Toulouse, the capital of southwestern France, is a breath of fresh air, unravelling along the banks of the River Garonne. Celebrated as the “space capital” of France with its National Space Research Centre, you’ll find a lot more to explore over a long weekend in the capital of the Occitanie region, and you’ll be amazed at what there is to see and visit: countless churches, museums, and gardens that make Toulouse an incredible city. Explore it with Culture Trip’s list of the best things to do and see in Toulouse.
Ever considered making the classic pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain? This luminous brick-and-stone marvel, built between the 11th and 14th centuries, was on the pilgrims’ route from the earliest times. Named after Toulouse’s first bishop, St Saturnin, the grand basilica is considered one of the greatest churches in France, with an exquisite soaring nave. Take a guided tour to learn more about the medieval frescoes that adorn the transepts, or attend a service to bask in the organ sounds.
Busy with life, this architecturally magnificent square is one of the key emblems of Toulouse – and the historic core of the city. (Come one Wednesdays for the lively market.) It’s lined with cafes giving you a front-seat view of the sensational pink-stone former Grand Palace, which runs the length of one side, reminiscent of Madrid and St Petersburg. Built in the late 18th century, it once housed the magistrates. Now it’s home to the city’s theatre, a fittingly grand setting for some of the most famous operas in the world.
Art lovers flock to Toulouse’s fine art museum for the splendid sculptures, paintings and special collections that fill its chambers. There are Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance corkers as well as art of the 20th century. If you love the work of Delacroix and Rubens, Ingres and Toulouse-Lautrec, this is a definite date for your diary. It’s next to the Augustins Convent, a beautiful church with cloisters and a garden, so you can relax once you’ve gorged on the artistic culture.
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Although the name translates as ‘new bridge’, Pont Neuf was completed in the early 17th century and is famously the oldest bridge in the city, with fine views along the Garonne River. In red and white brickwork, meeting in a gentle arch, on a clear day it’s hugely popular among strollers and cyclists. Curiously, its arches aren’t symmetrical, but that doesn’t detract from its beauty. On which note, try to see it after dark: floodlights from below project beams of varying colours, creating a spectacle you’ll want to photograph.
In the middle of the Compans-Caffarelli park, this peaceful garden is the epitome of zen as you wander, inhaling scents of beautiful flowers. Known as the Pierre Baudis Japanese garden, it is as pretty as a picture, with its bright red cartwheel bridge, stone garden and tea pavilion. Spend time gazing up into the trees or down into the waters of the lake – you’re bound to spot koi carp, turtles, frogs, and birds. Then sit awhile on one of the benches, imagining you’re in Tokyo or Kyoto.
The Hôtel d’Assézat, a 16th-century palace, is known as the most beautiful Renaissance mansion house in Toulouse – a suitable setting for the Bemberg Foundation, aka the personal collection of Georges Bemberg (1915-2011), a wealthy Argentine philanthropist resident in France. The collection features sketches and drawings, paintings, and sculptures. There is also furniture and old books, and the art itself highlights work from some of the most famous artists from the impressionist and post-impressionist periods.
Cultural entertainment is yours for the taking at the Theatre du Capitole. This magnificent opera house is the venue for some of the most celebrated works of dance and music in history. It’s a small but elegant space with comfortable seats and good acoustics, and the theatre is located in the administration building of city hall. Whether you’re in the mood for an opera, a ballet, a recital or a rousing concert, check the schedule online and get booking.
Established in 1891, this museum houses many exquisite antiques and is a must-visit, particularly if you like Roman art. During excavation works an early Christian necropolis, or large ancient cemetery, was discovered in the basement, which contains many inscriptions and crypts. There are also all kinds of finds from the Roman villa of Chiragan, in the village of Martre-Tolosane, about 60km (37mi) southwest of Toulouse – there are busts and bronzes among the ancient artefacts.
If you need a quiet city oasis, locate this Dominican monastery, dating from 1229, for an hour of peace and quiet, with wonderful views of its southern-French gothic architecture. The cloister is a little marvel, with a fresh green garden at its centre. It’s customary to pay the small fee – essentially a donation to the church – just to be able to sit and read, have a quiet conversation or reflect in solitude. The adjacent church, equally exquisite, is also a lovely spot to visit.
For any budding cosmonauts, this space-themed museum will be a real high. Geek out over the scale replicas of actual spacecraft outside, from the Mir space station to the Ariane 5 rocket. Then proceed into the museum’s planetarium to see the night sky come to life on a wraparound screen. Move on to investigate real space curiosities, such as pieces of the Moon and Mars. You’ll learn about the rigours of an astronaut’s life in space and how weather satellites work as well as get the chance to take part in hands-on demonstrations.
This small city park is a bit of a hidden beauty, bordered by the banks of the Garonne River on one side, the pink brick walls of the Les Abattoirs art museum on the other. In the summer, you’ll find people tanning themselves on the sloping grass banks, and groups of teens sipping coffee at the La Guinguette de Saint-Cyprien cafe by the river’s edge. If you end up staying out past dinner, not to worry: there’s the stylish Restaurant l’Hémicycle serving up seasonal three-course menus.
Housed in what used to be the city’s abattoirs, this sprawling modern-art museum specialises in showcasing contemporary and up-and-coming French and international artists in sprawling gallery spaces. Expect everything from photography to sculpture, fabric art to digital installations. There’s also an excellent permanent collection, with works from world-class artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Pablo Picasso. There’s an excellent bookshop where you can pick up postcards, art magazines and photography books, and the Restaurant l’Hémicycle.
Locals playing petanque in the shade of towering horse chestnut trees; kids running laps around the central planted fountain; ornate baroque street lamps casting a warm glow in the low evening light… This beautifully planted historic park is a pocket-sized slice of peace in the city centre. Explore it in conjunction with the four tree-lined avenues that branch off it like the spokes of a bike wheel. You’ll also come across the Jardin Royal and the Jardin des Plantes – both just as worthy of a visit in their own right.
This impressive Victorian building is a hive of intellectual and creative activity. It’s where some of the country’s most influential minds come together to explore themes concerning science, industry and art, putting on workshops, conferences and exhibitions. It’s basically a giant think tank, with a public exhibition and kids’ activity space and cafe on the ground floor. Expect to find in-depth explorations of broad themes, such as love, using interactive and digital elements to bring the subject to life.
Alex Allen contributed additional reporting to this article.
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