11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Toulouse
In the early morning and late afternoon, the rosy-toned brick buildings of Toulouse have a special glow, earning the city its title, "La Ville Rose" ("The Pink City"). Toulouse is at the heart of sultry Southwestern France not far from the border with Spain. The warm, sunny climate and friendly locals give Toulouse an inviting ambience. Although it's a major industrial city, Toulouse has a laid-back vibe. In this part of France, people speak slowly with drawn-out vowels, just as they linger over coffee at outdoor cafés and dawdle in the town squares. For tourists learning French, this is the perfect place to practice.
A great way to begin a tour of Toulouse is by journeying back in time to the era of medieval pilgrimages at the UNESCO-listed Basilique Saint-Sernin. Next, visitors can explore a 13th-century convent exemplifying Southern Gothic style or spend time walking around the Place du Capitole, lined with red-brick architectural landmarks. Toulouse is also home to excellent archaeology and fine arts museums. Be sure to enjoy the sidewalk cafés and regional cuisine. Toulouse is famous for its hearty specialties like cassoulet (meat and bean stew) as well as crystallized violet candies.
See also: Where to Stay in Toulouse
1 Basilique Saint-Sernin
One of the most glorious churches on the medieval pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Basilica of Saint-Sernin is a masterpiece of Romanesque art. This exquisite church, built in the 11th to 13th centuries, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Constructed from the red bricks typical of Toulouse, the Basilica has a five-aisled nave and three-aisled transept in the Romanesque style. The church is dedicated to Saint Saturninus (Sernin) of Patras, Greece, who was martyred by being tied to a bull. The Basilica stands on the site of an earlier church where the Saint was buried (now his tomb is in the apse).
Admire the Basilica's facade with is magnificent doorway adorned with intricate sculptures such as King David and the Apostles. Enter the ancient sanctuary to experience the serenity of the place. The interior features a lovely 16th-century to 17th-century choir encircled by nine chapels. Be sure to explore the ambulatory, which has seven remarkable 11th-century marble reliefs. In the north transept is an enormous carved Romanesque crucifix. The crypt houses the Treasury with numerous precious relics. The Basilica's six-story clock tower has an octagonal shape commonly found in churches of Languedoc. To stay relevant with modern pilgrims and visitors, the Basilica presents interesting rotating exhibits of contemporary religious art.
Address: Place Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
2 Couvent des Jacobins
A beautiful example of Southern Gothic architecture, the Couvent des Jacobins was founded as a Dominican monastery in the 13th century. The convent, built between 1260 and 1292, was constructed entirely from the red bricks of Toulouse and has a similar tower as the Basilique Saint-Sernin. The massive and austere exterior contrasts with the delicate interior architecture. Inside the convent's church, the two-aisled nave features inspiring vaulting with the famous palm-frond shaped ribs radiating from seven central piers in the choir. There is a chapel dedicated to Saint Antonin, which is decorated with a series of 14th-century mural paintings. The church also possesses relics of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The most tranquil area of the convent is the cloister, an inspiring space of arched colonnades created in 1307. Throughout the year, the convent presents exhibitions in the refectory.
Address: Rue Lakanal, Parvis des Jacobins, Toulouse
3 Place du Capitole
The hub of Toulouse life is the bustling Place du Capitole. This town square showcases the classic architecture of Toulouse. On the west side of the square, there are beautiful arcades. On the east side of the square is the celebrated 18th-century Capitole building. The Capitole was named after the old chapter of magistrates (capitouls) who once met here and it is now the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). The remarkable facade features eight immense columns of pink marble. The most spectacular room of the Capitole is the Salle des Illustres inspired by the Farnese Gallery in Rome with its gilded moldings and cartouches. This hall and other historic rooms of the Capitole are open to the public on the first Sunday of every month. The ancient 16th-century defensive tower is visible behind the Capitole and the Theatre du Capitole is just a few steps away. To further discover the historic center of Toulouse, continue south of the Place du Capitole to arrive at the Vieux Quartier (Old Quarter). This medieval quarter has many charming pedestrian streets lined with shops and cafés, especially the Rue Saint-Rome and Rue des Changes.
4 Musée des Augustins: Fine Arts Museum
In a sumptuous building that was formerly an Augustinian monastery, the Musée des Augustins presents a well-rounded collection of paintings and sculptures. The painting collection represents works from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The sculpture collection ( in the 14th-century cloisters) spans the Romanesque period to the modern era, with wonderful examples of Early Christian sarcophagi, medieval religious art, and Renaissance works. The monastery's church now displays a collection of 15th-century to 16th-century painting; among the highlights are works by Pérugin, Rubens, and Tournier. The collection of 17th-century to 19th-century painting is also noteworthy, especially for the paintings by Delacroix, Ingres, and Laurens. Take time to view the extensive art collections while discovering the historic building, with its graceful architectural features such as the monumental stairway and the spacious, sunlit rooms.
Address: 21 Rue de Metz, Toulouse
5 Fondation Bemberg, Hôtel d'Assézat
This unique art museum is housed in the Hôtel d'Assézat, an elegant 16th-century mansion on the Rue de Mez a little way east of the Pont-Neuf. The Hôtel d'Assézat is one of the city's finest burghers' houses built for the Capitoul Pierre d'Assézat, who made his fortune from producing plant dye (an important industry at the time). The house has a beautiful courtyard with ornate sculptural details and a pleasant arcaded loggia. The Hôtel d'Assézat has been restored and now houses the Fondation Bemberg, a private museum with an excellent collection of paintings, bronze sculptures, and objects of art. The assortment of paintings includes many works from the Renaissance and modern French School. Some of the art objects date back to the 17th century.
Address: Hôtel d'Assézat, Place d'Assézat, Toulouse
6 Musée Saint-Raymond: Archaeology Museum
Opposite the Basilique Saint-Sernin, the Musée Saint-Raymond has a wonderful collection of archaeological finds and antiquities. The museum is housed in a medieval university building, which is a listed historic monument. The collection covers archaeological discoveries of the prehistoric period and antiquities from the Roman era and the Early Middle Ages. A highlight of the museum is the gallery of Roman sculptures, including mythological works and Roman portraits found at the Villa Chiragan; this remarkable collection is on par with the antiquities of the Louvre. After viewing the collections, take a moment to relax in the Garden of Antiquities. Planted with laurels, cypresses, vines, and olive trees, the garden is designed to evoke a classical Roman landscape. The garden has a café with terrace seating where visitors can enjoy refreshing cold drinks, coffee, or snacks. Visitors are also welcome to take a stroll about the gardens.
Address: 1 Terrace, Place Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
7 Cathédrale Saint-Etienne
A blend of architectural styles, the Cathedral of Saint Etienne was constructed over four centuries, explaining the disunity of its design features. When it was built at the end of the 12th century, the cathedral's 19-meter-wide nave was the widest vaulted structure of its kind in Europe. The wide Southern Gothic nave is called a "Raymondine." The cathedral was later transformed in the North Gothic style, to rival the great cathedrals of Northern Europe. Besides its massive tower, the cathedral has many impressive ornamental elements. The magnificent 14th-century to 17th-century stained-glass windows, especially the large rose window, allow ethereal light to filter into the sanctuary. Toulouse is known as a European capital of choir organs, and the cathedral has a grandiose organ that is suspended high up in the balcony. Renowned for its romantic harmonies, this splendid musical instrument is used for concerts during the "Toulouse les Orgues" international organ festival. Also worth exploring in the cathedral are the 17 chapels and the beautiful tapestries from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Address: Place Saint Etienne, Toulouse
8 Les Abattoirs: Museum of Modern Art
Toulouse boasts a variety of museums to represent every genre of art. Les Abattoirs is the modern and contemporary art museum. With a collection of more than 2,300 works, the museum brings together paintings, photographs, drawings, and graphic works along with a small group of sculptures. The collection focuses on art created since the 1950s including avant-garde contemporary pieces. The permanent collection represents the works of more than 700 artists. Some of the renowned works include paintings by famous modern artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Marcel Duchamp as well as photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. The museum also hosts temporary exhibits throughout the year.
Address: 76 Allées Charles-de-Fitte, Toulouse
9 Musée Paul-Dupuy: Decorative Arts and Graphic Arts
This charming museum is housed in the Hôtel Besson, a beautifully restored historic mansion. The museum's collection displays decorative arts and graphic arts dating from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century. There are lovely antique enamels, textiles, regional ceramic faïences, and wooden sculptures. The exhibit of watches and automation is especially interesting. One room of the museum displays an actual 17th-century Jesuit chemists' apothecary shop, complete with wooden cabinets and antique medicine jars. The museum also hosts temporary exhibitions twice a year.
Address: 13 Rue de la Pleau, Toulouse
10 Chapelle des Carmélites
This exquisite little chapel for the Carmelite convent was built in the 17th century. The chapel was originally founded by King Louis XIII and his wife Anne of Austria in 1622, which was the year that Sainte Thérèse d'Avila was canonized. Although the convent was destroyed during the French Revolution, the chapel was spared. The gorgeous murals by Jean-Pierre and delicate paintings by Jean-Baptiste Despax have been well preserved. Admire Jean-Pierre's celestial ceiling paintings filled with angels and cherubs. Then take time to appreciate the inspirational wall paintings by Rivals and Despax.
Address: 1 Rue de Périgord, Toulouse
11 Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi was originally built as a shortcut between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The 240-kilometer-long canal was designed in 1667. This was a huge undertaking that took ten years and 12,000 workers to complete. The canal runs from the city of Toulouse down to the Mediterranean port of Sète near Marseille. The banks of the Canal du Midi in Toulouse are popular with cyclists and pedestrians. Take a leisurely stroll along the shaded canal-side path and enjoy the relaxing ambience.
Where to Stay in Toulouse for Sightseeing
Happily, for anyone planning a trip to Toulouse, its top attractions are within a compact area in the central city, extending south from the UNESCO-listed Basilique Saint-Sernin to the landmarks around Place du Capitole and beyond to the cathedral. Within this area are the traffic-free streets of the Vieux Quartier, the charming medieval quarter. These highly-rated hotels in Toulouse are well located for sightseeing:
- Luxury Hotels: Less than a 10-minute walk from the central attractions, restaurants, and shopping, the smart and contemporary Pullman Toulouse Centre is on the banks of the Canal du Midi. Its underground parking is a boon for drivers. Right on Place du Capitole and also with valet parking, Grand Hotel de l'Opera is nicely updated without losing the grandeur of its era. A block away, Le Grand Balcon is a modern boutique hotel in the building where Le Petit Prince author Antoine de St-Exupéry lived.
- Mid-Range Hotels: A block from Place du Capitole, Hotel Albert 1er offers good-sized rooms and breakfasts featuring local organic foods. Chic Hotel des Arts is in the pedestrianized center, between Place du Capitole and the cathedral, a block from the Musee des Augustins. Close to the center and near the airport bus stop, Novotel Toulouse Centre Wilson has a spa with a whirlpool and sauna, free to guests.
- Budget Hotels: Also near the airport bus stop and a short walk from Place du Capitole, family-owned and -run Hotel Heliot has large, well-designed rooms. In the Carmes quarter, filled with restaurants and cafés, Croix-Baragnon is close to the cathedral and Musée des Augustins. A few blocks from Basilique Saint-Sernin and a 10-minute walk from Place du Capitole, Ibis Toulouse Centre is a basic, reliable brand at the edge of the pedestrian area.
Day Trips from Toulouse
This remarkable UNESCO World Heritage City lies on the Tarn River about 80 kilometers north of Toulouse. An important medieval Episcopal city, Albi is graced by an impressive fortress-like cathedral. The Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile is the largest cathedral built of brick in the world and is one of the most magnificent Gothic cathedrals in southern France. With its enormous size of 113 meters by 35 meters, the cathedral towers over the town. The construction was begun in 1282 and completed almost 200 years later in 1480. Admire the richly decorated porch and the aisleless nave with its awe-inspiring spaciousness. The interior has a stunning azure-painted ceiling and multiple Renaissance-era chapels. Be sure to see the Rood Screen decorated with hundreds of statues carved by "Bourguignons de Cluny" stone masons. The cathedral's most important work of art is the 15th-century Last Judgment fresco that covers an entire wall. The beautiful organ designed by Christophe Moucherel is used for organ concerts held regularly on Wednesdays.
Another top attraction in Toulouse is the Palais de la Berbie, which stands above the Tarn River to the north of the cathedral. "Berbie" derives from the word bisbia, meaning "bishop." This former archbishop's palace is surrounded by exquisite formal French gardens. From the outdoor terraces, there are splendid views of the Tarn Valley and the graceful old bridge spanning the river. The monumental palace now houses the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, dedicated to the famous Albi-born artist. The museum displays Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's pictures, drawings, and lithographs, and most notably, 31 of his famous posters. The collection also features works by Toulouse-Lautrec's contemporaries, including Degas, Rodin, Matisse, Maillol, and Rouault.
Perched on a hilltop 25 kilometers northwest of Albi is the picturesque village of Cordes-sur-Ciel (which translates to "Cordes in the Sky" because of its elevated position). This tiny walled medieval town boasts a gorgeous setting and many architectural treasures. Founded by the Count of Toulouse in 1222, the village has characteristic towers, cobblestone streets, a medieval market hall, and numerous 13th and 14th century buildings. Wandering through the narrow lanes of Cordes-sur-Ciel is like taking a trip back in time to the Middle Ages. Admire the Gothic mansions built by wealthy 13th-century merchants. Visit the art galleries and artisan craft workshops to find locally made art work, ceramics, and jewelry. The town is also famous for its specialty of "croquants aux amandes" (crunchy cookies made with grilled almonds)-an enticing treat.
An important stop on the medieval Saint-James Way pilgrimage trail to Santiago de la Compostela, Moissac lies about 71 kilometers from Toulouse, on a canal of the Garonne and Tarn rivers, in a beautiful landscape of orchards and vine-covered hills. Pilgrims came to visit the Abbaye Saint-Pierre, built from the 12th to the 15th century with a magnificent facade that exemplifies ornamental Romanesque architecture. The Abbey Church is renowned for its richly decorated facade, considered the finest in southern France.
Enter the Abbey Church to admire its inspiring sanctuary with architectural vestiges dating back to the Carolingian era. Be sure to see the Abbey's UNESCO-listed cloister, an exquisite space built from the 11th to the 13th century. From the cloister, visitors can access the Chapelle Saint-Michael. This chapel features astounding architecture. Its spherical vaulting supported by 12 columns represents heavenly Jerusalem. The Palais Abbatial, the former residence of the Abbot, now houses the Musée Marguerite Vidal, which illustrates the history of Moissac. After visiting the sites, soak up the town's pleasant ambience. Take a stroll along the Deux Mers, a meandering tree-lined path that follows the banks of the canal.
About 54 kilometers from Toulouse, Montauban enjoys a picturesque setting on the Tarn River and has a rich cultural heritage. The 18th-century Cathédrale Notre-Dame contains an exceptional painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique titled Louis XIII's Vow. The town also boasts an entire museum dedicated to Ingres, the Musée Ingres (9 Rue de l'Hôtel de Ville), in the former Bishop's Palace that was built in the 17th century. This collection includes more than 4,000 drawings by Ingres as well as sculptures by Antoine Bourdelle. Take time to admire the town's arcaded 18th-century square, the Place Nationale, and the 14th-15th-century Eglise Saint-Jacques. For a good photo-op of Montauban's cityscape and surrounding views, head to the 14th-century fortified bridge.