Why go now?
Spring is readying itself to return to the beautiful south-west of France and "La Ville Rose" – the picturesque Pink City and capital of the Midi-Pyrénées – is the perfect place to plunge into the quiet delights of this region.
The modern art gallery Les Abattoirs (1) at 76 Allées Charles-de-Fitte (00 33 5 62 48 58 00; lesabattoirs.org; €7) is currently showing a multi-media installation by the avant-garde British artist Anthony McCall until 5 May. And the inaugural Toulouse International Art Festival runs from 24 May to 23 June (toulouseartfestival.com).
Toulouse's Blagnac Airport is 7km west of the city centre. I travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which flies four times daily from Heathrow, with return fares from £129. Alternatives include easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Gatwick and Bristol and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Manchester.
The Flybus shuttle departs from outside the arrivals gate every 20 minutes from 5.30am to midnight, taking 20 minutes to reach Matabiau station (2) for €5 (00 33 5 61 41 70 70; bit.ly/TLaerobus). Taxis are pricey, costing between €22 and €45, depending on the time of day, number of bags and the distance you're travelling.
Get your bearings
Toulouse is a compact warren of winding cobbled streets lined with lovely rose-coloured buildings that give the Pink City its nickname. It's a joy to explore on foot, especially since few cars brave the narrow lanes here.
The tree-lined Garonne River divides the city in two with the Vieux Quartier (Old Town) falling to the east and the former suburb of Saint-Cyprien rising in the west.
Most of the sights are on the right bank, where the 17th-century Canal du Midi flows around the city's north-east shoulder.
The heart of it all is the Place du Capitole (3), a handsome square that's presided over by a resplendent town hall of the same name. Behind it, you'll find the main Tourist Office (4) at Square de Gaulle (00 33 5 40 13 15 31; toulouse-tourisme.com), open daily from 9am to 6pm, Sundays from 10am to 5pm and closed between 12.30 and 2pm at weekends.
In the Old Town, the recently renovated Hôtel des Arts (5) at 1 Rue Cantegril (00 33 5 61 23 36 21; hotel-des-arts-toulouse.com) has 12 characterful rooms with exposed brick walls, sculptures, paintings and polished bathrooms. Doubles start at €95, room only.
For an intimate stay, Côté Carmes (6) at 7 Rue de la Dalbade (00 33 6 83 44 87 55; cote- carmes.com), is an antique-laden B&B in a 16th-century mansion that opened in September. Doubles start at €85, including breakfast.
Hôtel de Brienne (7) at 20 Boulevard du Maréchal Leclerc (00 33 5 61 23 60 60; hoteldebrienne.com) has also been given a lick of paint this year. Its design-led lounge bar features graphic murals and comic-strip armchairs, while upstairs there are doubles from €90, including breakfast.
Take a hike
Start in the heart at the Place du Capitole (3). The polished floor of this broad, pedestrianised square is emblazoned with the Occitan cross, a medieval symbol of the region. Walk up Rue de Rémusat and swing left on to Rue du Périgord where the frescoed ceiling of the 17th-century Carmelite Chapel (8) (00 33 5 61 21 27 60; closed Monday; free), calls for a moment of neck-craning admiration. The murals, painted by Jean-Baptiste Despax, depict the Catholic virtues in gilded alcoves.
Exit and aim for the violet-painted shutters at the end of the street, then turn right to behold the Romanesque riches of the Basilica St-Sernin (9) (basilique-st-sernin-toulouse.fr; free). This 13th-century church is a key stop along the Camino de Santiago, which pilgrims still pass through en route to Galicia in Spain. It takes its name from Toulouse's first bishop, Sernin, who was dragged through the streets to his death by a bull in AD250.
It's hard to imagine such a grisly act could have taken place in a scenic city such as this, especially as you cut down Rue Emile Cartailhac, taking in its picturesque procession of shuttered buildings and streetside cafés as it meanders down to the leafy banks of the Garonne.
Lunch on the run
In the quiet backstreets behind the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Le Poisson Vagabond (10) does streetside tables at 42 Rue Peyrolières (00 33 5 61 21 47 95), with delicious starters of salmon carpaccio, scallops in cider sauce and duck pâté with brioche, that are perfect for sharing (€10 each) with a glass of wine (€3) in the dappled spring sunshine.
Rue Peyrolières is also replete with friperies (second-hand shops), selling vintage accessories and clothing. Groucho (11) at No 39 (00 33 5 61 21 22 07; groucho-retro.com) and Le Grenier d'Anaïs (12) at No 54 (00 33 5 62 30 07 16; legrenierdanais.fr) are two of the best.
On Place du Capitole (3), master chocolatier Georges Larnicol (00 33 5 61 22 40 59; chocolaterielarnicol.fr) also tempts with his artisanal display of caramels, macaroons and, by now, Easter eggs.
Gazing across the Garonne to the twinkling lights of the left bank, the Place St Pierre (13) is an atmospheric spot to start the evening. Grab a table outside Le Bar Basque (00 33 5 61 21 55 64), a gently crumbling building at No 7, or cross the square to Chez Tonton at No 16 (00 33 5 61 21 89 54; pastisomaitre.com), both of which serve beers from €3.50.
Dining with the locals
Le Py-R (14) dishes up gourmet treats in the Carmes district at 19 Rue du Paradoux (00 33 5 61 25 51 52; py-r.com), with a three-course menu of delicate dishes that includes pigs' trotters, wood pigeon and John Dory for €42.
Across the Canal du Midi, Le Chai Saint-Sauveur (15) at 30 Rue Bernard Mule (00 33 5 61 54 27 20; chai-saint-sauveur.fr) has an inspired "Retour du marché" menu in an authentic setting that includes pheasant breast, lamb shoulder and delicious profiteroles (€18.50 for one course; €30.50 for two; €33.50 for three).
Sunday morning: go to church
The Cathédrale Saint-Etienne (16) is a curious confusion of architectural styles that has been plastered up through successive ages (cathedrale.toulouse.free.fr). The first traces were built in 1073, with additional construction completed in the 13th century, which today results in the appearance of two churches welded into one. It's incongruous but not unappealing, especially once inside, where a muscular 17th-century organ dominates one wall and tapestries depict the life of St Stephen. Sundays 9am-7pm; mass at 11am.
A walk in the park
The Allées François Verdier (17) is a slender strip of green that plays host to a popular marché aux puces (flea market) with rows of antique stalls running either side during the first weekend of every month. It flows down to the Jardin des Plantes (18) (botanical gardens) where peacocks parade proudly amid the beds and children ride on carousels.
Out to brunch
Dip's Tea Room (19) is an elegant salon de thé at 28 Rue Pharaon (00 33 5 61 32 68 16) which serves brunch from 11am until 3pm. The feast starts with a basket of home-baked breads, orange juice and your choice of tea, moves on to a serving of eggs, and finishes with a slab of cake, for €18.
The Musée des Augustins (20) at 21 Rue de Metz (00 33 5 61 22 21 82; augustins.org; 10am-6pm; €4) is a trove of Gothic and Renaissance artworks, with a peaceful cloister and gardens. Noteworthy pieces include Le Christ Entre Deux Larrons (Christ Between Two Thieves) by Rubens, bronzes by Rodin and several prints by the region's most celebrated son, Toulouse-Lautrec.
Next, cross the Pont Neuf bridge to St-Cyprien, where Les Abattoirs (1) is housed in a former slaughterhouse. The museum's answer to Tate Modern's Turbine Hall has been transformed by a series of "solid light films" by artist Anthony McCall. Walk through hazy, half-lit rooms, as shards of light beam down at all angles, accompanied by eerie music. The permanent collection includes Scène de Guerre, a dystopian depiction of war by Yugoslav artist Dado.
Icing on the cake
From 20 March, the Baladine barge begins cruising the Garonne and the Canal du Midi once again. The boat departs from Quai de la Daurade (21) five times daily (bateaux-toulousains.com; 10.50am, 2.30pm, 4pm, 5.30pm and 7pm) for an hour-long journey. Arrive 10 minutes before to buy a ticket (€8), then sit back and watch as the dusty pink buildings of La Ville Rose drift by.
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