A glance at its buildings of beautiful pink terracotta, and there is no mistaking why Toulouse is famous for its nickname La Ville Rose (meaning “Pink city”).
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.
Nearby are the towns of Carcassone, Montpellier, Lautrec, Castres, Albi, Sète and Nimes, making it a popular stop for visitors to the area. So let’s look at the best things to do in Toulouse, shall we? Allons-y!
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.
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. With a population of around 500,000, Toulouse is the 4th largest city in France.
Things to do in Toulouse
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.
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.
These days, it is a bustling square with beautiful classical buildings and residents buzzing about. 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
8. Go boating on the Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi is a man-made river constructed in 1681, located in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in France. It is officially recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.
This canal crosses the region between Toulouse and the Mediterranean Sea and ranks as one of the greatest feats of engineering of all time. At over 120 miles (193 km) long, this waterway links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic ocean, making it a crucially important crossroad within France rather than having to go around Spain and the Iberian coastline.
It was constructed by Sun King Louis XIV of France in 1666 (who also built the Palace of Versailles), who let his engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet take the lead on the project. Riquet would spend much of his own fortune to ensure that the Canal was completed in 1681.
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.
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.
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)!
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.
12. Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse
Toulouse Cathedral is a Roman Catholic church located in the city of Toulouse in the Occitanie region of France. The cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of Toulouse and is made out of the beautiful pink terracotta for which Toulouse is famous.
Like other cathedrals in France from that era, the cathedral began construction in the 13th century. However, it was built on top of an earlier 3rd century chapel constructed by Saint Saturnin, sent to Christianize the Gauls and martyred in Toulouse.
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?
When is the best time to visit?
If you are planning to visit Toulouse, you may want to head over during one of its traditional village festivals.
One of the biggest is called the Fêtes traditionnelles du Grand Fenetra which takes place every July. Dating back to to Gallo-Roman times when it commemorated the deceased, the Grand Fenetra party has evolved into a cult and traditional gathering. With traditional costumes and dancing, the festivities continue for 4 days.
Another popular festival is the Foire de la Colombette. Every year, in November, the rue de la Colombette in Toulouse is occupied for 3 days by craftsmen, artisans and entertainers.
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
If you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more about traveling around the Occitanie region of France. A bientôt!