Perhaps no major city in France has been transformed over the past decade as much as Toulouse. The country’s fourth-largest city has grown more cosmopolitan, in part thanks to Airbus consolidating its headquarters in this region, bringing a greater international influence even as the city thankfully lacks the hordes of tourists found in other fashionable destinations. City leaders have been pouring money into frenzied renovations of seemingly every corner of its historic city center famed for its light-colored brick facades.
Much of that work has wound down and the wraps have come off. So with the coronavirus lockdown over and almost everything open again, the timing is perfect to explore a city that still offers the warm, friendly charms of the country’s southwest along with a modern sensibility that includes an increasingly adventurous culinary scene.
3 p.m. Occitanie’s Heart
There’s no better place to start one’s visit to Toulouse than at the very center in the city’s most iconic location, the Place de Capitole. Admire the majestic city hall that was built in the 12th century and its red-brick façade that was redesigned in the 18th century. But also notice that the plaza is dominated by a giant, golden Occitan cross that announces to visitors that they are in a region, now officially called Occitanie, whose culture and language were once closer to Catalan before a brutal French crusade. City center street sights are now posted in both French and Occitan languages. Step inside the Capitole and tour the Salles des Illustres, a gallery that includes a mural called La défense de Toulouse which depicts efforts by locals in the 13th century to resist the attacking French crusaders.
5 p.m. Down By The Riverside
Walk west from the Capitole and enjoy more of the brick façades that give the city its nickname “The Pink City” until reaching the renovated Place de la Daurade that sits on the banks of the Garonne River. Before descending to the plaza, walk around the exterior of the neoclassic Basilique Notre-Dame de la Daurade, which just finished its own extensive makeover. Then head down the walkway to the plaza for a rosé or artisanal beer from the Pêchecheurs de Sable, a snack shop located in a former morgue. Find a place in the sunny plaza filled with tables that are likely packed with locals, or sit along the banks of the Garonne for views of the domed Hôpital La Grave on the other bank or of the 17th century Pont Neuf bridge just to the south.
8 p.m. A Surprising Meal
One of the hottest names on the Toulouse culinary scene is Simon Carlier, who was a former contestant on the Masterchef TV show. See why his Solides restaurant at 28 rue des Polinaires in the historic Carmes neighborhood was voted best fine dining experience in Toulouse this year by a local food association. Solides is an intimate setting with an open kitchen that offers a surprise menu each day. Whatever Carlier has bought from local producers is what’s for dinner. Smoked herring tarte? A salmon confit with a creamy leek sauce? Or maybe he’ll be cooking his way through a whole pig for a week. Just come in an adventurous mood. The fixed menu (2 appetizers, one main dish, dessert) costs €42. Wine pairing is extra). Reserve a spot well in advance.
10:30 p.m. Playing the Wine Card
Just a few minutes’ walk to the north, finish the evening at No. 5 Wine Bar, where a sign posted outside will inform you that this was selected as the Best Wine Bar in the World in 2017. The concept: Purchase a wine card of any amount at the door (you can add more later). Then browse the wine dispensers along the wall, insert the card, and it will pour anything from a sip to a glass, letting you try high-end wines that are normally out of reach. If you really have money to burn, ask to sample what the bar claims is one of the oldest bottles of wine in the world, a 1675 Madeira salvaged from a shipwreck and purchased in an auction two years ago that will set you back €10,000 for a glass.
10 a.m. A Gourmand Tour
Immerse yourself in the sensory wonders of Toulouse’s largest covered market, Marché Victor Hugo. Walking the aisles will likely afford a chance to sample some of the délices from the cheese shops, boulangeries, or patisseries. Or just marvel at the kaleidoscope of seafood packed on ice at the fishmongers. And be ready to be tempted to join the locals who, despite the hour, are nestled up to the cavistes sampling wine and eating oysters.
12:30 p.m. Pause Déjeuner
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite ogling food all morning, the options for lunch within a 2-minute walk are nearly infinite. The second floor of the market is packed with restaurants that all offer hardy, southwestern dishes. Or step outside, and you’ll see the surroundings which the city has transformed in recent years into a gourmet district. You can’t really make a wrong turn here, but head across the street into the boutique for Maison Samaran. The Samaran name is synonymous with foie gras in this region thanks to the role ist founders played 50 years ago in creating the modern foie gras industry. Settle onto the terrace and order a duck burger with fries cooked in duck fat, a decadence that will help you understand why locals prefer cooking everything in duck fat rather than butter or olive oil.
2:30 p.m. Hall Of Wonders
Last fall, Toulouse was transformed into a massive stage for a 4-day street opera that featured a 50-foot mechanical minotaur and a giant spider also made of wood and metal. The spectacle was created and performed by La Machine, a theater company under the direction of François Delarozière. That show was also a prelude to the opening of a permanent space for the troupe, the Halle de la Machine. From Victor Hugo, walk a few minutes east and catch a 27 bus that will take you to the hall, located in a southern section of the city that is the center of a massive urban renewal project. La Halle offers workshops, various events on the weekends, or just the chance to stand in the shows of the company’s menagerie of mechanical beasts. For €16, one can visit the hall and ride the minotaur. And while you’re in the neighborhood, stop next door at the new museum L’Envol des Pioneers, which pays tributes to the city’s long aerospace history.
6 p.m. An Imperfect Beauty
After taking the 27 bus back into the city center, walk toward La place Saint-Étienne to see one of France’s more unusual cathedrals. So many architectural sites in France are all about the perfect realization of an artist’s dream. Cathedral Saint-Étienne is a majestic testament to imperfection. Dating from 1073, the original church is an early bit of Gothic design. In the late 13th century, the local bishop wanted to replace it with an even larger structure. The idea would be to tear down parts of the ancient structure and gradually build the new version. But the project was only partially completed when the bishop died and money ran out. So today, the cathedral is an architectural mutant, an anomaly even more obvious from the inside where the structures don’t align. Still, it remains a breathtaking beauty.
7:30 p.m. Up On The Rooftop
After a long day, time to treat yourself. Walk about 10 minutes to Galeries Lafeyette to discover Toulouse’s hottest new bar and restaurant. Understandably, you will hesitate because the restaurant is at the top of a mall, and you will think, “I did not come all the way to France to eat at the mall.” Go in anyways and find an elevator that will take you to the top where you’ll enter Ma Biche Sur Le Toit (My Deer On The Roof). Biche’s outdoor terrace provides a gorgeous view of Toulouse from on high as you sip a cocktail and pick at a plate of cheese and charcuterie. After all the running around you’ve done, might as well stay here for dinner at the restaurant whose menu was created in partnership with Chef Michel Sarran, whose namesake two-star Michelin restaurant makes him one of the stars of the city’s culinary scene. Experience his penchant for fusion with Mibrasa duck breast, fried soba noodles and green curry cream, or Charolais beef tartar in a Thai style (€23).
9 a.m. Breakfast Time Bike Trip
The French tend not to be early risers on the weekend, which means you can rent a bike and take a peaceful ride along the banks of the Canal du Midi. One could follow the 150-mile canal, an engineering miracle when it was built in the 17th century, to the Mediterranean if you had several days. But for a morning spin, the flat and paved pathways allow you to slip gently out of the city and get just a taste of the French countryside as you glide under the canopies of trees that line the canal. The city’s bikeshare system (VélÔ Toulouse) will let you take a heavier urban bike for the day (€1.20). Startup Indigo Weel offers stationless bikesharing. Or try Paulette Bike Rental, which specializes in canal trips, for sportier bike options.
11:00 a.m. A Taste of Toulouse
Depending on the bike option, you can follow the canal back into the city and leave the bike near L’église Saint-Aubin and explore the weekly open-air market that surrounds it on Sunday mornings. You’ll find a lively mix of local farm stands, booksellers, antique dealers, local clothing makers and more. Cobble together an improvised brunch from the prepared food stands offering a more international vibe such as Greek or Moroccan. Then sit in the small plaza in front of the church where there’s typically music and families making for a quietly festive way to end your Toulouse visit.
Toulouse has a wide range of rentals through the typical platforms such as Airbnb and Booking.com. But if you’re accustomed to Paris’ eye-popping prices, you’ll find hotels at the higher end to be a nice surprise here. La Cour des Consuls Hotel, a classic luxury hotel with a spa and located just a stone’s throw from Pont Neuf, recently was offering a room with a king-side bed for €223.25 a night.
For a more modern twist, check out the Mama Shelter hotel that opened last year on the other side of the city center. One of the newest entrants in the fashionable boutique chain founded in Paris a decade ago, Mama Shelter has a movie theater, cocktail bar and its own rooftop terrace bar to amplify its lively design choices inside. A cozy double bed room on a Saturday night is €89. For another blend of creative design and killer location, check out the Hotel des Beaux Arts. Each of its 18 rooms overlook the Garonne and sport a unique design done in collaboration with various painters and graffiti artists. Basic room rate starts at €104 per night.
Finally, for a really distinct experience, head to the other side of the Garonne and the Saint-Cyprien neighborhood for two concepts created by a former Airbus engineer who been transforming a building into a boutique hotel. The lower rooms can be short or longer-stay apartments booked through Rent Your Day with each sporting a different theme. Rates start at €106 per night. But recently, the top two apartments were opened separately under a more luxurious concept dubbed Parènthese which includes jacuzzis placed at the windows overlooking the city. Prices range from €250 to €300 per night.