Toulouse: why you need to visit France's hippest city
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
After about three hours in Toulouse we were ready to pack in the day jobs and sell all our worldly goods to make this our new home. It's an absolute cracker of a city and has everything going for it: beautiful buildings, majestic squares, oodles of vibey bars & restaurants, picturesque river walks, friendly people & bags of atmosphere. In short, it’s deadly and feels livable rather than a museum set.
Known as La Ville Rose, or the Pink City, Toulouse is divided in two by the River Garonne and bordered on the north by the Canal du Midi. On the east side you've got the old town; the west is home to the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Saint-Cyprien. The beautiful Pont Neuf and Pont St Pierre are the two main crossing points and I'd highly recommend evening strolls along the tree-lined river paths.
WHAT TO DO
Honestly I could write a novel about all of things to do in Toulouse. Let's just say you'll not be bored. But if you have to start somewhere make it Place du Capitole, the main square in the heart of the old town. Here it is illuminated in all its nighttime glory. It's pretty jaw-dropping.
The building above is the 18th century town hall which dominates the square and is open to the public on certain hours throughout the day provided there are no weddings scheduled. It's free to enter and is definitely worth a visit to see the opulent Salle des Illustres with its ornate decoration and painted illusionistic ceilings. Not a bad place to get married.
At the end of the 18th century, a number of Toulouse artists were commissioned to create a series of paintings to adorn the various rooms of the building. My favourite was the Henri Martin room: the artist chose to divide the room into two cycles, urban and rural. One wall is dedicated to life in the countryside with works representing the four seasons and the different stages of life. The second wall represents the city and features paintings of his wife, family and close friends. They are beautiful, sometimes poignant, paintings in the Impressionist style.
LES ABBATOIRS 76 alleyways Charles-de-Fitte
Yes this is actually a former abattoir turned art gallery and a wonderful exhibition space for modern and contemporary art. Located on the west side of the river in St-Cyprien, it's a short walk from the old town across the Pont St-Pierre. We were lucky enough to catch the Picasso and Exile exhibition. The curation was superb and a fantastic collection of work was chosen. They also have a terrific museum shop so give yourself plenty of time to browse afterwards.
Boy with the Asses Bonnet is the work of the wonderful James Colomina. He sits on a ledge at Pont Neuf so watch out for him when you visit. Oh and look up James’ Instagram page here for his other works which can be found in many major cities all over the world. They’re quite fantastic.
And then there was this - art to literally stop your heart. I almost jumped out of my skin when I looked up and saw the girl suspended on a swing from Pont St Pierre. Far too real and very unsettling. This is the work of American artist & provocateur Mark Jenkins.
He is also responsible for the brilliant additions to the fountain at Place Wilson. I thought I’d had too much wine when I saw the masked fisherman had moved position overnight. Even more unsettling is the floating figure of a man, face down, at the bottom of his fishing line. Apparently the artist likes to play around & move his sculptures when no-one’s watching and often hides out to watch people’s reactions. It was the talking point of Toulouse while we were there and local kids were shrieking with joy when they spotted that he’d moved again.
FONDATION BEMBERG Hotel d’Assézat, Place Assézat
In keeping with the colour scheme of the Pink City, Hotel d’Assézat is a glorious 16th century Renaissance palace which has been home to the Fondation Bemberg since 1994: an outstanding art collection of paintings and sculpture from the past five centuries. The modern rooms are particularly impressive: they have a wonderful Impressionist collection, a room dedicated to the brilliant Henri Fantin-Latour and thirty impressive works by Bonnard including a very unusual self-portrait. There are some Rodins liberally placed around this room also for good measure. A must-see.
COUVENT DES JACOBINS
Place des Jacobins
Couvent des Jacobins is a monumental building, a Dominican monastery dating from 13th century but constructed using the same principals of the great French cathedrals. It's pretty jaw-dropping and completely not what I expected of a monastery. The soaring Gothic verticality of the space is even more defined by the stunning stained glass windows dating from three periods: the 14th century to the 1960s. A contemporary artist Sarkis has installed a series of neon tubes from the ceiling to complement the existing windows. It works really well.
The cloisters have an admission fee of €5 and are well worth it. A peaceful colonnaded courtyard surrounds a garden and there are a number of ante-rooms with ancient chalky frescoes and beautiful windows. There is also a fantastic installation running until late September 2019, 'Piano Piano', featuring the music of Steve Reich with two pianos circling in choreographed movement. Hypnotic and visually mesmerising. You can have a look here...
COFFEE AND JAZZ...
7 Bis Rue Cujas
One for vinyl fans - you can't leave Toulouse without paying a visit to one of the coolest record shops on the planet. A short walk from La Daurade is Cafe Disquaire, an absolute mecca for fans of jazz, blues and soul. This is the place to come to bolster your collection and to pick up some rarities and vintage finds. Records are reasonably priced with a good sale selection for just €10. Let's just say we didn't leave empty-handed.
The manager was chatty and the place has such a nice relaxed vibe - you'll want to spend the afternoon there. It's just as well they serve coffee, wine and beer and a selection of small plates with hummus, cheese and cold meats, in addition to sandwiches and sweet treats. Cool decor too with exposed brick, brightly painted walls and black and white photos. They also have in-store gigs once a week: the Sunday Groove Sessions.
GLACES MOUSTACHE, Place St Pierre
Yes I'm starting my food recommendations with an ice-cream parlour. But this is no ordinary ice-cream - this is artisan craftsmanship and the BEST ice-cream I’ve ever tasted. It’s not cheap but you’ll see why when you take the first mouthful. The Bretonne is the greatest butteriest, caramel-iest thing you’ll ever taste, the Pistachio tastes like they wrung it by hand, nut by nut, and the Cafe Gourmand will put a nice caffeine-fueled pep in your step. Sit outside and enjoy it on the tree-lined square Place St Pierre, one of my favourite spots in Toulouse. You could always top it off with a beer at Chez Tonton, just a few doors down. More on that in the Indie Bars section below.
3 Rue Henri de Gorsse
Tapeo is a casual tapas bar in a great part of town. You'll be spoiled for choice for places to eat and drink but this place was recommended to us and I'm happy to pass on the tip. It was really tasty and a good introduction to their food scene. Toulouse is a university town and this area is frequented more by students and locals than tourists which makes it a little bit cheaper. You'll also notice a Latin influence which pervades the city. We had a table outside beside the bar with two high stools and were served by a very friendly waitress. We ordered four dishes to share: pimientos de padron, patatas l'aioli, manchego with cherries (such a good combo) and salted cod. Portions were quite large so we were stuffed afterwards but each dish was great and we couldn't help but demolish the lot. Washed down with a couple of beers each, the bill came to a mere €44.
20 Place St George
Also good for casual bites, this is the place to come for late food and drinks (they stay open until 3am on Saturdays and 2pm on other days). It's a little bit hipster and service can be slow but staff were nice and the food was pretty good overall. The burrata and tomatoes dish above was excellent and I was happy to see some healthier options on the menu: the ceviche tuna was really fresh and came with quinoa, topped with coriander and soy sauce. Wines are reasonably priced from €4 per glass and there are a good range of regional options by the bottle from between €23 and €28.
I should also mention that Place St George is a cool place to hang out in the evenings, though a little more upmarket than the Carmes area where Tapeo is located, and can be a little touristy. There are loads of bars and restaurants to choose from and the square itself is leafy and very pretty.
7 Place St George
Staying with Place St George, the crêperie of the same name is a nice spot for a quick lunch and they stay open all afternoon, unlike most establishments. Grab a street-side table, order one of their traditional crêpes and all will be right with the world. The emmental, spinach and cream cheese is very filling but delicious and they make a damn fine coffee. The server was really friendly too.
NO. 5 WINE BAR 5 Rue de la Bourse
Voted best wine bar in the world for two years running, No 5 offers 300 wines by the glass from over a hundred different grapes. The premises is small with casual bites on ground level and seating on high stools at a bar, and a more formal dining setting downstairs in the cellar which we opted for.
We had two tasting menus: one meat and fish menu for €45 and a vegetarian version for €25. We decided to go for the wine pairings instead of a bottle: you can have three glasses for €20 or five glasses for €25. In addition to the five courses we were given a number of amuses-bouches in between. Our two servers were very knowledgeable and friendly and gave a good introduction to each course as it was presented.
The food really was superb and presentation was outstanding - each looked like a work of art. Dishes included sea bass and roast potatoes, a modern twist on the Caprese salad, Gazpacho with a basil cream and mini souffles. However it was Martin's clams and peas dish served on a shell that was the winner for me. The unusual combinations created explosions of flavour in my mouth and the wine pairings were on the money. One was a Chardonnay, a wine I would normally turn my nose up at, but it was unlike any I'd ever tasted and went really well with the food. My only criticism was that it felt a little rushed - there wasn't an adequate period of time between courses to really absorb and enjoy the flavours of the previous one, but perhaps this was because we were the last seating. If not for this, it would've been the food experience of our entire trip. If you're thinking of booking, perhaps opt for the earlier seating instead.
You will be absolutely spoiled for choice for groovy places to sit and have a drink in this city. Start at Place de la Daurade on the Garonne: there are riverside bars here that spill out onto the riverbank and the grassy area that runs parallel. You have a couple of options for a bar hop. From Rue de la Daurade, head for Rue Cujas and towards the lovely Place de la Bourse. There are any numbers of great places to stop for an aperitif. Or take Rue Peyrolières and head south towards Rue Couteliers towards Place de la Dalbade. We found some brilliant spots on our travels. These were our favourites.
12 Rue des Paradoux
This was our favourite bar in Toulouse - hip without being hipster and very much a place where the locals hang out. They offer ten beers on draft, as well as a variety by the bottle. All come from small regional breweries, mostly from the south-west of France with others from northern France and Belgium. They also have a small but well-chosen wine list, again mainly regional wines. I opted for a red Corbières and Martin tried one of their draft beers. The verdict - très bon! We sat on high stools at the bar and felt very much part of the Toulouse night-life. Staff were really friendly and we were sorry we'd only discovered it on our last night. Definitely one to return to on our next visit.
22 Rue des Polinaires
Another terrific find, just around the corner from Tapeo in the groovy Carmes area. They have some outdoor seating but all were occupied when we arrived. Again this is not where the tourists hang out so it's a nice introduction to a more local scene. The decor is cool, the staff are super friendly and they make a damn fine Campari Spritz.
9 rue Cujas
Craft beers, hipster beards, dogs under tables and shabby-chic decor, minus any pretensions - this is the Barallel experience. They offer a range of draft beers, some of which are brewed on site in their micro-brewery, and a small but carefully chosen selection of organic wines. The bar staff are really passionate about the beer and wine they serve and are happy to let you taste before committing, or will recommend something based on what you usually like. A lively spot with a friendly atmosphere. Even though we were just blow-ins, they treated us as if we were regulars. A cool place.
45 Rue Peyrolières
A Spanish tapas bar with a buzzing atmosphere, friendly staff and a variety of typically Spanish drinks on offer such as the very refreshing Tinto de Verano, Sangria and Kalimotxo.
WE ALSO LIKED...
Though not exactly indie bars, here are another few spots that we liked very much.
CHEZ TONTON, Place St Pierre
Located on one of my favourite squares, Chez Tonton is a local institution. This is the place to come if you and your pals fancy a metre of pastis. Nope that's not a typo. They sell glasses of pastis on a metre-long stick. I think this turns into quite the party bar at night with people spilling out onto the square. Not quite in the mood for a metre of pastis that day, we opted to sit outside with two glasses of their blonde beer. Light and refreshing, it hit the spot. A cool bar and one popular with rugby fans on match days apparently. It's a little bit grungey and there is just one unisex toilet so it might not be to everyone's taste. It's the perfect spot for an early afternoon beer though.
LE PETIT VOISIN, 37 Rue Peyrolières
A bar frequented by students, some of whom had brought their own food and no-one blinked an eye. Outdoor tables are great for an early evening cocktail (they have happy-hour specials) and some people-watching on this very cool street.
WHERE TO STAY
AN APARTMENT WITH A VIEW: HAUT LOFTS
76 Allées Jean Jaurès
And what a view this is. Apartments are huge and located on the 18th and 19th floors for panoramic views of the city. Ours had a bedroom on the Mezzanine level and an enormous living / dining area. Apartments have large windows so it was nice to lie in bed in the morning or at night and look out at the skyline of the city.
The kitchen was well-equipped for cooking and dining and had all mod cons including electronic black-out blinds for the windows and air-con downstairs, with huge fans upstairs in the bedroom. It was slick, stylish and spotlessly clean, maybe on the verge of gangster pad, but managed to stay on the right side.
There is loads of wardrobe space and a large bathroom with bath/shower and our bed was very comfy with good quality bed linen. Just be aware: it doesn't look much from the street entrance as that part of the city can look a little grimy but don't let it put you off. We never felt unsafe. Reception for the apartments is on the 1st floor and it all gets better from there. The two staff members were great, really friendly and helpful, and we loved our stay here. It felt like a home away from home and it's a short walk to the old town and to the river.
Just a couple of doors down the street is Ad's Coffee where we enjoyed an excellent barista-style coffee every morning.
So just to summarise: Toulouse really is an amazing city. It has everything you could want in a city break and the people we met were overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. Everything is within walking distance and it's got real spirit with an all-pervasive energy and atmosphere. It ticked every box for me: great weather, beautiful architecture, terrific museums and galleries, happening bars and a rich foodie scene infused with some Latin spirit. What more could you want?
You can fly direct to Toulouse from Dublin with Aer Lingus
From the airport: there is a regular tram service from the airport to the city centre, stopping at Metro lines for any necessary connections. It costs €1.70 and takes about half an hour. There is also a regular shuttle bus service which we used on the return journey as it departed from the main train and bus station, close to our apartment. This costs €8 and takes approx. half an hour too, though of course this depends on traffic.
More info on all transfer options here