Also known as the Pink City, France’s fourth-biggest city is surprisingly compact, and it’s easy to explore its centre on foot. The cobbled, narrow streets house everything from high-end boutiques and Michelin-starred restaurants to cheap and cheerful shops frequented by the city’s many students. Antique wooden doors between stores open to reveal lavish mansions built by wealthy pastel (dye) merchants in the Middle Ages, and in the city’s many pretty squares, locals and tourists drink coffee at pavement cafes almost all year round. Most famously, Toulouse is home to the aeronautical giant Airbus.
A comfortable bed
Place du Capitole is the epicentre of Toulouse and, to be right in the heart of things, you can’t beat a hotel on the square. The newly renovated Crown Plaza is a five-star option with modern rooms decorated in gold and aubergine or yellow and blue, with thoughtful touches such as an aromatherapy sleep kit on your pillow. Double rooms cost from €120 (Dh572) per night (www.crowneplaza.com; 00 33 5 6161 1919).
Le Grand Balcon, also on Place du Capitole, is an ultra-chic hotel with muted modern decor combined with original features. It pays homage to its earlier incarnation as a home for Second World War aviators, with tasteful cloud motifs on the bedroom ceilings and toy planes in the bathrooms. Suite 32 is entirely different – it was originally the room of the legendary aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and has been recreated to look as it would have done during the war, except that it has a modern bathroom. Double rooms cost from €170 (Dh810) per night (www.grandbalconhotel.com; 00 33 5 3425 4409).
Find your feet
Start at Place du Capitole and enjoy a drink at one of the many cafes or brasseries, then walk down to the river to the shopping districts or visit one of many churches, cathedrals or museums. Les Abattoirs (www.lesabattoirs.org; 00 33 5 3451 1060), the modern art museum on the other side of the river, is a must for art lovers. If you’re travelling with children, the Natural History Museum (www.museum.toulouse.fr; 00 33 5 6773 8484) with its interactive exhibits is great fun. The tourist office in the old dungeon in Square Charles de Galle offers walking tours, including one of the pastel merchants’ mansions.
Meet the locals
In summer, take a picnic to the gardens by the River Garonne, or sit in a cafe in Place St Georges to watch life go by. At night, Place Victor Hugo or St Peter’s Square come alive.
Book a table
On Place du Capitole, Brasserie Bibent (www.maisonconstant.com/bibent/en; 00 33 5 34 30 18 37) is a Toulouse institution dating back to 1882. Recently reopened after extensive renovation, it serves classic French food in art nouveau and baroque surroundings with huge mirrors on the walls and paintings on its magnificent ceiling. The menu changes regularly but typical dishes include everything from Burgundy snails with garlic and parsley butter (€14; Dh66) to chicken breast hot pot (€27; Dh128).
For lunch, the locals head to table d’hôte Chez Navarre (49 Grand Rue Nazareth; 00 33 5 62 26 43 06) for a freshly prepared set menu served at communal tables for less than €15 (Dh71).
La Braisière (www.labraisiere.fr; 00 33 5 6152 3713) is an atmospheric, cosy restaurant that specialises in meat – from fillet steak to duck hearts and everything in between – cooked over an open fire in the centre of the dining room. A three-course meal costs around €35 (Dh166).
Monsieur Georges (www.monsieurgeorges.fr; 00 33 5 6129 8196) is a hip yet relaxed restaurant in a house on Place St Georges. Each floor is a little different: one is lined with bookcases and has a library feel to it while another displays reclaimed pipework. Its lunch menu is good value at €19 (Dh90) for three courses or €16 (Dh76) for two. Typical dishes include homemade terrine or gazpacho followed by hake with seasonal vegetables.
For high-end designer clothing and accessories, head to the streets around Place St Georges. If antiques are your thing, Quartier St Etienne has everything from small trinkets to armoires and sleigh beds. In St Etienne it’s also worth having a look at Graine de Pastel (www.grainedepastel.com), which sells beauty products made from the dyes on which Toulouse’s wealth was founded.
What to avoid
Driving in the city centre. The streets are narrow and the one-way system can be difficult to navigate. There are several car parks but they are expensive. The airport is only 20 minutes away from the town centre and there is a regular shuttle bus. If you do have a car, use one of the “park and ride” car parks around the périphérique (ring road), which are free of charge as long as you keep your public transport ticket.
A tour of the Airbus factory, where the A330, A340 and A380 are assembled. Visit www.taxiway.fr to make a reservation online; prices start from €15 (Dh69) per person and include a presentation and a visit to the JL Lagardère site, where the A380s are put together, as well as a chance to tour a section of fuselage.
Children will enjoy exploring Cité de L’Espace (www.cite-espace.com), a state-of-the-art, space-themed, adventure park spread over 3.5 hectares; it also has a planetarium, a permanent exhibition and a six-foot Imax screen. Entrance is €19.50 (Dh93) per person.
A return flight with Air France (www.airfrance.com) from Dubai to Toulouse via Paris costs from €623 (Dh2,927), including taxes. The trip takes just over nine hours.