Known as ‘la Ville Rose’ (the pink city) due to its iconic terracotta brick structures and famous as Europe’s leading aerospace center, Toulouse is also steeped in history, home to enough museums and art galleries to satisfy most cultural connoisseurs, and boasts its own impressive style of cuisine.
As with any destination, it’s advisable to find a reputable guide and become familiar with the city upon arrival. Look no further than ‘Toulouse Walking Tours’ owned and managed by a friendly Yorkshire woman, Penny Dickinson. Penny may be her name but her walking tours are far more than a pound’s worth of value.
Having lived in Toulouse for 16 years, this mother-of-two knows the city extremely well, including off-the-track places to eat, ranging from vegetarian to authentic ‘grandmotherly’ cuisine up narrow roads, and the best places to buy chocolates, macaroons and patisserie. Her knowledge of history is impressive, from how the city became a Roman settlement to the modern growth of the aerospace industry. Her stories about local characters are entertaining and colourful, including a slice of sexual slander featuring Royalty. She also manages to find hidden artwork in some of the strangest of places.
Penny organises a variety of tours, both her regular public walks as well as personalized private ones, and also provides an easy-to-understand city map highlighting key sites. Thoughtfully, she brings along drinks and homemade snacks for an enjoyable sit-down break alongside the Garonne River during her tours.
Museums and Art Galleries
A variety of museums and galleries await cultural aficionados in Toulouse, granting insights into the city and key people involved in its growth –
Located in the old town centre, the city’s archaeological museumcomprises an exceptional collection of Roman sculptures, from busts to tombstones, and an ancient mosaic floor. For me, however, the highlight was a priceless collection of intricately designed Celtic 1-3th century BC gold bracelets. An added delight at this museum is its tranquil Garden of Antiquities and café right outside its front door with tables and seating in an ‘oasis’ of palm trees, laurels and cypresses.
A museum of fine arts and historic design housed within one of Toulouse’s most impressive hôtel particuliers (private mansions) called Hôtel d’Assézat, its walls on three floors are crammed with period furniture, ceramics, ancient books, statues, carpets and paintings. The latter span different artistic movements including French impressionism, Nabis, post-impressionism, expressionism and Fauvism, especially from the 19th and 20th century, and Venetian paintings of the 16th and 18th centuries. Among others, you’ll see works by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Gauguin, Breughel, Sisley and Egon Schiele, a protégé of Gustav Klimt.
City Hall Gallery
Government buildings are usually not the most attractive places to visit but the Capitole, where Toulouse City Hall is located, is an exception. Although guarded by police, visitors are allowed and entrance is free. Inside, up an impressive staircase with a balustrade on top are three spacious, high-ceilinged rooms of wall and ceiling paintings each on a different theme by various artists, as well as a beautiful herringbone pattern oak flooring.
Salle Gervais is filled with paintings by Paul Gervais representing love in its many different stages; Salle Henri Martin feature this Toulouse artist’s renderings of the four seasons and another striking work depicting famous Toulousans, including the artist himself, strolling along the Garonne River; and Salle des Illustres honors some of the city’s famous sons, including mathematicians, scientists, generals and artists. Best to visit on Sunday morning as weddings take place here, so it can become quite crowded. Check at reception for opening times.
A leisure stroll around Toulouse brings its own rewards.
Of course, there’s the historic Capitole Square where you can admire the Occitan Cross and astral symbols carved on the ground and enjoy a coffee at the many terraces. Pop into Brasserie de Beaux Art and admire the orate decorative ceilings and bask in its Old World ambience.
Wander along Rue Temponieras with its boutique craft shops.
Admire the architectural skills of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc who renovated the 16h century ‘Dungeon Tower,’ where the Capitols (the city’s leaders) used to meet, and which is now the city’s main tourism office.
Meander along the Garrone River, take photos of the ornate Pont Neuf, the city’s oldest bridge and absorb the youthful energy and spirit of hundreds of students as they congregate in St Peter’s Square.
And don’t miss a visit to the Victor Hugo market, especially on Sundays when locals gather for a bite and a chat. And, of course a glass of wine, or two.
For something a little different, make your way to Maison de Violett, a shop on a river barge sells everything from herbal tea to bath soaps scented with Toulouse’s trademark flower.
A search for upscale dining in Toulouse should lead you to Jardin de l’Opera opposite the historic Place du Capitole, a stone’s throw from City Hall.
Up a short alleyway and opposite the 17th century Grand Hôtel de l’Opéra, it’s an airy, spacious restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows in a classic setting with minimalist décor and a delightful belle-époque glass ceiling.
Owned by Michelin-star chef Stéphane Tournié, it offers a relaxing atmosphere and a menu that is as delectable in presentation as it is in taste. Our evening was a show with different acts creating a memorable tasting menu. We began with an amuse bouche served in delicate white china shaped like different crustaceans containing three different salads, lentil and beetroot, salmon and potato and chia seeds and violets (the flower being a traditional symbol of Toulouse). The follow-up dish comprised shaved black truffles resting on pan fried scallops and roasted onion puree, the scent announcing entrance as the kitchen door opened. An interesting pairing of foie gras with oysters, linked with a ginger and citronella broth stole the show, but a sea bass float with prawn tail and fresh coriander on an island of vegetable rice and coconut sauce with marigold petals was also memorable.
Following a tangerine dessert, we sipped on Armagnacs, having noticed a display of nine different bottles behind our table, one dating from 1970.
Don’t forget to purchase a Toulouse Tourism pass. It includes not only free public transport on bus, metro and tram, free entry to many museums and monuments and numerous activities at reduced rates, but also a guided visit of your choice, from across the entire programme of visits run by the tourist office.