Capital of the newly-reconfigured Occitanie region, la Ville Rose as Toulouse is affectionately called after the colour of its brickwork really needs far more time than one day. But if that’s all you have, here’s how to spend one day in Toulouse by a local. You’ll find it wont be enough though, and you’ll definitely want to come back…
Things to do in one day in Toulouse
The Capitole building is home to the Mairie at the centre of Toulouse. The Tourist Office has the glorious luck of being located with the walls of the Donjon. It’s an almost fairytale-style building whose original purpose was to store gunpowder and the city’s archives. It was built in 1525 and has been used by the Toulouse Tourist Board since 1948. Most days you can walk from here through a courtyard within the Capitole building which opens out onto the 12,000 square metres of the Place du Capitole. But on Saturday the building is closed for weddings.
Construction on this architectural jewel originally started in 1190 but the Neoclassic frontage dates from 1750. It was built for the purpose of having an official seat for the local government. There have been some gory comings-and-goings within its walls over the past few hundred years. But now, aside from it’s administrative uses, it is happily home to more agreeable activities. Both the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse and the Orchestra National du Capitole de Toulouse have their home here. It is possible to visit some of the larger state rooms and their beautiful paintings and sculptures – only not on a Saturday!
Basilique St Sernin
After coffee and a people-watching break, head up Rue du Taur towards the magnificent Basilique St-Sernin. Named after the first Bishop of Toulouse it was built in a Romanesque style throughout most of the 11th century. It’s huge – the five-tiered bell tower reaching to the skies.
Getting your head around the scale of these sorts of monuments is a challenge. The inside measurements of St Sernin are: 115 metres long, 21 metres wide and 64 metres high. Massive! The huge, stone pillars hold up the barrel-vaulted ceiling and stonework combined with brickwork creates a stunning effect. How did they build it all those years ago without all the mechanical kit available these days? It is the largest Romanesque building in Europe, possibly even the world. Romanesque is a particular architectural style involving the use of semi-circular arches which are a wonder of engineering. Particularly when you bear in mind the height at which they have been constructed. In 1998, the basilica was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites of the Routes of Santiago de Compostela.
One end of the basilica opens out onto a large square just next door to the Musée St-Raymond. This too is a gorgeous brick building and classified as a historic academic monument in 1975. Today it serves as the city’s archeological museum but has been a prison, a hospital and a barracks in a former life.
Marché Victor Hugo
The Victor Hugo market, just a five minute walk from the capitole is perfect for lunch. You might have seen it on Rick Stein’s French Odyssey trip down the Canal du Midi. Rick and his crew recommended a stop-off at Toulouse’s biggest covered market. But be warned! Do not enter if hungry – you’ll end up buying something of everything! Built under another name in 1827, the market is home to 283 businesses selling the highest-quality fresh food. Breads, cheeses, seafood and fish, meat, fruit and veg, herb-infused oils, patisseries, wines… A quick and easy option for lunch, are the market stalls which offer a small plateful of their wares with a glass or two of wine. Eat standing up at the counter or at a table placed nearby. A plate of charcuterie or cheese with chunks of bread. Or a dozen oysters with a glass of Entre-Deux-Mers.
If appetites demand more, you can head up the stairs to the restaurant area which has half a dozen small, higgledy-piggledy eating areas. They are owned by the different market-stall owners. They had the idea to use surplus stock by sending it upstairs to be cooked. If you aren’t there on the dot of midday though, there’s not much chance of getting a table. Everyone knows how good the food is but what an amazing, buzzy atmosphere it has going for it too! Tables are often shared and you end up chatting with whoever is next to you. On one occasion my father-in-law (who is English) got chatting to the Frenchman sitting next to him and ten minutes later, the pair of them were singing the Welsh national anthem at full pelt! My children weren’t sure whether to be proud or horrified!
Hôtel d’Assézat Fondation Bemberg
Don’t miss the Hôtel d’Assezat which houses the staggering art collection owned by the Bemberg Foundation. The building itself is an old Renaissance palace and is a work of art in its own right. It is now owned by the City of Toulouse who collaborated with Argentinian brewing heir, Georges Bemberg in 1994 to set up the building as an art gallery. Bemberg himself provided the countless works of art from his private collection. From the street, you wouldn’t expect the astonishing architecture of the entrance and courtyard. It was built in the second half of the 16th century by a wealthy pastel merchant, Pierre Assézat who also became a city magistrate. In 1895 it was bequeathed to the City of Toulouse.
The richly-decorated first floor is home to paintings by the likes of Pissaro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Renoir, Gauguin and Degas. The more minimally decorated second floor houses a collection of 30 paintings by French painter and illustrator Pierre Bonnard, among many others including Munnings and Sisley. It’s a truly mind-blowing experience being surrounded by such masterpieces. Having a few smartphone snapshots is a great memory but very much a poor second to standing in front of the real thing.
Make your last visit of the day to cross the River Garonne, France’s sixth longest river, over the Pont Neuf. Les Abattoirs is a museum for modern and contemporary art but as its name suggests, it had a slightly more gruesome past. From 1831 until 1988 it was the city’s main slaughter house. An arts centre as well as a museum, Les Abattoirs in its current form came into being in 2000 and is a recognised Museum of France. The interior is hugely impressive: bright and open and well lit, covering three floors.
The museum features works by Picasso who was forced to leave Spain during the Spanish Civil War and lived much of his life in Paris. His work greatly reflected his personal and political experiences from the war including his most famous work, Guernica which he completed in Paris in 1937.
Picasso’s gratitude to Toulouse for looking after the thousands of Spaniards who fled across the border during the conflict, prompted him to bequeath a magnificent stage curtain, La Dépouille du Minotaure en costume d’Arlequin, to the city.
More to see in Toulouse
So there you have it, how to spend one day in Toulouse. For those able to whizz round places faster or who have a second day to spare, some other sites worth spending time on are the Halles aux Grains, the Cathèdrale St Etienne, the Musée des Augustins, the Couvent des Jacobins and the Jardin des Plantes. And further out of the city centre, it’s all things aeronautical with La Cité d’Espace, Airbus and Aeroscopia. And there’s the new Halle de la Machine with its giant minotaur roaming the streets and next door, the brand new L’Envol des Pionniers museum. All are seriously interesting even if you’re not an aeroplane fan, and children love them too!
Useful info and more on Toulouse
Sarah Heath is a freelance radio journalist, writer and digital creator. She has lived in France for 11 years and writes a blog on her discoveries at: thehexagon.space which can also be found as a podcast on iTunes: The Hexagon Space