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Guide to Montpellier old town

A narrow street lined with ancient buildings made into quirky, colourful shops in Montpellier's old town

Montpellier is the capital city of the Herault department, Occitanie (formerly called Languedoc-Roussillon). It used to be a fishing village many years ago, now it’s a cool town with a hip vibe. The sun shines pretty much from spring through autumn and then some – 300 days a year on average of sun. There’s no need for formal dress or formality when you visit here,  it’s not that sort of place. With 80,000 students (and the oldest university still in operation in Europe, it was founded in 1180) there’s plenty going on.

Montpellier is also a great base for sightseeing in the south of France. The train service is very good and it’s a short distance to such legends as Narbonne, Carcassonne, Séte and even Barcelona in Spain from the local station.

What to see in Montpellier

Pink and white striped bunting hangs across an arched walkway lined with ancient buildings in Montpellier

Even though you’re in the centre of a city, the sound of cigales squeaking in the plane trees and birds flitting about openly give it a natural feel. There are plenty of green walkways, with cafes and pop up bars galore, this is a town that likes to sit outside and take life easy.

Wandering in the medieval town you suddenly find yourself on a hill, a reminder that this is a Mont – hence the name Montpellier. It’s not though, a hard city to wander in, it’s easy to get your bearings and get around with an excellent tram service if you want to speed up your tour.

The pedestrianised place de la Comedie is the beating heart of the city and a popular meeting point. The locals call it Place de L’ouef (Egg Square), thanks to its oval shape.

Culture and cafés

You can’t miss Café Riche in the square, it’s an institution and is owned by the same family who own the very popular La Grande Brasserie a few doors along. Locals meet at Café Riche for a Perrier tranche (Perrier water with a slice of lemon) or Perrier menthe (Perrier with a shot of mint, very refreshing).

Perrier water is from a source located between Montpellier and Nimes so everyone drinks it here like… well, water!

Café Riche is popular for afternoon tea, coffee and aperitifs and is the perfect people watching perch. There’s also lots of street entertainment with musicians, magicians and dancers. It’s not organised, just spontaneous and much loved by the locals and visitors.

Montpellier is a cultural town with museums and art galleries galore. Don’t miss a visit to the former St Anne’s church. Deconsecrated in the 1980s, it’s now a spectacular setting for contemporary art exhibitions and installations. As the sun pours through the beautiful stained-glass windows, the artworks take on an extra special glow.

Musée Fabre

This huge museum hosts permanent and temporary exhibitions and regular exhibit swaps with the Louvre in Paris. It was founded in 1828 by the artist François-Xavier Fabre in what was his home and gallery. Since then it has grown and three buildings now house eclectic collection which spans several centuries of art. There are 14th century religious masterpieces as well as enormous and brooding artworks by Pierre Soulages, one of France’s greatest living artists.

There are several fabulous and important works here including a Delacroix painting which inspired Monet, who called him the “Father of Impressionism”. There are also paintings by Courbet, the bad boy artist of the mid-1800s, who loved to do self-portraits and why not, he was a handsome man! The collection is chronological. With some 800 works of art so you can easily spend a half day browsing this huge museum, by the way it’s very cool inside on a hot day!

Marvellous marché des Arceaux

The Marché des Arceaux is one of the best street markets I’ve ever been to. It’s located under the arches of the gigantic aqueduct behind the famous landmark water tower (from which you can get magnificent views of Montpellier). Lots of people think the aqueduct is Roman, it isn’t. And neither is the Arc de Triomphe in front of it. It might seem that’s there’s a bit of a Roman feeling to this town but in fact they were never there.

Marche des Arceaux is in the Peyroux district. It’s west of the old town and easily walkable though you can hop on the brilliant tram service if you prefer. In the summer months stalls groan under the weight of fresh fruit, huge cherries, melons and strawberries. Old ladies with baskets and old men with plastic bags wander along eyeing the produce, occasionally reaching out to taste before they buy. The smell of lavender and cheese, just baked bread, warm fruit and slowly roasting chickens is nothing short of drool-worthy. The stalls are shaded by plane trees and there is all manner of fabulous food and produce here. Most people miss this market – don’t, it’s wonderful!

There’s also a covered market, Les Halles, in the old town. Here you can buy fresh produce and sit at a table outside and enjoy your feast straight away!

There are loads of fabulous restaurants, bars, brasseries, cafes and bistros – eating out in the sunshine is de rigeur here.

Practical Information on Montpellier

Montpellier is just 3h15 from Paris and the train station is right in the centre of town. Trains connect to major destinations in the south: Marseille 1h30, Barcelona 2h30, Nimes 0h34, Avignon 1h05 and many more.

Montpellier airport is just 8km from the ceity centre, a 10 minute drive and there is a shuttle service available.

Getting around in Montpellier is easy, its a great place to walk but there’s also a tram service with 4 lines. It’s excellent and you can buy tickets, 1 day pass, 7 day pass or 10 trip pass.

Montpellier Tourist Office website: www.montpellier-france.com

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