Sometime in the 2nd century BCE, the Romans marched into Toulouse, or Tolosa as it was then called. Recognizing the strategic potential of the long-established trading hub between the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, they set out to turn it into a major military outpost. To compensate for the area’s shortage of building stone, they turned to the abundant iron-rich clay of the Garonne River basin, which they baked into red bricks. La Ville Rose (the pink city) was born.

A Medieval Building Boom

Toulouse - cloister.

Several Romanesque brick cloisters remain in the city center.

Since bricks are easily repurposed, little remains of the antique city. By the turn of the first millennium A.D., as the local population finally emerged from the centuries of Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire, a second building boom ensued. Roman bricks found their way into the walls of Medieval monasteries, churches and mansions that still stand today along the tangle of streets of the historic city center.

Toulouse -St Sernin bell tower.

The bell tower of Saint Sernin is a famed city landmark.

The Basilique Saint Sernin is a magnificent illustration of this early architectural recycling. The only remainder of the once sprawling abbey of the same name, it is considered one of the largest and finest examples of early Romanesque churches in Europe. Consecrated in 1096, it became an important stopover for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain. Its elegant octagonal bell tower topped by a graceful spear remains a landmark of the city. The wide ambulatory (walkway) that encircles the nave and main altar is lined with chapels where white marble saints stare down from alcoves in the pink brick walls.

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The “palm tree” vault of the Couvent des Jacobins.

The nearby Couvent des Jacobins is another remarkable monastic building. Built in the 13th century, this former convent for Dominican friars (called Jacobins in France in reference to the location of their first convent, located Rue St. Jacques in Paris) is a jewel of Southern Gothic art. Its now deconsecrated church is unique for its “palm tree” ribbed vault soaring from a central colonnade, 28 meters (92 feet) above the ground. The adjoining cloister with its verdant central garden remains an island of tranquility in the heart of the city.

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The Musée des Augustins holds a rich collection of Romanesque capitals and Gothic sculptures.

No tour of the great religious complexes of Toulouse is complete without a visit to the Musée des Augustins. The expansive gothic monastery, built in 14th century for Augustine monks, became one of France’s oldest museums in 1975, when it was secularized during the French revolution. As well as an eclectic collection of paintings and sculptures ranging from the early Middle Ages to the start of the 20th century, it houses a wealth Romanesque capitals and Gothic sculptures stunningly displayed in a contemporary setting designed by American artist Jorge Pardo. A stop by its vast cloister and its astonishing colony of gargoyles is also a must.

The Hotel d’Assezat

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the Hotel d’Assézat remains the greatest Renaissance palace in the city,

The elaborate stonework of interior courtyards is a constant reminders of the city’s Renaissance grandor.

The religious communities were not the only architects of La Ville Rose. Although the fortunes of Toulouse ebbed and flowed through centuries of political and religious conflicts, the city managed to remain one the most important trading centers in France.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, its prosperous merchants commissioned stately residences. The most opulent of them is the Hotel d’Assézat, a grand Renaissance palace built in 1555 for its namesake Pierre d’Assézat. Like most of Toulouse’s private mansions, it features a tall brick tower jutting from the roof, apparently the ultimate status symbol at the time. Today, the fairytale pink palace houses the prestigious private art collection of the Bemberg Foundation. Five centuries of breathtaking paintings from Canaletto, Caravaggio, Brueghel and Bosch to Toulouse-Lautrec (a native son of nearby Albi), Cezanne, Monet, Matisse and Picasso are exhibited in its intimate salons. One room is dedicated to one of the finest selections anywhere of works by Pierre Bonnard.

Dozens of these grand homes survive throughout the old town, though few are open to the public. However, their ornate facades and interior courtyards decorated with elaborate stonework and sculptures remind the passer-by of the wealth that once flowed through the city.

Le Capitole

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The Place du Capitole is surrounded by renowned brasseries and cafés.

Nothing embodies the evolution of Toulouse better than the Capitole, the heart of the city since the 12th century. When its Capitouls (governing magistrates) embarked on the construction of the original building in 1190, their intention was to provide a seat of government for a province that was growing in prosperity and influence. Little did they know they were setting in motion a 500-year architectural evolution that would change the face of their city and ultimately establish its reputation as one of the most beautiful in France. The current building reflects its successive transformations. The oldest remaining parts are the 16th century Donjon (the Keep, also known as the Archives Tower), and the 117th century Henry IV cloistered courtyard. The dramatic 135 meter (440 foot) long façade of today’s Capitole is an 18th century Neoclassical masterpiece that dominates the entire east side of its eponymous square. In addition to its municipal functions, it houses the reputed Théâtre du Capitole Opera Company and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse.

In front of it, the sprawling Place du Capitole is now a pedestrian area surrounded by renowned brasseries and cafés, and a favorite meeting point for locals and visitors alike.

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The 18th century Neoclassical facade of th Capitole dominates the square.

 

The Space City

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La Cité de l’Espace is located a short bus ride east of the city.

For all its glorious architectural past, Toulouse is resolutely turned to the future. It all began in 1917, when the French government located its first major aeronautic firm here. It subsequently developed into one of the main aerospace centers in Europe. Inaugurated in 1997, La Cité de l’Espace is an interactive center of scientific culture focused on spatial exploration and astronomy. Here you can see the famous Ariane 5 rocket, and take a tour of the original MIR space station used for training astronauts in the days of the Soviet Union. And for hands-on visitors, various virtual reality simulators offer the opportunity to experience what it might feel like to travel through space to Mars.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there – By air – Located 8 kilometers (5 miles) west of the city centre, the Blagnac Airport has daily flights from Paris and other large French cities, as well as major European hubs. From the airport, the T2 Tramway line: Airport – Arènes – Palais de Justice, connects with the metro service at Arènes (line A) and Palais de Justice (line B) stations every 15 minutes.Additionally, a shuttle bus from the airport to several points in the center of the city operates every 20 minutes from 5:30 am to midnight. By train –There are multiple daily train connections between Paris (5 to 7 hours), Bordeaux (2 hours), Marseille (4 hours) and Barcelona, (7 hours) and Toulouse’s Matabiau central train station. By road – a network of major highways connects Toulouse with Paris, Bordeaux, Marseille and Barcelona.
  • Getting around – Although Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France, its historic center is relatively small and easily walkable. Should you get tired of walking, a free electric shuttle circles the city center every 10 minutes from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm everyday except Sunday. There are no designated stops. If you spot one of the small, white “tisséo” busses, just wave it down.
  • Visiting –Located in the Donjon, at the back of the Capitole, the Toulouse Tourist Office is open from 9:30 am to 6:00 pm Tuesday through Saturday and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm Sunday and Monday. The Couvent des Jacobins, 1 Place des Jacobins, 31000 Toulouse, is open 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, Tuesday through Sunday.  The  Musée des Augustins (or Musée des Beaux Arts), 21 rue de Metz, 31000 Toulouse, is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, and closed on Tuesday. The Hôtel Hassezat, George Bemberg Foundation, Place d’Assezat, 31000 Toulouse, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 12:30 pm and 13:30 to 6:00 pm, and closed on Monday. La Cité de l’Espace, Avenue Jean Gonord, 31506 Toulouse, is open daily at 10:00 am. Tel. +33 (0) 5 67 22 23 24.

Location, location, location!

Toulouse