What to Do in Toulouse
A few weeks ago, Toulouse was buzzing about the French elections – a soft and hazy summer garden buzz, rather than riots in the streets. And this is why Toulouse was the perfect place to begin my summer hiatus. After working the manic pace of startup life, I appreciated the dreamy slowness of southwest France. Plus, my friend who works for Airbus, headquartered in Toulouse, invited me 🏆
I love the French people I know, but always feel huge anxiety when going to France (oh my god, they’ll be so annoyed because I don't speak the language!). So I was relieved when I arrived and my Uber driver was a Moroccan who spoke Italian. Yes, you can get Uber in Toulouse! 🚗 I know there's controversy (French taxi drivers went on strike over this), but this option is mega helpful as a solo traveler when you arrive in an unfamiliar city late at night.
Toulouse also has buses, cabs, the metro, and a free hop on / hop off electric shuttle 🚌 that drives around the town centre. There aren't any stops for it, you just flag it down (how cool is that?!). There's also a bus that takes you from town to the airport in 20 or so minutes for €8. A great option for solo travelers.
I love learning about a new city through walking tours. I prefer tip-based ones because they're usually good storytellers and you can just rock up and join last minute. However, the free one was also on hiatus and I struggled to find another tour in English. Thankfully, a spot opened up at Toulouse Walking Tours, led by Penny, a British expat who’s been showing English speakers around Toulouse for seven years. Definitely go on a tour with her!
Penny took us around all the key sights and shared stories, including why Toulouse is nicknamed the Pink City (Roman brick). AND she baked us madeleines in the shape of the Occitane cross, which we ate while drinking tea by the Garonne river. Toulouse is a university town, and this is where kids come to party, but this area was incredibly peaceful during our morning visit. I wanted to join Penny for another tour, but she was booked for the rest of the week. So reserve early. €20 per person on a group tour.
Capitole de Toulouse. On the spot of what’s now the town hall, allegedly, St Saturninus was martyred by being tied to a bull that dragged him around until he cracked open his head. You can walk in for free to check out the 19th-century art. There’s a guard at the front gate; just open your bag to show you’re not carrying around guns. I think he asked me if I was going to see the art collection. Whatever the question was, I said, “Si,” which is obviously not French, and kept walking straight through the courtyard until I got to Salle des Illustres.
The weather in Toulouse was so fantastic, I really just wanted to walk around and sit outside. So here are some things I didn’t do, but heard good things about:
Foundation Bemberg Merchant Pierre Assézat's 16th-century mansion turned art gallery.
Saint-Sernin Basilica Europe’s largest Romanesque church, with a crypt dating back to the 11th century.
Musée des Augustins Great art museum. Open late Wednesday. Closed Tuesday.
Victor Hugo Market Meat-centric food market with restaurants upstairs. Closes at 2 p.m., or, put another way, 10 minutes before my arrival.
Airbus Factory Tour My friend works here 🙌
Eating and drinking
I'm vegetarian, so can't recommend the fois gras, which this area is famous for. In fact, no meal in Toulouse particularly wowed me. The drinks, however, were 👌🏻Sitting outside in the Capitale plaza, we tried pastis, an anise-flavored aperitif that’s especially popular in the south of France. On a hot day, it’s supposed to be as refreshing as beer — finally some refreshment for us non-beer drinkers! It’s served with a jug of cold water, with a recommended water:pastis ratio of 5:1 (but really, why water down your drink that much?). Mix the liquids into a cloud of alcoholic bliss and sit back and enjoy. We also liked the wine from nearby Galliac (but don’t recommend a day trip there 😴).
I missed lunch at Perlette, which Penny recommended. Fortunately, I arrived in time for afternoon tea (coffee really). I couldn't decide between the banoffee or fruit pie and the girl said, “Why don't I give you half of each?” I ❤️you.
I didn’t get the chance to go to La Faim des Haricots, a popular vegetarian buffet in Toulouse. It’s top on my list for a return visit.
Avoid Le Bibent. I knew it was a tourist trap, but the inside decor seduced me. The menu is overpriced and if the waitress gets your order wrong, she'll hold it against you. However, the location is great. We sat outside, feeling a little bougie drinking wine while students protested on the square in front of us. They were happy and tame and full of energy (Marcon beat Le Pen) and the men in uniform stationed around the square outnumbered them. A peaceful night, thankfully, when we all had the recent terror attack in Paris in the back of our mind.
Toulouse is so chill that I got over my language anxiety (and really, why do we work ourselves up about stuff like this? No one cares). Even though nobody speaks English (fair play, this is France after all), you can get by with ‘bonjour,’ ‘merci,’ parlez vous anglais? And a lot of pointing. I learned it's super rude to not say 'hello' and 'thanks' in shops, so just do it even if you feel dumb or shy. The gesture is appreciated.
The prosperity of Toulouse has ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries, going gangbusters in the 1400s when the city became a major producer of a blue dye called pastel (nicknamed ‘blue gold’ because of the wealth it brought to the city). Originally, this was made by grinding woad leaves into a paste in a pastel mill, rolling it into balls, and drying them for months until they were hard enough to transport to wherever they’d be turned into dye. Then they were crushed, sprinkled with water, spread out to dry, then mixed in a vat of urine (that’s right) in which cloth soaked for a day before being hung out to dry, where it turned blue.
This tangent is all to say that pastel died out (pun intended) in the 16th century, when new trade routes to India brought ‘true indigo’ to Europe. Today pastel in southern France survives as a cottage industry. If you’re looking for a Toulouse keepsake, consider a pastel-colored something made with modern techniques that don’t involve pee. I bought a scarf I didn’t need and immediately spilled coffee on it, in addition to running a comb through it (don’t ask).
When travelling, I usually prefer the comfort of apartments over hotels. However, this time I stayed in the Parthenon, which blended the best of both - apartment with kitchen plus friendly staff in the lobby. Great location and price. It's about two blocks in to where things start to look dodgy, but I’d definitely go back.
People need to have a civil marriage in France before a religious one. I love that this chick got married in a bright pink dress.
Avoid the Tourist Office. Really, stop bothering them already. Take your map and go.
Need a quick bathroom break while in the center? The one in the parking garage under the Capitale is decent (as for as garage bathrooms go). Bon voyage!
Questions? Comments? I'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or shoot me an email.