Click here for 48 Hours In... Toulouse map
Why go now?
The pink capital of south-west France is stepping up the artistic pace as it vies with Bordeaux, Marseille and Lyon for the title of European Capital of Culture in 2013. Yet the historic heart of the town remains tranquil and elegant.
The train link from London St Pancras takes around nine hours with Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) via Paris to the city's handsome Matabiau station (1). By air, the main UK gateway is Gatwick, from which British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) and easyJet (0871 244 2366; www.easyJet.com) compete. Toulouse is also served from Belfast, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds/Bradford. Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com) and FlyBe (0871 700 2000; www. flybe.com) are the main carriers from provincial airports.
A bus (00 33 5 34 60 64 00; www.navette-tisseo-aeroport.com) runs every 20 minutes between Blagnac airport and Matabiau station (1), via some city-centre points; the return fare is €6.30 (£5.25).
Get your bearings
The ancient part of Toulouse occupies the right bank of the Garonne, at the point where the river's northerly course shifts sharply and temporarily to the west. At the centre is the Place du Capitole (2). The Roman road that has served as the main artery for centuries (see Take a Hike) forms the west side of the square. Just to the east, on Square Charles de Gaulle, the tourist office (3) occupies a 16th-century donjon made of the city's characteristic pink brick – Toulouse acquired its alluring tones largely due to the absence of local stone. The office (00 33 5 61 11 02 22; www.toulouse-tourisme.com) opens 9am-6pm (to 7pm, June-September) daily except Sundays (10.30am-5.15pm). Inside, look at the elaborate vaulted roof and spiral staircase. Rue d'Alsace-Lorraine, the main north-south commercial street, forms the eastern boundary of the tangle of pedestrianised lanes south of here.
Across the river, the St-Cyprien quarter is an urban wedge with edge.
Most places of interest are easily walkable, but the two-line Métro provides a smart, efficient alternative for a flat fare of €1.40 (£1.15) single, €2.50 (£2.10) return. Note that the stop at the main railway station, Matabiau, conceals its identity: it is known on the Métro as Marengo-SNCF.
For the optimum combination of price and character, choose l'Hôtel Mermoz (4), at 50 rue Matabiau (00 33 5 61 63 04 04; www.hotel-mermoz.com), which celebrates the short and heroic life of the French aviator, Jean Mermoz. Its Art Deco style and pale-pink and tangerine tones transport you back to the Thirties. In the 21st century, free Wi-Fi is provided. A double without breakfast is €120 (£100), with breakfast a further €12 (£10) per person, but deals are available at weekends.
The two-star Hôtel Héliot (5) at 3 rue Héliot (00 33 5 34 41 39 41; www.hotel-heliot. com) is central and comfortable. A handsome old property, it has recently been refurbished. Doubles start at €65 (£54), with breakfast a further €7.50 (£6) per person.
The best-placed Accor property for weekend visitors is the Ibis Gare Matabiau (6), opposite the station at 14 Boulevard Bonrepos (00 33 5 61 62 50 90; www. ibishotel.com). Weekend nights are often available at €67 (£57) with breakfast an extra €8 (£6.50) per person.
Take a hike
Tread the cobbles of Toulouse's ancient north-south axis. Start at Place St-Sernin (7) and the Basilique St-Sernin (00 33 5 61 21 80 45), the most celebrated building in the town as well as Europe's largest Romanesque church. It is an 11th-century structure on the site of a fifth-century church, and takes its name from Toulouse's first bishop, Saturnin, who was killed by being dragged through the streets by a bull around AD240. It opens 8.30am-noon and 2-6pm daily, admission free.
Just to the south-west is the fascinating Musée St-Raymond (00 33 5 61 22 31 44), which is full of Roman treasures – both from around the Toulouse area, and excavated beneath the building. It opens 10am-6pm daily (to 7pm for the rest of September), admission €3 (£2.40).
Heading south from Place St-Sernin, rue du Taur provides a sequence of lovely façades (and tatty shops) as it leads north; pause at the corner of rue du Sénéchal (8) to admire a superb view of curving decrepitude.
The soul of Toulouse resides at the Place du Capitole (2), a vast pedestrianised square with a zodiac in the centre, rather than a statue. Rue St-Rome and rue des Changes comprise the southward continuation from here. Esquirol Metro station (9) was the location for the Roman forum. At the adjacent triangular Place de la Trinité, stand beside the fountain in the middle and admire the neoclassical flourishes of number 57. Rue des Filatiers wobbles a little as it leads south. It takes you to the Place des Carmes (10), which abruptly brings you back to modern life as the location for a multi-storey car park, but it also has a lively market. Just west from here, the rue des Polinaires has styled itself "Street of Art", because of the number of galleries. It ends at the handsome church of Notre-Dame de la Dalbade (11), whose façade is worth viewing.
Take a view
The hike concludes at the riverside (12), where you can admire the splendid view across to St-Cyprien and the arches of the Pont Neuf.
Lunch on the run
The Marché des Carmes (10) abounds with tempting local produce, and is open 8am-5pm daily except Sunday. If you're after something more substantial, like a steak-frites, Place Victor Hugo (13) is also occupied by a car park, but on the first floor there's a row of popular restaurants.
Toulouse is the retail hub of the Midi-Pyrenees, and rue St-Antoine (14) is lined with designer-fashion stores. It feeds into the pentagonal Place St-Georges (15), from which the southern extension, rue Boulbonne, has a more eclectic mix, including a superb épicerie, A la Bonne Maison.
Drop your shopping in the Place St-Georges (15), and sip a small beer (€3/£2.40) or a kir royal (€7.20/£6) at Le Wallace, on the north side.
Dining with the locals
Many menus feature rich, meat-heavy dishes, but the city is also remarkably good for seafood. La Table aux Fruits de Mer (16) at 29 Boulevard de Strasbourg (00 33 5 61 21 20 65) is around the corner from the market, and serves up an excellent salt cod with garlic mayonnaise and vegetables (€9.50/£7.60).
Sunday morning: go to church
St-Etienne Cathedral (17), on place St-Etienne, is one of the strangest places of worship in Europe. Builders from the 11th through to the 20th century have imposed their own ideas on how the cathedral should look, and the result is a whimsical mishmash of styles; all church architecture is here, together with some impressive tapestries. It opens 9am-7pm on Sundays, from 8am the rest of the week.
A walk in the park
The south-east quadrant of central Toulouse is a ribbon of parkland. Start a step away from St-Etienne at the impressive Great War monument (18), and walk south along the Allée Forain François Verdier. Commemorating a Resistance leader, it leads to the Grand Ronde, a verdant roundabout with interesting statuary and a bandstand decorated with floral displays in the shape of aircraft made in Toulouse. Follow the walkway over to the Jardin Royal (19), with its ornamental ponds, then cross the main road to visit the botanical gardens.
Out to brunch
The botanical gardens are also the site of the excellent Natural History Museum (20) (00 33 5 62 27 45 45; www.museum.toulouse.fr), which takes a 21st-century approach to the living planet. It opens 10am-4pm daily except Monday, admission €7 (£5.50). And even if you decide not to visit the museum, you can access its café, Le Moai, for a spectacular brunch (10am-noon on Saturdays and Sundays). The setting is lovely, whether you eat outside or in, and €15 (£12.50) buys charcuterie, viennoiserie, juice and coffee.
Allow plenty of time to breathe in the beauty of the Musée des Augustins (21) at 21 rue de Metz (00 33 5 61 22 21 82; www.augustins.org). One of the first, and the finest, art museums in Toulouse, it occupies a 14th-century monastery, appropriated by the revolutionaries in 1793. The works exhibited match the space in quality, with, among many others, paintings by Delacroix, local hero Debat-Ponsan, and, appropriately, Toulouse-Lautrec. Open 10am-6pm daily, to 9pm Wednesday, closed Mondays, admission €3 (£2.20).