Stroll through the capital of France’s Occitanie region, taking in historical architecture, regional flavours and aerospace attractions.
1 - Jardin Japonais
We’ll forgive you for thinking you have stumbled into our Kyoto feature but this image of a Japanese garden was actually taken in a southern French city. The Pierre Baudis Japanese garden is a zen paradise hidden away in the Compans-Caffarelli park, located in the northwestern part of Toulouse. The 7,000 sqm green space was created in 1981 after Baudis was inspired by the landscaped gardens he witnessed on his travels.
The immaculately tended garden features a pond, which can be crossed via a striking red bridge, a Japanese dry garden featuring rocks and raked gravel, plus a serene tea pavilion. It’s free to visit and open from 9am until around 6-7pm (depending on the season), though parks can also be closed due to Toulouse’s notoriously strong winds – it’s a no-go zone once these reach above 60km/h.
2 - Manger et boire
The city’s sunny climate makes it a fitting spot for eating en terrasse, and you’ll spot plenty of people spilling out of local cafés and wine bars throughout the summer months. That said, don’t miss the covered Victor-Hugo market, which is located on the square of the same name and has kept Toulousains satiated since 1896. The market is open daily from 7am-1.30pm (apart from Mondays) and offers fresh and regional produce across 80 stalls, along with restaurants on the first floor that dish up meals using ingredients from the local terroir.
Afterwards, go for a wander along the banks of the River Garonne, which flows through the heart of Toulouse, and stop off at Glaces Moustache, 16 Place Saint-Pierre. This cheekily-named artisan ice cream shop sells some wacky flavours, including chocolatine-flavoured scoops (known as pain au chocolat in other areas of France), which you can enjoy while admiring views of the 12th century Hôpital de La Grave opposite, with its recognisable turquoise dome.
3 - Place du Capitole
Continue with a visit to the city’s magnificent main square, whose pink-hued buildings glow at golden hour. Aside from being a perfect spot for alfresco dining, it’s also brimming with history and politics. On the eastern side lies the neoclassical brick facade of Le Capitole, which houses the city’s town hall, various ornate state rooms and opera venue, the Théâtre du Capitole. The building was commissioned by the capitouls (elected officials) of Toulouse in the 12th century, but the 120-metre-long facade dates back to 1750.
The highlight of a visit here is the ostentatious Salle des Illustres, filled with 19th century works of art by painters such as Henri Martin that depict Toulouse’s eventful history – from the radical Cathar religious period to multiple sieges of the city. The historical rooms are free to visit and open daily, though are closed when receptions take place. Before departing the square, head to the arcade opposite. Look up, and you’ll discover a ceiling with colourful murals by Raymond Moretti that also illustrate the city’s history.
4 - Couvent des Jacobins
Just around the corner from the main square is a beautiful brickwork church – a fine example of southern French Gothic architecture. This Roman Catholic church was established in the 12th and 14th centuries by the Dominican order and entirely restored in 2015, with interactive features incorporated. The soaring interiors have a magical feel, with light filtering through the stained-glass windows creating colourful, kaleidoscopic patterns on the walls.
Architectural features include a vaulted roof, which is well-known as Le Palmier des Jacobins (the palm tree of the Jacobins) due to its tropical appearance – and a large column that acts as the trunk to support the weight of the vault, with 22 ribs running off it in various directions. Once you’ve experienced the vast space, wander through the peaceful cloister. The church is free to visit, with tickets from €4 for the cloister.
5 - Cité de l’Espace
If you have time to venture out of the city centre, head for the aerospace museum in southeast Toulouse. The attraction pays tribute to Toulouse’s status as the European Space Capital, with 4,000 sqm of interactive exhibitions and four hectares of scientific gardens. Here, you can imagine life as an astronaut as you explore full-scale models of the Ariane 5 rocket, a space launch vehicle used by the European Space Agency (ESA), and the seven-metre-high Apollo Lunar Module spacecraft that carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon.
New to the museum is ‘Martian Ground – The Rovers Take the Stage’, where life-size replicas of rovers traverse a 900 sqm Martian crater that has been faithfully reconstructed in collaboration with scientific experts to accurately reflect the Red Planet’s landscape. Visitors can reach the museum in 35 minutes by taking metro line A to Jolimont followed by bus line 37. A one-day adult rate ticket starts from €24.50.