48 Hours In: Montpellier

Whether you call in en route to Spain, or make a special trip, this cultured and historic city in southern France delivers a memorable stay.

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Tomorrow afternoon, the Tour de France passes through Montpellier: the city is the end of Sunday's étape in the world's greatest cycling event. But by Monday, the capital of Languedoc-Roussillon will be back to its enticing self. Montpellier's compact, multi-faceted Old Town distils everything the British adore about southern France: sunlight dappling on terracotta roofs and ancient stones; café culture spilling out over pretty places; chic shops and hotels; and a beautiful beach close at hand. Montpellier in high summer possesses a dreamy luminescence, counterbalanced by a formidable cultural offering.

Touch down

St-Roch station (1), south-east of the Old Town, is about seven hours from London St Pancras with a change of train (and station) in Paris; the lowest fare on Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) for next weekend is £239, though booking later dates can halve the fare. Montpellier's convenient airport, 8km south-east of the city, is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Birmingham and Leeds/Bradford; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Luton and Gatwick; and Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; bmibaby.com) from Manchester. A navette (shuttle bus) runs every hour or so to Place de l'Europe (2), taking 15 minutes for a one-way fare of only €1.50, or €2.40 if you want a connecting tram ride. A taxi to the Place de la Comédie (3) costs about €30.

Get your bearings

Montpellier's civic focus is Place de la Comédie (3), an odd-shaped but elegant square bisected by a tram line, which has a stop (Comédie) in the middle. Just to the north is the helpful tourist office (4) (00 33 4 67 60 60 60; ot-montpellier.fr); open 9.30am-6pm at weekends, 9am-7.30pm from Monday to Friday. The square is on the eastern edge of the Old Town, whose main thoroughfare is rue de la Loge; this opens up into Place Jean Jaurès (5), the hub of the Old Town, with the restored Halles Castellane (a 19th-century covered food market) diagonally opposite. The Arc de Triomphe (6) marks the western extent of the city centre.

To explore more widely, the city has a two-line tram system. Buy tickets in advance from the machines on the platform, and cancel them on board. Singles cost €1.40 for any length of journey. A day pass costs €3.50, or a carnet of 10 costs €11.50.

Check in

The most atmospheric location is the Hotel le Guilhem (7), at 18 rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau (00 33 4 67 52 90 90; leguilhem.com). A pair of 16th-century townhouses has been transformed into a 35-room labyrinth, with comfortable furnishings and free Wi-Fi. A standard double costs €117 or less, with buffet breakfast an extra €12 per person.

For boutique chic in an elegant setting, check into the Newhotel du Midi (8), close to the Opera at 22 boulevard Victor Hugo (00 33 4 67 92 69 61; new-hotel.com), where public areas are artistic installations in their own right, and bedrooms are boldly decorated. A summer promotion offers double rooms for €97; breakfast is €10 per person.

At the bottom of the price scale, the Hotel de France (9) at 4 rue de la République (00 33 4 67 92 29 29; hoteldefrance-nn.com) is more appealing than it might look from the scruffy exterior. It has double rooms for €52, with breakfast an extra €6 per person.

Day one

Take a view

Start the day with the exhilarating view from the 18th-century Château d'Eau (10), an elaborate neo-classical water tower that presides over the place Royale de Peyrou, a formal garden on the western edge of the Old Town. Extending west from here into the hills is St-Clement aqueduct, created in 1754 as an architectural homage to the nearby Pont du Gard.

Take a hike

From the water tower (10), walk east through the gardens past the equestrian statue of Louis XIV – the "Sun King" whose achievements are honoured in the handsome Arc de Triomphe (6). Walk through, and you are in the Old Town, a tangle of narrow streets that occasionally open up to breathe. Bear right along rue Eugène Lisbonne to the former Cathedral of Sainte Anne (11), now a gallery. The Carré Sainte Anne, of which this is the core, is dotted with workshops where musical instruments are made, and often echoes with recitals. The rue Sainte Anne runs into the rue de l'Ancien Courrier, a typical Montpellier street punctuated by cafés and intriguing shops.

Bear right down rue d'Aragon and squeeze through rue du Cygne to the Opéra Comédie (12), which gives the main square its name. But walk south, not north, to the most notable fragment of the 14th-century fortifications: the Tour de la Babote (13). Although it is closed to visitors, you can climb part way up the staircase to get a new perspective.

Lunch on the run

Tantalisingly for weekend visitors, the best lunch option is open only from Monday to Friday: the Café des Négociants (14), opposite the tower at 2 rue République (00 33 4 67 58 10 20) serves a delicious daily special in art nouveau surroundings. At weekends, the Art Mango Cafe (13) in the tower's gardens presents a good alternative.

Cultural afternoon

When will it ever open? That is the local talking point about the long-promised Musée de l'histoire de la France en Algérie (15), which occupies a fine mansion the Hotel Montcalm. Montpellier was chosen as the location for the tangled story of France's adventures in North Africa from 1830 to 1962 because so many pieds noirs – French expatriates – settled in the city after they left Algeria. It may open by the end of the summer.

Fortunately, the Musée Fabre (16) provides plenty to absorb the visitor. The building has expanded audaciously with 21st-century quasi-industrial chambers, providing plenty of space in which to appreciate a collection that starts below ground level with the Dutch Old Masters, and rises through Romanticism, Classicism and Impressionism to Modern works at the top. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Mondays.

An aperitif

On a fine summer's evening, the citizenry infiltrate every space big enough to fit a few tables and chairs. Competition is so intense that some bars now advertise pints of beer for €2.50. The best perspective on the main square is from the raised platform of the Opéra Comédie (12). On the other side of town, Place de la Canourgue (17) has a small-town feel; enjoy the sun subsiding outside Le Comptoir de l'Arc.

Dine with the locals

This close to the Med, it helps to enjoy the fruits de mer. At the south-west corner of the place de la Camourgue (17), La Coquille (00 33 4 67 60 47 97; restolacoquille.fr) serves seafood with panache.

The most sought-after setting, though, is the former municipal baths. Les Bains de Montpellier (18) at 6 rue Richelieu (00 33 4 67 60 70 87; les-bains-de-montpellier.com) comprises a courtyard where the pool used to be, with bars and niches occupying the former changing rooms. Prices for elaborate dishes (such as carpaccio of bream or octopus) and local wines are ambitious – don't expect much change from €100 for two – but you are guaranteed a memorable meal.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Given its bulk, St-Pierre Cathedral (19) seems curiously cut adrift, tucked away into the north-west quadrant of the city. The most prominent feature is the massive porch, supported by columns as big as lighthouses. The city owes it all to Pope Urban V, who studied in Montpellier and bequeathed it a Benedictine monastery that gradually morphed into the present gothic giant, whose austere interior is enlivened with a dazzle of stained glass. The cathedral opens 9.30am-1pm on Sunday mornings, with Mass celebrated at 10.30am and noon. On other days it opens 9am-noon and 2.30-7pm.

A walk in the park

Not long after the cathedral took shape, France's oldest botanical gardens, the Jardin des Plantes (20) (00 33 4 67 63 43 22; bit.ly/qUyHPi) was created just beyond the walls of the Old Town. The entrance leads into an urban jungle filled with languid lily ponds, soaring bamboos, heroic statues and an orangery. It opens noon-6pm daily except Monday, admission free. On the other side of town, the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle is an avenue stretching north from the tourist office (4) and decorated with sculptures.

Out to brunch

The aspect of the Grand Café Riche, facing south-east across the place de la Comédie (3) makes it the ideal location for a mid-morning feast (00 33 4 67 54 71 44). This late-19th-century brasserie also has an elegant history. Be warned, though, that the service can be iffy.

Take a ride

The sea is temptingly accessible. Rent a bike from the tourist office (4) for a couple of euros for half a day, or take a bus from the Port Marianne terminus - to the cheerful resort of Palavas. Attractions include a broad, sandy beach; a canal, cutting from the inland lagoon right through the town; the world's shortest cable car, straddling the canal; and the disproportionately tall "lighthouse" that offers a fine view of the whole agglomeration for €2.

The icing on the cake

Among the dozens of museums and galleries, one worth popping into before you leave town is the Pavillon Populaire, just north of the tourist office (4), which is hosting an exuberant summer exhibition of photographs of America taken by George Brassaï in 1957. It opens 11am-1pm and from 2-7pm daily except Mondays, admission free.