Ochre rooftops and blushing brick churches earned Toulouse the nickname ‘La Ville Rose’ (The Pink City). Its enchanting Vieux Quartier (Old Quarter) is a dreamy jumble of coral-coloured shopfronts and churches. Beyond the old town, Toulouse sprawls into France’s fourth-largest metropolis. It’s an animated, hectic place, but Toulouse – nestled between a bend in the Garonne River and the mighty Canal du Midi – is invigorated by its waterways.
Toulouse has one of the largest universities outside Paris: at its core this southwestern French city is home to students and scientists. French aeronautical history continues in the Airbus factory outside town. But Toulouse knows how to have a good time, whether in teeming food markets, salons de thé or the thick of its smouldering jazz, techno and rock scenes. From the tips of dusky pink spires to its loudest bars, time spent in Toulouse truly has a rose-tinted sheen.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Toulouse.
The fantastic space museum on the city's eastern outskirts brings Toulouse's illustrious aeronautical history to life through hands-on exhibits, including a moon-running simulator, a rotating pod to test your tolerance for space travel, a planetarium and an observatory, plus a vast cinema to immerse you in a space mission. The showpieces are the full-scale replicas of iconic spacecraft, including the Mir space station and a 52m-high Ariane 5 space rocket.
This well-preserved Romanesque edifice is built from golden and rose-hued stonework up to the tip of the octogonal bell tower. Entry is free, but it’s worth the additional charge to explore the ambulatory, where marble statues stare from alcoves in the brick walls. The tomb of the basilica’s namesake St Sernin (also known as St Saturnin) has pride of place: he was Toulouse’s first bishop and met a gruesome end when pagan priests tied him to a bull.
This elegant ecclesiastical structure is the mother church of the Dominican order, founded in 1215. First admire the Église des Jacobins ' ornate stained-glass windows before wandering through the Cloitre des Jacobins, in which graceful russet-brick columns surround a green courtyard. Pause in chapels and side rooms along the way, like the echoing Salle Capitulaire, a 14th-century hall ornamented with a haloed lamb and grisaille portraits of Dominican saints. Don't miss Chapelle St-Antonin, with its 14th-century ceiling frescoes showing apocalyptic scenes.
Toulouse's magnificent main square is the city's literal and metaphorical heart, where Toulousiens turn out en masse on sunny evenings to sip a coffee or an early aperitif at a pavement cafe. On the eastern side is the 128m-long façade of the Capitole, the city hall, built in the 1750s. Inside is the Théâtre du Capitole, one of France's most prestigious opera venues, and the over-the-top, late-19th-century Salle des Illustres (Hall of the Illustrious).
Located within a former Augustinian monastery, this fine-arts museum spans the Roman era through to the early 20th century. Echoing stairwells and high-vaulted chambers are part of the fun, but artistic highlights include the French rooms – with some works by Delacroix, Ingres and Courbet – and works by Toulouse-Lautrec and Monet, among the standouts from the 20th-century collection. Don't skip the delightful 14th-century cloister gardens, with gurning gargoyle statues that seem to pose around the courtyard. Some rooms may be closed for renovation.
On the eastern side of place du Capitole (the main square) is the 128m-long façade of the Capitole, Toulouse's city hall. This neoclassical masterpiece, in Toulouse's characteristic pink brick and buttressed with gleaming white columns, was built in the early 1750s, but this spot was a seat of municipal power for 500 years prior. The interior is worth a look for its spectacular late-19th-century Salle des Illustres (Hall of the Illustrious), decorated by artists including post-impressionist Henri Martin.
This luxurious museum of fine arts and historic design is housed within Toulouse’s most impressive hôtel particulier (private mansion), the Hôtel d'Assézat. On the 1st floor, velvet-walled rooms are packed with period furniture, paintings, statues and decorative objects, while the 2nd floor exhibits artworks spanning impressionist to expressionist schools of thought. There are sketches by Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec, plus some minor works by Pissarro, Sisley and Egon Schiele.
Having trouble imagining Toulouse decorated with 4th-century nude Venuses and Corinthian columns? This light-filled museum neatly aligns the city's modern neighbourhoods with Roman remnants that once stood there. Standout displays include stone reliefs of Hercules’ labours on the 1st floor, while the 2nd floor has eye-popping fragments of a 4th–5th-century mosaic from the villa de St-Rustice, the remnants of a huge, marine-themed design with somersaulting dolphins. Don’t skip the necropolis in the basement, an enchantingly lit space with ancient sarcophagi and tomb steles.
Toulouse boasts more than 50 hôtels particuliers – private mansions built for the city's nobles and aristocrats during the 16th and 17th centuries. Among the finest is the Hôtel d'Assézat, built for a wood merchant in 1555. It's now home to the Fondation Bemberg, which owns a fine collection of paintings, sculpture and period furniture, but you can also simply walk into the courtyard to admire the buildings and check out some informational placards.