Don't Miss: Hôtels Particuliers in Montpellier

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Montpellier’s rich merchants built themselves grand hôtels particuliers (private mansions) to show off their power and prodigious wealth. The most important houses are marked by a descriptive plaque in French; you can pick up a map in the tourist office. Many of the houses have fabulous inner courtyards (mostly, alas, closed to the public).

Among the most notable is the Hôtel de Varennes, just off place Pétrarque, a mix of medieval and Renaissance architecture; it's now home to a modest museum.

A short walk south on rue Jacques Cœur is the 17th-century Hôtel des Trésoriers de France, one-time residence of King Louis XIII. Just west is the grand Hôtel St-Côme.

Further west near the Cathédrale St-Pierre is the early-17th-century Hôtel de la Vieille Intendance, built during the reign of Louis XIII.

Montpellier’s Beaches

Strolling around the winding lanes of the old quarter, it’s easy to forget that Montpellier is actually a coastal city. Most beaches can be reached in about half an hour by bus or car via the D21, or via a purpose-built cycling track. The sands run for around 10km between the concrete-heavy (and pretty ghastly) beach resorts of Palavas-les-Flots and La Grande-Motte, and are generally packed in summer.

For much quieter shores, head a few kilometres southeast of La Grande-Motte to Plage de l’Espiguette, one of Montpellier’s best beaches, although there's no shade. On the western side of an isolated headland, the beach is a designated nature reserve, with dune systems providing a habitat for endangered birds and insects (as well as naturists). It’s often windy, which makes it popular with kitesurfers and kite-buggiers, but it’s usually much, much emptier than the fleshpot beaches to the west.

Another idea for wildlife spotters is to explore the area of wetlands and coastal lagoons around the small town of Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone, on the coastal road to Sète. This is often a good area for flamingo spotting; the birds regularly stop off here en route from the Camargue, some 30km to the east. Tip: it also boasts a wonderfully quiet and scenic beach, Plage du Pilou.

Kayaking is a great way to explore the area at a gentle pace; contact the reputable Palavas Kayak de Mer.