Closer to Barcelona than it is to Paris, Toulouse’s peach-tiled roofs and long days of sunshine give its historic center a Mediterranean look, but without some of the high prices you might find on the well-heeled Riviera.
That said, some of its famous aerospace museums aren’t cheap to enter, and, as France’s home of foie gras, eating well can eventually add up. Luckily, there are plenty of activities in La Ville Rose (The Pink City) that can be enjoyed free of charge, and we’re here to show you how.
1. Explore the Capitole de Toulouse
Built around 1750, this masterpiece by Guillaume Cammas is free to enter during the week, and its Salle des Illustres rooms are probably the most ornate and ostentatious in the entire city. Don’t miss the evocative Salle Henri-Martin, a rectangular room filled with large impressionist paintings of local scenes in 19th-century Toulouse, wonderfully brought to life by Martin’s ethereal use of light as the seasons change.
Planning tip: The building is sometimes used to host weddings and other formal events on the weekends, so try and visit during the week if possible.
2. Relax in the Japanese Garden
Looking for a peaceful escape for a little while? Located in the heart of the Compans-Caffarelli park, the Jardin Japonais was built in 1981 by then-mayor Pierre Baudis following an inspiring trip to Kyoto, where he decided that Toulouse needed something similar for its locals.
With its languid arched bridges and manicured lawns free to explore, there’s plenty of room to unwind, and the shade beneath its green trees might be the city’s finest spot to read a book and listen to the birds sing. Also, look out for the miniature Mount Fuji and the turtles swimming in the pond.
3. Spot the child with a dunce’s cap
Approach Toulouse’s sublime 17th-century Pont Neuf bridge from its northern side, and you’ll notice an unusual and somewhat devilish sight. Though from a distance the bright red figure sat on one of the bridge’s seven arches may resemble a devil, it’s actually an art installation of a child in a dunce’s cap.
Created by plastic artist James Colomina in 2017, L’Enfant au bonnet d’âne (the child with a dunce cap) is said to represent everyone who has been sidelined, stigmatized or isolated from society.
4. Photograph the tower of St Sernin
If you turn off the Place du Capitole onto the rue du Taur, you’ll be confronted with a gently arcing street scene of crooked medieval rooftops and busy pedestrians passing by beneath. Above it all, however, in the far distance rises the pointed-hat bell tower of the Basilica of Saint-Sernin.
Reminiscent of Istanbul’s iconic Galata Tower, there’s nothing else quite like it in the city, and it makes for great photos from almost any angle. The peach brick facade always looks best when shot against a deep blue sky, though (a regular occurrence in Toulouse, thankfully).
5. Soak up the views from the Garonne
Flowing for 529km (329 miles) from the central Spanish Pyrenees to the Gironde estuary at the port city of Bordeaux, the snaking Garonne River pierces central Toulouse, and its convivial banks provide some of the city’s most pleasant vistas.
On hot summer evenings, people chat, drink and dangle their legs from the edges like pigeons lining a church roof as cooling breezes shoot down the banks from the river. Looking toward the western banks, bright fairy lights from the guinguette restaurants form a twinkling web beneath the imposing Dôme de la Grave that rises above the arches of the Pont Saint-Pierre bridge. Kick back and soak up Toulouse’s finest scene as the evening’s glow forms a golden blanket over the city.
Planning tip: There are plenty of bars around this area, but it’s cheaper to simply buy beers or a bottle of wine and unwind on the banks or nearby steps.
6. Browse the Victor Hugo Market
Constructed in 1959 in the fashionable brutalist style, the staggered sugar-white roof of the Marché Victor Hugo resembles an MC Escher painting at first glance, but inside, it’s a classic French indoor market. Strong aromas emanate from every stall as you pass by pungent cheeses, freshly caught fish and gregarious wine bars. With this region's fascination with all things duck and goose, there’s even a stall dedicated almost entirely to foie gras.
Even if you don’t buy anything, wandering between the 75–80 stalls is a fine way to enliven the senses and take in a fully French experience.
Planning tip: Markets are always run by morning people, so get here early if you want to see this one at its most dynamic. Stalls are generally closed by 1:30pm.
7. Get to know Saint Thomas Acquinas at Couvent des Jacobins
From its seven-story octagonal bell tower to the palm tree-shaped vaulted ceiling, the Couvent des Jacobins is one of Toulouse’s oldest and most famous institutions. It’s also free to enter.
The mother church of the Dominican Order, the relics of Saint Thomas Aquinas lie in the center beneath the palms after they were sent by Pope Urban V, since Aquinas – though he was Italian and died in Italy – was a Dominican himself. There’s also a lovely cloister garden at the back, but it costs €5 to enter.
8. Stroll the Canal du Midi
Considered one of the greatest construction works of the 17th century, the Canal du Midi flows from Toulouse 241km (150 miles) all the way to a lagoon that empties into the Mediterranean Sea. While the prettiest sections of the canal lie in the undulating countryside between city and coast, it’s still a pleasure to be able to walk a section of what is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.
In fact, if you’re arriving by train into Toulouse, then it can be done almost immediately. Head out from the main entrance of Toulouse Matabiau station, and the canal is hiding behind the trees flanking either side.
9. Admire art at Musée des Augustins
With its vast collection of paintings and sculptures covering styles across eight centuries, it’s quite remarkable that the Musée des Augustins is free for the public to enter. Built in the 14th century in the French Southern Gothic style with pink bricks, the building was consecrated in the 15th century and secularized after the French Revolution.
Now one of the oldest museums in France (opening in 1795), its work is displayed in various rooms, featuring European painters from the XVII to the XIX centuries, including some big names like Manet, Murillo and Delacroix. There are also thought-provoking works in the Heroes and Heroines section, which looks at how the male and female bodies have been treated differently over the years in the art world.
Planning tip: If you’re a family with children, there’s a corner of the main hall called Espace d’expression where kids can sit down and draw and create together.
10. Look out for old street signs
With their displays in both French and Occitan (often mistakenly thought of as Catalan at first glance), Toulouse’s street signs are certainly eye-catching. Even more interesting, there are a few older examples that have faded and now look almost ghostly next to their modern counterparts.
They had another function, too, dating back to a time long before Google Maps was a thing. Yellow signs indicated that you were parallel to the River Garonne, while grey signaled that you were perpendicular.