16 Top Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Toulouse
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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 balmy climate and friendly locals give Toulouse an inviting ambience.
Although it's a major industrial city, Toulouse is one of the most pleasant cities in France and has a laid-back vibe. In this part of the country, 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 renowned for its archaeology and fine arts museums, as well as its local culture. The douceur de vivre (good life) is felt at the sunny terraces of outdoor cafés and savored in the regional cuisine.
Visitors should be sure to sample the hearty specialties, like cassoulet (meat and bean stew) and duck pâté, and also save room for dessert. Traditional sweets from Toulouse include Gâteau du Fénétra, a tart made with apricots, candied lemons, and almond meringue; and crystallized violet candies.
Discover the best places to visit and things to do in and around Toulouse with this list of the top attractions.
See also: Where to Stay in Toulouse
1. Basilique Saint-Sernin
The UNESCO-listed Basilica of Saint-Sernin is one of the most important and magnificent churches on the "Chemin Saint Jacques" medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Built in the 11th to 13th centuries, this impressive basilica ranks as the largest Romanesque church in Europe still in existence.
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, the first bishop of Toulouse who was martyred in the year 250. Every year on the 29th of September, the Fête de Saint Saturnin is celebrated with a Mass at the saint's tomb in the basilica and a procession of the saint's relics.
The Basilica's facade is adorned with a magnificent doorway and intricate sculptures such as King David and the Apostles. The grandiose barrel-vaulted sanctuary reveals a somber and serene ambience typical of Romanesque churches. Highlights of the interior include hundreds of richly carved Romanesque capitals and the elegant central apse surrounded by chapels.
The crypt contains numerous precious relics. A treasure of this collection is a reliquary that houses a relic of the True Cross.
The Basilica's six-story clock tower has an octagonal shape commonly found in churches of the Languedoc region.
Address: Place Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
2. Couvent des Jacobins
Built between 1260 and 1292, the Couvent des Jacobins was founded as a Dominican monastery. This stellar example of Southern Gothic architecture 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.
The Convent des Jacobins hosts cultural events such as evenings that feature dancing and reenactments of medieval history. The convent also hosts thematic expositions throughout the year.
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.
An 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 (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Toulouse)
The Musée des Augustins (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Toulouse) is a must-see cultural attraction for art lovers. The museum presents an overview of Western art, spanning the centuries from the medieval period until the 1940s. With more than 4,000 items in its collections, the museum boasts a diverse and comprehensive catalog of fine arts.
The museum's galleries occupy a former Augustines Convent that was built between the 14th and 16th centuries. This Historical Monument is considered a gem of Southern Gothic architecture. Not to be missed is the cloister with its rows of marble columns featuring delicately carved capitals.
The monastery's church now displays a collection of 17th-century religious paintings; among the highlights are paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Nicolas Tournier, and Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo. The 18th-century and 19th-century collections are also noteworthy, especially for the paintings by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Among the museum's most prized treasures is the assortment of Romanesque sculptures. This one-of-a-kind collection contains architectural remnants from three Romanesque buildings in Toulouse: the Basilique Saint-Sernin, the 12th-century Monastère de la Daurade, and the 11th-century Cathédrale Saint-Etienne. On display are intricately sculpted capitals and precious sculptures such as a 13th-century Archangel statue.
Visitors should take their time admiring the extensive art collections while discovering the historic building, with its graceful architecture featuring a monumental stairway and spacious, sunlit rooms.
Address: 21 Rue de Metz, Toulouse
Official site: http://www.augustins.org/en/home
5. Fondation Bemberg: Museum of Fine Arts and Decorative Arts
This outstanding fine arts and decorative arts museum is housed in the Hôtel d'Assézat, an opulent Renaissance-era hôtel particulier (mansion) on the Rue de Metz. The Hôtel d'Assézat was built in the 16th century for the Capitoul Pierre d'Assézat, who made his fortune from producing plant dye (an important industry at the time).
A unique architectural feature of the building is the courtyard, with its ornate sculptural details and arcaded loggia. The Hôtel d'Assézat has been restored and beautifully displays the collections of the Fondation Bemberg, including 16th- and 18th-century Venetian paintings; 18th-century French paintings; Renaissance portraits, religious paintings, and bronze sculptures; and royal book bindings.
Highlights of the painting collection are the Mother and Child compositions by celebrated Renaissance artists Isenbrant and Rogier Van der Weyden, and the exquisite Rococo paintings by François Boucher. Also noteworthy are the Impressionist pieces by Claude Monet, Eugène Boudin, and Camille Pissarro; and Post-Impressionists works by Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, André Derain, and Louis Valtat.
Address: Hôtel d'Assézat, Place d'Assézat, Toulouse
6. Musée Saint-Raymond (Musée d'Archéologie de Toulouse)
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 (dating to 1523), which is a listed Historical 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 700-piece collection is on par with the antiquities of the Louvre in Paris.
After viewing the collections, visitors may take a stroll through the museum's 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.
Address: Place Saint-Sernin, Toulouse
Official site: http://saintraymond.toulouse.fr
7. Cathédrale Saint-Etienne
A blend of architectural styles, the Cathedral of Saint-Etienne was constructed over five centuries, explaining the disunity of its design features. The original Romanesque church progressively was transformed with various Gothic elements. The result is an eclectic monument with a somewhat unbalanced look.
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 elaborate decorative elements. Splendid stained-glass windows, especially the large rose window, allow ethereal light to filter into the sanctuary. Also worth exploring are the cathedral's ornately adorned chapels and the beautiful tapestries from the 16th to 18th centuries.
For centuries, choir organ music has been an important tradition in Toulouse. The cathedral's grandiose 17th-century organ carries on this heritage. The organ delights audiences with ethereal sounds during the annual Toulouse les Orgues (Toulouse International Organ Festival) concerts in October.
Address: Place Saint Etienne, Toulouse
8. les Abattoirs (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art)
With a collection of more than 4,000 works, les Abattoirs 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 Art Brut and other avant-garde contemporary pieces.
The permanent collection represents the works of more than 700 artists. Some of the renowned works include paintings by Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, and Vasarely, as well as photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.
One of the most impressive pieces at the museum is Picasso's painting titled La Dépouille du Minotaure en Costume d'Arlequin ("The Remains of Minotaur in a Harlequin Costume") that dates to 1936. This enormous floor-to-ceiling painting measures 12 meters wide by nine meters high.
For a relaxing outdoor experience, visitors can take a stroll through the museum's Sculpture Park in the courtyard and then enjoy refreshments or a light meal at the café/restaurant, which has pleasant terrace seating at shaded tables. The museum also hosts temporary exhibits and conferences throughout the year.
Address: 76 Allées Charles-de-Fitte, Toulouse
Official site: http://www.lesabattoirs.org/en/
9. Musée Paul-Dupuy (Musée des Arts Précieux)
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 throughout the year.
Address: 13 Rue de la Pleau, Toulouse
10. Chapelle des Carmélites
Considered a masterpiece of Baroque art, this 17th-century chapel was originally founded by King Louis XIII and his wife Anne of Austria in 1622 for the Carmelite convent. Although the convent was destroyed during the French Revolution, the chapel and its exquisite religious painting were spared.
The chapel's wall paintings and murals by Jean-Pierre Rivals and Jean-Baptiste Despax have been well preserved. Visitors can admire Jean-Pierre Rival's breathtaking ceiling paintings, filled with angels and cherubs, inspired by the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. The chapel's artwork was begun by Rivals and completed by Despax.
Entry to the chapel is free, except when classical music performances are held here. The concerts take place in the chapel with candlelights for illumination, adding to the magical ambience.
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 paths along the banks of the Canal du Midi in Toulouse are used by cyclists and pedestrians.
For tourists, one of the most enjoyable things to do in Toulouse is strolling along the shaded canal-side path. It's a great way to take in the scenery and enjoy the city's relaxing ambience.
One of the most popular tourist attractions of southern France, Carcassonne (91 kilometers from Toulon) is a perfectly preserved fortified city. Viewed from a distance, the grandiose crenellated ramparts and turreted watch towers give Carcassonne a fairy-tale look.
Visitors feel transported to the Middle Ages upon entering the town gates into Carcassonne Cité. Narrow cobblestone streets and winding alleyways lead to another world, where every building, monument, and shopfront is from the medieval era.
Tourists will enjoy wandering through this open-air museum, soaking up the old-world ambience and admiring the marvelous Gothic architecture.
Noteworthy sights include the Château Comtal de Carcassonne (Count's Castle) and the Basilique Saint-Nazaire et Saint-Celse, renowned for its outstanding stained-glass windows.
An exceptional UNESCO World Heritage Site, Carcassonne is a worthwhile day trip destination from Toulouse, about a one-hour drive, and only 45 minutes away from Toulouse by train.
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.
Awe-inspiring in its spaciousness, the cathedral's interior has a stunning azure-painted ceiling and multiple Renaissance-era chapels. The cathedral's most important work of art is the 15th-century Last Judgment fresco that covers an entire wall. Also not to be missed is the Rood Screen, decorated with hundreds of statues carved by "Bourguignons de Cluny" stone masons.
The cathedral also boasts a beautiful organ, designed by Christophe Moucherel, which is used for organ concerts (free of charge) held on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons in July and August.
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, including Gothic mansions built by wealthy 13th-century merchants.
Wandering through the narrow lanes of Cordes-sur-Ciel is a delightful experience. Tourists can visit artisan shops and small boutiques, as well as several museums, including the Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain and the fascinating Museum of Sugar and Chocolate Arts.
The town is also famous for its specialty of "croquants aux amandes" (crunchy cookies made with toasted almonds). These crispy and enticing treats are also known as "Croquants de Cordes," taking their name directly from Cordes-sur-Ciel.
During the Middle Ages, Moissac was an important stop on the Way of Saint James pilgrimage trail to Santiago de la Compostela in Spain. Pilgrims came to visit the Abbaye Saint-Pierre, built from the 12th to the 15th century with a richly decorated Romanesque facade that is considered the finest in southern France.
The Abbey Church is an inspiring sanctuary, with architectural vestiges dating back to the Carolingian era. The crown jewel of this remarkable monument is the 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 (Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires), which presents a collection of ethnography that focuses on local arts and traditions.
After visiting the sites, visitors can soak up the town's pleasant ambience by taking a stroll along the Deux Mers, a meandering tree-lined path that follows the banks of the canal.
The town of Moissac is located about 71 kilometers from Toulouse, on a canal of the Garonne and Tarn rivers, in a beautiful landscape of orchards and vine-covered hills.
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 Le Voeu de Louis XIII (The Vow of Louis XIII).
The town has an entire museum dedicated to Ingres, the Musée Ingres Bourdelle (19 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; paintings by Old Masters, such as Nicolas Poussin and Jean-Honoré Fragonard; and masterpieces by 19th-century artists like Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault.
Visitors should also 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.
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:
- The sleek modern Pullman Toulouse Centre Ramblas is on the banks of the Canal du Midi about a 20-minute walk from the Basilique Saint-Sernin. Its private parking lot is a boon for drivers. This five-star hotel offers a 24-hour front desk, concierge, a trendy "bistronomic" restaurant, and a fitness center.
- The Grand Hôtel de l'Opéra occupies a renovated 17th-century convent in the historic center of Toulouse on the Place du Capitole (the city's main square). Guest rooms feature refined decor and modern amenities. This four-star boutique hotel include a brasserie, gastronomic restaurant, 24-hour front reception desk, room service, and valet parking.
- Steps away from the Place du Capitole and a short walk to the basilique Saint-Sernin, the four-star Le Grand Balcon is a historic hotel from the 1930s, which has been redesigned in an elegant modern style. The spacious guest rooms feature Nespresso coffee machines and L'Occitane toiletries. Amenities include a 24-hour front reception desk and concierge.
- Near the Place du Capitole, the Hôtel Albert 1er offers a variety of accommodations, from decent-sized "economy" rooms to spacious "superior" rooms and triple-bed rooms or suites for families. Guests love the hotel's buffet breakfasts featuring local organic foods (including croissants, brioche, homemade waffles, fresh-squeezed fruit juice, and artisanal jams). The hotel also offers room service and stocked picnic baskets to go.
- The chic Hôtel des Arts is in a pedestrianized area between Place du Capitole and the cathedral, and a block from the Musée des Augustins. This three-star hotel has charming contemporary-style guest rooms. For the breakfast, the hotel serves fresh-squeezed orange juice, homemade yogurt, and pastries from one of the best bakeries in the area.
- A short walk from the Place du Capitole, the four-star Novotel Toulouse Centre Wilson has a fitness center and spa. Guest rooms are decorated in a minimalistic modern style and outfitted with flat-screen televisions and updated bathrooms.
- Another hotel near the Place du Capitole, the charming family-run Hôtel Héliot is found on a quiet street in a convenient central location. The guest rooms are cozy and comfortable and feature modern amenities.
- In the lively Carmes quarter, which is full of restaurants and cafés, the Hôtel Croix-Baragnon is located close to the Place du Capitol, the cathedral, and the Musée des Augustins. Guest rooms are decorated in a cheerful style with bright colors and bold artwork.
- A few blocks from Basilique Saint-Sernin and a 10-minute walk from Place du Capitole, the ibis Toulouse Centre provides compact but stylish guest rooms at affordable prices. This three-star hotel has a 24-hour front reception desk and a café-restaurant.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Toulouse
Guided tours are a great way to see the historic monuments in Toulouse and the surrounding area. Below are two favorite sightseeing tours, including a day trip into the countryside outside Toulouse.
See the Highlights of Toulouse by Bus:
- The Toulouse Sightseeing Bus Tour gives tourists a chance to see the top sights of Toulouse by minibus. Great for first-time visitors, this 70-minute small-group tour covers all the city's top attractions, including the Saint-Sernin Basilica, the Saint-Etienne Cathedral, and the Canal du Midi, with interesting commentary along the way. Tourists may hop off at specific sites and then hop back on to visit the next attraction, for a customized itinerary.
Guided Tour of Carcassonne:
- To truly appreciate the medieval splendor of Carcassonne, take a private guided walking tour. The Carcassonne Medieval Tour includes two hours of exploration through the narrow pedestrian lanes of the ancient walled town. The tour includes a visit to the Basilique Saint-Nazaire et Saint-Celse to admire its splendid Romanesque-Gothic sanctuary and stained-glass windows.
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Exploring Southwest France: At the heart of Southwest France, Toulouse is surrounded by a bucolic landscape of the Pyrenees Mountains to the south and the rural province of Gascony to the west. In this tranquil countryside, dotted with ancient castles, a favorite tourist destination is the medieval walled city of Carcassonne (about a one-hour drive from Toulouse), considered one of the best places to visit in France.
Highlights of the Languedoc Region: The nearest urban centers, still relatively small towns, are within a two-hour drive away from Toulouse: Narbonne (151 kilometers away) and Perpignan (200 kilometers away) to the east in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, and Pau (200 kilometers away) to the west in the rolling hills of the Béarn region. The lively and cultured city of Montpellier is about a two-hour train ride or three-hour drive from Toulouse.
Bordeaux and the Basque Country: Slightly further afield, but close enough to include on a vacation itinerary, are the UNESCO World Heritage City of Bordeaux (about a 2.5-hour drive), which boasts more than 350 classified historic monuments, and the fashionable seaside resort town of Biarritz (about a 2.5-hour drive) in the Basque County, a region famed for its traditional culture. For those traveling to Toulouse from Paris, the train ride takes about 5.5 hours.