Insider Guide: Best of Toulouse

Linnie Rawlinson/CNN
Tuesday, June 10, 2014 - 12:34pm

If Paris, Marseille and Lyon are France's big boys, then Toulouse might be their artsy little sister.

The "ville rose," so named for the red brick and white stone buildings that give the city a pinkish glow, is dotted with small museums, churches and street cafes.

It's liveable, walkable and while Toulouse might lack a long list of must-see sights, that just makes it all the more suited to a relaxed weekend break.

The old town, particularly between the Place du Capitole and the Rue de Metz, has the smart shops, hotels and restaurants.

South of Rue de Metz is Carmes, a slightly scruffier area with a relaxed, vintage vibe.

Over the bridges, on the left bank, Saint-Cyprien feels more arty, haphazard and culturally diverse.

North west of the city are the airport and the Airbus factory -- a must for aviation geeks.

Hotels

Luxury

Grand Hotel de l'Opera

For those seeking opulence, the Grand Hotel delivers.

Smack-bang in the center of the old town, in the main square in front of the Opera, this traditional favorite is for people who like their luxury swathed in red velvet drapes, their chairs deeply padded and their residences decorated with balconies and balustrades.

Grand Hotel de l'Opera, 1, Place du Capitole, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 21 82 66; from $278 per night

Pullman Toulouse Centre

This sleek business hotel is conveniently close to the central business district, but not so far from the old town that the delights of the center are out of reach.

Rooms are comfortable and a decent size and the lounge areas are classy and minimalist.

Service is suitably slick.

Pullman Toulouse Centre, 84, allees Jean Jaures, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 10 23 51; from $174 per night

Mid-range

Hotel des Arts

This sweet boutique hotel was revamped recently and has the feel of somewhere that's being continually improved.

It's perfectly placed in the center of town, and though rooms are small, it's clean, friendly and very well priced for the location.

Hotel des Arts, 1, Bis rue Cantegril, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 23 36 21; from $100 per night

Hotel des Beaux Arts

Set right by the Garonne and the old town, this smart hotel has an eclectic, boutique feel and a great location.

Again, rooms are on the small side, but clean and comfortable, and some have river views.

The bar is popular at sunset and the restaurant has a decent reputation.

Hotel des Beaux Arts, 1 Place du Pont Neuf, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 34 45 42 42; from $160 per night

Budget

Hotel Croix Baragnon

A basic but clean and friendly choice in a great central location, close to shops and restaurants.

This small hotel with a family feel is lifted by its blue and white interior terrace, which is a refreshing place to pause after a day's sightseeing and exploring the nearby markets.

Hotel Croix Baragnon, 17 rue Croix-Baragnon, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 52 60 10; from $68 per night

Dining

High end

Michel Sarran

Michel Sarran's eponymous restaurant serves beautifully presented food with a focus on local ingredients such as foie gras and lavender.

The quirky, modern setting complements his playful approach to cuisine.

At the time of writing, dishes include Perigord truffle with mascarpone and gold leaf, or black Bigorre pig casseroled with thyme and mushrooms in ham fat.

With two Michelin stars to its name, an emphasis on locally sourced meat and fish and a beautifully curated list of French wines, a memorable gastronomic experience is almost guaranteed.

There's a reason the €51 ($69) lunch menu is so popular: It's amazing value.

Michel Sarran Restaurant, 21, boulevard Armand Duportal, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 12 32 32; Monday to Friday 12-1.45 p.m. and 8-9.45 p.m. (no lunch Wednesdays); closed weekends; expensive

Le Genty Magre

This modern yet welcoming dining room attracts a smart, professional crowd keen to enjoy chef Romain Brard's sophisticated take on regional comfort cuisine.

The dishes show his fierce pride in the local produce -- he particularly allows the vegetables to shine in dishes such as shrimp and coriander with chilled carrot and lime soup, and cod in garlic sauce with artichokes.

The wine list is excellent.

Le Genty Magre, 3 rue Genty Magre, Toulouse 31000; +33 (0)5 61 21 38 60; Tuesday-Saturday 12-2 p.m. and 8-10 p.m.; expensive

Mid-range

Le Mangevins

Cassoulet is one of those classic French country dishes that everyone should try once -- and probably only once, given its heart-stoppingly high levels of saturated fat.

Here, they serve up huge earthenware dishes of bubbling confit duck, sausage and beans.

Best play it safe and wash it down with a bottle of heart friendly Cahors, a regional purplish wine with a robust flavor.

Le Mangevins, 46 Rue Pharaon, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 52 79 16; Monday-Friday 12-2 p.m. and 7.30-10.30 p.m.; moderate

Le Retour du Marche

The farm-to-table trend never really left France, and here proprietors Benoit Bilourou and Gaetan Ausset take pride in cooking and serving the freshest produce sourced from the nearby Saint-Cyprien market.

Le Retour du Marche, 45 Rue Reclusane, 31300 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 63 43 07; Tuesday-Friday: 12-2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday: 7.30-10 p.m.; moderate

La Roulotte

This cute restaurant's midweek "formules" (set menus) are favored by Toulouse's ladies who lunch.

Its carte features classic cooking with a modern twist, for a very reasonable price.

The shabby chic interior and fairy lights make for a romantic evening setting, too.

La Roulotte, 40b Rue Peyrolieres, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 62 89 43 01; Thursday-Sunday 12-2 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday 7.30-10 p.m.; moderate

Budget

Chez Nous Les Libanais

A handy spot near the Pont Neuf that serves hearty Lebanese food at rock-bottom prices.

Favored by the student crowd for its €6 ($8.20) flatbread wraps stuffed full of salad, chunky fries and fillings such as halloumi, spiced lamb or grilled chicken.

Chez Nous Les Libanais, 6, rue Jean Suau, 31000 Toulouse; every day 12p.m.-late; budget

Victor Hugo market

If the weather's fine, then people head to the Victor Hugo covered market to pick up bread, cheese and deli products to enjoy in the park or down by the river.

If it's not, they head upstairs, where for a little more money (around €19 ($26) a head) they can have a great value set menu at one of several restaurants serving classic southwestern French cuisine.

Le Magret has a good selection of typical dishes such as gizzard salad, duck breast in pepper sauce and ile flottante.

Meat enthusiasts may prefer Le Louchebem for its long list of steaks and chops -- all of which can be accompanied by foie gras for an extra €8 ($10.90).

Marche Victor Hugo, Place Victor Hugo, 31000 Toulouse; Tuesday-Sunday 7 a.m.-1.30 p.m.; budget

Le Magret, Marche Victor Hugo, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 23 21 32; Tuesday-Friday 11.45 a.m.-2.30 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 11.45 a.m.-3 p.m.; moderate

Le Louchebem, Marche Victor Hugo, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 12 12 52; Tuesday-Sunday 12 p.m.-2.30 p.m.; moderate

La Bonbonniere

This patisserie-chocolatier has a counter filled with jewel-like macaroons in a rainbow of flavors, and its chocolates are glossy and luxurious.

But it's the large, flattish, modest-looking buns called "pomponettes" that have the locals in a flutter.

These light, sugar-topped brioches are flavored with orange flower water and taste so heavenly, you'll swear you hear angels each time you take a bite.

La Bonbonniere, 41 Rue des Tourneurs, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 21 66 04; Tuesday-Saturday 8.30 a.m.-7.30 p.m.; budget

Cafe culture

Le Cafe des Artistes

Perfectly situated on the right bank of the Garonne, the Cafe des Artistes is where students, tourists and, yes, arty types flock to watch the world go by.

Towards sunset, there's no finer place in the city to enjoy a beer or a cafe noir. (It's also a good spot to watch Airbuses descending towards the Blagnac landing strip.)

Le Cafe des Artistes, 13 Place de la Daurade, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 12 06 00; Monday-Saturday 8-2 a.m., Sunday 12-9 p.m.; budget

Bar L'Echanson

Outside, this cute cafe in Place de la Trinite heaves with student types even when it's cold.

Inside, there's a little balcony that looks over the tiny bar -- perfect for couples seeking a quiet spot for a cozy glass of wine.

Bar L'Echanson, 8 place de la Trinite, 31000 Toulouse; Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-midnight; Saturday 10-1 a.m.; budget

Attractions

Basilica of Saint Sernin

This large basilica with high vaulted ceilings is a key stage on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela.

Built in several stages, its altar was dedicated by Pope Urban II in 1096, six months after he called for the First Crusade. That altar remains in place.

Behind the nave is an "ambulatory," or walkway (€2 ($2.70)), that allows pilgrims to see the many shrines and caskets of relics the basilica holds. There are more relics and shrines in the crypt.

Basilique de Saint Sernin, Place Saint-Sernin, 31000 Toulouse; Monday-Saturday: 8.30 a.m.-7 p.m. June-September, 8.30 a.m.-6 p.m. October-May; Sundays: 8.30 a.m.-7.30 p.m. year-round; free

Crypt and ambulatory: Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. June-September, 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and 2 p.m.-5.30 p.m. October-May; Sundays 11.30 a.m.-6 p.m. June-September, 2 p.m.-5.30 p.m. October-May; €2

Church of the Jacobins

The soaring ceilings and simple layout of this 13th-century church could make it the most impressive interior space in Toulouse.

It's worth paying the €4 ($5.50) to see the pretty (and Instagram-friendly) cloisters and courtyard garden.

Faded colors and patterns on the interior hint at its gaudily painted past.

Under the altar, in a gold casket, lie the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Ensemble Conventuel des Jacobins, 69 Rue Pargaminieres, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 22 23 82; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. every day; free; cloisters €4

Musee des Augustins

This former monastery, built in the 14th century, is a real treat.

It has a beautiful collection of medieval and Romanesque sculpture and several rooms of paintings dating from the 17th to the early 20th century.

The courtyard vegetable garden, watched over by gargoyles, is delightful.

Musee des Augustins, 21 Rue de Metz, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 22 21 82; open every day 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (9 p.m. Wednesdays); €3 ($4)

Les Abattoirs

This modern art museum's permanent collection focuses on the latter half of the 20th century and specializes in the 1950s and 1960s.

Temporary exhibitions include retrospectives for artists such as Sigmar Polke.

The cafe is a popular spot for business lunches.

Les Abattoirs, 76 allee Charles de Fitte, 31300 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 34 51 10 60; Tuesday-Friday: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (8 p.m. on Thursdays,) Saturday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; €7 ($9.50) (€2 after 6 p.m. on Thursdays)

Centre de l'Affiche

This small museum next to Les Abattoirs focuses on poster art -- its displays change quarterly.

There's more to see in the well-stocked bookshop.

It will appeal to those interested in graphic art and the history of advertising.

Le Centre de l'Affiche, 58 Allees Charles de Fitte, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 81 91 79 17; Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-12 p.m. and 2 p.m.-6 p.m.; free

Airbus factory

Three 90-minute tours of the factory site are operated by Manatour: the Airbus A380 tour (including the Airbus A380 plant and a mock A380); a 25-kilometer coach tour of the Airbus site; and a tour of Airbus's green initiatives.

All require advance booking.

Manatour, Rue Franz Joseph Strauss, Village Aeroconstellation, 31700 Blagnac; +33 (0)5 34 39 42 00; $22 for one tour, $32 for two; reservations essential, with at least two working days' notice required for clearance if you're not a citizen of the European Union

Shopping

Shoes

Toulouse is a walkable city, so it's fitting that its boutique shoe shops are numerous.

They're not cheap -- you'll easily part with €150-300 ($204-408) a pair if you're so inclined -- but in return, you'll get soft leather, high quality construction and European styling.

A wander around the old town just north of Rue de Metz will reveal many such boutiques, such as Tess for women's Italian shoes, Robert Clergerie for smart men's and women's shoes, Sandro for men's upscale street shoes and clothing and Pataugas for more casual designer sneakers.

Tess, 46 Rue Boulbonne, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 23 47 44; Tuesday-Wednesday 10.15 a.m.-7 p.m., Thursday-Saturday 10.15 a.m.-7.15 p.m.; expensive

Robert Clergerie, 1 rue Cantegril, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 22 18 21; Monday 2-7 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (closed Thursday 1 p.m.-2 p.m.); expensive

Sandro, 16 rue de la Pomme, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 21 32 04; Monday-Tuesday 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-7 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; expensive

Pataugas, 6 Rue de la Pomme, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 22 49 77; Monday 2 p.m.-7 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; moderate

Vintage

the quality and range of Toulouse's vintage stores make them magnets for vintage magpies.

Groucho's antique cabinets are packed with berets, designer silk scarves, wallets and leather gloves.

Nearby Le Grenier d'Anaiis has a good selection of vintage cotton dresses, furs and household linens.

The Vintage Family has an intriguing range of 1950s stationery and haberdashery.

All sell designer silk ties for around €10-12 ($13.60-16.30) each.

Groucho, 39 Rue Peyrolieres 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 21 22 07; Monday 2-7 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday 10.30 a.m.-7 p.m.; budget-moderate

Le Grenier d'Anaiis, 54 rue Peyrolieres, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 62 30 07 16; Tuesday-Friday 10.30 a.m.-1.30 p.m. and 2.30-7.15 p.m., Saturday 10.30 a.m.-7.15 p.m.; budget-moderate

The Vintage Family, 28 rue Joseph Lakanal, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)9 80 83 49 88; Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2.30 p.m.-7 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; budget-moderate

Santa Rosa Parfumerie

Santa Rosa is an old-school apothecary, its dark wood interior filled with bottles and vials that seem to hold the promise of something more transformative than simple smells.

Big names such as Frederic Malle, Penhaligons and Aqua di Parma sit alongside cult skincare from the likes of the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy.

Santa Rosa Parfumerie, 11 Rue Antonin Mercie, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 29 84 81; Monday 2-7 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday 10.30 a.m.-7 p.m.; moderate-expensive

Le Paradis Gourmand

Le Paradis Gourmand is crammed with enough sweet treats to make an oompa loompa jealous -- dark chocolate animals, jars of striped candy canes and vintage-style tins of aniseed pastilles are all on offer here. Specialties of the region include chocolate and bonbons flavored with violet, a Toulouse tradition.

Le Paradis Gourmand, 45 Rue des Tourneurs, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 22 05 77; Monday 2-7 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; budget

Fromagerie Betty

Betty's, in the Victor Hugo and Carmes markets, will satisfy even the most hardcore cheese fanatic.

From unpasteurized hard cheeses from the Pyranees to soft, unctuous, melting Bries, there are literally hundreds of different carefully chosen and distinct cheeses from across France.

Fromagerie Betty, 21 Place Victor Hugo, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 22 17 81; Tuesday-Thursday 9.30 a.m.-1.15 pm and 3.30-7.15 p.m., Friday-Saturday 9.30 a.m.-7.30 p.m., Sunday 9.30 a.m.-1.15 p.m.; budget

Marche Victor Hugo, Place Victor Hugo, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0)5 61 22 17 81; Tuesday-Sunday 7 a.m.-2 p.m.; budget

Marche des Carmes, Place des Carmes, 31000 Toulouse; +33 (0) 5 34 31 65 92; Tuesday-Sunday 7 a.m.-1.30 p.m.; budget 

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