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Secret Toulouse | The city’s unusual side

View over the river Garonne, Toulouse at sunset, the sun lighting up red brick buildings

Discover secret Toulouse. The pink city as it’s known, thanks to the beautiful red brick buildings that fill its streets, is an absolute paradise for culture vultures…

Colourful, cultural and captivating

France’s 4th largest city has a multi-faceted personality. It’s famous for being home to Airbus headquarters, hosts satellite, space and aerospace industries and has three major universities.

It’s a sprawling modern city with an ancient heart at whose centre is the Place du Capitole. Here major events and markets take place, surrounded by architecturally glorious buildings, restaurants, the town hall and bars. Around this grand central square are a web of streets, teeming with life, brimming with museums, art galleries, shops, bars, bakeries and bistros.

Immense red brick building alongside the Pont Neuf, Toulouse

Cross the river Garonne via the Pont Neuf, which despite its name is actually the oldest bridge in the city. Before you do, take a look at the grand red brick building alongside the bridge on the Quai de la Daurade. This lush green riverside spot is popular with Toulousians, especially the refreshment bar. Years ago though, this was the city morgue and those who drowned in the river were laid out here for identification.

Once over the river, you’ll find the arty, earthy district Saint-Cyprien. It’s home to major museums and galleries, residential and non-touristic.

Meanwhile, on the inner city outskirts a new resident roams the streets. A mythical beast bought to life – read on to discover more about the Minotaur of Toulouse…

And there’s a secret part to Toulouse which visitors rarely discover. A short walk from the Capitole, but a world away from the busy centre, are streets filled with beautiful mansion houses, tiny squares where you’ll find art and local bars with a friendly welcome. A part of Toulouse with a laid back, authentic vibe.

Closer to the capital of Spain than the capital of France, it’s just 60 miles from the Spanish border, Toulouse has absorbed the laid back vibe and flavour of its southern neighbour. Aperitifs come with tapas on the terraces of sunny cafés. And the night life has a distinctly Latin flavour…

Wander around the city

The vast square Place du Capitole, Toulouse at dusk

You can’t go to Toulouse and not visit the Place du Capitole. The stunning 17th century neoclassical style façade of the Capitole building is the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower in this city. Around this central area are a series of districts. Each are quite different from the other and all are easy to reach on foot. Saint-Cyprien on the left bank of the River Garonne is a bit bohemian. In the Tounis district the river Garonette, a branch of the might Garonne River, has long gone but its old bridge remains. There’s also Saint-Georges, Saint-Aubin, Saint-Étienne and the Carmes districts. Pick up a map from the tourist office and go walkabout to discover the many charms of Toulouse.

Streets of Secret Toulouse

Pretty, red brick building lined square in Toulouse with a fountain in the centre

Less than 15 minutes’ walk from the Capitole brings you to secret Toulouse – the Carmes and Saint-Étienne districts where there’s a villagey vibe and most visitors never venture. This is old Toulouse, the narrow streets of Carmes are lined with sumptuous manor houses built by wealthy merchants from the 16th century onwards like those in rue Ozenne. Place Sainte Scarbes is breath-takingly pretty with its ivy clad mansions and tinkling fountain, and surrounding it are roads with smart boutiques, neighbourhood bars and architecturally stunning buildings.

Narrow street shaded by tall mansion houses on either side, bunting hung acrossSaint-Étienne is like the Marais district in Paris. Streets lined with grand houses and chic stores in the shadow of the majestic, and massive, Cathedral St. Etienne. Browse the pretty local shops in rue Bouquières. And peek through the gates of gorgeous private gardens and mansions behind monumental doors but you’ll need to take a guided tour to see more (you can book at the tourist office).

Museums, marvels and minotaurs

If it’s culture you’re after, Toulouse will definitely float your boat. With more than 20 museums there’s no lack of choice from the Airbus Museum to the Space Museum – brilliant for tech fans. The Museum of Natural History is great for families. And there are loads of art museums for lovers of paintings and sculptures and artefacts from antiquity to modern. Head to Rue Tripière to discover the unusual Musée du Compagnonnage de Toulouse. Dedicated to the history of tradesmen from carpenters to blacksmiths and everything in between. You’ll feel a bit like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland here, with miniature masterpieces galore.

L’Envol des Pionniers Postal museum

Exhibit at the Envol des Pionniers, air postal museum, Toulouse

The history of airmail in France began in Toulouse. We take it for granted now but in its early days it was a job for brave and heroic pilots. This new museum tells the tale of how the first French pilot to deliver mail by plane took off from what is now the Runway of Giants on Christmas Eve 1918. These early pioneers of airmail delivery were courageous and determined adventurers. They established routes, built runways and airfields around the world and ushered in a new era of communication. L’Envol des Pionniers tells their stories through film and a collection of photos and letters, historic artefacts, planes and engines. There’s also a great display of film posters – the bravery of these early pilots inspired a legion of movies. Details: lenvol-des-pionniers.com/en

Halle de La Machine | magical & mad

Enormous mechanical Minotaur, half man/half bull in Toulouse

The Minotaur is the brainchild of François Delaroziere and La machine company. They’re famous for The Island of the Machines in Nantes and for their incredible street theatre machines. At 14m high and weighing a stonking 14 tonnes, you certainly can’t miss him. He’ll take you for a ride on his back along the Runway of Giants right next to L’Envol des Pionniers Museum. You can’t help but feel that he’s almost alive as he bats his eyelids and snorts smoke!

The Minotaur is not alone. In the vast space of the Halle de la Machine where he lives, more mysterious inhabitants are waiting to meet you. Amongst the exhibits are a walking 37 ton spider called Ariane and musical machines which make up the strangest orchestra you’re ever likely to see. There’s a giant set of wings piloted by a machiniste. Pipes spout flames, guitars twirl and a table is laid for an enchanted dinner where the pepper is sprinkled by a flying waiter.

Tip: head to the onsite Minotaur café for delish dishes or a glass of wine at the bar and enjoy the spectacle of the fairy tale beast wandering about outside.

Read more about the Halle de la Machine

Modern art and ancient Toulouse

Huge theatrical curtain by Picasso depicting a Minotaur at the Abattoirs Museum Toulouse

The Halle de la Machine isn’t the only home to a Minotaur in Toulouse. At Les Abbatoirs Museum of modern art, Picasso’s famous stage curtain “The Remains of the Minotaur in a Harlequin Costume” is a star in an outstanding collection. Created for a theatre in 1936, because of its fragility this show-stopper is displayed for only six months of the year. The museum has a superb collection of modern and contemporary art.  There is a focus on art by Spanish artists exiled from Spain when General Franco seized power during the Spanish Civil War. This is no elitist museum. Unusually, you can do yoga classes amongst the artworks. There are workshops, a library and at Christmas they hold a market where artists sell their works. After your visit pop to the park next door to enjoy the views over the river Garonne. Details: www.lesabattoirs.org

Huge red brick mansion house now the Fondation Bemberg Museum, Toulouse

For a complete contrast, the Bemberg Foundation is tucked away in a pretty courtyard near the Capitole. It’s in a former 16th century mansion. Each room has been restored to 19th century glory.  There is a wonderful collection of furniture, ornaments and paintings including Degas, Monet, Matisse and Boudin. I loved the intimate feel of this museum, as if it were still lived in by someone with the most exquisite taste in art. Details: fondation-bemberg.fr/fr/home

Practical info

Paris to Toulouse by train takes from 4 hours, 6 minutes.

Tourist office: www.toulouse-visit.com and UK.France.fr

And Toulouse is also a great base for other great destinations. Gers is just a short drive away. Carcassonne is only 6 miles to the south east. The Mediterranean is just 100 miles away. And Albi is 50 miles away…

More on Toulouse

10 things to do in Toulouse
If you’ve only got time for one day in Toulouse – here’s how to spend it!
What to see and do on a weekend in Toulouse
Toulouse for foodies

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