Paris will always be a French classic. But if there’s anything we’ve learned over our decade of visiting France and our year of calling this country home, it’s that there is so much more to France than the French capital. From the fantastic location situated between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, to the seemingly infinite restaurants, wine and tapas bars serving exceptional cuisine, Toulouse is quite literally a rose colored gem. With one taste of the candied violets, one evening in the world’s best wine bar and one rose-gold sunset as the city seems to be set ablaze in pinks, oranges and reds, you’re sure to fall in love. It’s why you should definitely add La Ville Rose to your France itinerary, and be sure not to miss these things to do in Toulouse while you’re there:
Toulouse is just a hop, skip and a jump from Bordeaux and can be reached on the train in only two hours. It’s four hours from Paris. Either way, you can hop on an early train and be in La Ville Rose before lunch.
You’ll notice immediately that Toulouse’s architecture is quite a bit different than that of the Haussmann buildings of Paris or the Neoclassical architecture of Bordeaux. Pinkish-red terracotta brick dominates the city, which gives it the nickname of La Ville Rose.
Walking Tour of Toulouse’s Great Monuments
A 2-hour walking tour of the great monuments with a guide from the Office of Tourism is a great introduction to France’s fourth largest city. We discovered that Toulouse is one of France’s best preserved Renaissance cities.
Pride towers dot the skyline. They were a sign of wealth when the merchants, known as the Capitouls, built their mansions in the city.
Many are still private or have been converted to office space, but you might be lucky to find some doors open to the courtyards of these impressive places. Don’t be afraid to have a peek inside; the locals know and are proud of what special places they are.
After eight years of visiting churches and cathedrals in Europe, they’ve become a bit of more of the same. Not in Toulouse! There are three you should definitely have a look inside of. Cathedral Saint-Etienne, Basilica Saint-Sernin and Convent of the Jacobins are each unique and play an important part of Toulouse’s tumultuous religious history.
Cathedral Saint-Etienne is like a trip through time. The original cathedral is Romanesque, an architectural style from medieval Europe, and dates from the early 13th century. When the Romanesque architecture style was abandoned for the Gothic style, a second cathedral was started in that style. The Romanesque part was intended to be knocked down and the new Gothic cathedral built over the former.
But the money simply ran out, and so today the two cathedrals stand in a mishmash of architectural styles side-by-side. Get the best look at the disconcerting architecture from the west entrance.
Begun in the 11th century to serve the pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, Saint-Sernin is the largest Romanesque church certainly in Europe and believed to be the largest in the world. The enormous church is 377 feet (115 meters) long, 210 feet (64 meters) wide and 69 feet (21 meters) high.
The church is named for the first Bishop of Toulouse, Saturninus. In 250 BC, Saturninus refused to pay homage to the gods. He was tied up to a bull and dragged from the steps down the street in a bloody and violent death. He was buried, and in the 5th century his remains were moved to the current site of Saint-Sernin.
Pilgrims still flock to the church today, and a visit inside to admire the carvings, gilded ceiling frescoes and pipe organ from 1888 are impressive evidence why.
Another Romanesque masterpieces, though entirely different from Saint-Etienne and Saint-Sernin…and really, anything else built in the Romanesque period, is the Convent of the Jacobins. It was started in 1230 by the then future Saint Dominic as a place to preach Roman Catholicism.
The first church was built entirely of the pink brick and only half as high and half as long as the current convent we see here today. As the congregation grew over the next century, the church was expanded and the vaulted roof was constructed. The builders inserted just one oversized column in the center. The ribs that held up the vaulted ceiling radiated from all directions of the column and it looks like a palm tree inside the church. It’s known as Le Palmier des Jacobins, the palm tree of the Jacobins.
The other significant feature of the Convent of the Jacobins is that the remains of Thomas Aquinas are interned here. Author of Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas is regarded as one of the greatest theologians of the Roman Catholic Church and the model teacher for those studying to enter the priesthood. He was canonized as a saint in 1323 and his remains were placed in a stone reliquary after being returned from Italy in 1368.
Place du Capitole has been the seat of the municipal government since the 12th century. While the sprawling neoclassical building with its eight columns representing the original eight Capitouls is impressive itself, it’s the interior 19th-century Salle des Illustres (Hall of the Illustrious) that is truly spectacular.
It was painted by artists including post-impressionist Henri Martin, and weddings still take place here regularly. If visiting on a Saturday, you’re likely to see at least a few.
Don’t miss the painting of “Belle Paule” painted by Henri Rachou in 1882. Paule de Viguier was considered the most beautiful woman of her time and King François I gave her the nickname Belle Paule when he visited Toulouse. She was just 15 years old, but the Capitouls commanded that she appear daily on her balcony for the people of Toulouse to revel in her beauty.
Something else that is easy to miss also on Place du Capitole is the series of modern paintings adorning the ceiling of the arcade directly across the square from the town hall building. A unique painting is set in each square lining the entire arcade.
The Dôme de la Grave sits on the left bank of the Garonne and is the most photographed of Toulouse’s monuments. Currently, it’s closed to the public but we hear a project is underway to restore the interior and re-open it.
A bit ironic, but Pont Neuf (the New Bridge) is actually the oldest bridge in Toulouse. It was constructed from 1544 – 1632 and the seven arches are not symmetrical. It was purposely designed that way to help the city resist various assaults on Toulouse from the river and was quite effective at doing so.
Xavier is an unmissable stop when visiting Toulouse. The cheese shop, with master cheese refiner François Bourgon now at the helm after his father retired, has served Toulouse as the best cheese shop for more than 30 years. In 2011 François won the coveted title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France, a type of artisan award placing him among the top cheese refiners in all of France.
What is cheese refining, exactly? François was kind enough to take some time out of his day to show up. He works with farmers to receive some 450 varieties of cheeses and he places them in optimum conditions in his cheese cellar for the bacteria and molds to age the cheese.
He’s even worked with a farmer to create his own specialty cheese, Le Pavé Toulousain. It’s a cow’s milk cheese aged to different styles and it travels well since it’s sold in its own box. This specialty of Xavier is perfect for bringing home as an edible souvenir.
N°5 Wine Bar
For dinner, make a reservation at N°5 Wine Bar (book a reservation), recently awarded the Best Wine Bar in the World 2017 and Best Wine Bar in Europe 2016 by World of Fine Wine. Chef/owner Thomas Cabrol offers a tasting menu that is always a surprise of plates artfully showcasing seasonal and local ingredients, which you can enjoy with a card to try various wines from the Enomatic wine by the glass dispenser. Or his impressive wine list offers 300 wines by the glass and more than 3300 wines by the bottle.
It’s a small and lively wine and tapas bar, where we quite enjoyed dining at the counter where we could see Chef Thomas cooking and plating each course.
We knew we were in for a treat when a little plate with various butters and dips was served as our first tapas. The colorful dips looked like a painters palette.
Tapas after tapas came out of the kitchen: a perfectly cooked egg with mushroom cream, white ham with truffle, tomato and mozzarella salad, green gazpacho with basil sorbet and finally apricot and marscapone sorbet with saffron. The tapas were just the right size to relish all the flavors, yet not to much that we left feeling overly full.
Between tapas, we couldn’t help but notice a very old bottle in its own little wine fridge. It’s one of the oldest wines in the world found on a ship that sunk off the coast of Holland in 1735. The shipwreck was discovered in 1982 and it was like a movie of discovered treasure. The shipwreck contained thousands of gold and silver coins, plus intact bottles of Madiera wine from 1675. Both the coins and the wine were salvaged.
There’s 10 total bottles of the 1675 Madeira, though most are on display in museums. Three bottles were sold at auction, and Thomas couldn’t resist purchasing one.
The bottles were resealed to protect the wine, and for a mere €7000 you can order a glass that will be served using Coravin technology. Or you could just purchase the entire bottle if you’ve got €45,000 lying about – just be sure to offer Thomas a taste. And for €100,000 you can take the bottle home for your very own collection.
La Cité de l’Espace
While trips to the moon still might be light years away for us regular folk, you can live out your deep space fantasies at La Cité de l’Espace. Since Sundays are typically a quiet day in France with most shops, museums and even restaurants closed, it’s the perfect way to spend a Sunday or a rainy day in Toulouse.
Toulouse has long been one of Europe’s most important centers of aeronautics and has been named the International City of Space for 2017. The massive La Cité de l’Espace has also called Toulouse home for the last 20 years and celebrates its anniversary with a year long calendar of events and special exhibitions. As the name implies, it’s a small city of all things space including a full scale 53 meter high replica of the Ariane 5 rocket launcher, a replica of the MIR Space Station that was used to train the astronauts going to the space station and the Soyuz spacecraft that carries people and supplies to and from space.
You can actually go inside both the MIR Space Station training replica and the Soyuz spacecraft to get an idea of what life is like for the astronauts.
Inside, a massive multi-level exhibition hall has some 250 interactive exhibits to learn about meteorology, space craft, our solar system and all things outer space. Don’t miss the moon rock – it’s one of only two moon rocks in France, with the other being in a museum in Paris. The moon rock was brought back by astronauts of the Apollo 15 mission.
There’s also a Martian meteorite and the Caille meteority, the biggest meteorite ever discovered in France weighing 625 kilograms (1378 pounds).
And if you want to experience a bit what it feels like to be an astronaut, there are space sensation experiences like the rotating chair, moonwalk simulator, and moon runner experience. You receive a timetable and map at the welcome desk, so be sure to check the times for these experiences because they are only at specific times throughout the day.
In celebration of the twentieth anniversary, a gorgeous new planetarium opened a mere two weeks before our visit. Along with Houston and Paris, it’s the one of the top planetariums in the world. We watched the 45-minute Auroras show with a translation device that translated to English for us through headphones. As Northern Lights addicts, the movie was incredibly well done and filmed in cooperation with Canada Keep Exploring and the Aurora Village in Yellowknife. It will play at the planetarium through 2018 and we highly recommend you watch it. It’s like being under the Aurora…minus the eyelash freezing temperatures of the Arctic.
From deep space to art is a bit of a transition to make, but the Fondation Bemberg is worth a visit. The impressive collection, including 30 paintings by the French artist Pierre Bonnard, is housed in one of the 16th century private mansions called the Hôtel d’Assézat. The mansion belonged to a rich pastel merchant and Capitoul of Toulouse named Pierre d’Assézat.
For two months in summertime, Toulouse celebrates the lovely weather with the Toulouse Plages. And on a weekend, the plages are the place to be. Just relax along the river or join in the various activities from dance classes to slip-n-slides. There’s seriously something for everyone from tennis and badminton on the grass to volleyball on the sand. Or take to the river in a kayak. All the activities are free, with the exception of riding the Ferris wheel, so you can’t go wrong hanging out at the plages.
Head to Le Bibent (book a reservation) on Place du Capitol. Normally such a square in Paris would be lined with tourist trap cafes, but Le Bibent is the furthest thing from a tourist trap serving quick meals. The gastronomic restaurant is loved by locals and known among the best restaurants in Toulouse.
The building dates from 1861 and the Belle Époque decor with abundant mirrors, chandeliers and frescoes is luxurious in itself. Chef Christian Constant opened the restaurant in 2011 and is famous in his own right. He has been chef at the Crillion and Ritz in Paris, is owner of the Michelin star Le Violon d’Ingres also in Paris, owns six restaurants in France and has been a judge on Top Chef, M6 from 2010 – 2014.
The name Le Bibent means to “drink good” in Occitane slang and you can be assured that you’ll definitely eat good. The menu changes to feature seasonal products from the southwest of France, and we were happy to take recommendations.
We started with fried shrimp with a mango sauce and a perfectly cooked egg with peppers and ham. We tried the filet of beef with creamy mashed potatoes as our main course, and finished off with the chocolate tart by Christian Constant and a peach cut and stuffed with ice cream on a bed of Chantilly cream.
La Guinguette is a floating terrace moored on the Quai de Tounis with a beautiful view of sunset and Pont Neuf. It’s only open in summer (July – September), but it’s a beautiful spot to enjoy some jazz music, a drink and the lit up monuments of Toulouse if nightlife isn’t really your scene.
Let’s Visit Airbus and Aeroscopia Aeronautical Museum
Toulouse is the home of Airbus headquarters and employs more than 21,000 people at its various sites in Toulouse. The A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner, is assembled in Toulouse and you can tour the factory.
We’ve always been interested in airplanes and we both love plane spotting, which has become a much tougher hobby to have since tightened security after 2001. These days we mostly watch A380 parts, like the massive wings, sail on down the river past Bordeaux as they travel to the plant in Toulouse for assembly. And, of course, we spend loads of our time on airplanes.
Naturally, we were super excited to visit Airbus on our Toulouse trip, especially since the A380 is our favorite airliner to fly on. An Airbus visit is a must for any aeronautics nerd like us.
There are two parts at Airbus: discover the plant and A380 assembly site on a 90-minute guided tour and the Aeroscopia Aeronautical Museum.
Photos aren’t allowed on the A380 tour, but you visit the plant, testing stations and assembly line while learning about the world’s largest passenger airliner.
The Aeroscopia Aeronautical Museum is full of aircraft from across the years since aviation was born in 1903, including three that you can board for an inside look: Concorde, A300B and a Super Guppy.
There were only 20 Concordes ever produced and two of them are here at the Aeroscopia Aeronautical Museum. It is one of only two supersonic transports that were used commercially and traveled from Paris to NYC in just under 3.5 hours and from London to NYC in just 2.5 hours.
Concorde entered service in 1976 and flew for 27 years until it was retired due to low sales in 2003. In the 1990s, a one-way ticket cost anywhere between $10,000 – $20,000. Back then only the most elite could afford a class of air travel even higher than first class and now, the only way most of us will ever see the inside of a Concorde is at the museum.
La Maison de la Violette
Back in Toulouse, stop by the La Maison de la Violette. This lovely edible flower is to Toulouse what lavender is to Provence.
Violets of Toulouse were actually thought to have been brought back by soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars, though the history of how this little purple flower came to be embedded in Toulouse’s story just isn’t well known. The first documented violets appeared around 1854 and sometime in the 19th century people decided to candy the flowers, creating the Toulouse specialty you can still find today.
By 1908, there were more than 600 violet producers and a cooperative. More violet products were created, like the perfume “violette de Toulouse” created by Berdoues in 1936 and the violet liqueur created by M. Serres in 1950. Violet syrup, violet honey, violet jelly, violet vinegar, violet mustard and more followed.
But in 1956 a terribly cold winter killed many of the violets, which bloom in the wintertime. By 1983, the cooperative disappeared and only a few violet producers remained.
An organized called Terre de Violettes helped revitalize violet production and the products starting in 1993. Since 2003, the city of Toulouse organized a violette festival each February to celebrate the flower and its part in Toulouse’s history.
The best place to buy violet products, taste them and learn about the history is La Maison de la Violette. It’s housed on a barge on the Canal du Midi and you can taste everything imaginable violet. From violet chocolate bars like Queen Elizabeth once ate to violet teas, La Maison de la Violette is a violet lover’s dream come true. It’s a flavor I really love, so I quite literally tasted everything from a violet ice cream topped with candied violets and violet syrup to violet mustard.
The candied violets, which you can use to decorate cakes or drop in to a glass of champagne to make a violet cocktail, are the original specialty and one of my favorite products. I also love the violet tea with a bit of violet honey, of course, and violet syrup to top ice cream, desserts or even cottage cheese.
Graine de Pastel
We’ve mentioned the Capitouls and the pastel trade. Pastel is a plant with the scientific name Isatis Tinctoria that was discovered to produce a hue of blue and could be used to dye textiles blue. Interestingly, the plant is actually yellow and it’s not known how it was discovered to produce the blue dye.
During the Renaissance, merchants from Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne became extremely rich selling pastel all over Europe.
Unfortunately, the plant suffered from severe rainfall and it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that it was re-discovered to be growing in the Midi-Pyrenees. You can still find textiles dyed with the blue hue, but it now has another use.
The seeds of the pastel plant have extracts that are known to be very good for the skin and have anti-aging effects and cosmetic products produced with the extracts are wildly popular among women in France. By cold pressing, the pastel oil is obtained and rich in omegas 3, 6 and 9. Omegas 6 play a major role in the hydration of the skin, omegas 3 help maintain elasticity and omegas 9 help relieve very dry sky.
I hadn’t heard of pastel or Graine de Pastel before, but I was introduced to all the products at their first and flagship shop in Toulouse. You can discover their line of skin care products from oils to moisturizers, many of which are packaged fittingly with Belle Paule appearing on them. I particularly liked the moisturizing foot cream, which finally healed my horribly cracked and dry feet after trekking in Nepal.
Musée des Augustins
Housed in the former Convent of the Augustins, the building and grounds alone make the Musée des Augustins worth a visit. There’s an impressive sculpture collection of Roman, Gothic and 19th century sculptures from throughout France that represent the Occitane culture displayed in the fine arts museum.
Our favorite exhibition is the stunning Jorge Prado and the Romanesque Sculpture exhibition. Contemporary meets Romanesque as the miniature sculptures of biblical scenes are set upon pillars. The progression of the exhibit also shows the evolution of sculpture during the period with some stories repeated in the progressive sculpture styles.
There’s also a café set in the museum’s interior courtyard, which would be a lovely space to sit and read or relax for a while right in the heart of Toulouse.
BWAMOA is a new non-alcoholic drinks concept that had only opened about a month before our visit. Owner Vincent, who travels the world to come up with the variety of tea and non-alcoholic beers that BWAMOA offers, invited us to try just about everything.
The concept is a bit like bubble tea, where in addition to the green tea, black tea or non-alcoholic beer you have complimentary solids like the tapioca beads in the milky caramel tea that Vincent told us is his personal favorite. We also liked the freshness of the hibiscus and raspberry green tea. And being in Toulouse, we had to also try the violette green tea.
Vincent and his partner, Sophie, who both have backgrounds as dieticians, are fun and the drink shop is really something different for France. We definitely suggest popping in, especially since it’s conveniently located between the Musée des Augustins and La Cour des Counsils.
Located on Place Occitane, one of the prettiest squares in Toulouse, Monsieur Georges (book a reservation) has been on fixture on the square for eight years. Originally a traditional French restaurant, it was re-imagined in early 2017 and re-opened as a tapas style restaurant.
Though this square was once the stage for public executions in Toulouse, it’s now a favorite for locals to enjoy the terraces and Monsieur Georges is one of the best. The small plates can be shared and its best to start with 2-3 per person, then you can always order more.
As with all the best restaurants, the menu changes with seasonal dishes but the ham croquettes are a regular and we definitely recommend them. You also can’t go wrong with the cheese plate and something fresh like a tomato and mozzarella salad.
Where to Stay in Toulouse
La Cour des Counsils by Sofitel’s MGallery is located in the heart of historic Toulouse, walking distance to everything in the city and public transportation to reach La Cité du Espace and Airbus. The location is perfect a luxury city break.
Housed in two converted 18th century town houses, La Cour des Counsils has 32 rooms wrapping around a central courtyard that is open to guests. The location, despite being in the heart of the city, is very quiet. The rooms are modern with conveniences such as air conditioning, a Nespresso machine and tea kettle, free wifi and some Graine de Pastel toiletries.
There’s a spa offering a variety of massages and treatments, and Graine de Pastel products are utilized in the spa as well.
La Cour des Counsils also has a gourmet restaurant that offers breakfast and brunch on weekends, in addition to dinner. We had the brunch, which there was a fine selection of yogurts, cheese and charcuterie, gazpacho, fresh fruits, smoked salmon and a variety of hot dishes.
Know Before You Go
A more budget friendly mode of transportation is FlixBus. You can find tickets for as low as €5 each way. FlixBus reaches Toulouse from Bordeaux in just 3 hours, which is the same time it takes to travel by train.
My trip to Toulouse was in partnership with Toulouse Tourisme in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own. This article contains affiliate links. When you book on Booking.com, Oui.SNCF or FlixBus through our affiliate partner sites, we earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.