Toulouse is France’s fourth largest city, but you wouldn’t know it to walk around its historic center. The narrow, winding streets and red brick architecture make it feel more like a medieval hilltop village. And yet its many university students impart a young artsy vibe. The city is packed with coffee shops, wine bars, restaurants, boutiques, and bookstores. Charming as France’s La Ville Rose may be, it also makes a great base for regional explorations. Nearby Albi is home to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum and a stunning cathedral, while the walled city of Carcassonne looks like a scene from a Disney film. (Or a board game!) With a long weekend in Toulouse, you can enjoy all three fantastic destinations.
Things to Do in Toulouse
One day in Toulouse is really all you need to see the top attractions, especially with the city’s two main art museums currently closed for renovations. But there are still plenty of interesting things to do and see. And once Musée des Augustins and the Bemberg Foundation reopen, you’ll likely want to stay longer.
Basilica of Saint-Sernin
One of the most important places in Toulouse is the Basilica of Saint-Sernin. It was built in the 11th century over the tomb of St Saturnin, the first bishop of Toulouse. (He met a grisly end in the 3rd century when he was tied to a bull and dragged through town.)
Other saintly relics, said to have been collected by Charlemagne, can be found in the Basilica; only St Peter’s in The Vatican holds more relics. The Basilica is recognized by UNESCO as a stop on the Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage route through France and Spain.
Next door to the Basilica is Musée Saint-Raymond. This little archeology museum holds a treasure trove of Roman antiquities. Many of the items, including sculptures, mosaics, and jewelry, come from the imperial Villa Chiragan. Its ruins were discovered near modern-day Toulouse in what was once the Roman province of Narbonne.
The museum sits atop an ancient cemetery, and you’ll find several finely carved sarcophagi in the basement. The building itself dates to the Middle Ages and was once a hospital for the poor.
Toulouse’s City Hall, known as Le Capitole, dominates a large square in the old town center. The building is free for tourists to enter, so long as security hasn’t closed it for an official meeting. (This happened during my visit and the guards just told me to come back in a few hours.)
Once past the security check, head straight back towards the ornamental portal. Take the stairs on the left to access the historic council chamber and beautifully painted halls.
Another historic building worth popping into is the Jacobins Convent. It was built in the 13th century for Dominican friars and quickly became an important community center. When St Thomas Aquinas, a leading Dominican scholar, died in the 14th century, his remains were installed in a reliquary under the church’s main altar.
When religious orders were banned during the French Revolution, the convent was seized by the army and used as barracks. Restoration work is ongoing. The church is free to enter, but there is a small fee for the cloisters.
Canal du Midi
A second UNESCO site in Toulouse is the Canal du Midi. Louis XIV had the canal created in the 17th century to facilitate trading of wheat and wine. It stretches 240 kilometers from Toulouse to the Mediterranean Sea. 65 locks control the water and allow boats to pass. During the summer months, tourist canal boats make up most of the traffic. The former tow path is a great place for a walk.
Victor Hugo Market
Toulousians have been doing their food shopping at Victor Hugo Market since 1892. The sprawling covered market hall is home to over 100 vendors selling everything from fish and sausage to cheese and pastries. You can also buy glass jars of cassoulet, a hearty bean stew that’s a specialty of the region.
The original glass and iron structure was replaced with a concrete version in the 1950s. Produce vendors set up outside on the shaded terrace.
Day Trip to Albi from Toulouse
You might expect the world’s largest Toulouse-Lautrec Museum to be in Toulouse, but it’s actually in Albi, the artist’s hometown. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi in 1894, and his mother donated his works to the city after his death in 1901. He is perhaps best known for his intimate, behind-the-scenes portraits of Parisian brothels and tawdry advertisement posters for the Moulin Rouge. The theater reportedly saved him a seat every night.
The museum is housed inside the Bishop’s Palace, a former residence of Albi’s bishops dating to the 13th century. It looks more like a fortress than a palace because it was built during a time when religious wars were raging around the region and the Catholic clergy needed protecting. Be sure to walk around the ramparts to admire the manicured garden and views over the Tarn River.
Albi Cathedral is one of the largest brick buildings in the world and towers over the rest of the town. It has the same fortress-like exterior as the Bishop’s Palace since they were built within a few years of each other.
The cathedral’s interior, though, is as lavish as it gets. A vaulted ceiling soars overhead, painted a stunning celestial blue with gold ribs. A colossal mural of the Last Judgement takes pride of place below a beautiful organ. At the opposite end, the choir is tucked behind an elaborately carved rood screen. Follow a winding staircase on the left side up to the cathedral’s original treasury to see some unique relics.
An Albi day trip from Toulouse takes about one hour each way by high-speed train. You can find schedules and ticket information here. From the Albi Ville Station, it’s an easy 15 minute walk to the old town. There is also a tourist train that makes stops at the station. Be sure to spare some time to amble through Albi’s ancient lanes.
Day Trip to Carcassonne from Toulouse
I’ve played the board game Carcassonne for years but didn’t realize it was based on a real place until I started planning this trip. While it looks like a Disney film set, Carcassonne has actually existed for nearly 2,000 years. Romans built the original walled town in the 3rd century, and the Visigoths improved the fortifications a few hundred years later. A second wall was added for extra security during the religious crusades of the Middle Ages. What we see today is the result of expertly-done 19th century restoration and conservation work.
The best thing to do in Carcassonne is to walk around the ramparts. You can access two sections of the inner wall through Château Comtal, home of the powerful counts of Carcassonne. Note that the ramparts walk includes some steep stairs but is definitely worth it if you are physically able to climb.
The castle also has a small museum dedicated to the area’s Gallo-Roman and medieval history. Its most interesting artifact is a 12th century mural depicting a battle during the crusades.
I enjoyed a traditional cassoulet for lunch at Le Chauldron, a popular restaurant housed in an ancient stone building and tucked a bit off the main tourist path through the old town. The cassoulet was part of a good-value set menu, which also included a beautifully presented leek and egg appetizer and warm apple tarte tatin for dessert. I highly recommend making a reservation!
Great Restaurants in Toulouse
All that sightseeing will surely work up an appetite. Below are the restaurants I enjoyed during my long weekend in Toulouse. Reservations are recommended.
I popped into this charming bistro at lunchtime on a Friday without a reservation, and the staff kindly accommodated me even though they were completely full. I devoured a hearty bowl of pearl couscous risotto topped with fresh spring veggies and a poached egg. In the evenings, Campagne offers cheese and charcuterie boards plus small plates to share. And the prices are as pleasing as the food!
For a slightly more high-end experience, head to L’Emulsion. This sleek restaurant is tucked in a cavernous brick cellar that dates to the 17th century, but its dishes are an ode to modern French cuisine. I opted for the three-course tasting menu with wine pairing and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
The gold medal goes to a slow-cooked egg over mashed sweet potatoes with cheese foam. Honorable mention goes to the cumin-crusted lamb with red cabbage puree and onion jam. A four-course menu is also available, and diners are free to mix and match the dishes from each to their liking.
Les Sales Gosses
Another excellent eatery with three- and four-course options is Les Sales Gosses. Some might find the ingredients here a bit more challenging, as items like sweetbreads and duck hearts have shown up on recent menus (which change often). But I like the adventure of trying new things, especially when they are so well prepared.
At the time of my visit, dishes included a mushroom soup with creamy meringues, a john dory filet with stuffed artichokes, and a brown sugar biscuit with blood orange mousse that was possibly the single best thing I ate in Toulouse!
Grain de Folie
I appreciated the convivial atmosphere inside Grain de Folie, a local favorite well-suited for group celebrations. Appetizers, and even main courses, are meant for sharing thanks to their incredibly generous portion sizes. The restaurant’s name means “Grains of Madness,” and risotto is one of its star dishes. I chose the version topped with a succulent monkfish tail and chorizo cream sauce.
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Looking for more destinations for your France Bucket list? Be sure to check out the Chateau de Fontainebleau!