France’s Ville Rose, or Pink City, is something of an under-the-radar gem as a summer destination. From the winding lanes of its old quarter, tightly packed with terracotta shopfronts (the reason for the city’s charming nickname), to its fantastical spires and the many riverside cafés overflowing with pastis-sipping locals, it’s ripe for exploration.
You may feel close to history at every turn here, but there’s plenty for contemporary-design fans to love, too. Modern art, inviting hotels, experimental cuisine or just an up-to-date take on the classically comforting cassoulet... We share the highlights that should be on any discerning traveller’s itinerary.
WHERE TO STAY
When Mama Shelter opened an outpost in Toulouse back in 2018, it seemed like the confirmation of what many design-savvy visitors had whispered for some time: this city is a seriously stylish destination. Situated in a grand former cinema, the hip hotel’s 120 rooms, which start at around £75 a night for a bijou option, were all conceived by French designer Philippe Starck’s protégé Thierry Gaugain.
For a more eclectic stay, try Hotel des Beaux Arts, where each of the 19 unique rooms are decorated with vintage treasures (from £63 a night). Desire a true respite from the bustle of the city? Maison Soclo’s boutique style and its swimming pool, located in a peaceful courtyard beneath the boughs of a thousand-year-old cedar tree, is just the ticket (from £187 per night).
BREAKFAST & LUNCH
There are few more refreshing ways to start a sightseeing day than by heading to the Alfred Nakache lido for a dip. This art deco beauty is the largest pool in Europe and owes its name to a famed French swimmer and water-polo player (nicknamed Artem, meaning ‘The Fish’). A few lengths are sure to work up a healthy appetite, so for lunch we suggest heading to Restaurant Emile, which is known for its hearty local favourite: duck confit cassoulet.
Or, for a fresher bite, try the seasonal delights on offer at inventive market-style eatery Cartouches. Whatever your decision, be sure to follow up with a stroll through the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden in the heart of the city, and a chilled glass of pastis at Café de Artistes. This institution on the banks of the Garonne River has long been a favourite haunt for creatives and is a bustling place for a spot of people-watching in the afternoon.
WINE & DINE
Kick off your evening with a peculiar tipple. Served at Au Père Louis, quinquina is something of a speciality – a fortified wine flavoured with cinchona bark. It will set you up nicely for an evening meal at one of Toulouse’s Michelin-starred establishments. We suggest booking a table at PY-R, where young chef Pierre Clément serves up artful dishes under the whitewashed vaults of its old-quarter venue.
Sept, a stylish alternative disguised behind a veil of wisteria, is another culinary highlight, offering French cuisine with a worldly twist, a tasting menu that is sure to wow and a minimalist setting that is a departure from the traditional look of the surrounding bistros and brasseries. Finish your night at Fat Cat, a speakeasy-style bar favoured by fashionable locals, with a cocktail menu that includes all the classics (@fatcatbar).
ART & CULTURE
For art lovers, this is a city not short on options. To absorb some classical culture, head to the Capitole building (the imposing town hall, just a quick stroll away from Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse), where you’ll find the Salle des Illustres, decorated with frescoes by Henri Martin and late 19th- to early 20th-century paintings. Want to delve further into history? Fondation Bemberg (situated in a beautiful Renaissance mansion) displays pieces that date as far back as the Middle Ages.
Housed in a former slaughterhouse, Les Abbatoirs (opened in 2000) offers something a little more avant-garde. Visit this summer to see ‘Artiste/Artisan’, an exhibition showcasing the varied collection of Daniel Cordier, the French Resistance fighter and successful art dealer who passed away in 2020. Then, away from the centre of town and a little more out of this world, there’s Cité del’Espace, a cutting-edge science museum with a focus on space exploration.
For lovers of modern furniture and design, Toulouse has plenty of dedicated stores to browse. First port of call should be OAK (‘one of a kind’) gallery – although you will need to make an appointment in advance. Located in an apartment, this concept presents a selection of tailor-made pieces, as well as work by artists.
Offering a mix of homeware and clothing, L’Interprète concept store is another delight full of local brands, as well as a few international ones you’ll recognise. Early risers should head to Saint Aubin market (held every Sunday morning), for a chance to scope out something special, from regional produce to crafts and more.
BEYOND THE CITY
Artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec may be most famous for his depictions of the hedonistic delights of bohemian Paris (most memorably the high-kicking ladies of the Moulin Rouge) in the 19th century, but the Post-impressionist was actually born in the sleepy town of Albi. This quiet, picturesque medieval destination, just an hour’s drive from Toulouse, is now home to the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. Housed in the Berbie Palace, a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of France’s best-preserved fortresses, the works on display are extensive, donated back in 1922 by the artist’s mother.