Toulouse is a dynamic city where the living is easy. And I’m not just saying that because I’m from there and us Toulousains are known for our hometown pride. According to the latest data from the French census bureau, the Pink City has the largest population growth of the country. So relax and enjoy the ride through the streets of the Occitan Capital as I show you what makes the City of Violas so attractive.
Toulouse, “pink at dawn, mauve in the sunlight, red at dusk” sang Negaro, a famous French, of his hometown. An invitation to wander through the city’s winding streets and alleyways is a surprising and wonderful exhibition where colors and history mix. Douceur de vivre is the word in this wonderful blend of antique and modern. A city of art and ancient history maybe, but Toulouse is brimming with the energy of all its young new residents that came to study or work in France’s second largest start-up hub, which also happens to be the European capital of space and aeronautics. As far as tourism goes there is plenty to do, Toulouse comes right after Paris in the amount of Michelin-rated monuments to visit in France. But don’t feel overwhelmed, here is a selection of the must-see sights of the city that are within walking distance of each other.
The majestic Capitole and its square. A masterpiece of neo-classical architecture, it houses the city hall, as well as the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse opera company and a symphony orchestra. Feel free to go inside and admire the floor to ceiling nineteenth-century paintings of the Salles de Illustres.
From there, you can take the rue du Taur, down to the Notre-Dame-du-Taur church. According to legend, the street and church were named after Saint-Saturnin, the city’s patron saint who was martyred when pagan priests attached him to a bull (taur in the ancient Occitan language) which dragged him through the street from Capitole all the way down to where Notre-Dame-du-Taur church currently stands. Saint-Saturnin’s remains are buried in the Basilica of Saint-Sernin, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the city’s most famous landmarks.
Basilica of Saint-Sernin
The beauty of this basilica might leave you speechless, even more so at night, when an intricate lighting installation gilds the exterior with a distinctive golden hue. This colossal building is the largest remaining Romanesque cathedral in Europe, if not the world. While peaceful and serene in the evenings and at night, the church and its surrounding area is a local hotspot for high-school and college students during the day.
Local pro-tip: Have an early dinner at the delicious Pastel&Sarrasin crêpes place in the rue du Taur and catch a classic movie screening at the open-air summer theatre in the cinémathèque next door. When you come out, chances are you will hear solemn music coming from the basilica’s Cavaillé-Coll organ.
Basilica of Saint-Sernin
La cathédrale Saint-Étienne
The Saint-Etienne cathedral is another one of the city’s popular monuments, characterized by a striking blend of two different architectural styles. Constructed in Romanesque style, the church received important donations during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that allowed considerable renovations and enhancements that were made in the era’s Gothic style. Take the time to wander the tiny streets of the surrounding area and window shop in this upscale neighborhood’s many antique shops and luxury boutiques.
Le Grand rond et le Jardin des plantes
While narrow winding streets and back alleys are what give Toulouse it’s unmistakable charm, the many parks and gardens are a breath of fresh air for its residents. The Saint-Etienne cathedral is within walking distance of the Grand Rond (Large Circle), a XIXth century public work program whose aim was to “give some air” to the city. Take a stroll and admire its many statues, then cross the suspended bridge to the Botanical Garden and Royal Garden where you can admire a wide range of plants cultivated in this 17-acre garden. Here, you will also find the Museum of Natural History, and with the garden’s numerous playgrounds, the museum is a perfect spot to spend an afternoon with your family.
Pro-tip: The Musement Tourism Pass, includes access to both the temporary and permanent exhibitions.
Banks of the Garonne River
Along the riverbank, the port de la Daurade is a hotspot for tourists, locals and wanderers alike. During the hot summer nights, you’ll find students, lovers and friends meeting up to picnic, drink, play music and cool-off by the river’s edge. Before jumping in on all the excitement, take the time to visit Notre-Dame-de-la-Daurade. Built on old Roman ruins, this basilica is decorated with golden mosaics and is home to the Black Madonna, the city’s protector. From the newly renovated Saint-Pierre square, take the stairs down to the riverbank to enjoy an unobstructed view of the sunset over the Garonne river. Feel free to stop for a drink in one of the square’s many bars. Knowing firsthand how friendly Toulousains are, you will probably make lots of friends as the evening progresses. Just on the other side of the river stands the Hôtel Dieu Saint-Jacques, a UNESCO heritage site and a stop on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.
Garonne river banks and Saint-Pierre bridge
*Nougaro (a famous singer-songwriter from Toulouse)