Known as “La Ville Rose,” or “The Pink City,” thanks to the signature pink brick that defines the town, Toulouse has an aesthetic all of its own. It’s also got a vibrant energy that makes it a worthwhile place to hop off the beaten path. Home to one of Europe’s oldest medical universities, and the headquarters of Airbus, there’s a running joke among the locals that Toulouse is all students and engineers. But this makes for a lively and modern city that is also one of France’s most progressive. The weather is great, nearly always warm and sunny, and it’s more affordable than other places in the South of France. It’s also not that high on the tourist index, so it’s ideal for someone looking for a more local experience in France.
Toulouse is a student town, which means people like to turn up on a Friday night. If you’re under the age of 22, the Place Saint-Pierre is the place to go if you’re looking to get a little messy. Start with music and cheap pastis at Chez Tonton, then dare to mount the second floor of La Couleur de la Culotte with its glass dancefloor ONLY if you’ve remembered to wear pants. (It’s all in the name, after all.) If you prefer to watch the mayhem from a distance, take a seat along the Garonne River between the Pont Saint-Pierre and Pont Neuf, where locals lounge in the evenings. Or, head back into the city, where you’ll find a surprising number of popular pubs. Opt for darts and drafts at The London Town, live music at The Thirsty Monk, or whiskey and scotch eggs at The Hopscotch Pub & Brewery. Prefer a cocktail and some jazz? There’s always the good old Fat Cat.
Start the morning with a little walk through Toulouse’s past. Harry’s Free Tour gives an excellent walking tour that focuses on medieval Toulouse, and the horrors of the Inquisition. Enjoy Toulouse’s unique and striking architecture, from the bizarre incongruities of the Basilique Saint-Sernin, to the gothic austerity of the Couvent des Jacobins, to the Place du Capitole and its zodiac mosaics.
Once you’re tired out from all the walking, stop for lunch at the Marché Victor Hugo. This covered market has restaurants tucked just out of sight one floor above the fresh produce and meats, so you can get a sampling of local bites without having to argue over which restaurant will suit everyone’s needs.
But perhaps you’d prefer something a little more picturesque for your lunch? Start with a savory tart and finish with a sweet one outside on the terrace at Flower’s Cafe. (And don’t feel guilty if the chocolate-caramel tart is so good you stop by for another one the next day!)
For dinner, get ready to tuck into something a little heartier. Toulouse is duck country, which means that everywhere you go, you’ll be seeing magret de canard and foie gras on the menu. You’re also sandwiched between the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region, known for its full-bodied reds, and the Armagnac region, home to Cognac’s lesser-known sister brandy. So whether you prefer a robust apéritif or a rich digestif, Toulouse has got you covered.
When ordering foie gras, you might see the option to pair it with a sweet wine like Sauternes, though a bit of champagne will suffice for those who prefer something drier. And if you have the option to try a prune-Armagnac ice cream, a local specialty, don’t turn your nose up at the odd combination.
Another local prize is the hearty meat-and-beans stew known as cassoulet. It’s best in the winter, and as Toulouse can reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit as early as May, you’ll be forgiven for forgoing it in exchange for a lighter duck-based dish.
For traditional Toulouse fare, make reservations for L’Os à Möelle. Their €36 dinner menu comes with three courses and all-you-can-eat foie gras, but they also do a fabulous three-course lunch meal for only €16. La Braisière is another excellent option, with a wood fire oven pumping strong at its heart to make you feel like grandmère is in the back whipping up your mussels, prawns, or duck breast.
For a sweet start to the morning, pop into Pâtisserie Conté, and try a local pastry known as the fenetra, a rustic tart made with almonds, apricot, and candied lemon peel, giving it a lush bitterness.
For a moment of tranquility, head to the Jardin Japonais, a little breath of zen just a short walk outside Toulouse’s Old Town. Inspired by the gardens of Kyoto between the 14th and 16th centuries, this little oasis is complete with a rock garden, its own bamboo forest, a little red bridge, and a traditional minka house. If you’re on the other side of town, opt for the Jardins des Plantes and Jardin Royal, which splay off of the Grand Rond.
Contemporary art lovers will find plenty to enjoy at Les Abattoirs, a former slaughterhouse converted into a compound that houses gallery spaces, a bookshop, cafe, archives, and auditorium. Alternatively, you could pop into the nearby Galerie Le Château d’Eau, which houses free photography exhibits by the riverside Prairie des Filtres park.
If your fondest childhood memories involve building model airplanes or reconstructing Star Wars sets with legos, you might be entertained by the Aeroscopia Museum in Blagnac, a nearby Toulouse suburb. The museum explores the history of aeronautics in Toulouse, where pilots have long been considered local heroes. (It’s here, after all, that Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of Le Petit Prince, began his dangerous career as a pilot.)
On your way out of town, be sure to pick up some souvenirs for the road. Pop into La Maison de la Violette right by the train station for some Toulouse candied violets, which make for great gifts… if you don’t eat them yourself first!
Catherine Rickman is a writer and professional francophile who has lived in Paris, New York, and Berlin. She is currently road tripping around Europe, and you can follow her adventures on Instagram @catrickman.