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The industrial hub with a creative heart

City Slicker: The battle to join Europe's culture club has reinvigorated Toulouse. Rhiannon Batten offers ideas for new and returning visitors

Why visit?

Toulouse may be the industrial centre of south-west France (EADS, the group behind Airbus, is the largest employer in the area) but it is also a cultural hub and a medieval gem. So, it's surprising how often France's fourth-largest city is overlooked by British tourists.

Nicknamed La Ville Rose, because of its pink-tinged brickwork, what strikes the city's first-time visitor is not how beautiful Toulouse's winding, pedestrianised streets, ancient buildings and leafy squares are, but how intact they remain. When you do come across a rare 1980s apartment block, or 1990s shopping mall, in the centre, they stand out fiercely against a picture-perfect historic backdrop.

Set in a semi-circular sandwich between the Canal du Midi and the Garonne river, the city's main sights are all within walking distance of each other. Though it's also well worth speeding up your sightseeing by picking up a bike from the excellent public cycle-hire scheme, VeloToulouse (velo.toulouse.fr) to explore the largely car-free streets.

Though Toulouse missed out on its quest to become European City of Culture for 2013, the bidding process reinvigorated it and prompted such developments as architect Bruno Fortier's vision for a redesigned, tree-lined Charles de Gaulle Square and the pedestrianisation of the streets around it (due for completion by 2014). The city now has a laid-back confidence and is a very relaxed place to visit, while the large student population and the legacy of those Spanish immigrants who fled from Franco both contribute to the city's sense of creativity and dynamism.

Don't miss

The Place du Capitole.

Fringed by the Town Hall and the Théâtre National du Capitole, this huge open space makes a very elegant focal point. There's a nice food-and-flower market here on weekday mornings (except Mondays) and it's a great place for regrouping since there are numerous bars and cafés on its edges.

The Musée des Agustins (agustins .org)

This monastery-turned-museum in the city centre now holds some of Toulouse's most prized art and archaeological collections, from sculptures rescued from 12th-century religious buildings to paintings by Rubens, Brueghel and Delacroix. It's the architecture that really impresses, though, and the truly lovely garden at its heart, surrounded by cloisters.

Dinner at La Belle Equipe (22 Rue Polinaires, 00 33 561 526 298)

With its metal-edged tables, zinc-topped bar, Edith Piaf-style soundtrack and phenomenal cheeseboard, this is the ultimate neighbourhood bistro. Try the meltingly tender duck, a local speciality (€19).

The Victor Hugo Market (marche victorhugo.fr)

Almost 120 years old, this huge market opens from 6am to 1pm daily. Many local restaurants buy their produce here but it is also great picnic-buying territory, with stalls from cheese to charcuterie and fabulous patisserie. If you don't want to go down the DIY route, there's several small restaurants on the upper floor.

St Sernin Basilica (basilique-st-sernin-toulouse.fr)

The second most recognisable landmark in town, after the Place du Capitole, this imposing basilica is the largest Romanesque church in Europe. On Saturday and Sunday mornings a lively flea market sprouts up outside it.

What's new?

St Cyprien

This slightly scruffy, left-bank quarter of Toulouse has long had a bit of an alternative air. But among the tattoo studios, ethnic restaurants and charity shops, St Cyprien is being reinvented as a cultural quarter. The highlights are a modern art museum in what was once the city's slaughterhouse, Les Abattoirs, and a former water tower that's now a photo gallery, the Chateau d'Eau.

Details: lesabattoirs.org, galeriechateaudeau.org

Le Bibent

Parisian Christian Constant is the man behind the kitchen at Le Bibent, a restaurant set in listed, belle époque-style surroundings on the Place du Capitole. It reopened in June after two years of renovation and the menu is as big on local produce as it is on decorative flair. Main courses include calf's liver with crispy bacon (€23) and grilled fish of the day with almonds and lemon (€25). It also does blow-out breakfasts for €19.

Details: maisonconstant.com/fr

Flight Heritage tour

For anyone interested in aviation technology, the city's proximity to the Airbus factory at Blagnac (six miles from the centre) is a big draw and the daily tours get fully booked. The company recently introduced a new Flight Heritage tour. It's one for serious plane-spotters – the tours take around 90 minutes and are currently only available in French. Join one and you'll take in Caravelle, one of the first jetliners, Concorde and the Airbus A300B. It costs €11 to take the tour.

Details: taxiway.fr

Hotel St Sernin

Thanks to a revamp earlier this year, this hotel has become the place to stay for those in the know. It punches above its three-star rating, with stylish rooms, a great central location, right by St Sernin, and delicious, squeeze-your-own-orange-juice breakfasts. Book room 40 for a pigeon's-eye view straight on to the basilica. Doubles start from €110, for B&B. Also, keep an eye out for the elegant Grand Hotel Garonne, which is scheduled to open in spring 2012.

Details: hotelstsernin.com, grandhotelgaronne.fr

Moaï Teahouse

At first sight, this new teahouse, attached to Toulouse's Natural History Museum, doesn't look anything special. But take a seat on the terrace overlooking the Botanical Garden and open a menu and you will see that there's much more to it than your typical museum café. Headed up by locally renowned chef, Gérard Garrigues, it's good value at between €9 and €14 for the dish of the day.

Details: lemoai.com

Insider Secret

François Bourgon, Owner of Xavier, the best cheese shop in town

"Chai Vincent, a small wine stall in Victor Hugo Market, is brilliant at weekend lunchtimes. It's unusual, crowded, messy – and the best place to meet people and try some excellent local wines."

Details: chai-vincent.fr; french-cheese.com

Compact Facts

How to get there

Rhiannon Batten drove to Toulouse, travelling with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Caen. Return fares start from £89 per person with a car (0871 244 0744; brittanyferries.com).

Further information

uk.toulouse-tourisme.com, tourism-midi-pyrenees.co.uk