWB Tour”. Beware that a prior booking is mandatory and should be done online at least 1-2 days in advance. Access to the plant is granted only upon presentation of a valid Passport or ID Card (for EU citizens). No other identification documents are acceptable.
Most people combine their Airbus visit with the Aeroscopia Museum (a discounted ticket is available at the reception desk).
Those of you traveling with young kids (or feel a kid yourself), can additionally consider uncovering the secrets of space at Cité de l’Espace. This Theme Park with its various exhibitions, interactive games, animations can keep you / your family busy for a whole day!
My Personal Top 3 from Toulouse
Toulouse has so many things to do and see that our 3-day stay seemed way too short. We tried to visit as many places as possible but could see only half of them. Having said that, I will only focus on the 3 most memorable visits/moments, being conscious that I might have missed out on something that is still worth mentioning…
1. Le Capitol
The Capitole is probably the most recognizable landmark of Toulouse. This magnificent building serves as the seat of the government since the 12th century. Nowadays, it hosts the city’s Town Hall and Opera Theatre.
If you think that the exterior is pretty impressive, wait until you see its interior! Considered by many as an Art Museum with all its rooms adorned by magnificent mural paintings. Amazingly, each painting tells a different story from the history of Toulouse. Here is what we learnt during our visit in the Capitole:
- Walking up the Great Stairway: The Academy of Floral Games, one of the oldest literary institutions, was founded in Toulouse in 1323. Back then, seven local troubadours organized the first poetry competition, a competition that is held annually ever since! The winning prize for the best poet was a gilded violet. Legend has it that a mythical figure, Clémence Isaure, was the muse and protector of Toulouse poetry.
- Salle Gervais (Hall of Weddings): All citizens of Toulouse will be invited in this room for their civil marriage ceremony! This room is absolutely amazing and can be described as an ode to love. Standing out, three paintings presenting Love at the age of 20, 40 and 60 years of age. The background setting for one of the paintings is the Greek island of Cythera, the birthplace of goddess Aphrodite.
- Salle Henri-Martin: The paintings in this room illustrate magnificently the passing of the time through the four seasons of the year and the different stages of a man’s life. No specific history lesson here, other than a secret spot on a painting where the artist has tried to retroactively hide the silhouette of a person. Will you be able to spot it yourselves? Give it a try, here.
- Salle Des Illustres: An emblematic room, with 20 painters and sculptors trying to celebrate moments and immortalize famous figures of the city’s glorious past. For a 360 view of this room, check here. And now I will give you a short quiz! As you may see, the room is full of impressive marble columns. Truth is that only 4 of them are indeed made from marble, the rest are just perfectly painted imitations. Can you tell the real ones?!?!
Admission in the Capitole is free.
2. Fondation Bemberg
Housed in the most beautiful mansion of the city (the former Hôtel d’Assézat), Fondation Bemberg is Toulouse’s finest art gallery. Here you will find the prestigious private collection of Renaissance and Impressionist masterpieces of the Argentinian billionaire Georges Bemberg. Consisted of great paintings, drawings, sculptures and furniture, and with the perfect touch of velvet tapestry on the rooms of the 1st floor, Fondation Bemberg is simply stunning!
3. Kayaking Down the Garonne River
Exploring the city in the most unusual way, by paddling our way up and down the Garonne River. The best thing about this activity is how well connected you get with your paddling partner! Remember, you need to synchronize yourselves in order to make your way through! Especially for people who have never practiced kayaking before (yes, that’s us), this experience was so much fun that we ended up laughing for the entire duration of our trip!
The activity was organized by the Office de Tourism de Toulouse, in collaboration with their partner, Granhòta. Granhòta (meaning “frog” in Occitan) is a company set up by young and dynamic people. Committed in helping visitors to better discover their region, they provide a variety of well-thought interactive games and fun activities.
We, as rookies, started with the simplest of routes inside the city itself! For more adventurous/experienced spirits, Granhòta is also offering kayak trips in some of the most beautiful Regional Nature Reserves.
Is it safe? – Absolutely! First you will be provided with all the appropriate equipment, and a detailed map of the route you should follow! Then your instructor will give you a quick, yet thorough briefing and boost your confidence with a smile (before he throws you onto the canoe)!
What to expect? – To laugh until you cry, to get super wet (get dressed appropriately leave your shoes ashore), to make great memories!
Can everyone do it? – Yes, as long as you are over 6 years of age, you can! This is a perfect activity for friends, couples and families!
Online booking is required.
Fun Facts About Toulouse
- Violet is the symbol of the city. Apart from its ordinary use as a delicate flower or a fragrant, violet is also used for confectionary and baking purposes. Delicious sweets, jams, liqueurs, and meat-based dishes are only few of the world-famous specialities of Toulouse.
- James Colomina is a local street artist who has been expressing his social distress and sensitivity by creating sculptures painted in red colour. For each of his sculptures, he seeks to position them on emblematic places within the city aiming to strengthen the message he wants to deliver. At the very beginning, his installations provoked negative reactions but gradually he gained appreciation and public recognition. As a token of this recognition, he was given permission to position one of his artworks (“The Child with the Donkey’s Cap”) on the first pier of the historic Pont Neuf. Featuring a child that was forced to wear a donkey’s cap in disgrace after failing his exam at school, the statue represents all people/minorities that have been stigmatized or isolated from our society.
- A unique 24–hour Clock stands atop the Haussmannian building on the corner of Rue Alsace-Lorraine and Rue Rivals. Check it out!
- Right across the street, again on Rue Alsace-Lorraine at number 42, stands a magnificent building that for many years served as the home of the popular regional newspaper “La Dépêche du Midi”. The facade of the building is decorated with blue and gold mosaics. The sun rays in the background represent information and knowledge.
- Unlike anywhere else in the country, rugby is probably the city’s most favourite sport. The local team of Toulouse is out of the most successful ones in Europe.
Toulouse is one of the most walkable cities I have ever visited. Quite conveniently, nearly all places of interest are concentrated around the city centre. Having said that, you might not need to use any transportation at all throughout your stay, apart from maybe a few places worth visiting that are slightly far off.
The easiest and most affordable way to move around is of course the public transportation (served by Tisseo).
Alternatively, you can opt to hire a bicycle through VélÔToulouse. For short visits, 1 or 7-day tickets are available, while you can benefit from the first 30 minutes that you are given for free for each trip you take! And trust me, 30 minutes is enough time to take you from one place to another within the city. Rest assured that you will find pick up / drop off stations nearly every 300 meters! Check here for more info.
How to Make the Most Out of your Trip in Toulouse
- Get the Toulouse Tourism Pass. An absolute must for exploring as much as the city has to offer! This pass will grant you with free access to all city centre museums, unlimited use on the entire public transport network (metro, bus, tram, Airport Shuttle), reduced rates on all other touristic sites, as well as discounts on some of your purchases.
Prices: 18€/24h, 28€/48h, 35€/72h
Special rates applied for this summer (up until the 20th of September), as follows: 10€/24h, 18€/48h, 25€/72h
- Book a seat on one of the guided sightseeing tours organized by the Toulouse Tourist Office. Already with your Tourism Pass you are entitled to participate for free in a guided tour of your preference. We personally wanted to learn things that we wouldn’t find on an ordinary guidebook. In response to that, we were proposed to discover “the unexpected Toulouse” through a private tour. Nearly everything I have included in this post, I have learnt during our tour! It was absolutely amazing, and I cannot recommend it highly enough!
- Enjoy Toulouse’s nightlife. Toulouse is as lively as it gets! No street, no neighbourhood lacks its own bars, pub and bistros. Don’t miss out on the areas of “Les Carmes”, “Saint-Cyprien”, “Place du Capitole” and “Place Saint-Georges”.
- Plan extra time for some day trips outside the city. Within easy reach from Toulouse, and very well worth visiting, are the medieval towns of Albi and Carcassonne. Both included in the UNESCO World Heritage list as marvels of Gothic architecture. We found trains to be rather pricey, so we urge you to look for a rideshare through BlaBlaCar.
As a closing note of this post, I would like to wholeheartedly thank:
- The Office de Tourism de Toulouse for taking such good care of us and for making our time in Toulouse so memorable.
- Mrs. Céline Gazel for delivering an amazing private tour just for us, and especially for the unlimited knowledge sharing.
- Granhòta for the Kayak activity that was clearly the highlight of our trip!
- Monsier Georges Restaurant for the delicious dinner, their hospitality and incredible service!