Travel to Toulouse: The Pink city in Occitanie

Visit Toulouse, la Ville Rose and its famous terracotta pink buildings. We look at what to see, things to do, what to eat, and more.
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A glance at its buildings of beautiful pink terracotta, and there is no mistaking the why Toulouse has the nickname La Ville Rose (meaning “Pink city”).

With a population of around 500k, Toulouse is the 4th largest city in France. The city was founded here on the banks of the River Garonne at least since the Iron Age. It became an important Roman outpost, given its proximity to nearby Nimes, Arles, and the Pont du Gard.

Once the capital of the quasi-independent Duchy of Aquitaine, it was the domaine of the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine who inherited the duchy from her father. She would go on to marry the English King, with whom she had 8 children.

However when she died in 1204, her descendants who sat on the English throne were unable to hold on to the duchy (although they did try very hard during the 100 years’ war between England and France).

In 1270, Toulouse became a part of the Kingdom of France. It was regarded as a major center of culture, including having an important university. The University of Toulouse remains one of the largest universities in France today.

The main language here used to be Occitan, and even today the metro in the city of Toulouse is officially bilingual in French and Occitan.

Toulouse is also best known for being the French headquarters of Airbus since 1921, which has greatly contributed to the growth of the city and its economy.

These days it is a lively and busy city in the Occitanie Region, that is a popular destination for tourists looking filled for a bit of sun and culture. The old city center has a rather distinctive architecture in pink brick, and with its close proximity to Spain, there is a definite hint of an influence in the local food and lifestyle.

From exhibitions to Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s also a city where you can enjoy nature and activities like canoeing, kayaking and biking along the Canal du Midi which ends in Toulouse. So let’s look at the best things to do in Toulouse, shall we? Allons-y!

Things to do in the area

1) Basilique Saint-Sernin

The Basilique Saint-Sernin is a large Roman Catholic church that has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site because of its impressive beauty and age.

Basilique Saint-Sernin

It is located on the site of a previous basilica of the 4th century which contained the body of Saint Saturnin (or Sernin), the first bishop of Toulouse. It also had several relics in it that were donated by King Charlemagne in the 8th century, some of which are now in museums around France.

However, the donation raised the profile of the Basilica significantly and it became a part of the famous pilgrims’ Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France, of which it remains today. The current building dates back to the 11th century.

2) Place du Capitole

Excavations have shown that the area around the Place du Capitole has been occupied since Roman times. Previously known as Place Royale, it became the Place du Capitole after the French Revolution during which this was central square where traitors were guillotined.

Place du Capitole

These days, it is a bustling square with beautiful classical buildings. Among them is the city’s hotel de ville (mayor’s office) and many local restaurants and businesses.

There is also a farmers’ market in the square on several mornings during the week, after which the restaurants set up their terrasses for diners until late in the evening.

3) The Quays along the River Garonne

The old center of Toulouse buts along the River Garonne, and the area is one of the most charming in the city.

Quays along the River Garonne
Quays along the River Garonne with Pont Neuf in the distance

Along with a ferris wheel, there are also outdoor events held in the area in the summer, along with pop-up bars with musicians and other entertainment.

The Pont Neuf bridge (meaning “New Bridge”) spanning the River Garonne is actually a 17th-century bridge and the oldest of the bridges still in existence.

There are also tour boats along the quay, that go along the river Garonne with some of them going into the locks of the Canal du Midi.

4) Cité de l’Espace

With Toulouse being the French headquarters of Airbus, you know that the city was going to have a strong interest in aviation and aerospace manufacturing.

Located just outside the main centreville of Toulouse, the Cité de l’Espace bills itself as a scientific discovery centre focused on spaceflight. The large park that is over 4 hectares, holds full-scale models of the Ariane 5 rocket, Mir, and Soyuz modules.

It was opened in 1997 and has received millions of visitors and would-be astronauts ever since.

5) Take a trip to Carcassone

Around 60 miles (95km) away from Toulouse is the incredible fortress town of Carcassone.

Cité de Carcassone towers

A UNESCO world-heritage site, the Cité de Carcassone is one of the largest of its kind with two outer walls and 53 towers. The impressive citadel towers on a hilltop, surrounded by wide, stone ramparts that you can walk along and explore.

You can take a guided tour from Toulouse to Carcassone and nearby Albi as a day trip to remember.

6) Watch a rugby game at Stade Toulousain

Football may be one of the most popular sports in France, but in Toulouse, rugby is king.

Stade Toulousain is the most successful club in Europe, having won the European Rugby Champions Cup a record five times and the French title 21 times. (If you speak French, you may notice that Stade Toulousain translates to “Stadium Toulousian”, but this is actually the name of the team and the stadium.)

Rugby season starts in September up to April, so if you happen to be in Toulouse at the time, try to catch a game.

7) Taste the Cassoulet

A cassoulet is basically a hearty dish, consisting of copious amounts of sausages, meat, and beans that have been cooked for hours for maximum perfection.

cassoulet dish

The dish dates back to the mid-1300s from the town of Castelnaudary near Toulouse. (There is also a Carcassonne version of the cassoulet adds partridge meat to the recipe).

This traditional dish can be easily found in brasseries and restaurants around Toulouse and the Occitanie, so if you eat meat, you should definitely give it a try.

8) Go boating on the Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi is a man-made river constructed from in 1681, located in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France.

houseboat on Canal du Midi

This canal crosses the region between Toulouse and the Mediterranean Sea and ranks as one of the greatest feats of engineering of all time.

It is also exceptionally beautiful, with houseboats along its tree-lined quais and working locks that still adjust water levels. Go for a stroll, a bike ride with a tour guide, or take a boat ride onto its waters. You can read more about the Canal du Midi here.

9) Visit Toulouse at night

Toulouse has an active nightlife, given its university nearby. There are plenty of bars and restaurants, especially around the quais of the river Garonne.

Square in Toulouse at night

Many of the restaurants serve a type of French version of tapas with many small plates, so long apéros are the norm. Café terraces fill up fast, so I recommend making a reservation or going early around 19h.

10) Le Couvent des Jacobins 

The original Church of the Jacobins dates back to the 12th century, although it has had substantial renovations since.

Church of the Jacobins

It is a deconsecrated Roman Catholic that houses the relics of  Thomas Aquinas, an Italian friar in the 13th century of the Dominican order. After the French Revolution in 1789, the Dominican order was banned, and the Order was forced to leave.

The building was taken over as army barracks and eventually in the 20th century restored and converted into a museum. It is an impressive brick building, that is considered one of the most beautiful Dominican churches in Europe.

The bell tower is over 45 meters high and was built between 1275 and 1298. Entry to the covent is around €5/adult.

11) Enjoy a Saucisse de Toulouse

You cannot come to Toulouse and not try the city’s famous namesake sausage (unless you are vegetarian, that is)!

Saucisse de Toulouse and other varieties of meat

Made with pork lean meat and belly, the saucisse de toulouse is served with salad and fries, but is also used in classic French recipes like the rogail saucisse.

Pair it with a local red wine from the same area, around Languedoc and South-West France, such as a Cahors or Bergerac.

Next to Saint Pierre Bridge in Toulouse
Next to Saint Pierre Bridge in Toulouse

Frequently Asked Questions

How to get to Toulouse?

If you are coming by train, Toulouse takes about 4h20 on the high-speed TGV from Paris.
If you are coming by car, it takes around 6h30 to drive from Paris.
You can also fly into the Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, which has connections from all over Europe.

How many days should you spend?

With towns like Carcassone, Albi, Cordes sur Ciel, Castres, and Lautrec nearby, I would recommend spending at least 3-4 nights in the area so that you can visit all the nearby attractions.

Where should you stay?

Parking can be difficult and expensive in Toulouse, so I recommend staying in the center so that you can walk everywhere. The following hotels are near Place de la Capitole and in the heart of Toulouse:

€€€ – Hôtel Le Père Léon
€€€€ – Crowne Plaza Toulouse
€€€€€ – La Cour des Consuls Hotel and Spa Toulouse

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If you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more about traveling around the Occitanie region of France.

A bientôt!

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